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THE HISTORY OF
KOOCHICHING COUNTY

 

 

GENERAL HISTORY
It is said that Koochiching County is exceedingly rich in history. This claim is based on the fact that many significant events involving people of various tribes and nations have occurred in these parts over the centuries.
History records and explains past happenings and in so doing provides a background for what's taking place in our own times. Beyond that, history brings into focus a great many people who took part in the occurrences of yesteryear — the makers of history. Succeeding generations can learn from them.
The historymakers of Koochiching County were, as a whole, a colorful and adventurous people. They were courageous and innovative and lived a busy life. They were explorers, traders, homesteaders and lumberjacks. There were also teachers and preachers, merchants, engineers and builders of industry. All came this way with a goal in mind, their goals as varied as their occupations. Settlers of the early 1900's, in particular, surmounted every form of hardship — isolation, illness, harsh weather and poverty. There were few quitters among them; a majority endured and won. They built schools and churches and fought for good roads. The results of their efforts and sacrifice carried over into modern times and contributed to our own comfortable way of life. Present generations owe the pioneers a warm thank you.
Our history-rich county lies at the top of the map of Minnesota, its northern border forming the boundary between the U.S. and Canada. It is next to the largest of the 87 counties, exceeded only by St. Louis county. Koochiching is also next to the youngest in the state, having been created in 1906 after its residents voted to separate from Itasca county. (Lake of the Woods county was formed in 1922).
The name Koochiching, or Couchiching, arouses interest. Along with being a bit difficult to spell and pronounce, the word is of uncertain origin and meaning. Ouchichiq was a Cree name that the Ojibway applied to both Rainy Lake and Rainy River. An early-day traveler, Rev. J.A. Gilfillan, translated it into "Neighbor Lake and River." Another interpretation made it "A Lake and River Somewhere." In any event, the name Koochiching was first applied by white men to the falls of Rainy River and then to the settlement that grew up at the head of the rapids and became the city of International Falls. The name was also given to a township that surrounded Koochiching village; all this before it was adopted as the county's name.
Early French map makers applied the name Lac de la Pluie to the body of water known today as Rainy Lake. The term is believed to be a French translation of Cree words that referred to the mists of Koochiching Falls, resembling rain.
Koochiching's history necessarily goes back to the prehistoric peoples who hunted the lush woodlands and fished the rivers hundreds of years ago. They left scant records of their culture in mounds they erected along the Rainy.
 
RISE OF THE FUR TRADE
Centuries elapsed until white men appeared. Jacques de Noyons, a Frenchman, arrived in 1688, or thereabout, and is said to have set foot on the site of present-day Fort Frances, Ont. More explorers — French and British — followed and by 1800 Rainy Lake and Rainy River were witnessing heavy travel. Here was the main route of the fur trade, the voyageurs' highway that linked the Great Lakes with outposts in the remote interior. Both the Hudson's Bay Co. and its rival, North West Co., had trading posts in Fort Frances.
The fur trade declined in the mid-1800's and voyageur travel came to a halt with the building of the Canadian Pacific. The transcontinental line reached Rat Portage (present-day Kenora, Ont.) in 1880, opening a new route for travel to and from the Koochiching area and other settlements along the boundary.
Steamboats appeared almost immediately to haul supplies and passengers from the Rat Portage railhead across Lake of the Woods and up the Rainy. The new all-water route was seasonal, expensive and not always reliable but it was an improvement. The nearest railhead for Koochiching settlers was still Tower, Minn., 100 miles away, and the route required a long, difficult portage between Lake Vermilion and Crane Lake.
Transportation for Koochiching pioneers received a major boost in 1901 with the building of the Canadian Northern Ry., which served Fort Frances enroute from Winnipeg to the Canadian lakehead. The new connection spurred settlement on both sides of the Rainy. Now for the first time there was all-rail access to the outside world, though it was a round-about haul for U.S. shippers and passengers. American settlers bringing in their household goods and livestock over the Canadian railway still faced the problem of getting their property across the Rainy, since there were no bridges. The Fort Frances-Koochiching ferry served passengers and carried small freight but heavy items remained a problem until International bridge was opened in 1912. Cattle, in some cases, were forced to swim.
From the beginning, settlers had felt certain that the vast waterpower of Koochiching Falls would eventually be harnessed, and by 1900 plans were taking shape under the leadership of Edward W. Backus and associates. Rainy River would soon be dammed and power houses on both sides of the boundary would supply energy for paper mills and other industries. By the turn of the century local boosters were envisioning a manufacturing metropolis with a population of at least 10,000.
Koochiching would need a railroad of its own to support the proposed development, an all-American line having direct connections with the Twin Cities, Chicago and other population centers. Residents waited seven years for that railway, the Minnesota and International. It reached Intl. Falls in 1907 and its arrival marked the beginning of a vast development based on the timber industry.
The first white visitors saw this area from canoes on the waterways and were impressed by what met their eyes. It was a land of beauty with Rainy River drawing particular praise. John McKay, a Hudson's Bay Co. "servant" of the 18th century, wrote in his dairy: "This is one of the beautifullest rivers I ever saw in the country."
Trappers, cruisers and surveyors who came later found both scenery and a wealth of natural resources in the interior: Large stands of pine and an abundance of other tree species — black and white spruce, balsam, cedar, aspen and tamarack. The climate and soil also favored growth of a profusion of flowers and wild fruits — blueberries, high-and low-bush cranberries, pin cherries and plums. Nature's bounty in the early days included woodland caribou and elk. These, along with moose and deer, helped stock the larders of many a homestead family.
Measuring 60 miles north to south and 62 miles east to west, Koochiching has an area of 3,141 square miles — close to 2,000,000 acres. More than three-quarters of the area is classed as forest land, much of it under public ownership.
While most of the original white and Norway pine was cut in the first three decades of this century, other species continue to support a thriving forest products industry. Chief user of the forest harvest at present is Boise Cascade Corp. which operates large paper and fiberboard mills in International Falls and has a sawmill and wood chip facility at Big Falls. The firm is the largest employer and largest taxpayer in the county. It owns more than 300,000 acres of woodlands that are managed for a continuing yield.
 
GEOGRAPHY OF THE LAND
A history of any area must take into account the physical features of the area — geography, etc. — because these affect the lives and livelihood of the inhabitants.
About 90 per cent of Koochiching county was once covered by former Lake Agassiz, formed when the last of the vast glaciers receded about 10,000 years ago. The land surface, therefore, is relatively flat with swampy areas remaining in places where the Agassiz basin was deepest. Deposits of peat ranging in depth from 1 1/2 to 50 ft. developed in the low-lying areas, the result of partial decay of vegetation. An estimated one million acres in the northern three-quarters of the county are underlain with peat. Studies for using the deposits as an energy source have been under way for several years.
The generally level surface of the land is broken in places by ledges of precambrian rock, the formations extending from southwest to northeast. Bed rock types include the Ely greenstone and greenstone schists said to be among the oldest on the planet. The highest altitude in the county is in the Northome area — 1426 ft. above sea level or about 325 ft. higher than Rainy Lake.
Major rivers draining the county are the Big Fork, Little Fork, Rat Root, Black and Rapid. All flow northward to the Rainy River basin, and thence toward Hudson Bay by way of Lake of the Woods and the Winnipeg River. A small area in the southwestern part of the county is drained by the Tamarac River, which flows into the Red River of the North by way of Red Lake and the Red Lake River.
The county's climate has been described as "versatile" with wide variations in temperature. Heat waves are rare but summertime readings in the upper 90's are on record. Winter readings have reached as low as -50F and over the years have won for International Falls the dubious honor of being "Icebox of the Nation."
Annual precipitation is in the range of 22 to 24 inches, most of it occurring as rain between May and September. Snowfall generally measures 48 to 50 inches.
 
NEW COUNTY IS BORN
of Koochiching dam by the Backus interests began in 1905, making it a foregone conclusion that the area would soon see rapid development. Also, the Minnesota & International Ry. had reached Big Falls and would eventually get to the border. The outlook was bright!
Talk of separation from Itasca county kept recurring among businessmen and ordinary citizens until 1906, when they decided to act.
Frank S. Lang, a leader in the movement to establish a new county with International Falls as the county seat, often recalled the expense and inconvenience of public service before Koochiching was organized. Grand Rapids, the county seat, was 130 miles from the Falls, as the crow flies, but by railway it was more than 400 miles. County commissioners and others with official business to transact spent a night and a day on trains to reach Grand Rapids, going by the way of Fort Frances, Winnipeg and Grand Forks. When the Itasca county board, of which Lang was a member, recessed for a few days or a week, officials from the border simply stayed in Grand Rapids to save taxpayer money: "It didn't pay to go home."
To end the isolation, reduce costs and provide better public service, residents of northern Itasca were now demanding a county of their own with easier access to the county seat. Following an aggressive campaign for voter support, leaders of the movement then petitioned for an election. The proposal for county division went on the ballot in the general election of Tuesday, Nov. 6, 1906, and carried by a resounding majority of 800. The votes were then canvassed in St. Paul and on Dec. 19 Gov. John A. Johnson issued the proclamation which created Koochiching with International Falls as the county seat.
While elated by the news, backers of the division movement postponed a public celebration because opponents were contesting the election. Finally the dispute was settled in court — in favor of the new county group — and a victory celebration took place March 6, 1907, in the Falls village hall. The village hall, built in 1904, served as county headquarters until the court house was completed two years later. The initial county board appointed by Gov. Johnson consisted of R.S. McDonald, Hugh Mclntosh, Nels L. Olson, Fred Smith and Charles M. Bowman. Bowman, a resident of Big Falls, failed to qualify for office and didn't serve.
The first task of the new board was to appoint county officials as follows: Auditor, R.C. Fraser; treasurer, George A. Snyder; county attorney, C.W. Stanton; register of deeds, Frank S. Lang; surveyor, Louis A. Ogaard; coroner, T.H. Kin-shella; supt. of schools, Annie Shelland; court commissioner, F.J. McPartlin; clerk of court, J.H. Drummond; judge of probate, W.V. Kane; sheriff, Patrick J. Walsh; and county physicians, Drs. M.E. Withrow and C.R. Wood. Attorney McPartlin, who was U.S. commissioner at the time, had the honor of swearing in the new public servants.
Frank Lang of the Falls and A.A. Tone, North-ome, retired as members of the Itasca board when the new county was established.
1983 UPDATE — Koochiching's present population (1980 census) is 17,571 and more than half of the inhabitants live along the northern fringe of the county. Of interest, the population more than doubled in the 10 years following the establishment of the county. Setters, businessmen, construction workers, and lumberjacks came by the hundreds in search of opportunities in the new county.
Elected officials at present (1983) are: County Commissioners Carl Kjemperud (board chairman), Otto Jourdan, Innis Nesbitt, Donald Sand-beck and Clarence Sundberg; auditor, Joseph A. Gust; county attorney, Dave Johnson; treasurer, Robert Lovell, recorder, James Palm; sheriff, William Elliott; and coroner, Dr. George Crow.
District Judge William Kalar and County Judge Peter Hemstad comprise the judiciary. Sen. Bob Lessard and Rep. Robert Neuenschwander represent the county in the Legislature.
 
THE HOMESTEADERS
Soon after 1870 a few hardy individuals namely Alexander Baker, Joseph Baker, Henry Metcalf, David Reedy, Thomas McKinstry, Don Campbell and possibly others ventured into the county when it was a vast wilderness. Most of them came via Lake of the Woods and up the Rainy River or over Indian trails. Being impressed with the country, these sturdy pioneers squatted on lands along the river, built log cabins and began to clear land for gardening, hay and small grains. They hunted and trapped, possibly for the Hudson Bay Company.
Land in the county must have been surveyed at different intervals from 1880 until 1901 when the task was probably completed. In checking over the records in the county recorder's office, it was learned that Alexander Baker was issued his homestead certificate numbered 5423 in 1884, Joseph Baker in 1893. Henry Metcalf had filed on his claim in 1894 and Charles Watrous in 1899. After more Indian Lands had been ceded to the United States, by treaty, Napoleon Mercure, who resided between Loman and Indus, was issued Homestead Certificate Number one in 1904 which was signed by President T. Roosevelt. His homestead certificate had a notation "Chippewa Lands" on it.
Homesteader's Clearing Bee
All of the land in the county, except that which was reserved as Indian Lands, was probably opened to homesteading in 1902 as that is when more settlers began to arrive to seek their fortunes in the North Country. Some came by steamboat from Kenora, across Lake of the Woods and up the Rainy, Big Fork and Little Fork Rivers. Others came by the way of Tower, across Lake Vermilion by boat, then portaged twenty-three miles to Crane Lake, across that lake by boat, a three mile portage to Namakan Lake, from there by boat to Kettle Falls and after a short portage to Rainy Lake, west to Rainy River by boat. During the winter the trip from Tower was made by dog sled. A few arrived by the way of Grand Rapids or Bemidji. At first, the people who used those routes hiked over miles of forest trails which crossed a number of streams and bogs. During the hot summer months they were pestered by flies and mosquitoes. As the M & I Railroad was extended north from Bemidji, travel over that route steadily increased.
Living conditions for the homesteader and his family were primitive. There were trails through the woods, no schools or churches. The first task was to cut trees to clear a space for the house and other buildings which were built of logs. Next a small plot was cleared for a garden. Stumps were grubbed and the ground prepared for planting. To clear more land, timber was felled, cut into logs and sold to the logging companies or lumber mills. Income from the sale of timber was used to provide for the necessities of life. Gradually more land was tilled, small grain and hay raised for the livestock, roads were built and schools established. The homesteader had found a place to plant his roots.

With the completion of the Minnesota and International Railroad to International Falls in 1907 and the Duluth, Rainy Lake and Winnipeg to Ranier that same year, more homesteaders as well as others flocked to the county. Some were adventurers, others were interested in starting a business or establishing themselves in their chosen profession. Most homesteaders were attracted by stories of huge stands of virgin timber waiting to be logged and tales of rich soil that was ideal for agriculture. The first settlers were not too concerned about being isolated as they believed that all of the land would soon be homesteaded, logged and developed into productive farms. The settlers were told that the swamp and peat lands would soon be ditched, could easily be cleared and the soil would be excellent for farming. When they realized that the drainage of the swamps did little to make that property suitable for agriculture, the settlers looked for better farm land or sought employment possibly in the county. As a result of their leaving, there were a number of small, stranded settlements whose residents needed roads, schools and other services that were expensive for local governmental units to furnish.
The Federal Re-settlement Program, the County Zoning Ordinance and the need for labor in defense industries during World War II prompted many of those settlers to leave. The homesteader who had settled on good farm lands in areas where there were improved roads, good schools and fairly close to villages or community centers, remained.
Edward Norman Homestead Cabin
 
SOCIAL LIFE IN EARLY KOOCHICHING COUNTY
Despite the nearly impassable roads and the vast distances between settlers, the pioneers were not to be denied their social life. Even in the most remote areas there was a social life, however simple it might be.
In the earliest days perhaps the most common, in all parts of the county, would be just walking many miles to visit a neighbor. One could always be assured of a warm welcome, food and an invitation to spend the night if the distance was far.
The school buildings were often the center of much of the social life. Here were held church and Sunday School services, box and pie socials, Christmas and Halloween parties, Fourth of July celebrations, picnics and various club meetings. As early as 1904 we read of Fourth of July celebrations complete with parades, bands and fireworks. Sleigh rides were popular, as were house and barn building bees. Dancing in the various homes was almost a weekly Saturday night event. Often people would walk up to eight or ten miles to attend. During the winter months horses and sleighs were the mode of travel. Each family supplied food and by some strange coincidence there was usually someone present who was adept at fiddle-playing and was willing to oblige until the early morning hours. Whole families attended these affairs; the young on becoming tired, were bedded down on a pile of coats and jackets in a corner. The horses were unhitched, covered with blankets and provided with hay and feed. With the breaking of day each family piled into their hay-filled sleigh, and with drooping eyes and bodies weary from a night of fun and merriment wended their way to their wilderness home.
As roads were improved and means of travel became easier the social life became more varied. Communities sprang up, halls and churches were built, movie houses came into existence and various clubs, lodges and other organizations came into being. As early as 1913 we have records of a Woodman Lodge with a membership of between forty and fifty being in existence at Fairland, MN, a remote community in the northwestern part of the county.
Life for the pioneers was hard but rewarding. Close friends, trusting neighbors and many willing helping hands were joys to be remembered and cherished.
Old Settlers Picnic 1931 Grand Mound, Laurel
 
THE AGE OF MINING
As early as 1865 prospectors began coming into the Rainy River and Rainy Lake area on both the Canadian and American sides, to search for precious minerals.
George W. Davis, a prospector, arrived at the Little American Island in Rainy Lake in July of 1893. He panned some quartz and found gold. News of his discovery spread quickly and soon hundreds of prospectors were streaming into the region. Mining operations by the Bevier Mining and Milling Company were in full swing on the Little American Island by 1894. Mines were also opened on the Dry Weed and Bushy Head Islands.
On May 17, 1894 Rainy Lake City, which was located at the entrance to Black Bay, was incorporated by the Rainy Lake Improvement Company of Duluth, Minnesota. By the fall of 1894 the village had a population of about 400 persons who lived in tents, covered wagons, log houses and tar-paper shacks. The bustling little village had three general stores, three hotels, two restaurants, a hardware store, a five-stamp mill, a barber shop, five saloons, a post office, a customs office, a newspaper (The Rainy Lake Journal) and a school. Later a bank was organized. It had the appearance of a typical mining community. At the peak of mining operations, there were about five hundred persons residing in the village.
Little American Mine
There were two routes by which the prospectors arrived. One was by rail from Duluth to Port Arthur, Ontario, and one to Rat Portage (now Kenora, Ontario); from there by boat across Lake of the Woods and up the Rainy River to either Fort Frances or Koochiching (now International Falls). After a portage around the falls, travel was resumed by boat to Rainy Lake City a distance of about twelve miles. The other route which was shorter but more hazardous was by rail from Duluth to Tower, by steamboat from Tower to the Vermilion Dam, then a grueling trip over a twenty-six mile trail of gumbo, corduroy, swamp and rocks to Harding on Crane Lake; from Harding by steamer to Kettle Falls. After a short portage around the falls the remainder of the trip to Rainy Lake City was by boat. During the winter months, the trip from Tower was by dog sled. The machinery for operating the mines and for building the sawmill as well as foodstuffs, supplies and materials used by the villagers were brought in over the Tower Route.
The mine on Dryweed Island was not very productive and was open for only a short time. The one on Bushy Head Island was in production for about two years. During the first four years that the mine on Little American Island was worked, it produced a considerable amount of gold at a profit. After that, ownership of the mine changed several times. Mining operations ceased in 1901 which also marked the end of Rainy Lake City. Many of its residents moved to the village of Koochiching to make their fortune.
To help stabilize the muddy streets in International Falls, the tailings from the mine on Little American Island were transported to the city. Thus its citizens boasted that their streets were paved with gold.
Rainy Lake City, June 1895
 
THE LOGGING CAMP ERA
Logging camps were a very important factor in the production of forest products in the early history of Koochiching County.
Water transportation provided about the only access to the forest areas, so many of the early logging camps were located adjacent to lakes and rivers down which the forest products were floated and towed.
Most of the early camps were constructed of logs and other material cut at the campsites because of the difficulty of moving lumber and other building materials upstream to the remote timber areas. Only a few records exist showing the location of these early camps along the waterways.
When the Minnesota and International Railroad was extended north from Bemidji to Northome in 1903 and finally reached International Falls in 1907, the same year that the Duluth, Winnipeg and Pacific reached Ranier after being extended north from Virginia, the railroad logging era began in Koochiching County.
The railroads also brought on the days of the large company-operated logging camps. In the Northome, Mizpah, Gemmell and Margie areas, several large companies, including the National Pole Company, T.M. Partridge, American Cedar Company, Page and Hill's Northern Cedar Company, Clark Pole and Tie Company and others started large scale logging operations, mainly for cedar poles, posts and ties which were sleigh-hauled to the M & I Railroad at these locations. They operated many large logging camps but no records exist showing their location and other information.

Log Skidding Crew

In the early 1900s as the D.W.&P. Railroad was being extended north from Virginia to Ranier, the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company extended logging spurs into the east central Koochiching County and many large camps were operated in that area until the late 1920s.
In 1907 when the two Railroads reached the International Falls area, the E.W. Backus interests had under construction a paper mill which commenced production in 1910 and a sawmill which made its first cut of lumber in 1911.
The operation of these mills required more logs and pulpwood than could be supplied from the forest lands adjacent to Rainy Lake and the rivers flowing into it.
To provide the additional forest products needed, the Backus-owned International Lumber Company commenced construction of a network of logging railroads branching off the M & I Railroad that would penetrate the vast forest areas not adjacent to the Big Fork or Littlefork Rivers or the M & I and D.W.&P. Common Carrier Railroads.
The Galvin Line branched off the M & I Railway at Browley and the Loman Line at Nakoda, just south of International Falls. The Bear River Line and the Deer River Line branched off the M&I Railway just south of Littlefork. The Deer River Line extended 34 miles straight south to just north of Craigville. Camp 29 was located at Mile Post 32 from which point the Holmstrom Spur extended east 14 miles then approximately 15 miles south into Itasca County near Thistledew Lake. From Camp 29 another branch, the Cut Foot Sioux, extended 22 miles west toward Northome then south another 18 miles into Itasca County near Round Lake. These main line logging railroads totaled more than 150 miles when completed. Many miles of spur tracks branching off these main lines into the camp operating areas were also constructed. These were temporary and removed when logging was completed in the camp area.
How many large logging camps were constructed in Koochiching County by the various logging concerns is not known. The best record is that of the International Lumber Company, which shows a total of 192 camp numbers until operations of camps ceased after the 1936-37 logging season. Approximately 30 of these camps were located in Itasca County and four in Beltrami County. (Red Lake Indian Reserve in 1926.)
The Company also used the alphabet to designate some camps, but only Camp "B", south of Littlefork is on record.

Camp 6 at Loman dates from 1910 and was used until 1937, when it closed down after the last of the logs and pulpwood from the Littlefork Drive of that year had been hoisted from Rainy River and rail hauled to the mills at International Falls.

Camp 29, located at MP 32 of the Deer River Line, dates from 1912; built first as a producing camp, it served later as railroad headquarter camp until the steel was removed from the Deer River Line branch in 1947, ending the logging railroad era in Koochiching County. The Camp 29 buildings continued to be used by a logging contractor in the area until early 1970.
The last season that large Company camps operated was 1936-37 when Camps Nos. 185, 186, and 187, located along the Littlefork River in the Nett Lake Indian Reservation, produced the 13 million feet of logs and 30,000 cords of pulpwood, which made up the last drive on the Littlefork River in 1937.
Most of the Company's railroad era camps were constructed to house around 150 men. The buildings usually included two bunk houses, cook camp, blacksmith shop, filer shack, barn and feed storage buildings, office for administrative personnel and a root house for vegetable storage.
Lone Logger
Buildings were of frame construction, with low grade lumber used for sheathing and flooring. The walls and roof boards were covered with tarpaper. The root house was usually built into a side hill and covered with soil. In the late 20s a camp of this size would cost $3,500 to $5,000. This type of housing and boarding facilities was standard for the industry at the time, but the improvements in housing, laundry and bathing facilities that came along in the early 1930s were welcomed by all.

The logging camp era in Koochiching County is over and remembered first-hand only by some of our older citizens. In reminiscing they always have praise for the quantity and excellence of the food served. All the companies furnished good quality staple foods and the cooks did their best to provide tasty and nourishing meals. Camp records showed that on the average six-seven lbs. of food per day was consumed by each man. Considering the heavy strenuous work performed in the great outdoors, maybe this total is not unusual.

The men who lived and worked in these logging camp operations made an important contribution to the development and economy of Koochiching County. — Lester E. Pollard

Loading a Logging Train
Cedar poles float to market in early day river drive
 
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