As a kid, my grandfather and, later, my dad, would take me into the woods and onto the lakes and river-edges of west and central St. Louis, much of Itasca, and parts of Cass counties. In the spring, it was opening season for walleye and other game fish; I remember launching the boat onto Lake Winnibigoshish, and immediately breaking a thin layer of ice on the lake’s surface with the bow of the boat.
Late spring and early summer, when I was old enough, meant fishing with my dad – and occasionally, a friend of his – on the big lakes that straddle the Canadian border: Namakan, Sand Point, and Crane lakes. My first venturings onto Canadian soil occurred at the Sand Point customs outpost. Somewhere, in a box or cabinet at my parents’ house, there is a coffee mug with a red Canadian maple leaf on it; that mug is from one of the several times I passed through that customs outpost; by boat and by seaplane.
Mid-summer and into early August, it was all about evening fishing on Perch Lake (I’ve mentioned this lake in prior writings – here and here). If I close my eyes and think back to those outings, I can faintly smell the blue exhaust from the 7.5hp Johnson outboard motor; I can picture my grandfather wedged in the bow of the boat with a fishing rod resting on his shoulder – the fishing line pointed out and away as the boat backtrolled. He wore the goofiest hats and had the oldest life jackets.
Late summer and early fall – that period of time between the day after Labor Day and the first heavy frost – was generally spent fishing from bridges. Catching bullheads in the St. Louis River in and around the Sax-Zim Bog area was a highpoint of any outing with my grandfather. If fishing season carried over into the opening of grouse season, a small-bore shotgun was always within reach.
Other times, in the late summer and early fall, instead of heading south to the Sax-Zim area, my grandfather would head north on highway 73. We would pass county highway 65, and the drive over the first Sturgeon River bridge. Further up the road, past the Goodell Road, the Sturgeon River crosses highway 73 once more – flowing east to west before meandering north to the Little Fork river.
It is at this river crossing, colloquially (mostly within my family) called the second Sturgeon River bridge, that many fond memories were made.
I could go into those memories; the grouse and deer hunting, beaver trapping and northern pike fishing, but this area with its forests and the river existed before I was brought there by my grandfather and father in the mid-1980s.
The photo, above, as the caption says, is from 1939. That’s forty-one years before I was born. That’s nine years before my father was born. My grandfather would have been thirty-six; very close my age now. To give a bit of context to what you are seeing — start in the longer right corner and follow the thickish-black-curving-line up and toward the left; that is the Sturgeon River. The first gray/white line to cut across the river is highway 73; that is the second Sturgeon River bridge. The photos from 1939 are the earliest photos of St. Louis county that I was able to locate. They are from the University of Minnesota’s Borchert Map Library‘s Aerial Photography and Remote Sensed Imagery collection; this particular photo is part of the work originally sanctioned by the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service. Ramsey county, the county we live in now, here in St. Paul, has photos going back to 1923.
The parts of this photo that I find fascinating are the clearings in the forest. The largest clearing, in the middle-lower part of the photograph, shows a road cutting across the top part; there is a grouping of shadows just south of the road. Those shadows could be buildings. As a kid, in the 1980s, I remember going back into that area and seeing the remnants of a 1930s vehicle – part of a fender, a driver’s side window or maybe a windshield. I also seem to remember there being what may have been a building foundation.
Nine years later, the above photo was snapped. The main things to note are the faint signs that the field, seen in the 1939 photograph, is now showing subtle signs of trees and shrubs beginning to grow; the field, if it was actually a field for crops, is likely no longer maintained. The road back through that clearing also appears to not be well used. The other fascinating thing to note is the bridge, or lack there of, over the river; it is being replaced. There is a temporary bridge to the east of where the bridge had been located.
It is difficult see much from this April 20, 1953 photo; the permanent bridge is in place and the temporary bridge is gone; there had been logging to the west of the field clearing since the previous photograph in 1948. This photo is from the USGS’s collection of aerial photos from the Army Map Service. Notice the ice on Perch, Side and Big Sturgeon lakes on the western edge of the photo.
In 1961, more trees and taller trees can be seen in the clearing to the west of the bridge and river. The evidence of logging occurred between 1948 and 1953 is fading.
By 1972, evidence of the logged west of the field has all but disappeared; even the field, although clearly distinguishable, has significantly failed and is becoming overgrown.
Significant logging is visible in this 1989 photo; logging to the east of the field first seen in the 1939 photo, as well as on the north side of the river. The field is all but gone except for being able to see the corners, albeit heavily wooded, on the southern edge. This is also the first photo taken after I had started to visit this area with my father and grandfather. To the left of the parcel-corner-marker – just south of the bridge, is the road, seen in the 1939 photo, that cut across the top part of the open field. I remember driving in on that road after this area had been cut. The area had the look of devastation. It was a wide open area with scattered piles of slashings.
And, the above photograph, is of my mother, Kathleen, walking westward on the road that cut through that field. This about the area where the top or northern part of the opening, seen in the 1939 photo, would have been located.
More photos from this trip (and likely others, to this area), can be found here.
Update: September 2, 2014
Above, is a digital version of the original Bureau of Land Management survey map. If you follow the grid layout from the lower right corner, straight to the left (west), the first swiggle-line you cross is the Sturgeon River. Follow the river up (north) to where crosses the area where four grid cells come together; directly to the left – roughly one square’s width – is where the open field would eventually be located.