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Ox cart trains -- some 500 long --went through DL

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Detroit Lakes now has miles and miles of streets within the city. But years back, there was one trail that led through town -- Woods Trail.

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There were three distinct trails on the Red River Oxcart Trail.

Although it is thought that the first person passed through Becker County on the trails on Aug. 19, 1825, "all efforts to ascertain the date of the first travel over the road have been fruitless," according to the Becker County Historical Society.

The Red River Trail was the only road connecting the settlements of Pembina, N.D., and Ft. Snelling, Minn., and other points on the Mississippi River.

According to "A Pioneer History of Becker County" in 1907 by A.H. Wilcox, Indians and fur traders were the main users of the trails.

Guy Teague wrote a paper on Oct. 22, 1936, defining the three trails of Red River Cart Trails.

First was Woods Trail, the second was East Plains Trail, and the third was West Plains Trail. When Minnesota territory was organized in 1849, all were open and in constant use.

By the mid-1840s, Red River Trails were used by patient traders and oxen "drawing carts famous alike for their noise and for the fact that they were constructed out of wood."

On March 3, 1949, the Record printed an article that said, "The Red River oxcart was one of the most curious means of transportation to appear out of the wilderness during the early days of Minnesota's history."

The oxcarts were made with two wheels, made of all wood without nails or iron. The wheels were solid, made from a single slice of a large tree.

The carts could transport 1,000 pounds and cost $15 each.

Woods Trail followed the Mississippi River to Crow Wing, and then headed west to Ottertail Lake and north to Pembina.

Detroit Lakes was located along Woods Trail, which joined East Plains Trail on Wild Rice River, west of Detroit Lakes about 50 miles at what was known as the "Forks."

Woods Trail was cut out and marked by 1844. It was shortened in 1856 by cutting off innumerable bends and turns. Carts would bring furs to St. Paul and bring back merchandise and whiskey.

The value of furs handled in St. Paul over the Red River Trail in 1860 was $186,000.

The distance of Woods Trail was 400 miles and it took 30-40 days to travel. A cart train was made up of 75-100 carts and sometimes even 500 carts.

On May 27, 1870, Hans Hanson and Iver Christenson and their families first broke ground in Detroit Township at a place called Fox Hill, located near the original Methodist Church -- now the Berean Baptist Church across from the DL Library.

In a 1961 term paper titled "The Pembina Trail through Becker County" by Kathryn Olcott, she wrote that Pembina Trail went to Detroit Lake and followed the shore of Big Detroit almost five miles. Located along it was Donald McDonald's trading post.

Trail No. 2, or East Plains Trail, left the Mississippi River at St. Cloud and joined the Wild Rice River.

The West Plains Trail ascended the valley of the Minnesota River, crossed the Bois des Sioux River, and turned north on the west side of the Red River.

All the trails met at Pembina and followed the Red River to Fort Gary, Canada.

"The Red River oxcart is unique because it is native to Minnesota, one of the few states where it was used so extensively as a mode of transportation.

It remained in use until the late 1860s, when the development of roads and the introduction of the faster stage coaches relegated it to an outmoded age," the Record article read.

In a paper exhibited by the Minnesota Historical Society titled "Baggage, Peltry and Squeak: Life on Red River Trails" in 1981 said the heyday of oxcarts lasted 30 years.

In the 1860s, the Minnesota Stage Company built a road following the trails linking the Mississippi River with the Red River.

In 1870, James J. Hill built a north-to-south railroad line linking Winnipeg with St. Paul. The Red River Trails were used to guide the railroad.

The trails were also used to create Interstate 94, which follows one trail from St. Cloud to Fergus Falls and another through the Twin Cities.

Detroit Lakes has streets named Ox Cart Trail and Pembina Trail.

(This is the third in a four-part series on historic Detroit Lakes. Information is courtesy of the Becker County Historical Society.)

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