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Minnesota's Backyard: A slice of the region's original timber industry history at William O'Brien State Park

Long before there were lumber camps in Minnesota's north woods, lumberjacks were downing what was thought to be a limitless supply of white pine along the St. Croix River. At William O'Brien State Park, visitors can hike, bike and paddle in the place where the industry began, nearly 200 years ago.

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With the waters of the St. Croix River on one side and towering trees overhead, the Riverside Trail at William O'Brien State Park perfectly illustrates why this part of Minnesota was the region's first home to the timber industry, nearly 200 years ago.
Jess Myers / Northland Outdoors
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MARINE ON ST. CROIX, Minn. — When one thinks about the timber industry in Minnesota, it is natural for the mind to wander to the towering forests of the northeastern part of the state. In places like the Lost 40 and the Forest History Center — with its replica of a lumber camp from 1900 — visitors can get an idea of the life of real lumberjacks who would venture out into the woods to fell massive trees on cold winter days.

But European settlement of Minnesota began closer to the Twin Cities, and many would be surprised to know that the origins of the state’s timber industry began as early as 1839 on the St. Croix River, just outside what today is the metro area. The region was once home to what was considered an “endless” supply of white pine and, with the nearby river, there was a way to float those logs downstream to places like Stillwater, where sawmills would process the wood.

Today, some of the territory that once crawled with lumberjacks in the days before Minnesota became a state, can be seen by visitors to William O’Brien State Park , which is named for one of the original lumber barons to make his fortune in the trade in Minnesota. In 1945, O’Brien’s daughter Alice donated 180 acres for the formation of a state park. Nearly eight decades later, that park has grown tenfold, with more than 1,800 acres of prairie, hardwood forest and riverfront protected for public use.

Minnesota's backyard logo

Just 20 miles or so up the river at Interstate State Park , the land along the St. Croix is dominated by towering river bluffs and dramatic rock formations. At William O’Brien the land is flatter, and many of the hiking trails provide visitors a view of rolling oak savanna and tallgrass prairie. The popular Prairie Overlook Trail is nearly 4 miles one way, but those who make it to the end have earned a notable vista of the river valley once they reach the top.

That constitutes roughly one-fourth of the park’s 16 miles of hiking trails, but this is a multi-use park, where visitors can truly find their niche, from paddling the river’s calm waters, to a family-friendly beach on Lake Alice (named for the park land’s original donor) to 2 miles of paved bike trails to designated spots for fishing. The park’s visitor center offers a more detailed history of the region and naturalist programs for those who want to know the science behind the sights.

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Notable nearby

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Just outside the park boundaries, a significant part of the tiny town of Marine on St. Croix (estimated population: 712, per Wikipedia) is included on the National Register of Historic Places. It was home to the region’s first commercial sawmill nearly 200 years ago, and retains some of the quaint charm more commonly seen in small-town New England. The town’s official website lists a half-dozen places where weary hikers can get a beverage, a sandwich or a piece of chocolate after exploring the state park.

MORE OF MINNESOTA'S BACKYARD SERIES
Located not far from the more popular parks along Lake Superior, George H. Crosby Manitou State Park is home to wilderness, challenging terrain and real solitude on the wooded trails that reach cascades and waterfalls along the Manitou River.
At 500 square miles, Minnesota is home to the largest peat bog in the lower 48 states, and a mile-long boardwalk at Big Bog State Recreation Area allows visitors to explore this unique and vital ecosystem.
It's a far cry and a long plane ride from California, but at Tettegouche State Park, visitors to the North Shore can find both the water and as close as we get to the mountains in Minnesota.
New in 2022, campers have another option on the North Shore with the opening of Shipwreck Creek Campground inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The new facility had been discussed since 1980, but finally opened this year and is all but fully booked for the entire summer.
This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.
The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.
Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.
Our summer tour of Minnesota's public spaces continues in a southeastern Minnesota oasis that can take visitors up onto the bluffs, into the trout streams deep underneath the ground and back in time, as Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park offers a little bit of something to appeal to a wide range of interests.
The first indication that you have left Iowa and entered the Land of 10,000 Lakes is a "Welcome to Minnesota" sign on I-35. The second, unmistakable indication is crossing Albert Lea lake, which is the centerpiece of our first Minnesota's Backyard destination of 2022.
The 20th destination on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the heart of the Twin Cities, where you will find an oasis of wilderness in the urban heart of the state. Fort Snelling State Park is neither as quiet or secluded as other parks in Minnesota, but for Twin Citians it offers history and hiking where the state's major rivers meet.

This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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