Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/August 1904/Saving the Mississippi's Source




THE true American takes an honest pride in recounting the natural features of our country—its mountains, plains, lakes, rivers, cataracts, trees—all, in Yankee parlance, 'the greatest things on earth.' Of them all none is more truly worthy of admiration than the great river which practically spans our territory from north to south, draining an inland empire on its way. My vacation trip last summer took me to its source, and it is of this, with the peril that has threatened it and the measures taken to avert the peril, that I wish to tell briefly in this article.

We need not enter upon the vexed question as to what and where the real source is. Every explorer has found some new lake or river or spring which by ingenious definition he could make out to be the 'original and only' beginning of the Mississippi. Schoolcraft and the schoolboy agree in saying it is Lake Itasca; but there are streams entering that lake which if followed to their source would increase by a mile or two the total length of the 'Father of Waters,' and so satisfy more fully our national taste for bigness. The largest of these affluents is the 'Infant Mississippi,' discovered and named in 1836 by Jean Nicollet; but claims are made also for Mary river and lake, for Elk Lake and its tiny outlet, for the Mississippi springs, and for Hernando de Soto Lake. The truth is that each of these contributes its quota to the making of the Mississippi, while Itasca is the reservoir in which all their contributions are assembled. To the geographer it is a most interesting region, close to the watershed whence flow streams of widely different destination. The cook of a surveyors' camp located on this watershed used to boast that he could throw his dishwater to the left and send it to the Arctic Ocean, or to the right and start it towards the Gulf of Mexico. Not far away rise other streams whose waters find their way to Lake Superior and so to the Gulf of St. Lawrence. This peculiar configuration was known to the early French explorers, who gave the group of low hills the expressive title 'Hauteurs des Terres.'

Lake Itasca lies in a valley of irregular horseshoe shape, encircled by a range of low hills, and is the largest of a considerable number of lakes in the same depression. Its form is most peculiar (as may be seen by a reference to the accompanying map); and it was doubtless

this peculiar shape, rudely resembling an elk's head with nose to the north and horns branching out towards the south, that suggested to the Indians the name they gave it—Elk Lake, translated by the French into Lac la Biche. The present name is said to have been the joint production of Schoolcraft and the Rev. Dr. Boutwell, who were the first white men to seek this lake as the Mississippi's source. Desiring to hail it at first sight with an appropriate title, Schoolcraft asked his companion for the Greek or Latin words meaning the true source of a river. Though somewhat rusty in his classics, the reverend explorer finally recalled the two Latin words Veritas caput—truth head. These

map of the mississippi basin above pokegama palls.

were written down, the first and last syllables crossed out, and presto! the name Itasca. The former designation, Elk Lake, is now applied to the largest of the tributary lakes.

The single island in Itasca is called Schoolcraft, in honor of the pioneer explorer, who spent a few hours upon it in 1832. The Mississippi, a tiny stream ten to fifteen feet in width and one or two in depth, issues from the north end of the lake, and, though its general course to the Gulf is east of south, its direction at first is west of north! By a curious coincidence a tributary of the Red River of the North, rising but fifteen miles west of Itasca, also begins its long race to the sea by taking a direction diametrically opposite to the true one—flowing south instead of north!

The peril mentioned in my first paragraph assailed the forests about the headwaters. The fine stand of white and Norway pines that once covered that part of Minnesota is fast disappearing, and the great lumber companies are on the lookout for every acre that can be made to yield its growth of centuries for their enrichment. For convenience of transportation the lumbermen have followed in the main the natural waterways, floating their logs down-stream to some suitable point for assembling and shipping by rail. They have worked their way gradually up the Mississippi until in 1901 they were within a dozen miles (direct) of its source, ready at the first opportunity to attack that.

As to the effect of such an invasion one who has made a special study of the subject says: "As soon as the timber shall have been cut . . . the whole tract will become a burned, black and denuded waste, the streams and lakes will dry up and partially disappear and the reservoir dam necessary to drive the logs through and out of Itasca and Elk Lakes into the Mississippi River will drown out every tree and shrub standing upon the shores of said lakes." Another writes: "The reservoir system on the upper Mississippi has already seriously injured and in some cases destroyed the beauty of some of the finest combinations of lake and forest on the continent. It is to be feared that ere long the greed of speculators and the avarice of the lumbermen will finish the work of desecration and desolation." To the truth of these views the bare hillsides along the streams of northern Minnesota and the broad belt of dead, gray timber that encircles the great reservoir of Lake Winnibigoshish—a sort of forest cemetery—bear dumb but eloquent witness.

About 1890 the progress of this work of destruction began to alarm some of the thoughtful men of the state, and through their efforts the legislature in 1891 was induced to pass an act establishing and creating the 'Itasca State Park,' a reservation five by seven miles in extent and including the whole Itasca basin. Much of the land within this area had become private property by homesteading or otherwise, and some was included also in the government grant to the Northern Pacific Kailroad. By purchase or condemnation the state soon secured control of the larger part, and since then appropriations have been made from time to time for the completion of such ownership. Some of the land still belongs to private owners and is not yet safe from saw and axe; but the good work is going on, and it is confidently hoped that very soon the last obstacle to the complete success of the plan will disappear.

In the management of the state park it is proposed to follow in general the policy adopted by the national government in regard to the Yellowstone region. Strict laws have been enacted for the protection of trees and game within its limits. Fishing is permitted (rod in hand), but hunting is absolutely prohibited. It is hoped that in time bear, deer and other large animals will come to recognize this reservation, like the Yellowstone Park, as a place of refuge, and that thus some rare species may be saved from extinction. For the enforcement of the laws a commissioner is resident on the grounds, vested with police powers. He is domiciled in a neat and comfortable cottage, built by the state and commonly known as the 'State House.' Our party, by the way, found in the clean beds and excellent fare of the 'State House' a pleasant relief from the more or less crude comforts of camp life. The charges, too, were extremely reasonable.

With the restriction upon hunting already mentioned, visitors are free and welcome to use the park as their own; and, barring the discomfort of the long, rough ride from Park Rapids, and the size, activity and voracity of the mosquitoes that swarm there in summer, it would not be easy to find a more delightful and satisfying place for an outing. The beauties of woodland, lake and stream, the pure air that blows always in the pine forests, the opportunities for boating, fishing and exploring, and above all its absolute retirement and out-of-the worldness, commend it alike to sportsman and the mere seeker for change and rest. Of the natural attraction of the valley one has written: "The multitude of clear little gems of lakes, embowered in picturesque hills, Lake Itasca itself a most lovely sheet of water, and especially the grand stretch of virgin forest, mark the park as a chosen corner of Nature's great garden." No less enthusiastic was Schoolcraft, who exclaims: "On reaching the summit our wish was gratified. At a depression of perhaps one hundred feet below, cradled among the hills, the lake spread out its elongated volume, presenting a scene of no common picturesqueness. . . . (It is) one of the most tranquil and pure sheets of water it is possible to conceive." Having had his first view of Itasca from almost the same spot the present writer can testify that the description is not overdrawn. Amid such scenes, with cold springs and grassy, well shaded campgrounds galore, and an abundance of fallen wood for fuel, one is in a veritable campers' paradise.

Utility and sentiment alike endorse the efforts made and making to save this valley from the lumber vandal. While many have lent their aid, the success thus far attained is due in large measure to the efforts of Hon. J. V. Brower, of St. Paul, who has not spared speech nor pen, time nor personal means in his endeavor to arouse the people and their representatives to a sense of what the loss of it would mean. His book on the source of the Mississippi and his large-scale map of the park, showing every detail most accurately, are recognized as authorities on the subject. His study of prehistoric remains on the upper Mississippi is by no means the least interesting part of his work.

The idea certainly is worthy of the great state which is carrying it out and of the sympathy and support of all who take pride in the natural wonders and beauties of our country. New York has made Niagara free; Minnesota is defending the Itasca basin from disfigurement and spoliation.