History Hike at Wisconsin’s Newest State Park

Originally posted on the blog of the Heritage Initiative, one of my partner-clients:

It was a half winter, half autumn day last week when I joined a friend on a hike along the Ice Age National Scenic Trail where it passes through Straight Lake State Park. We met at a friendly café in Lucky, Wisconsin and drove a few miles out of town to the trailhead, where we found the woods and parking lot covered in light snow, which had fallen a few days before.

We wound through the hardwood forests for a short while, passing by a 10-foot high boulder next to the trail, indicating the glacial nature of this path. Such boulders are a common sight throughout our region: A glacial erratic, it was carried here by glaciers and dropped as they melted.

The Ice Age Trail follows roughly the edge of where the glaciers reached into Wisconsin during the last Ice Age. Later, I learned that Straight Lake State Park is shaped by a rare and significant glacial event. More on that in a bit.

When we emerged at the west end of Straight Lake, the sun was dipping toward the horizon. A stand of tamaracks in the boggy area next to the lake glowed orange as only tamaracks can glow in fall.

Straight Lake is easy on the eyes. One tiny island juts out of its middle, no more than 50 feet across and topped with bushy white pines. Ridges rise up from both sides of the lake, covered in oak and other hardwoods. On the other end, a clump of nice pines on a point stood out in their greenery.

As we walked along the north shore of the lake, the narrow path soon joined the historic Clam Falls Trail, a historic road which once carried settlers and loggers from St. Croix Falls to Cumberland. According to the Luck Historical Society, one story of how the town got its name is that travelers on the trail were said to be “in Luck” if they made it there in one day from St. Croix Falls. From there, they would have followed the trail, including the section we now trod on, to Cumberland and Spooner, many of them looking for jobs in the logging camps and mills.

Our route continued along the lake to where the Straight River pours out of it over an old dam which is basically a pile of rocks. We hopped across on stepping stones, much like people do at the headwaters of the Mississippi in Minnesota’s Itasca State Park.

When we reached the pines at the east end of the lake, we followed the trail a little farther to Rainbow Lake, where the contrast between the north shore – orange, brown, and autumn – stood in stark contrast to the south shore – which was white and wintry.

Cutting over a ridge, we came to the Straight River where it flows down its valley. This is where it is said one can witness a significant glacial feature. A “tunnel channel” forms the valley which contains Straight and Rainbow Lakes and the Straight River.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, a tunnel channel is created when “meltwater erodes sediment and/or bedrock beneath the glacier.” Later, the river under the glacier moved slow enough to deposit a ridge of sandy sediment, creating an esker down the middle of the valley.

The sun sets early these days so we were soon our way back through the dimming woods. Straight Lake State Park is known for its solitude and beauty, but it was also a unique experience to follow both a logging-era road and a glacial channel.

I first heard about the park from Gregg Westigard of the Inter-County Leader at one of the Heritage Discovery Workshops last year, and was glad to finally make it here and experience the stories it has to tell for myself.

 

A significant span

This is the second post for my new StarTribune.com blog. All historical photos are from the Minnesota Historical Society’s John Runk collection, used with permission.

The High Bridge under construction in 1911
The bridge was built simultaneously from each end, and had to line up in the middle. 1911.

On June 1, 1911, construction was completed on a half-mile long, 185-foot tall railroad bridge near Stillwater. Two days later, the first train crossed the bridge. About four still do so every day.

A small group of people visited the bridge on the Minnesota side Wednesday evening, its 100th birthday. The gravel pull-off on the road where the trail leads down to the river was otherwise empty; no other well-wishers had come. But the bridge sees plenty of revelers — mostly 80 or more years younger than itself — on a regular basis. They make circles of rocks in the woods and light fires inside them, then they drink beer and leave the cans as offerings to the bridge or the river or their own self-centered youth.

The place was quiet Wednesday evening, but perhaps the bridge didn’t want a party.

Soo Line (Arcola) High Bridge on the St. Croix River under construction in 1910
Looking from the Wisconsin side, 1910.

The walk down the bluffs to the foot of the bridge follows an old road that was once a driveway for some cabins, which the bridge has outlived. Stretches of concrete and asphalt reveal its history, but today it is just a scenic trail through thick green woods.

Wayside rests include a stand of cedars overlooking a deep ravine with a spring-feed creek at its bottom; a massive white pine, which probably has the bridge beat for years; and a short set of stairs from the road to the site of a former cabin, where a small ring of rocks encircles charred logs.

Walking to the Soo Line High Bridge near the St. Croix River

When the trail reaches the bottom of the bluff, it crosses the spring-fed creek on a little wooden footbridge, which was askew when we walked across it, tilted at a precarious angle toward the water. That bridge was probably only 10 years old.

The St. Croix River was still up high — the normal pebble and gravel beach underneath the bridge was submerged. A muddy flat spot on the banks featured a circle of rocks with the remnants of a fire inside. And there it was.

The Soo Line High Bridge over the St. Croix River
June 1, 2011

The High Bridge was designed by C.A.P. Turner, six years after he designed Duluth’s Aerial Lift Bridge and 15 years before designing the Mendota Bridge over the Minnesota River. It rises out of the wooded islands of the river as if to inspire the trees.

The bridge was there during both World Wars, during the Depression, during Prohibition. Many generations of teenagers have come here to drink beer and make fires, to see the broad valley painted in moonlight, and to look down on eagles soaring over the river.

Soo Line (Arcola) High Bridge, November 2007
November 2007

The most authoritative page on the Web about the bridge is probably John Weeks’ site. Weeks has documented in photos, history, and statistics all of the bridges on the St. Croix, as well as on several other major rivers, including the Mississippi. He is fond of the High Bridge:

“The Arcola High Bridge was added to the National Register of Historical Places in 1977. Experts have called this bridge the most spectacular multi-span steel arch bridge in the world. Others compare the magnificent steel work to that of Eiffel’s creations in France.”

Wednesday night, nobody sang “Happy Birthday.” Everyone pulled out cameras or phones with cameras and snapped photos exactly like the ones we have all taken there before, the bridge identical to itself all these years. The only changes are the color of the trees, the clouds in the sky.

The Arcola High Bridge in autumn
Looking from the Wisconsin side, October 2006. Photo by Jim Brekke, used with permission.

The walk back up to the car was a good reminder of our own years — or at least our years of sedentary living. One’s legs burn climbing those 200 feet back to the top of the bluffs. You try to conceal how hard you are breathing.

Later, over Burgermeisters, French Fries, and 12 oz. mugs of cold, light beer at Meister’s on the South Hill, a disagreement erupted about whether a new restaurant in town was going for a “Colonial” or “Revolutionary” America feel. The two holding conflicting opinions were once students of Advanced Placement U.S. History at Stillwater High. Their teacher, my mother, would have been very proud.

The High Bridge shortly after it was built in 1911.