Picturing the blurry lines between past and present in the St. Croix Valley

Photo exhibit shows the same views around Marine on St. Croix – separated by a century.




4 minute read


 “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
– William Faulkner, 1950

History is always being written and remembered in the St. Croix River Valley. We travel old trails, touch ancient stone, live among Victorian-era homes and prehistoric settlements, find refuge on the same overlooks and backwaters as our predecessors.

The specific stories are often unimportant, because our own lives are braided right into the past. We feel what people felt centuries ago because the land and the water are powerful forces on the human spirit.

One of the first people to document this relationship in words and images in the St. Croix Valley was John Dunn, a businessman, conservationist, and photographer. Dunn first visited the area in the 1890s, and built a cabin called Pine Needles near what was then called Marine Mills in about 1915.

From Pine Needles, Dunn walked all over Marine on St. Croix with his camera. He captured the river and its valley and its people in thousands of fascinating images.

Dunn photographed from down on the water to up on the bluffs, often with his children along for the stroll. There are islands and hillsides, homes and stones – and in many images, the kids playing in the scenery.

A century later, another photographer with a long history in the area has revisited Dunn’s stomping grounds, recreating the photos, showing how things have changed and stayed the same over the past 100 years.

“The similarities are probably fewer than the differences,” says Tomy O’Brien. “But when you’re down on the river and looking at some of the sloughs and the banks and the width of the river, for the most part the channel and the hillside would be very similar to John Dunn’s. He could take his boat and find many of the same things.”

In an exhibition at the Stillwater Library open until the end of the year, titled “Pebbles in the River,” O’Brien presents 24 pairs of photos showing his perspective and Dunn’s. He spent about 18 months shooting the images, matching Dunn’s photos from all four seasons. Walking along the wall of paired images, a viewer who is familiar with the area can recognize many locations, reminded of how long humans have inhabited this home.

Tomy’s family has lived in the St. Croix Valley since 1849 – starting in St. Croix Falls. His great-great-grandfather William O’Brien moved to Marine in 1859 and made a name for himself in lumbering. The popular state park is named after him, with its first 185 acres donated by Tomy’s great-aunt Alice.

Like the Dunns, Tomy spent many summers on the banks of the St. Croix in Marine. He first came from St. Paul in 1959 to visit Alice, who he describes as “a wonderful creative exciting individual.”

Today, O’Brien lives on a bluff overlooking the town and river, the same vista Dunn captured in one of O’Brien’s favorite photos. From what’s now the view from his house, Dunn’s group of children look over the village of Marine and the river. A hundred years later, there is still the vista, and a lot more trees.

The view from "Pincumbe Hill." (Photos courtesy Tomy O'Brien)

The regrowth of the St. Croix Valley’s forests after the clear-cut logging era – which ended at the same time Dunn built his cabin – is one of the most noticeable differences between Dunn and O’Brien’s photos.

“Of course the first thing that strikes me is the changes in the landscape, of trees and buckthorn,” O’Brien says. “We have many more trees now, and I don’t believe there was any buckthorn a hundred years ago.”

Some of the new vegetation is good, restoring the valley’s natural character, and some, like buckthorn, is not. But all of it changes the view.

While the subject of the photos is the landscape, there is an important human element. Dunn’s children often accompanied him on his expeditions, showed up in the photographs, and inherited their father’s love of the St. Croix. His son James Taylor Dunn wrote the first history of the river and donated the Pine Needles cabin to the St. Croix Watershed Research Station in 1999, and it is today operated as an artist residency. (Pine Needles artist Ann Myers also replicated Dunn photographs during her August 2009 residency.)

Children show up in half the photos in O’Brien’s expedition, and he says they are some of his favorite images. He enlisted his nieces, and they can be seen playing in the river, reading a book in the shade of a tree, climbing into a boat, and otherwise enjoying the place much like the Dunn kids did a hundred years before.

There are other similarities between the Dunn photos and what can be found today. O’Brien remembers trying to find the exact location of a Dunn photo in front of Pine Needles, lining up the large landmasses like the river and the hills, when he noticed a fairly large rock. When he checked the old photo, the rock was in the same spot.

“The glaciers deposited it 10,000 years ago and of course it’s still there,” O’Brien says. “It allows me to line up the photograph perfectly, and then you get the whole scale, suddenly everything fits.”

“Pebbles in the River” is on display at the Stillwater Public Library now through Dec. 31. O’Brien will be at the library gallery every Thursday evening from 6 – 7 p.m. to talk with visitors.

The Stillwater Public Library is located at 224 Third Street North. Its regular hours are Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 p.m. – 5 p.m. For holiday closings and other information, visit the library’s website. Visit Tomy O’Brien’s website here.



One response to “Picturing the blurry lines between past and present in the St. Croix Valley”

  1. Jill S. Avatar
    Jill S.

    Nice! Wish I could go!


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Picturing the blurry lines between past and present in the St. Croix Valley