Recently-discovered historic map of St. Croix Valley springs helps document early groundwater exploration

Hundred-year-old map found in research library reveals the story of an early conservationist and cartographer.




3 minute read

Greg Brick, Ph.D. is a groundwater researcher, cave explorer, and author. He recently worked on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ spring survey. This article was first published in the Minnesota Groundwater Association newsletter, June 2019.

Surber’s trophy, courtesy of Jen Oknich

The Pine County Game Refuge was established in “the cut-over country” of northern Minnesota in 1916, comprising about 180 square miles where the state’s great pinery had once been.

At the Fleming Camp, loggers had cut white pine and rolled it into the St. Croix River at nearby Yellow Banks, from where it floated down to the sawmills on the lower river. This refuge later became St. Croix State Park, largest in Minnesota, in 1943.

Thaddeus Surber (1871-1949) was an aquatic biologist who played a big role in the State Game and Fish Department, a predecessor of the DNR. Originally employed by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, he became a prolific contributor to Fins, Feathers, and Fur, a forerunner of the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

His report on the Root River in southeastern Minnesota involved hiking “a thousand miles” while mapping its springs and other features during his tenure as Superintendent of Fish Propagation. He is known worldwide for the Surber Sampler, which he invented. (Editor’s note: Surber Samplers are used for determining species and numbers of macroinvertebrates in streams.)

The Pine County Game Refuge, a sort of “polar Serengeti,” abounded in wildlife, according to Surber, including bears, wolves, foxes, moose, and deer. Some of these were attracted by the “natural licks,” which provided mineral nutrients.

Surber’s linen map of the North Shore springs was discovered among the DNR Fisheries stream surveys and donated to the Minnesota Historical Society. Since then another Surber map has been found, at the J.W.G. Dunn Library of the St. Croix Watershed Research Station.

Surber’s 1920 map of the Pine County Game Refuge, showing springs.

Drafted by Surber and dated February 2, 1920, this is a blueprint linen map (35 X 70 cm) of the Pine County Game Refuge. Surber had spent much time in 1918 and 1919 hiking the refuge, defying the strawberry brambles—a sort of botanical barbed wire—and found that the streams “are almost universally fed by many springs” (Surber, 1919), which he mapped. His lakes, showing depth contours, look like ghostly fingerprints on the map.

Comparing Surber’s map with the online version of the Minnesota Spring Inventory (MSI), it’s apparent that he did not perceive the Glacial Lake Lind spring-line (Editor’s note: An area along the St. Croix where the ancient river cut into a glacial lake and created significant springs).

On the other hand, he did map the springs along the Douglas Fault (I thought MSI was the first to do that!) and he has mapped many more springs in Ogema Township than are found in the database.

While the date of the map (February 2nd) might suggest that Surber mapped the springs in winter (when they’d be easier to see), the absence of tree cover in the “cut-over” would have also facilitated the mapping. He wrote an accompanying report, Pine County Streams, which described Barnes Springs (among others), which still goes by that name today.

In a sort of redemptive act, the great pinery was thus converted from cutover to game refuge,
which Surber was happy to depict cartographically.


Brick, G. (2016). Biological Reconnaissance Map Rediscovered. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer 79(464): 60-63.

Brick, G. (2017). The Glacial Lake Lind Spring-Line of the St. Croix Valley. 2017 Research Rendezvous, St. Croix Watershed Research Station.

Harris, J. Merle (1952). Geology of St. Croix State Park. Conservation Volunteer 15(88): 41-46.

Surber, T. (1919). The Pine County Game Refuge as a Playground for the Nature Student, Camper, and Angler. Fin, Feathers and Fur No. 18, pp 1-4.


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One response to “Recently-discovered historic map of St. Croix Valley springs helps document early groundwater exploration”

  1. Dean Oknich Avatar
    Dean Oknich

    There is also a root river springs map by T Surber on canvas see Jack Layer new ulm dnr fisheries