Documents show how power company decided to donate St. Croix River lands

Archives tell a story of protecting a river loved by many in the mid-20th century.

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Vast tracts of wild lands along the upper St. Croix River probably wouldn’t be open to the public today if not for the work of power company executives in the 1950s and 1960s. Northern States Power (NSP), now part of Xcel Energy, donated its holdings along the river to help create the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.

NSP had acquired lots of land along the river in the first half of the 20th century as it considered building dams to generate electricity. When those ideas didn’t prove feasible, and as momentum built to designate the St. Croix a Wild and Scenic River, the company began to consider donating the land to the federal government.

The upper St. Croix was included in the 1968 Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and the next year, NSP signed an agreement to donate approximately 25,000 acres of lands to the new National Scenic Riverway.

During the years of discussion and deliberation that led up to the donation, NSP produced and collected an assortment of materials. As the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act approached in 2018, the company located a cache of old documents from the deliberations, and ultimately donated them to the National Park Service.

“Basically they were the original files used by the Company to make the decision to donate the lands, which was a bit of a circuitous process that started in the late 1950s,” said Pam Rasmussen, a long-time Xcel Energy employee with connections to the St. Croix River. “They’d been in storage for at least 35 years, if not more. I wish I had known about them earlier!”

Rasmussen tracked the materials down at Xcel Energy’s headquarters in Minneapolis. The company once again decided to make a donation to the National Park Service. The documents will be preserved in perpetuity by the agency.

Back in 2018, I spent an afternoon perusing the archives at the National Park Service headquarters in St. Croix Falls. I’m finally ready to share a few of the documents I saw, but it’s truly a tiny sample of what’s in the archives.

There were memos, press releases, brochures, and newspaper clippings. It told a story that lasted decades, and celebrated the St. Croix River as a beloved place for canoeing, camping, fishing and more long before it was a National Park.

They tell a story that’s important to the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, says superintendent Julie Galonska, who also expressed gratitude for Xcel’s donation.

“The collection enhances the park’s archives by fostering a greater understanding of Northern States Power’s pivotal role in the creation of the Riverway,” Galonska said. “These historical documents will be an asset to park managers, park staff, researchers, and the public for generations to come.”

One interesting aspect to the story was the popularity of the St. Croix long before it was considered for federal protection. Northern States Power allowed the public to use its lands along the river as a recreation area, providing boat landings, campsites, and more.

In the post-World War II era, as outdoor recreation exploded in popularity, NSP’s “St. Croix Wild River Recreation Area” was a popular destination for canoeing, fishing, and camping.

Outfitters provided canoes, camping gear, and shuttle services. Multi-day trips down the river offered “complete relaxation and exhilarating experience in exploring the numerous tributary rivers and islands or simply drifting with the current through an area accessible only by canoe.”

The archives included brochures from The Voyageurs Canoe Outfitters, which offered trips between Riverside Landing near Danbury, and St. Croix Falls.

The company eventually realized that the lands were better suited in public ownership.

Shortly after the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act was signed in 1968, the company moved to donate the lands to the new National Park being created on the St. Croix. One quote from then chairman of the NSP board, Earl Ewald, was repeated frequently during the 2018 celebration of the anniversary.

“By all measures, the time to take bold action to preserve the St. Croix and its tributary, the Namekagon, has now arrived,” Ewald wrote in a report released in the late 1960s. “Today we are privileged to transfer this wilderness to the people of the nation. It will be theirs to guard as jealously and to use as wisely as those who preserved it for them.”

The company also laid out some of its thoughts for how the Riverway ought to be managed once it was in public ownership. They believed roads should be kept away from its banks, access limited, and perhaps the need for a reservation system to preserve the St. Croix’s solitude far into the future.

As mentioned above, this is just a small and fairly random selection of documents, and hardly supported with any context or connections. It’s a complicated story, and I hope to spend more time in these archives in the future, and will share additional documents when I do.

Note: Special thanks to Jonathan Moore, Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway Cultural Resources Program Manager, for helping me view these documents.


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3 responses to “Documents show how power company decided to donate St. Croix River lands”

  1. Mike Avatar
    Mike

    I am interested in how NSP “acquired” the St. Croix property. Who did they acquire it from? Was money exchanged at the time? Thanks Greg!!

    1. Greg Seitz Avatar

      Mike, my understanding is that generally, they bought a lot of cutover timber land from logging companies that had no further use of it. But that’s incomplete if not incorrect. A good question.

  2. Brian Finstad Avatar
    Brian Finstad

    That photo of the river is from the Gordon Ranger Station. :+)

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Documents show how power company decided to donate St. Croix River lands