Organizers explore route of proposed auto tour near the upper St. Croix River

Project seeks to promote history and unique places in unique Northwest Sands region.




3 minute read

Sandy road near Wolf Creek (Greg Seitz/St. Croix 360)

Sunday, May 18th, the working group creating the Northwest Wisconsin Auto Sands Tour met at St Croix Falls, the south end of the route and traveled north on the first leg to Wolf Creek along the St Croix River Road mapping sites of interest, guided by local resident and historian, Russ Hanson.

The Northwest Sands Auto Trail project is a backroads exploration of the Northwest Sands Ecological Landscape, a large area of glacial outwash that extends on a trajectory from just outside of Bayfield, Wisconsin to Wolf Creek, just north of St. Croix Falls. This drought prone landscape, prior to settlement and fire suppression, was frequently swept by wildfire, maintaining a unique and globally significant “barrens habitat.”

Being high, dry, and open land, as well as extending on a trajectory between the Lake Superior and St. Croix watersheds, the Northwest Sands were utilized as a conduit of travel for Native people and early European settlers, prior to the coming of the railroads. The auto trail experience will connect together the various barrens habitat wildlife areas as well as interpret geological, ecological, historical, and cultural points of interest in between. An organizing feature of the route is utilizing modern roads that most closely approximate the historic travel route, which began as an indigenous footpath and evolved into a segment of the St. Paul to Bayfield Stage Coach line. 

PNorthwest Wisconsin Sands Auto Tour working group.   From left to right:  Steve Brandt (retired Star Tribune writer), Jane Anklam (retired soil scientist with UW Extension), David Peters (retired Strib writer & author of Fire & Sand), Dave Evanson (retired from WDNR & author of a number of books), Mike Koutnik (our mapping consultant), and Brian Finstad (President of the Friends of the Douglas County Bird Sanctuary and Historian of the Gordon-Wascott Historical Society) (Photo by Russ Hanson)

Project planning has been made possible through a grant of the Wisconsin Humanities Council.  The end result will be a touring map that lists sites of interest along the way, historical, tourist stops, scenic areas, etc. 

Hanson stopped the group many times along the River Road and told stories  at likely tourist stops including the site of Nevers Dam. 

Nevers Dam now just a memory and the site a boat landing. It held back the river and logs from 1890 to 1954.

“Seventy years ago in May, when I was  a youngster, Uncle Chan took my brothers and I to see the flood at Nevers Dam.  ‘It is supposed to wash out soon,’ he commented.   We watched about an hour and decided it wasn’t going to wash out while we were watching.  That night it did give way so we went back to see what happened.  One big wooden piece of the dam had broken loose and floated a few hundred feet downstream before lodging on the bottom. Uncle Lloyd was on the crew that dismantled it and bought some of the big pine beams to saw into lumber and build his house…”    

The group reached Wolf Creek in their first outing, listing a dozen sites in the first 12 miles. Hanson will continue hosting the tour Sunday, June 9th, meeting at the Wolf Creek Methodist Church at 1 p.m. The day will include a drive west on Evergreen Avenue to the Sunrise Ferry site on the St Croix River, exploring sites of interest in the Sterling Sand Barrens.  The goal is to finish Polk County and the next meeting, start Burnett County.  

Should you be interested to tag along, bring your auto, and some bug spray as ticks, mosquitoes and gnats should be plentiful with the recent rains. This time it is a human guided tour, however, the goal is a do-it-yourself tour using the map and written guide being developed this summer. 

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Organizers explore route of proposed auto tour near the upper St. Croix River