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Minnesota's Backyard: A slice of the region's original timber industry history at William O'Brien State Park

Long before there were lumber camps in Minnesota's north woods, lumberjacks were downing what was thought to be a limitless supply of white pine along the St. Croix River. At William O'Brien State Park, visitors can hike, bike and paddle in the place where the industry began, nearly 200 years ago.

With the waters of the St. Croix River on one side and towering trees overhead, the Riverside Trail at William O'Brien State Park perfectly illustrates why this part of Minnesota was the region's first home to the timber industry, nearly 200 years ago.
Jess Myers / Northland Outdoors
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MARINE ON ST. CROIX, Minn. — When one thinks about the timber industry in Minnesota, it is natural for the mind to wander to the towering forests of the northeastern part of the state. In places like the Lost 40 and the Forest History Center — with its replica of a lumber camp from 1900 — visitors can get an idea of the life of real lumberjacks who would venture out into the woods to fell massive trees on cold winter days.

But European settlement of Minnesota began closer to the Twin Cities, and many would be surprised to know that the origins of the state’s timber industry began as early as 1839 on the St. Croix River, just outside what today is the metro area. The region was once home to what was considered an “endless” supply of white pine and, with the nearby river, there was a way to float those logs downstream to places like Stillwater, where sawmills would process the wood.

Today, some of the territory that once crawled with lumberjacks in the days before Minnesota became a state, can be seen by visitors to William O’Brien State Park , which is named for one of the original lumber barons to make his fortune in the trade in Minnesota. In 1945, O’Brien’s daughter Alice donated 180 acres for the formation of a state park. Nearly eight decades later, that park has grown tenfold, with more than 1,800 acres of prairie, hardwood forest and riverfront protected for public use.

Minnesota's backyard logo

Just 20 miles or so up the river at Interstate State Park , the land along the St. Croix is dominated by towering river bluffs and dramatic rock formations. At William O’Brien the land is flatter, and many of the hiking trails provide visitors a view of rolling oak savanna and tallgrass prairie. The popular Prairie Overlook Trail is nearly 4 miles one way, but those who make it to the end have earned a notable vista of the river valley once they reach the top.

That constitutes roughly one-fourth of the park’s 16 miles of hiking trails, but this is a multi-use park, where visitors can truly find their niche, from paddling the river’s calm waters, to a family-friendly beach on Lake Alice (named for the park land’s original donor) to 2 miles of paved bike trails to designated spots for fishing. The park’s visitor center offers a more detailed history of the region and naturalist programs for those who want to know the science behind the sights.


Notable nearby

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Just outside the park boundaries, a significant part of the tiny town of Marine on St. Croix (estimated population: 712, per Wikipedia) is included on the National Register of Historic Places. It was home to the region’s first commercial sawmill nearly 200 years ago, and retains some of the quaint charm more commonly seen in small-town New England. The town’s official website lists a half-dozen places where weary hikers can get a beverage, a sandwich or a piece of chocolate after exploring the state park.

New in 2022, campers have another option on the North Shore with the opening of Shipwreck Creek Campground inside Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. The new facility had been discussed since 1980, but finally opened this year and is all but fully booked for the entire summer.
This region of Minnesota that has been home to people since 400 B.C. did not officially become a state park until 1957, but today there are 2,600 acres of Mississippi River bluff land preserved, featuring one of the most stunning picnic table views found anywhere.
The border between Minnesota and Wisconsin here was formed by a combination of molten lava and melting glaciers over the past billion years. The St. Croix River Valley's hugely popular public access site features hikes along the bluffs and down to the river, and ways to see these stunning rock cliffs from water level.
Founded more than a century ago and expended during the Great Depression, this gem in western Minnesota features hiking, biking, boating, beaching and abundant wildlife, along with a quartet of camping options.
The 20th destination on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to the heart of the Twin Cities, where you will find an oasis of wilderness in the urban heart of the state. Fort Snelling State Park is neither as quiet or secluded as other parks in Minnesota, but for Twin Citians it offers history and hiking where the state's major rivers meet.
Destination No. 19 on our 20-site tour of Minnesota's state parks brings us to one of the great waterfalls, and one of the state's greatest mysteries, at Judge C.R. Magney State Park. One of the quieter and more remote places on the North Shore, a hike to see the Devil's Kettle has fascinated visitors for generations, even after the mystery was solved.
The 18th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a place where you can explore the land and the water, but the most intriguing visitors arrive by air. Kilen Woods State Park offers hiking in the woods and the prairie, canoeing and kayaking on the Des Moines River, and some of the best birding in Minnesota.
The 17th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to the newest member of the state park system. Officially less than a decade old, Lake Vermilion State Park was born out of land acquired and preserved during the region's mining boom in the 1880s.
The 16th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a quiet, remote part of north-central Minnesota that was given a perfectly descriptive name 100 years ago. Scenic State Park has history, both natural and man-made, and great fishing on two glacial lakes.
The 16th stop on our tour of 20 Minnesota State Parks is to a quiet, remote part of north-central Minnesota that was given a perfectly descriptive name 100 years ago. Scenic State Park has history, both natural and man-made, and great fishing on two glacial lakes.

This article is part of the " Minnesota's Backyard " series which returns for the summer of 2022.

Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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