History of Cass County's Chippewa National Forest

Around the turn of the century, the harvesting of the northern pineries of Minnesota was reaching its zenith

History of Cass County's Chippewa National Forest

Around the turn of the century, the harvesting of the northern pineries of Minnesota was reaching its zenith. Each year thousands of acres of the great white and red pine, along with maple, oak, basswood and other ancient stands of timber were being cut by lumberjacks from all over the world.

The American "appetite" for wood was nearly insatiable as homes, farms and factories, even whole cities, were being built at blinding speed. And Minnesota had the commodity that everyone demanded, inexhaustable (or so nearly everyone thought) supplies of timber; vast forests that spread unbroken and primeval across the northern half of the state.

Those who owned the forests and controlled the logging crews amassed great fortunes; T.B. Walker, who later endowed Minneapolis' great Walker Art Center, the Pillsbury's, later to gain national fame with their flour mills and cereal business, and the greatest of them all, the "lumber baron" Frederick Weyerhaeuser, America's first billionaire - just to name a few.

Yet, so efficient were the lumbermen that even before the turn of the century, people could begin to see the effects of such aggressive harvesting; quickly vanishing forests and environmental devastation. Gone were not only the great virgin stands of timber but also the wonderful wildlife they sheltered, and in their wake, despoiled lakes and rivers, miles of clearcut, devastated landscape and the biggest fear of all - cries of "Forest Fire !!!".

The Great Hinckley Fire of 1894, the most famous of them all in Minnesota, burned thousands of acres across the northern part of the state from west of Hinckley to nearly Duluth's doorstep, It killed hundreds in its path and left stories of great horror, heroism, and survival, still recounted to this day. But it was by no means the only such occurence, as early pioneers often went about their daily business, thinking nothing about the air being heavily laden with the smoke of distant forest fires. Eventually nearly every part of northern Minnesota was touched, fed by the "slash" left by the departing loggers on the floor of the once magificent forests.

One major consequence of this experience was the increased call for forest management and controlled harvesting - if not outright conservation of the few remaining virgin stands of timber. Great debates arose in Minneapolis-St.Paul and the halls of the State Capital whether Minnesota should follow in the footsteps of the western states in the creation of national and state parks to protect what remained.

The greatest leader in this fight was Gen. Christopher C. Andrews, former Civil War hero (Colonel, 3rd Minnesota Infantry), and Ambassador to Sweden under the Grant Administration, aided greatly by the aggresive political activism of the Minnesota Federation of Women's Clubs. Their first victory resulted in the creation of Minnesota's first state forest reserve, the (now) 14,700 acre Pillsbury State Forest in southern Cass County, started from an initial 1000 acre grant provided by John Sargent Pillsbury and taken from his family's business land holdings.

But their greatest legacy was the creation, by Act of Congress on May 23, 1908, of the Minnesota National Forest (later renamed the Chippewa National Forest), America's first national forest east of the American Plains. Today the "Chip", as it is affectionately known, is one the "crown jewels" in a large number of state, federal and locally managed, public forest reserves spread all across the Upper Midwest. The Chippewa, in the three-county area it encompasses, including its home base in Cass County, is the centerpiece for many other adjacent, publicly managed forests, including the Pillsbury, Foothills, Land O'Lakes, Remer, Welsh Lake, Badura, Battleground, Buena Vista, Black Duck, Bowstring, Paul Bunyan, Hill River and Crow Wing State Forests.

Now managed by the U.S.Forest Service from its superb, three-story, historic log headquarters in Cass Lake (the Forest Service's largest log structure east of the Rockies), the "Chip" dominates the land area of northcentral Minnesota. Covering over 1.6 million acres, including over 7,000 that are still actively managed for timber harvesting, the Forest's boundaries encompasses 700 lakes, over 900 miles of rivers and lakes (including the Mississippi), and 150,000 acres of invaluable, flora and fauna-rich, wetlands. Managed not only for its highly prized timber, but also for outdoor recreation, the "Chip" delivers nearly every imaginable type of classic northwoods, four-season, outdoor experience;

• Countless campsites, miles of canoeable rivers, including the Mississippi;

• Miles of hiking and mountain biking trails, including one of the most beautiful segments of the North Country National Hiking Trail, with connections to the Paul Bunyan and Heartland State Recreation Trails;

• Miles of scenic driving, including portions of the recently designated Great River Road and the Edge of the Wilderness National Scenic Byway corridors, and many, county-configured, self-guided driving tours;

• Over 230 varieties of nesting and migrating bird species (the largest in North America), including the largest flock of nesting bald eagles in the lower 48 states;

• Spectacular plant life, including surviving stands of old growth white and red pine, and many varieties of rare wild flowers and woodland ferns;

• and thousands of acres of unspoiled or reclaimed lakes, wetlands, and forest, including some of the best "trophy" fishing lakes in the Upper Midwest.

While the early days of lumbering and forest conservation are long gone, their legacy can still be experienced on foot, paddling a canoe and from the comfort of a motorized vehicle from many vantage points across the Chippewa National Forest in Cass County. Come join us this year in celebrating this, the Forest's great 90th Anniversary. The welcome mat is out! Experience the full benefit of our county's and this area's deep and rich history.


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