The History of Grand Rapids (through 1910)

Grand Rapids, the county seat of Itasca county, is one of the most prosperous and progressive towns in northern Minnesota.

It is the most important point on the Great Northern railroad between Cloquet and Bemidji, a distance of 140 miles, and has been for a third of a century the chief business center of an empire which exceeds in extent any one of the New England states except Maine.

The location of the town marks the foot of a succession of cataracts extending for several miles in the Mississippi river and which caused it to become the head of steamboat navigation on the “Father of Waters.” The lumbermen who became interested in the great tracts of pine timber growing contiguous to the Mississippi river and its tributaries above this point found this the most convenient location to establish headquarters for their extensive logging operations. Grand Rapids was for many years the principal logging center of northern Minnesota, whence supplies of timber were floated to the mills of Minneapolis and intermediate points. A number of the most prominent lumbering concerns in the state made this the center of their logging operations for many years. Among these lumbering firms may be mentioned T. B. Walker, Price Bros., Itasca Lumber Company, Backus-Brooks Company, Bovey-De Laittre Lumber Company, Shevlin-Carpenter Company, H. C. Akeley Lumber Company, Powers-Simpson & Co., the Washburn and Pillsbury interests, besides many other large organizations and minor contracting concerns.

The natural resources of the country tributary to Grand Rapids are practically unlimited. Although for the most part the great stretches of forest have disappeared, the timber having been felled and floated away, yet the development of the country’s wealth has only just begun. It has long been known that the western end of the Mesaba range was rich in mineral deposits, but this fact is just beginning to attract serious attention from practical mining men. Exploration of the territory immediately contiguous to Grand Rapids has been very active during the last year or two, and many drills are still operating here.

As a result of these investigations, numerous leases have been taken on property within a few miles of this town by some of the leading mining companies operating on the range and other leases are being persistently sought.

It is a significant fact that Grand Rapids was one of the first points on the Mesaba range to attract the attention of prospectors.

Expeditions fitted out at this place located and partially developed the Holman, Diamond and Arcturus mines a few miles east of this place before any other developments of importance had taken place on the range. At that time, however, it was not believed to be practicable to concentrate the ores by washing away the sand with which they were impregnated, and this circumstance, together with the lack of transportation to and from these mines, delayed their development for some years.

It is now practically assured, however, that the whole district eastward from Pokegama lake will be producing marketable ore within a very few years.

Transportation by water, which was originally the sole dependence of this place, was supplemented in 1892 by the building of the Duluth & Winnipeg railroad (now a part of the Great Northern system), which supplies an outlet eastward to Duluth and the Twin Cities and westward directly to the Pacific coast and intermediate points. These advantages are still further augmented by the branch line which has been completed to Grand Rapids, giving direct communication with all the principal points on the range, and it is practically certain that the Duluth, Missabe & Northern railroad will extend its line from Coleraine to Grand Rapids in the near future, thereby providing a second line of communication with other range points. That these improvements will be of great benefit to Grand Rapids cannot be doubted.

Other lines of railroad are being planned by different corporations, all of which recognize this place as an objective point which must be taken into consideration.

No more thrifty farms can be found throughout the length and breadth of Minnesota than exist within a few miles of Grand Rapids. Conspicuous among these is the Northeast Experiment Farm, established several years since by the state. It comprises several hundred acres, equipped with modern buildings and firstclass farm implements, in charge of Superintendent McGuire, a practical man, who conducts careful and scientific experiments in all branches of farming, horticulture, stock-raising and dairying, and has demonstrated that every branch of husbandry known to this latitude can be carried on here successfully.

The lakes, springs, streams and cataracts which abound throughout Itasea county have long been famous magnets to attract the hunters and fishermen of this and other states, thousands of whom make annual pilgrimages of hundreds of miles to pursue their favorite sports in these wilds. The reputation of this region among seekers of health and recreation is being extended each season and brings hundreds of vacationists from distant cities. The advantages of this climate to people afflicted with lung troubles or malarial affections cannot be overestimated, and persons thus afflicted who come to spend a brief vacation often become permanent residents of northern Minnesota, finding the mythical severities of its winter climate equally bracing and salubrious.

A popular resort with citizens of Grand Rapids which is rapidly becoming famous with the people of more distant places is Lake Pokegama, a charming sheet of water only three miles from the town. Many cottages and camps dot the shore of this lake in summer and scores of pleasure launches skim its surface.

The lake is a number of miles in extent and is connected with other bodies of water permitting a cruise of several days amidst ever-changing scenery and bringing rest and pleasure for mind, body and nerves.

The early annals of Grand Rapids are replete with the reminiscences of the pioneers who experienced many of the privations and adventures common to frontier life in the west. Warren Potter, an enterprising merchant of Aitkin, Minnesota, who still resides at that place, put up the first permanent building in 1871. Three years later, he opened a store or trading post, which he conducted for more than twenty years. His stock of goods was brought from Aitken either by steamboat or by keelboats poled up the river by his employes. His customers for many years were mostly Indians and woodsmen engaged in logging or cruising through the adjacent forests.

Mr. Potter became one of the most influential citizens of the place and was active in promoting many needed improvements.

He was a leading spirit in the organization of Itasca county and the establishment of the county seat at Grand Rapids. He was also active in securing legislation which permitted the fees from liquor licenses to be turned into the road and bridge fund. By this means funds were raised to build the first bridge over the Mississippi river at Grand Rapids and a road across the ravine leading to the courthouse. The first bridge across the Prairie river was also built by means of this fund.

A year or two after the opening of Mr. Potter’s store, a hotel was built by L. C. Seavey, which became a prominent landmark for many years. Other stores and hotels were erected within the next few years and the place soon became the headquarters of numerous logging enterprises, that industry absorbing most of the attention of the inhabitants for many years.

The first school in the place was taught in the fall of 1887 by Miss Martha Maddy, but the first schoolhouse was not com- 755  pleted until two years later, the building having been subsequently removed to Cohasset. It is recorded that only two white children attended the first school, the balance of the scholars being either wholly or partly of Indian blood.

The first religious services in the embryo city were held by the Episcopalians, but occasional services were soon after commenced by Father Buh, the famous Catholic missionary in northern Minnesota. The first building erected expressly for the purpose of worship was put up by the Presbyterians in 1890.

With the opening of railroad communication between Grand Rapids and Duluth, which occuired in 1892, the settlement began to take on the appearance of a modern village, but its commercial supremacy was disputed for a time by the village of La Prairie, which had been incorporated in 1890. This place was laid out two miles east of Grand Rapids at the mouth of the Prairie river, which there unites with the Mississippi, and was considered a very promising location by its promoters. A village government was maintained for several years and a population of 300 or more was claimed for the town at one time, while La Prairie was the temporary terminus of the Duluth and Winnipeg railroad, but the inevitable county seat fight was won by Grand Rapids, which soon after absorbed most of the population of its former rival and La Prairie became only a memory.

The village of Grand Rapids was incorporated in 1892, and, a few months later, the county seat was established at this place.

A substantial courthouse of brick and stone provides commodious and comfortable quarters for the transaction of the official business of the county and a substantial brick jail is located in the courthouse grounds.

The development of the village has been steady and permanent and guided by intelligence and civic wisdom. The present population comprises upwards of 3, 000 people, who are uniformly busy and contented. Municipal improvements have been planned and carried out as the progress of events seemed to demand.

A municipal water system was established in 1893, and there are now seven miles of mains and four miles of sewers in the village. An electric light plant was installed by the village in 1901 and now has over 250 consumers. A modern system of street lighting is being installed and a number of blocks of granitoid concrete paving have been laid, in addition to which there are several miles of concrete walk. The stranger who visits Grand Rapids is at once impressed with the permanence and stability of the improvements.

The homes of Grand Rapids present a uniform appearance of thrift found in few western towns. Many of the buildings are of the most modern type and the tidy aspect of the houses is emphasized by well kept grounds and an abundance of shrubbery.

This is one of the few towns in the state which began at the start to ornament its school grounds and other public places by planting shade trees, incidentally cultivating in the minds of the rising generation a taste which has been too often neglected or perverted. The parklike appearance of the school grounds distinguish the place fully as much as its substantial brick school buildings. The schools are maintained at a high standard of attainments under the direction of Superintendent Edward A.

Freeman, who has been in charge since 1904. The high school annual, Pine Needles, ranks among the best publications of its class.

A number of tasty churches, a hospital, a public library and numerous lodges and other progressive organizations reflect the enlightenment and culture of the inhabitants. The public library is an institution which merits special mention.

The Itasca County Fair is held annually at Grand Rapids by an association which owns ample grounds, and the yearly exhibitions compare favorably with similar displays in other parts of the country.

Grand Rapids Herald-Review.—The publication of the Grand Rapids “Herald” was commenced in September, 1895, by E. C. Kiley. Within the next two years, he bought out the “Review, ” which had been established in 1890 at La Prairie by Graffam & Orr.

Under Mr. Kiley’s management, the “Herald-Review” has always been the most influential publication in Itasca county, of which it has been the official paper almost continuously. It is also the official paper of the village of Grand Rapids and of a number of other villages in the county. The office equipment is unexcelled in this part of the state.

Mr. Kiley served as judge of probate of Itasca county for two years, being the only Democrat elected in the county in opposition to a Republican at the election of 1896.


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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