In the Spotlight

News & Features
Bemidji's River Renaissance
By Tom Robertson
September 8, 1998
Click for audio RealAudio 2.0 14.4
One of a Four-Part Mainstreet Radio Series:
Protecting the Health of the Mississippi | Riverfront Recreation
Balancing River Commerce and Ecology

One hundred years ago the Mississippi River was a vital transportation link for northern Minnesota and a way to move logs to timber mills in Bemidji. But when the logging boom went bust, and the railroads came through, the Mississippi lost its importance. Now civic leaders are rediscovering Bemidji's river heritage to re-establish the Mississippi as a focal point of the community.

BEFORE THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER MAKES ITS WAY south to the Gulf of Mexico, it loops north through Bemidji, the first city on the river. The human connection to the area and to the water that flows through lakes Irving and Bemidji dates back centuries. Prehistoric tribes camped along the river, and later the Ojibwe Indians made their home along the shores and used the river for transportation. But by the early 20th century, the pristine waters became a resource for growing industries.

Between 1900 and 1920, there were as many as 14 sawmills operating along the shores of Bemidji's two lakes, and the Mississippi fed them enough timber to operate 24 hours a day. Bemidji State University Professor Emeritus of History Art Lee:

Lee: It's interesting to close one's eyes and speculate that immense scene of logs on Lake Irving in the spring, when the entire lake was just filled with logs coming down the Mississippi, and the lower one-third of Lake Bemidji was filled with logs that you could, in effect, walk across Lake Bemidji with logs - that there were that many.
When the massive flow of logs slowed to a trickle and the mills began to disappear in the 1920s, Bemidji's civic leaders decided to promote tourism as a way to keep the town alive. Then a group of Rotarians slapped mortar on some tall, wooden-framed figures that would become the most recognizable symbol of Bemidji: the statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox.

But while the statues attract thousands of visitors to the shores of Lake Bemidji, the nearby Mississippi River goes unnoticed. There is a fishing dock, but little else to draw people to the river. Car and railroad bridges cross over the water. There are no walking trails. Near the inlet to Lake Bemidji there's an undeveloped lot on one side of the river, and the backside of a Pamida store on the other. Bemidji Mayor Doug Peterson:

Peterson: At that time it was not important. Economic development is what it was all about. I really think that, until recently, the river has been forgotten. If you look at the short portion of the river that's within our city limits, it's a disgrace right now. It has been used for railroad crossing and has never been kept up, and it's not a pleasant place today for people to go and reconnect with the river.
"Reconnecting with the river" is a phrase heard more frequently since 1986, when a statewide group called Mississippi River Revival formed a local chapter. The goal, according to member Ann Sliney, was to create a sense of environmental responsibility and reconnect the community to its river heritage.
Sliney: I think the most successful part was probably in raising awareness in our area that we're a river community, because I don't think a lot of people were thinking of themselves as living on a river. The people are so lake-focused that they think, "Well, we live on Lake Bemidji," or they live on one of the other lakes that are part of the Mississippi River chain without realizing that the water is passing through and going on, and that implies a responsibility for caretaking the river.
To meet their goals, the small group of local Revival members came up with a gimmick, a winter "Mardi Gras North" festival that would focus on the river.
Performer: This is sort of bluegrass, hoe-down music, and yes, there is an accordion.

Bemidji, Minnesota, where the hardy do survive.
Where the Mississippi River flows north and takes a dive.
It's a New Orleans connection, and she'll be clean once more.
So let's all toast our waterways for connecting different shores.
Let's go up to the Mardi Gras this year, up to the Mardi Gras...

Bemidji's proactive stance on river and lakewater quality began in the early 1980s, when the city invested $11 million in a state-of-the-art wastewater treatment plant that officials say sets the standard for cities downstream. And within the past few years, the city has constructed five storm-water retention ponds, the first of their kind in the U.S. The ponds filter out street run-off pollution before it can run into Lake Bemidji. City Council member Rosemary Given Amble says the city's attitudes toward the river have changed.
Rosemary: I think we have learned over a period of time that we have to protect that river, because that's what starts the care of the river downstream. Early on, I guess we didn't have appreciation for the fact that we were the first city on the Mississippi. It's just been the last few years that we've started to use that as a theme for Bemidji, that we are the first city on the Mississippi.
City officials hope Bemidji's river renaissance will accelerate with help from the federal government. President Clinton designated the upper Mississippi as an American Heritage River, and Bemidji is among 59 communities expected to benefit. Bemidji and the other cities will get help navigating the maze of federal programs designed to create jobs and aid in re-establishing the Mississippi as a focal point. Mayor Doug Peterson, who calls the Mississippi the city's lifeblood, says Bemidji will benefit in a number of ways.
Peterson: To rediscover the river. To get some federal assistance, through whatever programs we can, to provide more green space, to provide hike trails and bike trails and walking trails, where we can encourage the community and visitors to come to a nice area by the river, get out of their cars, get on a bike, get on their rollerblades, go for a walk, and really be able to reconnect with that river.
The city's long-term redevelopment plan requires some big-ticket projects. A four-lane highway will be moved away from the south end of Lake Bemidji, and there are plans for construction of a science center and Indian-cultural center. And the city plans to target the downtown area for commercial redevelopment that will not only attract people to the lakeshore, but also lure them back to the Mississippi River.