Friday, June 10, 2016

Day hikes explore St. Croix County history

The Wildwood Trail takes a walk into St. Croix County's history.
Several excellent trails provide hikers the opportunity to explore the rich history of Wisconsin’s St. Croix County.

For centuries, Dakota Indians lived in what is now St. Croix County. Shortly before Europeans arrived in the area, the Ojibwa gained control of the area. Trading between Frenchmen seeking furs and the Ojibwa occurred throughout the 1700s, with France claiming the region as part of its empire. The British pushed out the French in 1763, and following the Revolutionary War 20 years later, the United States took possession of what is now Wisconsin.

Euro-American settlement of St. Croix County begin during the 1830s as homesteaders began claiming land. By 1839, steamers began plying the St. Croix River, and a year later the county’s first town – Buena Vista – was laid out. Buena Vista changed its named to Hudson 12 years later.

For the next four decades, the St. Croix River served as a major route for ferrying cut pine from northern Wisconsin to sawmills in Hudson and neighboring Stillwater, Minn. Wheat farming dominated the interior. The county's population doubled between 1860 and 1870. New Richmond’s Paperjack Creek and Heritage Center trails gives a sense of what life was like in the county during that era.

As the 1800s came to a close, the sawmills shut down for the great pineries of the north had been logged off. Railroads crisscrossed the county. Dairying replaced wheat farming; by 1895, the county boasted 14 creameries and seven cheese factories. The Wildwood Trail runs on a former rail line past dairy farms that have been in operation since that period.

During the 20th century, roads and motor vehicles gradually surpassed the railroad as the main form of transportation. The new Interstate highway system of the 1950s ran straight through the county, connecting Minneapolis-St. Paul with Madison and Milwaukee to the south. This opened the way for the county's western portion to become bedroom communities for the Twin Cities. In part to ward off potential overdevelopment of the predominantly rural area, the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway was established in 1968. The Hudson Pier takes day hikers into the middle of the scenic riverway's Lake St. Croix to an island.

As the number of family dairy farms declined with the beginning of the 21st century, the role of commuting – and of tourism – grew in the county. Today, several public areas aimed at preserving natural habitats while offering recreational activities exist throughout the county. Prime examples of this are the Willow Falls Hill (Gray) Trail at Willow River State Park and the Glen Hills West Trail at Glen Hills County Park.

Learn about trail guidebooks available in the Hittin’ the Trail series.