A rich history in Park Rapids
Decades before Minnesota became a state and Park Rapids was settled, French fur traders and explorers seeking the source of the Mississippi River traced the lakes, rivers and streams in this wilderness country. In 1832, Anishinabe guide Ozawindib led Henry Rowe Schoolcraft to the true source of the mighty Mississippi at Lake Itasca only 20 miles from here.
It wasn’t until the Civil War ended that trading posts at Leech Lake and White Earth were established and a government trail, known as the White Earth Road, was blazed to connect them. In 1868, this trail crossed what is now Hubbard County, skirting the south shores of local lakes: Elbow (Belle Taine), Fish Hook and Portage and extending northwest to White Earth. The White Earth Road was said to be the only road passable for wagons or buggies until 1881 when early homesteaders made another trail north from Verndale, a stop on the Northern Pacific Railroad. Later still, the Green Trail cut along the east shore of Fish Hook Lake and north to Bemidji.
As local historian Clif Miller stated so eloquently, “Where the grass of the sunlight prairie met the dark boreal pine forest, the onward tide of homesteaders and lumber men paused to build a town and supply depot. It was on the banks of the shimmering rapids, in a stand of park like pine trees, so they called it Park Rapids.
“Here the trapper brought his furs after the long winter in the woods. The Indian came to trade for the supplies he needed. The lonely timber cruiser came out of the woods to renew his supplies and make and send out his reports. Here the advancing frontier met the wilderness. Soon the logging camps came to cut the big pine trees into lumber and Park Rapids became the supply center. Many narrow, winding trails were cut through the woods to the north and the big tote teams were hauling their loads for many miles along them.
“The main street of this busy, bustling and brawling town of Park Rapids was made extra wide so these teamsters could turn their long outfits (of four- or six-horse teams) around wherever they needed to.” (Even though the city council contemplated building sidewalks to replace boardwalks on Main Street in 1891, the hitching posts weren’t removed from Main Street until 1913.)
Three Prairies drew first settlers
The settlers who left the train at Verndale came with their teams and wagons or on foot 50 miles or more to the Three Prairies: First Prairie around Hubbard, Second Prairie around Park Rapids and Third Prairie around Osage/Ponsford. These prairies attracted homesteaders because it was possible to possess a home where there was an abundance of pure water, wood, wild game and fertile fields waiting for the plow.
The earliest logging camp near Park Rapids was located on Portage Lake and operated during the winters of 1881 and 1882. To supplement their income, some homesteaders brought their horses and worked in the logging camps which proliferated when the ground froze.
Among Park Rapids’ earliest settlers was F.C. Rice who said when he first saw Park Rapids there was one solitary log house, built where Main Street is now and between 1st and 2nd Streets. This “claim shanty” belonged to C.O. “Charles” Todd, who filed the original townsite of Park Rapids in 1879. Todd later relinquished his rights to F.C. Rice. The Rice Brothers (Franklin and Gilbert) came in about 1880 and one year later located a mill on the Fish Hook River. Their water-powered saw mill turned out rough lumber that helped settlers in building and their grist mill produced flour for the settlers and feed for their horses.
F.C. Rice also conducted the first 4th of July celebration in Park Rapids in 1881 and suggested the name for the town on that occasion.
Robert F. Shields, a Civil War veteran, was one of those Rice mentioned as among the first handful of settlers he met. Shields built the first store in Park Rapids in 1881 and sold general merchandise under the name of the Pioneer Store. Another historic figure in the community was Capt. John S. Huntsinger, another Civil War veteran. He came to Park Rapids in 1882 and built the first hotel, the Headquarters, on Main Street.
Park Rapids starts to grow
In 1883 Park Rapids was chosen as the county seat. Two years later enumerators for the 1885 Minnesota census identified 172 families in the area and reported they came from 20 states and nine foreign countries.
The city fathers pinned their hopes for the community’s future success on completion of a railroad into town and were disappointed when it took so long to become a reality. When the Wadena and Park Rapids rail line was completed from the south, Great Northern Railroad officials were given “a Shell Prairie welcome” July 31, 1891. The Park Rapids and Leech Lake Railway Co. extended the Great Northern east to Cass Lake in 1899. (Today, that railroad bed provides the gently rolling footing of the Heartland State Trail.)
As Park Rapids became a vacation destination, the trains brought summer tourists and fishermen. Resort owners with teams and buckboards met them at the depot and continued their journeys into lake country.
Only a decade after the city was named, Park Rapids was prepared to grow and prosper and the scene was already distant from the days Clif Miller described when the teamsters and their horses traversed “many long lonely miles through these woods trails with only the song of the wolves and their companionship with each other before they returned to the bright lights of the kerosene lamps of the City of Park Rapids.”
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