Parks being what they are, they tend to announce themselves in quiet ways not immediately apparent to everyone.
Such is the challenge of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway, a 250-mile-long unit of the National Park Service (NPS) that sometimes isn’t recognized as such by people driving over the river or even along it.
“How many people know of two metro-area national parks? Not very many, and that means we have a lot of work to do here,” said U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, speaking Aug. 25 at a rededication of the historic St. Croix Boom Site just north of Stillwater.
She was referring to both the St. Croix Riverway and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, two parks that are a bit mystifying to many because the water is their hallmark — and unlike traditional national parks like Yellowstone, there are no archways to greet visitors.
The ceremonial event was intended to show off the refurbished boom site, the place where millions of white pine logs cut upstream were sorted and floated to various sawmills during the lumber heyday of the early 1900s.
But the boom site has another significance as well. It’s the St. Croix Riverway’s southern boundary, and the history remembered there hews closely to the ages-old, starkly beautiful river.
“Our national parks tell the story of America,” said Julie Galonska, the St. Croix Riverway’s interim superintendent. “We can’t take the future of these parks for granted.”
Her remarks came on the 100th birthday of the National Park Service, which has 413 park units across the country that draw more than 307 million visitors a year.
So it was fitting that the ceremony included a big red ribbon — a bow for a suitable gift — wrapped around a spanking new NPS sign at the boom site that advises travelers they’re entering a national park.
“This place is meaningful and relevant to the public,” Galonska said of the boom site, adding: “It stands as a reminder of the resiliency of this river and its recovery from the logging era.”
Work began in April to refurbish the boom site, which was overgrown and had been long neglected.
Declared a national historic landmark in 1966, a portion of the boom site was a roadside rest area even though its decrepit appearance often discouraged visitors.
A $500,000 federal grant paid for a refreshed look and improved parking and roads. The boom site’s three sections now feature more green space, sidewalks and rain gardens.
Public agencies and nonprofit groups involved in planning the boom site’s renovation — including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and Washington County — decided it should retain its natural appearance as much as possible, in keeping with the federally protected St. Croix River.
The boom site opened in 1856, seven years after Washington County was established and two years before Minnesota became a state.
An estimated 15.5 billion feet of white pine logs cut farther north were stamped with owners’ names and floated to the site, where men known as “boom rats” scurried over the slippery logs to organize them into “rafts” for sawmills downstream.
Of the St. Croix Riverway, McCollum said, “We need to help people to get on the river instead of being on the bridges going over the river.”
Of national, state and local park agencies, she added: “They do it on a shoestring, and believe me, we need a bigger shoestring.”
Jean Van Tatenhove, a Riverway park ranger snapping photos of the ceremony, said she was happy to see the boom site improvements and the new St. Croix National Scenic Riverway sign, which beckoned drivers heading north on Hwy. 95.
“It’s been a long time coming,” she said.