The deteriorating historic boom site area north of Stillwater is finally getting some freshening up.
Construction will begin this spring to improve public land overlooking the portion of the St. Croix River where millions of logs once were floated downstream to be gathered and stamped for sawmills.
"It's improving what's already out there and making it accessible for everyone," said Washington County Engineer Wayne Sandberg. "I think it had suffered from a lack of investment. The level of maintenance was a problem. It will feel nicer, more welcoming."
A $500,000 federal grant will pay for improvements. No changes will be made to the nearby public boat launch.
A portion of what's called the St. Croix Boom Site became a roadside rest area on Hwy. 95 after the logging operation closed in 1914. The boom site, declared a national historic landmark in 1966, lies within the boundaries of the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
The boom site opened in 1856, seven years after Washington County was formed and two years before Minnesota became a state.
White pine logs cut farther north were stamped with owners' names and floated to the boom site, where men known as "boom rats" scurried over the bouncing, slippery logs to organize them into "rafts" for various mills.
No trace remains of the operation, but the portion of the river where logs were gathered is visible from three separate locations along the bluff.
The south site, developed as a traditional "scenic view," will get a large National Park Service welcoming sign telling motorists that they've entered the St. Croix Riverway, a national park unit that extends north to the headwaters of the St. Croix and Namekagon rivers. Work on the south site will include a repaved parking lot, new sidewalks accessible to people with disabilities, and rain gardens for stormwater.
The middle site has a marker explaining the boom site's historic significance, another scenic view, and concrete stairs leading to the riverfront. Boulders will be added around the parking area to keep motorists off the grass.
The north site — connected to the middle site by a pedestrian bridge across a ravine — will see the most reconstruction. The parking lot will be downsized and green space will be added along with new curbs, gutters and sidewalks.
The many public agencies and nonprofit groups involved in planning the new look decided the boom site should retain a passive purpose, in keeping with the St. Croix's natural appearance. Among other things, that means no playground equipment.
"It's been a complicated project involving many partners," Sandberg told Washington County commissioners last week.
Public support is strong for building a trail to link the renewed boom site with the new Brown's Creek State Trail, about a mile south, Sandberg said. Also being considered is a trail to nearby Fairy Falls.
"There's just a lot of appreciation and support to preserve this site," said Commissioner Gary Kriesel, whose district includes the boom site.