The Winnie Dam has become a favorite of local outdoor enthusiasts and traveling tourists alike. Offering visitors unparalleled opportunities for fishing, camping, and other recreational activities, Winnibigoshish Dam’s impact and legacy has been seen as a positive one. However, this pristine tourism venture came with a price tag, both monetary and non-financial. While developing a structure that greatly impacted the Itasca region’s navigation and commerce, the Ojibwe people inhabiting the area of Lake Winnibigoshish lost everything. As with many early economical developments, some parties gained while some parties lost. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982, the Winnibigoshish Dam has an interesting, and at times, tainted, past.
In the late 19th century, the Twin Cities area began to grow and the irregular flow of the Mississippi River that was only natural became an increasing problem. In 1869, a near collapse of St. Anthony Falls due to rising water led to a U.S. Congress-led exploration of the possibility of reservoir creation. The Winnibigoshish was one of three dams that was a part of the Headwaters Dam system, the other two being the Leech Lake Dam and Pokegama Falls Dam. With funding for dam construction approved on June 14, 1880, construction at Lake Winnibigoshish began in 1881.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was in charge of building the dam. The dam’s construction was delayed due to labor and material shortages, lack of roads, extreme weather conditions, and controversy with the Ojibwe band living nearby. The dam was completed in 1884. The Corps hired large numbers of Ojibwe to work, as well as purchased supplies, provisions, and hay from the tribe. In addition to the dam that was built with nearly two million feet of white and Norway pine, the Corps built many structures to accommodate the dam tender, his family, and any other personnel living at the dam site. The Corps erected 17 buildings which were mostly log buildings with tar paper roofs, except for the tender’s office, which was built with rough boards.
The Winnibigoshish Dam was the first of the Mississippi Headwaters Dam to be built and it served as a test for the proposed dam system. During the construction of the dam in 1882, the Corps said that the “Winnibigoshish Dam is the inauguration of the reservoir system for the entire country.” Upon completion, the dam was seen as both a modern marvel of engineering, and a great economic asset to the region.
Not everyone was as enthusiastic about the addition of the dam on the Mississippi. The Ojibwe band that lived in the area was greatly affected and in a detrimental way. The dam was constructed on Ojibwe land without consent from the tribe which wedged the first ax between the Natives and the Corps. When the dam was completed, the water level of Lake Winnibigoshish rose 14 feet, which subsequently caused the village, gardens, and traditional burial grounds to be flooded and destroyed. The Corps estimated that around 23,240 acres of Ojibwe land was flooded. The rise in water level also deepened the shallow fishing grounds that the band relied on for net fishing. This hurt the tribe’s food supply greatly as the netted fish supplied a significant portion of the food supply. Hay that grew along the lake shore was lost, along with many cranberry marshes, and some maple trees. In 1889, the Rice Commission determined that the band’s wild rice marshes were also severely damaged.
According to the Ojibwe, the high water had completely washed away the bones of their ancestors. This greatly upset the Ojibwe not only because part of their heritage was gone, but also because the government promised to move the cemetery and gardens to higher ground, but never did. Sho-kah-ge-shig, a spokesperson for the Winnibigoshish Ojibwe at the time, described the devastation:
“There are no persons who have been so badly damaged. Look around here. It is not fire that makes it look so barren around the lake. It is the effect of the water caused by the overflow.”
The federal government offered to pay the Ojibwe for damages as well as future damage that would be caused due to prospect of more dams being built. This came with a price tag of $15,466.90, but the Ojibwe rejected it. Negotiations kept going on until the Ojibwe saw no alternative but to relocate to the White Earth Reservation in western Minnesota. As part of the agreement reached during negotiations, the proceeds from land sales and improvements went to the reservation.
15 years after the dam’s initial construction, in 1889, the Corps decided to update the original structures. Between 1899 and 1904, the dam and the surrounding buildings underwent a face-lift. The new structures are the structures that are present today.
Years later, in the 1910’s, tourism began to blossom at the Winnibigoshish Dam. Fishermen and campers were the first visitors until the 1920’s when tourism really burgeoned. Northland Camps, Inc. built a tourist camp on the Corps land that was next to the dam. It included 19 cabins, a large hotel, and a general store. The company advertised the camp as the “best camp near a dam site.” Fishing was, as it still is today, a very popular attraction. This prompted the Corps to add a fish way to the dam structure between 1912 and 1914 to encourage fish passage through the dam. The fish way is no longer in use.
The Lake Winnibigoshish Dam was the largest and most expensive dam of the Mississippi Headwaters Dam system. It improved regional commerce, travel, and introduced tourism to the area. Today it is used by many people from many areas of the country for enjoyment and relaxation. It is important, however, to remember those who lost while others gained. Let us not forget the imperfections of the past.