Anoka County History: historic journey down the Rum

I’d never been to Riverfest, Anoka’s big time summer event, not until last July when I decided to combine it with my usual activity for the day — the Andover Fun Fest which I have attended religiously ever since my son began entertaining under the tent as “Elvis.”

I left for Anoka at 9 a.m., and after a little confusion due to the torn-up streets along Main, found ample parking in the municipal ramp.

Jackson Street from the Government Center on Third Avenue to City Hall on the river was lined with vendors’ booths — hundreds of them — each selling unique hand-crafted items.

I decided to shop locally and bought three exquisitely designed dolls for my sisters’ birthdays, and a bunting to wrap my newborn grandchild in when she arrived in the fall.

Next order of business was a pontoon ride which Riverfest was offering free of charge.

Hundreds of visitors took them up on their offer.

The stairway leading down to the Rum River from city hall was lined with people waiting their turn for a voyage down the river on this beautiful, hot, 90-plus degree day.

Fortunately, the half-hour wait was in the shade and the time went fast.

Being a writer for this column, I was interested in the history of the river, and the city had obligingly provided each passenger with a fact sheet which I have used for this column.

Anoka, which in the Dakota tongue means “both sides” (of the river) owes its existence to both the Rum and the Mississippi.

City hall is located at the dam which was first constructed in 1853 from dirt and logs. It washed away the next spring and a more substantial structure was immediately rebuilt.

The Rum River Dam was the lifeblood of the city, providing the energy to power the lumber mills and grist mills which lined the bank of the river.

Logs for the lumber mills were floated downstream from the pineries upstream near Mille Lacs; and wheat was grown by local farmers to feed the grist mills.

The largest of these mills, the Lincoln Mill, named after the president, was located on the site of present day city hall.

Built in 1880, consumed by the Great Fire of 1884, rebuilt in 1885 and demolished by the tornado of 1939, it was successor to a series of earlier mills, many of which had also been destroyed by fire. (Flour dust is very combustible.)

At 11:30 a.m. I boarded one of eight pontoons ferrying people down the Rum and into the Mississippi on that day.

The skipper/captain/owner of the pontoon was Ed Evans, a retired dentist.

As we began our voyage we passed under the Main Street Bridge.

The first bridge to connect “both sides of the river,” the original was built in 1853 by Orin Rice to replace the ferry which had been in use since 1851.

Main Street, itself, follows the old Red River Oxcart Trail, a network of routes that were the major trading roads of the day transporting goods from Canada to St. Paul.

Next item of interest came into view immediately after the bridge; a curious stone structure on a rise of land a few feet from the shore.

Built by Thaddeus Giddings just offshore of his homestead, he called it the “igloo” and used it as an outdoor living room complete with stone cupboards, furniture, and even a piano.

It gained notoriety in some East Coast newspapers when Thad told a gullible tourist that it had been built to defend Anoka from Indian attacks.

Another of Thaddeus Giddings’ brainchildren was a stone structure located just a little further downstream on the opposite shore.

Constructed in 1914, it is the Windego Park Amphitheater.

Reaching from the Ferry Street level across from Walgreens, the stone tiers descend down to the river with a wide expanse of green in front on which were once staged theatrical and musical performances along with high school graduation ceremonies.

In its heyday, it could seat 1,600 people, but it is now a ruin, with ambitious plans to restore it to its former glory virtually abandoned.

Access to the old theater can be gained by a high footbridge stretching from Aiken Riverside Park in downtown Anoka on the opposite side of the river.

Locals used the original footbridge, which was much lower at that time, to measure the height of the spring floods because it was routinely submerged by the high water.

William Aitkin, a prominent fur trader in the 1850s, played an important role in the Anoka fur trade and had a county named after him.

I wonder if he was related to Robert W. Aitkin, school board member and mayor of Anoka from 1905 to 1911 who once owned the land Aitkin Riverside Park is located on.

Opened in 1995, the historic Peninsula Point Park is located on the west side of the river, and across from it at the mouth of the Rum is the site of the first log structure and trading post in Anoka built by Joseph Belanger in the 1840s under the auspices of William Aitkin.

The Anoka area at that time was home to many Métis fur traders and Ojibwa Indians who had a unique culture of their own.

We emerged from the Rum into the Mississippi.

As we approached the Ferry Street Bridge we could see looming above the trees the turrets of the Kline Sanitarium built by Dr. James Kline in 1902. It served the medical and surgical needs of the community for 30 years.

The first Paul Pierce bought the building in 1939, rescuing it from decline and disrepair.

Now owned by his grandson Paul Pierce III, it was first a hotel and later an apartment building and now houses the Shiloh Mission.

Ferry Street and the Ferry Street Bridge are named for the ferries that transported people and wagons across the Mississippi from 1855 until Horace Horton built the first bridge across the river in 1884.

Somewhat of a misnomer, the actual ferry was located on a lower stretch of land downstream on what is now Rice Street.

We ventured a little further downriver, viewing the beautiful homes that grace both sides of the Mississippi; then turned for our return trip to the landing at city hall.

Viewing Anoka from the river highways gave me an entirely new perspective of the city and its history.

I heartily recommend it for both its sightseeing pleasures and historic value.
I left River Fest at 2 p.m., in plenty of time for Todd’s 4 p.m. Andover show in which I played a very important role.

My job was to push the magic button on his Ipod thus starting his entrance music and therefore, the whole show. I felt very important.

Editor’s note: June Anderson is a member volunteer of the Anoka County Historical Society. Join her and other docents for more history in a spine-tingling Ghosts of Anoka Tour by calling ACHS at 421-0600.

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