Anoka County History: Red River trails in Anoka County

If you stand on the west bank of the Rum River near the canoe landing behind the county fairgrounds, you can look across the river to lightly wooded slopes leading up to the former Anoka State Hospital and the bike path that runs behind it.

Beyond them sits the Northstar Commuter Rail station. Cars, trucks, bicycles, trains and canoes all pass nearby.

If you had stood at the same vantage point 170 years ago, you might have seen — and heard — a very different mode of transport: oxcarts, jouncing down the banks and crossing the Rum at a spot that was, in the 1840’s, shallow enough to be forded.

Some of these conveyances would have been outbound from St. Paul, bearing tools, hardware, liquor and other staples for traders on the Red River near the Canadian border, and for British Canadian settlers near Lake Winnipeg.

Others were on the final southbound stretch to the capital city with buffalo hides and agricultural produce.

They were all plying the Red River trails, a network of oxcart paths that supported trading from the early 19th century until the 1870’s, when they were supplanted by the railroads.

The earliest trails, dating from around 1820, went west from today’s metro area.

They followed the Minnesota River to its source and crossed into present-day North Dakota, west of the Red River, and traveled north to Canada.

Around 1840, hostility between the Dakotas, though whose territory these trails passed, and the Métis, people of French and Ojibway ancestry. who lived along the Red River and made up most of the oxcart drivers, rendered the original route difficult.

A new trail was forged through Ojibway country in Minnesota, up the Mississippi River and the Crow Wing and across northwestern Minnesota to the Red.

This became known as the Woods Trail, and it brought Anoka County and the Rum River into play as the home stretch of the trail for goods returning to St. Paul.

The oxcarts were made entirely of wood and hide.  They were built around two side boards about 12 feet long; the back half held the wagon and the ox was harnessed in front.

They could be joined together with each ox not only hitched to its own cart but also lashed to the one in front of it, so that a single driver could captain half a dozen carts.

The wheels were five feet high and dished with the hubs inward, and the wooden axles were ungreased, as grease could have picked up dust and worn the wood.

They sometimes traveled in lengthy convoys as long as two miles and the screeching of the axles could be heard for miles.

When they reached a river too deep to ford, the wheels were removed, the hides that covered the wagons were repurposed as hulls, and the contraptions were floated across.

Over the decades, the carters crossed the Rum in three places.

The earliest oxcarts used the ford near today’s fairgrounds, but some took advantage of a ferry near the confluence with the Mississippi.

In 1853 the bridge was built and the other crossings became moot. In 1854 the mill dam went up, and the ford disappeared.

South of Anoka, the route tracked close to today’s Coon Rapids Boulevard and East River Road.

At Rice Creek, John Banfill welcomed travelers to his tavern. Today that tavern has been restored and preserved as the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts.

Rhoda Gilman, under the aegis of the Minnesota Historical Society, wrote a book, “The Red River Trails,” which is an excellent source of information on these trails, and how they drove development in Minnesota and made St. Paul a national trading hub.

It’s available in some of the local libraries and for perusal at the Anoka County Historical Society.

Editor’s note: John Evans is a volunteer with the Anoka County Historical Society.

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