Every few years, a history buff writes some words for this newspaper about the old Anoka County town of Itasca (sometimes spelled Itaska). It was located on the Anoka side of the Mississippi River near the Sherburne County line. For a few years, in the middle of the nineteenth century, it looked like it might amount to something. The basic story can be told in a paragraph: a trading post was established in 1849, in 1852 a village was laid out, a post office was established, and some settlers moved in and built houses and a hotel. For a few years the town seemed to be on the road to prosperity as a commercial center along the Mississippi.
But in 1856 the Winnebagos, the primary trading partners of the Itasca citizenry, were removed by the government and the community fizzled. A few enterprising folk had schemed to have the Minnesota territorial capitol moved to Itasca, but that effort came to naught. The village was eventually abandoned, the buildings crumbled and all that’s left today is a lilac at what used to be the corner of the hotel. These facts are summarized on an historical marker in Weigh Station Highway Park off Highway 10, a few hundred feet from the old trading post.
Many people say the village was doomed from the start, that the entire undertaking was a tribute to hubris and misapplied hucksterism. Probably they are right. In the century and a half since, nothing sizable has managed to take root on the east bank of the Mississippi between Anoka and Elk River. The land is unsuitable to farming, the river isn’t deep enough for anything but canoes and flat-bottomed boats and Itasca wasn’t really on the way to anything. Progress, in its irrefutable wisdom, has bypassed Itasca and established itself along different routes.
Nonetheless, it’s fun ask “what if.” What if a few zealots had managed to establish Minnesota’s capitol there? What if some intrepid merchants had built stores and stocked them with goods? What if someone had created a resort and made Itasca a vacation getaway for wealthy Easterners and Chicagoans? What if the railroad track, today on the opposite side of Highway 10, had been laid out a few hundred yards closer to the river? Towns have been founded in more out-of-the-way places and for skimpier reasons.
Imagine how different Anoka County, and the entire metro area, would look today with Itasca as a population center. There might be an elongated urban community along the Mississippi from St. Paul to Elk River. Perhaps there would be three major downtowns vying for regional dominance. We might be rooting for the Minnesota Triplets, playing in their new baseball park in Ramsey. Maybe a commuter ferry would run between the downtowns on the Mississippi Canal.
A lot of us tend to assume the history as it played out was inevitable, that things couldn’t have been any other way. But we never can know what might have happened if events had twisted a little to the right or the left. A differently laid out metropolitan area with one of its hubs in western Anoka county? It seems like a strange dream. We’d wake up and rub our eyes and say, that’s something that could never happen. The fact is, it’s something that never did happen, but it’s always fun to speculate.
John Evans is a volunteer for the Anoka County Historical Society.