Anoka County History: Ice out was a big deal for river towns

It is a big deal for fishermen when the ice goes out on Lake Minnetonka and all the other popular fishing lakes. It is so important to the resort owners that make their living off of the anglers as well. To have the ice out by the fishing opener is of great importance to the fisherman and the businesses that rely on them.

I am writing this column in late April for today’s edition. Hardly a day went by without mention of “ice out” stories in the Star Tribune or on radio and television stations. We just came through one of the worst winters in a long time and I think that’s why we get so fixated on these things. But there was hardly a mention of river ice.

In the early 1900s, when the dam was built on the Mississippi River in Coon Rapids, “ice out” time was very important to Northern States Power. They were always watchful and made sure that the ice didn’t damage the turbines that produced electricity of the Hennepin County side of the river. Prior to the construction of the dam, steamboats went all the way to St. Cloud – and beyond. Ice out time was very important to the early logging industry as well. The logs had to come down stream to the saw mills.

Getting the ice out above the dam was a very big and important task. They had to do it right to protect the dam and to prevent serious flooding up stream. In Anoka, we always heard the huge explosions at the dam miles away in Coon Rapids. They used lots of dynamite and the old ice saws (chain saws were not invented yet) to break up the ice. This went on for one to two weeks sometimes. This always took place from the middle of March to the middle of April

In Anoka, the “ice out” time was always a big deal. Many people and groups placed bets on the day, and some on the very hour, it would happen. People would gather on the shores and on the Main Street bridge.

Today, since the power plant at Elk River and the nuclear plant at Monticello were built, the Mississippi stays pretty much open due to the heat produced from the plants. I am not so sure anyone really cares when the ice goes out of the Rum or Mississippi rivers anymore.

Since we are talking about ice and some old Anoka history, a few of you might remember our old ice house or the ice truck going down the street and delivering ice to our homes. We kids could hardly wait for it to come down our street. We would follow it and get ice chips to suck on. The old ice house was on pleasant street on the east shore of the Rum River. The ice came up stream above the State Hospital. The hospital sewage plant was just above the railroad bridge. Stay Cool.

Tom Ward is a member of the Anoka County Historical Society’s board of directors.

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