Boundary Waters, Trip Reports, BWCA, Stories

How the BWCA was saved for future generations
by weastman

Trip Type: Motor
Entry Date: 06/01/1925
Entry Point: Other
Exit Point: Other  
Number of Days: 7
Group Size: 2
Trip Introduction:
There might not be a Boundary Waters Canoe Area had it not been for the following: The text below is taken from the diaries of my father, Welles Eastman. Dad was an avid outdoorsman and great lover of canoeing and camping in the vast lake region along the border between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada. As a youth, he would take me with him on such adventures and instilled in me a similar passion for canoeing and that remarkable wilderness. I continued in that spirit long after his death and have now seen my sons and daughter and grandchildren continue the almost family tradition. Though I have read much about the B.W.C.A. from many authors, I have never read anything that accurately describes the almost fatal event that could have destroyed our precious B.W.C.A. I send this to you so that little bit of significant history can be enjoyed by others and thus might inspire similar collective actions to be taken to continue the preservation of future natural wonders that our country is blessed with.
In the summer of 1925, John Raynolds and I were on a camping trip by boat and outboard motor on Kabetogama and Namakan Lakes. We stopped at an Island near the north shore of Namakan Lake and visited with a Dr. Smith from Chicago who was living there to recover his health. He said he greatly enjoyed fishing but that he believed fishing at that location was greatly handicapped by the dam at Kettle Falls. The opening and closing of the dam caused fluctuation in the level of the water and in a certain bay not far from his cabin he had observed, during spawning time, thousands of dead fish as a result of the rapid lowering of the water in the lake.

He told us there was a plan to be put into effect shortly by the Power Interests at International Falls to build a series of thirteen dams in the principal lakes along the border as far east as Lake Saganaga. These dams were to raise the water in the lakes as much as from ten to eighty-four feet. The object was to control the run-off during the Spring after heavy rains in order to have a constant flow of water for power at International Falls. The result would be the destruction of the forest bordering the lakes for various distances from the shoreline and, of course, great damage to fish life in the various lakes.

John Raynolds and I had heard nothing regarding this plan to build the dams. I was particularly concerned since I had previously made many canoe trips in the country to be effected. When we returned to Minneapolis we inquired of a considerable number of our friends as to whether or not any of them had heard of the plan to erect the dams. None of them knew anything about the matter,

We then talked to some of the directors of the Isaac Walton League strongly recommending that they investigate the matter and, if possible, have the League try to do something to prevent the dams being built. We were unsuccessful in creating any interest in the matter by the League. Some time, I believe as much as two or three months, passed without any individuals of the Isaac Walton League apparently being interested in the matter.

We then met Mr. W. H. Tusler, a prominent Minneapolis architect, who expressed great concern regarding the building of the dams and suggested a meeting be called at his house of a group of men who might be interested in formulating some plan which might lead to the prevention of the construction of the dams. A meeting was called shortly thereafter. Those present were: myself (Welles Eastman), Messrs. Tusler, John Raynolds, Stanley M. Lyman, Lester Badger, James F. Sutherland, Fred Winston, Frank Hubachek and Rufus Rand.

John Raynolds and I reported regarding our visit with Dr. Smith on Namakan Lake and that we had personally seen surveyor's stakes at the location of two of the proposed dams.

After two or three meetings I suggested the best and most accurate information regarding the matter could be obtained from Ernest Oberholtzer who was living in the town of Ranier. Word was sent to him and he came to Minneapolis and met with our group. At our request he gave us a written report verifying the fact that the dams actually were going to be built. Various meetings over a period of six or seven months were held at Mr. Tusler's residence.

It was decided to do everything possible to get the Isaac Walton League interested. Mr. Rufus Rand, at that time was Commander of the Minnesota American Legion. We decided, with the help of Rand, to present a motion at the State Convention of the American Legion in opposition to the construction of the dams. We presented the matter to a majority of the directors of the Minnesota Chapter of the Isaac Walton League. They were all in favor of opposing the building of the dams, but stated they would have to get permission from the National Headquarters of the League before any action would be taken.

Their attempt to induce the National Isaac Walton League, with headquarters in Chicago, to oppose the construction of the dams, failed. Finally the Minnesota Chapter of the League formally notified their National Association that, if no action in opposition was taken within forty-eight hours, the Minnesota Chapter of the Isaac Walton League would be thrown out of the State, as had been done in the State of Alabama. This immediately resulted in the League's National Executive Secretary coming to Minneapolis from Denver, and one of the League's Vice-Presidents coming from Chicago to consult regarding the matter. They met with me, Jim Sutherland, and Frank Hubachek in a private room of the Minneapolis Athletic Club. We told them we had been informed a Vice-President of the National Association was a Director of three or four of the corporations affiliated with the Power interests at International Falls and for that reason we felt the National Association had been so-called "spiked" regarding taking any action in the matter. Mr. Folds, the President of the National Association, was sick at that time and died shortly after. The result of these meetings was that the National Association capitulated and fell in line with us in opposing the construction of the dams.

Our group then planned to have the Minnesota delegation in Congress present a Bill to Congress, not only to prevent the building of the dams, but to also to lay the foundation for the creation of the whole area as a National Forest. I was selected to discuss the matter with Senator Henrik Shipstead; others were delegated to confer with Representative Walter Newton. I called on Senator Shipstead five or six times over a period of four or five weeks before he would agree to back the Bill. Finally, after he realized the importance of the matter politically, he agreed to back the Bill. About that time Representative Newton was killed and Representative Nolan took his place. The Bill was then known as the Shipstead-Nolan Bill. The next move of our group was to get the Minnesota Legislature in the 1927 Session to memorialize Congress regarding the Shipstead-Nolan Bill.

During the year 1926 we planned to obtain as much publicity regarding the proposed Shipstead-Nolan Bill, as possible. The Minnesota Chapter of the American Legion presented the matter at the National Convention of the American Legion where it received almost unanimous approval. It was also presented to the National Convention of the Canadian Legion where it was favorably received.

I was requested by various organizations to appear before them to tell them what it was all about. I spoke before the Rotary Club of Minneapolis and St. Paul, The Six O'clock Club, the Five-Fifty Five Club, the Chamber of Commerce in Winona, Mankato, and St. Cloud and other organizations.

A meeting was held in the Kenwood School to be addressed by Senator Knute Rockne of Zumbrota. He was one of the most influential Senators in the Minnesota Legislature. A large audience attended. All wanted to know how the Senator stood regarding the proposed construction of the dams. For about half an hour he delivered a typical political speech, straddling the question, not committing himself one way or the other. While he was speaking Jim Sutherland and I walked down the center aisle to the speaker's platform. We interrupted the Senator and demanded that he state definitely whether or not he was in favor of the dams. In response to our demands he stated he was not in favor. The meeting quickly adjourned.

At that time, the most powerful man regarding industry in Northern Minnesota was E.W. Backus. Backus was not only a timber baron but was president of the Minnesota & Ontario Paper Company. In addition, he had built a large hydroelectric power plant in the area to power his lumber milling and paper making operations. We were convinced that his hidden motive was to raise the lake levels to make easier access to the timber further back from the present shorelines. Backus was not pleased with the actions we were taking to halt the construction of his dams.

In the month of March, Backus requested that I meet with him regarding the matter. I conferred with him and four of his engineers from Kenora, International Falls, and Fort William, from two o'clock until five o'clock in the afternoon without interruption. The engineers indicated on maps where the dams were to be located and stated the volume of water to be impounded in the various lakes. They explained it was necessary in order to insure a constant flow of water for the creation of power at International Falls. Mr. Backus spoke regarding his plans of further developing the resources of the region. He then asked my opinion regarding the situation. I congratulated him on having been successful in developing the region industrially. I told him it was well known he had been successful in overcoming innumerable obstacles; but, I reminded him that in this matter he was up against wide spread public opinion and strongly advised the best thing for him to do was to compromise in some way in the matter.

In January 1927, the session of the Legislature began. By that time the question had become quite a national issue and was considered to be one of the most, if not the most, important matters before the Legislature. A joint committee of House and Senate was appointed to hear the evidence. I was the first one to address the Committee and spoke for approximately forty-five minutes. Finally it was decided to have a joint meeting of the House and Senate in the evening and to have the meeting open to the public. The meeting was held. In my opinion the most dramatic moment was created by the splendid speech of Mr. Stafford King.

It was so inspiring nearly all of the audience rose to their feet. Later, when the vote was taken on the Bill to memorialize Congress regarding the Shipstead-Nolan Bill, the vote was almost unanimous in favor in both the House and Senate. If I am not mistaken, similar bills were presented to the Legislatures of Wisconsin, Iowa, North and South Dakotas where almost unanimous votes were cast in favor of the Bill.

In Washington, Congress formed a joint committee consisting of twenty-one Representatives and Seventeen Senators to visit the border region and investigate the entire matter at first hand. This Committee proceeded to Lac-la-Croix where they were housed in army tents located on a beautiful island. Aeroplanes were used to fly them over the region for observation.

By this time the whole matter had received national publicity particularly through the newspapers. Articles regarding it appeared in the papers of most of the principal cities in the country including New York and Los Angeles. Finally, in the month of March the Shipstead-Nolan Bill was formally presented to Congress. It was said Mr. Backus, who was in Finland, immediately went to Washington to give the matter his attention. I am told the Bill was held in Committee up to the last minute and did not come to a vote until after the clock had been turned back three times. Finally the vote was taken and was almost unanimous in favor of the Bill in both the House and Senate. Thus, the construction of the proposed dams was prevented and the foundation was laid for the creation of the Superior National Forest and Canada's Quetico National Forest.

It will always be my own definite conclusion that the principal reason for the construction of the proposed dams was not for power purposes at International Falls. It is well known the Minnesota and Ontario Company and its affiliated company the International Lumber Company owned vast quantities of standing timber -- white and Norway pine and spruce -- in the area of the lakes where the dams were to be built. Raising the water level of the various lakes would make economically and commercially available large quantities of timber which theretofore, on account of difficulty of moving the logs to the water where they could be easily carried to the mills, were located beyond the line of diminishing returns and therefore of no value.