150 years ago, big things were happening in a small city called Stillwater. America was working hard, building cities and fortunes. In the dense forests of the Northwest Territory, that meant logging, and towns along the great rivers flourished. Trees came down river by the ton, mills cut them into lumber, which railroads and steamships sent out into America. It was a lucrative arrangement: Lumber left town, and money came in.
The Resilient Birthplace of Minnesota
On the St. Croix River, one such logging town became the Birthplace of Minnesota. Several of Maine’s most prominent logging families traveled west in search of new wood, including one John McKusik of Stillwater. The logging camp he established was soon also named Stillwater. By the mid-1840s, it was a robust town and, in 1848, Stillwater hosted the territorial convention which led to establishment of the Minnesota Territory in 1849.
The city was booming and, in 1852, the Minnesota Pioneer’s editor proclaimed that “centuries will hardly exhaust our pines.” Such prophetic words always seem to haunt you. The last log passed through the St. Croix Boom in 1914, but the city did not slip into history. Today, Stillwater is a thriving city welcoming visitors like us from around the world.
The Heart of Stillwater
The heart of historic Stillwater beats along the riverfront where Chestnut Street leaves town for Wisconsin on the far shore. Paddlewheelers still dock here, but today they carry passengers on sightseeing cruises, while touring trolleys cruise the hills on which Stillwater was built. In between, the Main Street business district is a National Historic Place filled with more than 100 locally owned shops and restaurants. During our day with Discover Stillwater, we explored the hills and riverfront, but left with the feeling that we had only scratched the surface.
We started near one of the most iconic sites, the Stillwater Lift Bridge. This unique bridge has been in operation since 1931, and is one of just three such bridges remaining in the United States. Several times daily, a section of the two-lane bridge lifts vertically, allowing river traffic to pass beneath; hence the name. A new bridge, under construction just south of Stillwater, will open in 2016, and the Lift Bridge will be converted to bicycle and pedestrian use only. It’s something of a novelty, which you can watch from Lowell Park and restaurants facing the river.
It’s impossible to miss the towering Commander Mill nearby. It’s one of the most recognizable buildings in town, at one time supplying flour to the city. Give in to the lure and step inside for coffee, pastries, and small plates served throughout the day at the Tin Bins Café. But don’t linger long! Stillwater has many historic homes and buildings to explore. The best way to see and learn about them is on a 45-minute tour aboard the Stillwater Trolley, which conveniently boards right across the street. We climbed aboard and up into the hills we went!
Open Air Historical Museum
Our fantastic guide had a deep understanding of the city’s history, and painted a vivid picture of life in a booming logging town. Stillwater had everything from rough and rowdy logging crews to 19th Century high society. Why, Stillwater was even home to the finest opera house west of New York City (which burnt to the ground in 1902 and was never rebuilt).
As the County Seat, Stillwater is home to the Italianate-style Washington County Courthouse, which was built in 1870 and reflects the city’s wealth at the time. The iconic building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is the oldest courthouse in Minnesota, though it has not served as such since 1975. Not far away, the beautiful Lowell Inn is also on the Register. The 1927 Colonial Revival hotel still welcomes guests into what has been called “the Mount Vernon of the West.”
Boomtown Architecture as an Art Form
If you see Victorian architecture as art, then Stillwater is an open air gallery. Our trolley rolled past one stately mansion-turned-B&B after another. Among the most impressive were the Ann Bean Mansion, the Aurora Staples Inn, the Rivertown Inn, and the Sauntry Mansion. Originally the opulent homes of lumber barons and high society families, they are now Bed & Breakfast establishments where guests can experience the elegance of a bygone era. With so many beautiful homes and historic buildings, it’s easy to see why Stillwater is on lists like Forbes’ “Top 10 Prettiest Small Towns” and “Most Picturesque Towns” in USA Today Travel. As if to underscore the accolades, our tour stopped at the dead end of Broadway, where a single park bench looks out over the downtown riverfront.
Descending back into town, we passed the Ascension Episcopal Church. The building itself is remarkable, but its history is even more so. The church began nearby in 1851, and moved to its present sight in 1875. On Easter Sunday, 1887, parishioners celebrated the church’s restoration and brand new pipe organ. That night, the church was struck by lightning and burnt to the ground. A new church – made of brick manufactured in Stillwater – was dedicated exactly one year later, and still stands today. A newer addition is the set of three stained glass windows made by Tiffany of New York, donated to the church in 1910 and now priceless.
Walking Among Stillwater Highlights
Our trolley dropped us back at the Commander Mill, just across the street from the Historic Caves at the southern end of downtown. Yes, caves. Because…beer!
In a city filled with hard working lumberjacks (and, today, tourists), beer is a given. In 1868, Martin Wolf established a brewery in Stillwater but struggled with the local’s desire for cold beer. The answer? Caves, of course! The Joseph Wolf Brewing Company (Martin’s brother) turned out 5,000 barrels a year right up until Prohibition. Soon after, Joseph died suddenly. His family blamed the Prohibition Act, saying it broke his heart. (As beer fans, we can understand that!)
As you shop your way north, stop at the corner of Main and Myrtle. This is where Minnesota began. A plaque marks the Territorial Convention Site, at what was John McKusick’s store. Another “Mainer” vital to the growth of Stillwater (and Minnesota) was Isaac Staples, and his sawmill building is about two blocks further north. Staples was a bona fide Lumber Baron, an important banker, and the region’s most successful farmer. His company was the largest owner of timberland in the St. Croix Valley. The sawmills are gone, but this 1853 building remains as a home to shops, cafes, and a large antique market.
Across the street at the next corner sits the other of downtown’s bookend buildings, the Desch Building. Though not historic – it was built in the 1990s – its low-rise Modernist style stands as a blend of the historic and modern buildings around it. The office building is said to have been designed by an associate of Frank Lloyd Wright. While the influence is obvious, we could find no evidence of that. However, fans will be interested in the Donald Lovness House and Studio; Wright originals built in 1955 and 1974, respectively (10121 83rd Street North).
At the Territorial Convention, it was decided that Stillwater would host the territorial prison. Continuing on Main Street, you’ll come to the Warden’s House Museum. As the name implies, the prison’s wardens lived here until 1914 when the prison was moved south of Stillwater. Today it’s home to the Washington County Historical Society and Museum. (There is a modest entry fee for the museum.) Prisoners were housed next door, where the Terra Springs condominiums house residents today. The last vestige of the prison, a twine workshop, was destroyed by fire in 2002.
A Stillwater Restaurant with a View to Die For
By now, if you haven’t already indulged, it’s time to satisfy hunger, thirst, and your sweet tooth. Main Street is lined with restaurants, but we hopped over to the historic Water Street Inn and had lunch at Charlie’s Restaurant and Irish Pub. The restaurant has unbeatable views of Lowell Park and the St. Croix River, where you can watch boats passing under the Lift Bridge while you enjoy lunch and a Lift Bridge beer. It’s a perfect combination in a perfect setting.
But it’s not just another pretty view: the food is fantastic! As it’s an Irish pub, the Reuben sandwich with house-made Corned Beef was the obvious choice, and was completely delicious. This being Minnesota, Fish & Chips came with a huge portion of Walleye. Also delicious, but you’ll need an appetite. Charlie’s is open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Large portions at reasonable prices ($10 to $30). (More on the Water Street Inn coming later!)
On our way back to Main Street, we stopped at Wedge & Wheel to sample some excellent locally made cheeses. The knowledgeable staff was a great help in deciding what to buy for the drive back to Minneapolis. Next door is one of Stillwater’s hottest spots, Leo’s Grill and Malt Shop. Even if you don’t eat here, you’ll want to stop at the sidewalk window and order a malt or sundae. With all the walking, it’s totally justified.
For adult beverages, we visited Stillwater’s own Maple Island Brewing, next door to Northern Vineyards. Maple Island brews a variety of craft beers on the premises, including the namesake Maple Island Bock. Made with Minnesota maple syrup, it almost calls for a side of pancakes! To balance that out, try Cup of Joe Freak Show, a coffee oatmeal stout that completes the breakfast theme. The best bet is to get a flight of their most popular beers where there’s something for every taste.
If your taste leans towards wine, Northern Vineyards is one of Minnesota’s oldest wineries. They produce 30 varietals from locally grown, cold hardy grapes. Not sure what you’ll like? They offer tastings throughout the day, and just $6 gets you seven half-ounce samples of selected wines. Cheers!
It’s true, we hardly scratched the surface during our day in Stillwater. We didn’t even mention the great shops! (But we do need to mention that Kathe Wohlfahrt fans will find their only full-time store in the U.S. here.) We would love to return for a fall paddlewheel cruise on the St. Croix River, and to explore more of the city’s beautiful, historic buildings. Our favorite features, though, are the friendly people with so much pride in their town that Stillwater quickly became one of our favorite travel destinations.
Stillwater is an easy day trip from St. Paul: about 15 miles east on Interstate 94, then north a few miles on Highway 95, the St. Croix Scenic Byway. A right turn on Chestnut Street and you’ll be facing the historic Lift Bridge, and Lowell Park, with plenty of parking in the area. Travel to and through the area is easy, and the scenery is beautiful.
We visited as a day trip from Minneapolis, but there are many options for staying in Stillwater. From historic inns and B&Bs, to modern hotels and motels, there are accommodations for every taste and budget. We did not stay, but would like to return. When we do, the hotels and B&Bs mentioned here would be our choices. Of particular note, rooms on the east side of the Water Street Inn have wonderful views of the river, and all the splendor of a Victorian society hotel.
When to Visit
Summers are mild, but winters average about 40-inches of snowfall. Still, most of Stillwater is open year-round, and there are a variety of outdoor activities in every season. Fall is a great time to visit; Travel+Leisure Magazine named Stillwater the third best venue for Fall Foliage in the US.
What to Do
Stillwater has great outdoor activities for every season. River activities range from kayaks and canoes, to paddlewheel cruises. There are two golf courses, and many hiking and biking trails. The 25 mile long Gateway-Brown’s Creek State Trail from Stillwater to St. Paul is open for biking in the summer, and snowshoeing/cross country skiing in the winter. There are also find Nordic and downhill trails throughout the region.
If you’ve been to Stillwater, please share your experience! We’d also like to hear about other historic towns and cities you’ve enjoyed. Just leave us your comments below!
You’ll find more photos from our day trip in Discovering Stillwater: A Photo Gallery. Take a look!
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