Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

Stillwater celebrates its history. Top: a mural of logs jamming the St. Croix River. Bottom: the historic photo it’s based on. (Original photo courtesy of Washington County Historical Society)

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

Stillwater’s Lift Bridge across the St. Croix River has become a symbol of the city.

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, the St. Croix Crossing (a destination in itself), opened in 2017, and the Lift Bridge was refurbished and 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 Cafe Zinho, a new “world cafe” featuring coffee, cocktails, and plates, in a lounge atmosphere. 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!

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

Built in 1898, The Commander Mill is one of the most recognizable buildings in town, posing with the equally iconic Stillwater Trolley.

Stillwater, Minnesota, is a four-season city, named as one of America’s Most Picturesque Small Towns.

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).

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

One of many Stillwater buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, the Old Courthouse is the oldest in Minnesota.

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.”

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Boomtown Architecture as an Art Form

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

A Quartet of B&Bs: (clockwise from upper left) Ann Bean Mansion, Aurora Staples Inn, William Sauntry Mansion, and Rivertown Inn.

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

A Seat with a View: Overlooking the historic riverfront and downtown district of Stillwater.

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

The priceless windows of Ascension Lutheran Church were made by Tiffany of New York, and donated to the church.

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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? Naturally refrigerated caves, of course! The Joseph Wolf Brewing Company (Martin’s brother) turned out 5,000 barrels a year here, 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!)

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

Stillwater’s Main Street is a blend of contemporary (condominiums) and historic (Isaac Staples’ Sawmill). The downtown district was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

The modern Desch Building is a contrast to the other bookmark building of downtown, the Commander Mill.

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

Dining on the Deck, with the best views in town!

Dining, Drinking & Dessert(ing)

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).

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

A flight of Maple Island’s most popular brews was a great way to wash down the day.

For adult beverages, we visited Stillwater’s own Maple Island Brewing. Since that time, the brewery and the name have gone through a transformation with more space, new brews, and a new name: River Siren Brewing. A variety of craft beers, focusing on ales, are brewed on the premises, overseen by Head Brewer Tony Freeman, a holdover from Maple Island. Our favorite from the original brewery was the namesake Maple Island Bock. Made with Minnesota maple syrup, it almost calls for a side of pancakes! The new owners didn’t just change the name, they changed the space with a new deck offering views of the St. Croix River, the inspiration for River Siren. During the summer months, food trucks will be on-site

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Visiting Stillwater

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

Watching the paddlewheeler Andiamo pass beneath the Lift Bridge from the deck at Charlie’s.

Getting Here

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.

Staying Here

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.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

The best rooms in town face the St. Croix River at the Water Street Inn, on the National Register of Historic Places.

Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

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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 Nordic and downhill trails throughout the region.

Your turn

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!

Disclaimers: TravelLatte was hosted by Discover Stillwater and Explore Minnesota. While we enjoyed their generous hospitality, all opinions are strictly our own.

60 comments on “Discovering Stillwater: A Tour of Town and Time

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  3. Stillwater a wonderful historic town looks like a must place to visit. I love the history of this town and you wonderful pictures. You found a great place to eat that overlooks the town. I vaguely remember hearing about this town but after reading this great article, I would love to visit. The Historic Inn looks like a good place to stay or you mentioned a B&B sounds fun too! #WeeklyPostcard

    • That hotel – the Water Street Inn – has great views on the river side, from beautiful Victorian rooms. Definitely worth a stay there to experience the gentrified life of Victorian society. But what better than to check into a B&B that was home to the wealthiest lumber barons in the region? Either option is a good one! Hope you get to visit, Stephanie – we’re sure you’d enjoy it!

  4. There are so many fantastic cities in the USA that I still need to discover. But for posts like this one, I would have never guessed that Stillwater is so charming and has so many interesting attractions to explore. #TheWeeklyPostcard

    • You are so right, Anda! So many cities, and so many great stories across the country. We really enjoyed discovering Stillwater, and it really whet our appetite for visiting more small, historic towns. What they might lack in big museums and other attractions, they more than make up for in personality and charm. Thanks for reading!

  5. I love the grand victoria architecture – I always wish to go inside and see how the house looks. But I’m guessing you can’t do that on the tour 🙂 Sounds like a lovely town with some interesting history.

    • Hi Sally – There are a few tours that allow you to go into some of the homes! Several of them operate as B&Bs now, so that’s another way to get inside and really experience that Victorian charm. In fact, we’d like to do that on our next visit. As always, thanks for reading!

  6. The headline made me think of Stillwater, Oklahoma, which is a fun place to visit, but not nearly as scenic! Great write up!

    • In retrospect, we should have added an MN in there – most people think of the other Stillwater. 😉 We really should visit it, too – we’ve only driven through on our way to someplace else. Shame on us! Thanks for reading, Melinda!

    • Hi Lolo – Aren’t they adorable? We were surprised by how many there are, and how well maintained they are. The town really takes its history and heritage seriously, and it shows. If you do get to visit, check into the tours – there are several that allow entry into some of the historic homes. They’re beautiful, and the stories are awesome! 🙂 Thanks for your comment!

    • We went to Stillwater as a side trip from Minneapolis (which we also really enjoyed). We didn’t know what to expect, really, aside from the Victorian houses. Turns out, it’s a really quaint town and we had a fabulous time. It was very relaxing, with just enough to explore for a day trip or two, and not feel overwhelmed. Thanks for your comment, Anisa!

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  8. The husband and I travel through Stillwater all the time in order to get to Wisconsin, but for some reason, we actually stopped for a drink a couple weekends ago … and now we’re hooked! I’d like to go back a third time to explore in further detail, but this blog post covers a lot of the reasons why this town is so charming and alluring! Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    • Hi Anna! We definitely want to head back to Stillwater, particularly for some fall color! We’re thinking one of the riverboat tours would be perfect for taking in all that natural beauty, followed by a night in one of those charming B&Bs. Little town with a lot to offer. Thanks for stopping by the blog!

    • Hi Mary – Those homes are so pretty! Even the ones that aren’t B&Bs are well maintained and gorgeous. It’s clear there is a great pride in the town. We hope you make it there, and thanks for your comment!

  9. Very interesting, not a part of the US that I would have considered visiting before but certainly seems like a nice spot. Would particularly like to try those maple beers, if only to mess with my tastebuds haha.

    • It was gorgeous! We really enjoyed Minnesota, and are ready to go back for more! The maple beer was…interesting. Not Rob’s cup of suds, but others in our party liked it best! Thanks for your comment, David!

  10. So interesting discovering more about Saltwater’s logging history. Those Victoria mansions are just humungous! I like the look of those beers – definitely a good way to end the day! Thanks for linking up with #MondayEscapes

    • We’re always happy to link up with #MondayEscapes, and enjoy reading all the other great blogs! We loved the historic homes – so pretty! The beers were a nice bonus, too. 🙂 Thanks for your comments!

  11. Stillwater comes across a lovely town, a town that retains its old world elegance and charm. I love these places where time seems to stand still. They have such a beautiful aura around them/

    • Charm is the word for Stillwater! It’s fantastic that the people who live and work there seem to have that same spirit. That really makes you feel that you’ve stepped into a bygone era. Thanks for your comment Vyjay!

    • Hi Sally-Ann. That modern building is interesting. Just past it, the downtown district “evolves” into mostly new condominiums and similar buildings, which makes the Desch Building sort of a bridge, sitting between the historic and contemporary. It adds to the texture, if you will, but it is a striking difference from the 19th Century buildings nearby. For us, the Victorian mansions are the real attraction! Thanks for your comment!

    • Hi Diane! We had read about Stillwater in a hotel brochure a few years ago, but it so out-shone our expectations! The historical society seems really active and involved but, even if you’re not a history buff, the natural beauty, the architecture, the food, and the quaint atmosphere all are fantastic reasons to visit. Thanks for your comment!

  12. I still have several states left on my bucket list and Minnesota is one of them. I would love to see that beautiful Victorian architecture in Stillwater. I love visiting places where I can get out in nature on a good hike so I would love visiting this area when I finally make it to Minnesota hopefully sooner rather than later.

    • Hi Michelle! A walking tour of Stillwater is a good hike in itself – much of the city is very hilly with some pretty steep inclines. The bonus is getting to spend as long as you want admiring the homes, instead of moving on when the trolley driver decides you’ve had enough. 😉 There is a lot of great hiking all over Minnesota, so hopefully you will get to enjoy it soon! Thanks for your comments.

    • Thanks, Angie! The beer caves make sense…and make us wonder if maybe that’s the evolutionary start of the “man cave”. Hmmm…. 😉 Thanks for visiting our blog!

    • Hi Nell – That is sad! But I’m glad you liked the post. The history is interesting, but it’s really the relaxing pace, beautiful buildings, and natural scenery that makes us want to return. Okay, and maybe the breweries…since we don’t have to worry about prohibition anymore! 😉 Thanks for your comment!

  13. What a fantastic post! The name Stillwater rings a bell but I didn’t really know why. This looks like an absolutely beautiful place and I really would like to check it all out properly.

    • Thanks Helena! We find that most people think of Stillwater, Oklahoma – home of the Oklahoma State University. Both Stillwaters have similar boomtown histories, but we think the Minnesota version is much more scenic. Hopefully, you’ll get a chance to visit and enjoy it!

  14. I’ve never heard of Stillwater – and never been to Minneapolis but it looks like an interesting place. Thanks for the insight and tour. #citytripping

    • Hello WanderMum, and thanks for visiting our blog! Minneapolis is a great city, with beautiful museums and lots of history. It also makes a great base for exploring smaller cities nearby, like Stillwater, which are rich in charm and history themselves. Definitely worth exploring if you ever get to Minnesota.

    • Hey Lexx – So much world to explore! I hope you do get to explore around the US! Meanwhile, we’re loving your adventures around Europe! Thanks for stopping by our blog.

    • Thanks Karla! We feel the same way – lots of places close to home that are fun to explore. Even not so close to home, we enjoy finding cities like Stillwater that have a lot to offer. Thanks for stopping by!

  15. I have only been to Minnesota once but this town looks exactly the kid of place I would venture to. Low-key with lots of charm & history. Thanks for sharing!

    • At one time, it was the biggest town in the Northwest Territory of a young USA. Today, it’s a small town that a lot of people have never heard of, so you’re not alone there! It really is charming, though. If you are ever in the area, definitely worth a visit. Thanks for stopping by!

    • Hi Isabel – I will say most of the beers were delicious. I was not a fan of the super sweet Maple Island Bock, but the rest were great. The town really has a lot of pride in their buildings and history, and it shows. Very well maintained, and well documented, too. Thanks for your comment!

  16. I would definitely want to try and do the Stillwater architecture tour! All of those homes look so beautiful! A brewery is always a good idea in my opinion too!

    • Hi Ashley – The homes are just beautiful! Many of the other buildings in town – the courthouse and post office, the churches – also beautiful, though in very different styles and from different periods. We agree – breweries are good, and there are a couple in town, and some really good restaurants, too. Thanks for visiting!

  17. Enjoyed reading about the history of Stillwater and the places you explored there. The lift bridge seems worth visiting and the B&Bs that you featured are lovely. Thanks for sharing this on #CityTripping

    • Thanks, Ahila! The B&Bs (and other homes) in this charming town were absolutely gorgeous. Obviously, they have a lot of pride in their homes and town. If you like historic buildings, it’s a great place to visit. Also great for just relaxing!

  18. I’ve been to Minneapolis a few times as my husband has relatives there but had never come across Stillwater before. The open air museum sounds fascinating and a lovely place to wander around (and the vineyard is going on my list too!). Thanks for joining up with #citytripping

    • Adding the vineyards to your list is a good plan! We want to return for some fall scenery and a few winery visits. And it’s so close to Minneapolis, that you can easily hop over for a day! I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Thanks for visiting our blog!

  19. First time I hear about this city but I like what I see. This looks like my kind of town. The architecture is gorgeous!

    • Ruth, after reading your blog for a while, we think you’d love it. The homes are just gorgeous! In fact, Stillwater Trolley has a tour devoted just to some of the B&Bs we mentioned, where you spend about 30 minutes exploring each one. (We had to save that one for next time.) There’s enough to see in and around town, but not so much that you feel exhausted and need a vacation after your trip! It’s the best kind of getaway: Relaxing! 🙂

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