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South shore goes full circle

Looking northwest from the south shore of Lake Bemidji shows the old Midway Drive area and Mississippi River bridge connecting the area with historic downtown. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

When the Bemidji Regional Event Center opens next year, the Lake Bemidji south shore will have come full circle from an industrial site to a culture and entertainment venue.

The site will effectively extend the downtown area across the prize-winning Mississippi River Bridge, through the Old Midway Drive area to the south shore.

The Crookston Lumber Co. urged the Great Northern Railroad to extend tracks to Bemidji from the railhead in Fosston. According to "Timber, Bemidji's Greatest Resource" by Rosemary Given-Amble, the rail connection opened in 1898, and in July 1903, Thomas Shevlin and Elbert Carpenter produced the first lumber at the Crookston Sawmill No. 1 on the South Shore. The mill employed 450 workers in 24-hour daily shifts. The mill turned out 40 million board feet of prime lumber its first year of operation.

By 1910, the Crookston Sawmill in Bemidji advertised itself as the mill with the largest output in the United States.

Disaster struck on July 19, 1914, when the mill burned to the ground. It was rebuilt, but a little more that 10 years later another fire destroyed the mill, and it was never rebuilt.

In that fire on Nov. 8, 1924, 24 million board feet of select white pine valued at $750,000 were destroyed.

"Heat was so intense it caused whirlwinds that tossed burning lumber across the lake," Amble wrote. "Seeing smoke on the horizon, volunteer firefighters from as far away as Wilton and Solway came to help the Bemidji crews contain the fire to the mill yard."

The loss of the mill left 2,000 workers unemployed, but the great forests had been cut over by then and the mills moved to the Pacific Coast.

A box factory, which later housed North Central Door, now located in the Bemidji Industrial Park, also occupied the South Shore industrial area. A spur of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad also ran through the area.

A new forest-based industry started up in 1953 when a group of local investors built a hardboard plant on the site. The plant was bought by Georgia Pacific, which closed its doors in 1999.

In 2000, a group of local community leaders established a foundation and a movement to "Buy Back the Beach." They worked to raise the necessary funds to purchase the property, but it was eventually bought by Walker developer John Zacher.

Meanwhile, the city of Bemidji and Bemidji State University were seeking a suitable site for an event center and new hockey arena. Originally the proposed site was downtown, but in October 2007, the Bemidji City Council discussed changing the venue and buying the south shore. On Oct. 31, 2007, the City Council held a press conference to announce the south shore purchase and relocation of the events center. In December, the city bought the core 130 acres for $13 million.

Now, the derelict buildings have been razed and the site stabilized. The plans for the BREC have been finalized and site work has started. Walls will go up this summer, and the BREC is scheduled to be ready for business for the start of the 2010-2011 academic year.