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Waterfront park is heart of Lake Bemidji

A waterslide was part of the fun at the Lake Bemidji waterfront in the early 20th century. Photo Courtesy Beltrami County Historical Society

Bemidji has come a long way since its roots as a trading center for American Indians, food traders and loggers.

"Bemidji is where the Modern meets the Wilderness," The Civic and Commerce Association was quoted as stating in the city's first comprehensive plan in 1947. "Here is a playground with lakes and resorts for good fishing and refreshment; with streams and woods for swimming and delightful scenery for canoeing and hiking - Beauty, Romance, Adventure, Rest, and Recreation!"

In 1895, Tams Bixby and seven other developers bought 93 acres of land on Lake Bemidji to establish a townsite, Rosemary Given Amble wrote in "Tams Bixby and His Company Town."

The streets were numbered First through Eighth. Avenues were named Lake Boulevard for the lake, Bemidji for the city, Minnesota for the state and America for the country.

At the time, Bixby predicted, "Bemidji will become Minnesota's favorite summer and health resort and the summer sojourner will find ready at hand an infinite variety of a summer's day. The devotee of rod and reel and the chase could scarcely choose a more inviting point than that offered by Bemidji."

If Lake Bemidji is the heart of the city, its waterfront park is the heart of Lake Bemidji.

The park is anchored by the Paul and Babe statues, which were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. The statues were built as part of the Paul Bunyan Carnival, which was organized in the fall of 1937 with Hector Brown in charge. The nearby Bemidji Community Art Center, formerly the Carnegie Library, is also on the National Register. Next door is Library Park, a popular site for Art in the Park and other events.

The Rotary and Jaycees pavilions provide shelter in the waterfront park. Next to Paul and Babe stands the Tourist Information Center, which also houses the Fireplace of States, constructed in 1934-35 under the U.S. Federal Works Program and moved to the Tourist Information Center in 1995. The fireplace features stones from many U.S. states and Canadian provinces.

The waterfront park is a popular site for picnics, community gatherings, fishing tournaments and events such as the Lake Bemidji Dragon Boat Festival. A playground lies on the south end of the park.

But there is no steamboat on Lake Bemidji, as there was a hundred years ago.

In the 1890s, Carl Carlson built a blacksmith shop and the adjacent Lakeside Hotel on what would become Bemidji Avenue. He also built a steam-powered 200-passenger boat he named for his wife, Ida, according to "A Walk Through Bemidji in 1910," also written by Amble.

Carl ran the blacksmith shop while Ida ran the hotel. "The Ida" transported summer residents to town for weekly shopping, and was also used by mill workers and men from logging camps.

Music was part of early Bemidji at the turn of the century. A Boys' Band was organized in 1899 to entertain the public, and in 1900, a bandstand was built at the waterfront for their concerts. The bandstand was an important part of Library Park until it was demolished in 1990.

Groups that used the facility included the Elks Band of the 1920s and 1930s; Mr. Rigg's Boys' Band of 1923; the Bemidji Kiddies Legion Drum and Bugle Corps, under the direction of Gertrude Sherwood Ness from 1935-1942; Elmer Benson's Women's Band during World War II; and the Bemidji Community Band, which started in the 1940s.

The Paul Bunyan Amusement Park operated for 47 years on the waterfront, closing at the end of the summer vacation season in 2006. The train, miniature golf course and concession stand remain.

RDG Planning & Design considered the waterfront during its study of downtown Bemidji, proposing a renovated plaza outside the Tourist Information Center that would lead visitors to spend more time at the park. A pier or marina is also planned, as well as a splash pool and other amenities that would appeal to children and families.