Bemidji's growth slowed between 1910 and 1920
Beltrami County History
Editor’s Note: The Beltrami County Historical Society is partnering with the Pioneer on a series of monthly articles celebrating 2021 as the 125th birthday of the city of Bemidji. For more information about the Historical Society, visit www.beltramihistory.org .
Bemidji experienced a tremendous growth spurt between 1900 and 1910. The next decade was slower in growth.
The population only increased from 5,099 to 7,086, and that probably had a lot to do with the fact that Nymore was annexed in 1916. During this decade, Bemidji’s leaders invested money and manpower to work on the city’s infrastructure. Until World War I, there were great strides in the improvement of water, sewer, bridges and roads. After that, a shortage of building materials slowed progress until about 1921.
Bemidji had a very different look from today or even the prior decade. Several sections of the downtown area were bare in 1914. All the lots facing First Street between Bemidji and Beltrami Avenues were empty. Only a few businesses existed between Bemidji and Beltrami on Second Street.
Most of the early buildings were of frame construction and many succumbed to fires. The Rex Hotel fire in 1912, the Segal Emporium in 1915, the Dalton Hotel in 1916, the Bemidji Elevator and Milling Co. in 1919, and the Great Northern Hotel in 1920 were all major fires. Most buildings were replaced with brick construction.
The western side of the lake looked dramatically different from what we see today. Paul Bunyan or Babe the Blue Ox weren’t on scene until 1937. Train tracks ran north along the lakefront to the east of Bemidji Avenue as far as the alley between Second and Third Street.
Between the Minnesota and International (M&I) Railway Spur Tracks and Bemidji Avenue was a large loading platform, the cold storage building for Armour & Co., a freight house for M&I Railway, and a cold storage and shipping shed for Swift and Company. Between the lake shore itself and the tracks was the Beltrami Elevator & Milling Co., Bemidji Bottling Works, Smith-Robinson Lumber Co., and four beer depots.
A concrete pier at the end of Third Street and a long promenade extended out to a band stand. Boat houses extended north from the alley between Third and Fourth Streets for about one block. These boat houses were not taken out until 1928 after they deteriorated to a point where they were an eyesore on the lakefront.
By spring of 1909, with nine automobiles already in town and five others being brought in, Marcus Stoner, Bemidji’s first city engineer, started Bemidji’s first concrete streets. He selected the two blocks between Minnesota and Bemidji Avenues on Third Street because this was Bemidji’s main commercial street.
Bemidji was due to start its paving program on Aug. 15, 1910, but many property owners between Bemidji and Beltrami avenues had not yet made their water and sewer tap connections. Property owners had to make their own connections, and as it was much cheaper to dig through sand than through six inches of solid concrete, Stoner advised them to put in their connections before the paving was done.
To give them all the time possible, John Goodman started the paving at Minnesota Avenue. The council stated that there would be no delay because of those who had not made their sewer and water connections. All those who still needed to do this were urged to see a plumber at once and have this attended to.
The financial state of the bond market was so poor at the time that Bemidji’s three banks purchased the $12,000 bonds for paving which had been languishing on the market. It was understood that the city would repurchase one half of the bonds from the banks and then the banks would divide the balance, each carrying $2,000.
State and county roads were yet so undeveloped that distance travel was difficult and local travel was a challenge. A major step forward was the creation of the Jefferson Highway which ran for 1,800 miles from Winnipeg to New Orleans. In northern Minnesota, it ran from Itasca Park to Bemidji and on to Solway and Shevlin. The Bemidji loop of the Jefferson Highway was dedicated on July 26, 1916.
Eighty automobiles, occupied by several hundred people, welcomed the tourists to Bemidji. The cars were lined up from America Avenue on Fourth Street to Beltrami Avenue and on Beltrami Avenue to the Markham Hotel. When the tourists passed the cars, the Bemidji autoists honked their horns, bells were rung and lusty cheers were given. The Bemidji band greeted the highway officials with spirited music at the hotel. It was a wonderful welcome, according to one of the officials of the Jefferson Highway.
In 1916, the longest street was Irvine Avenue covering 22 blocks. Beltrami Avenue extended as far north as 1515 for the Vincent families. Irvine Avenue had the most buildings, that being 132, and Beltrami Avenue had 128 buildings, south to north, in a 15-block stretch.
Bemidji drilled its first artesian well in 1904 and built a wooden tower next to City Hall. When that was insufficient, Stoner ordered a new well with a steel tower in 1909. With that change, the entire city, except for Park and Mississippi Avenues, had water as far north as 12th Street.
On Irvine and Dewey Avenues, the service extended even further north. In 1912, J. J. McCarty drilled the city’s No. 3 flowing well. The artesian well system was still being questioned in 1918 but was adamantly defended by Warfield.
The Bemidji park committee took a hard look at the city park and made some changes in the planting of trees and ornamentation. A curb was put in along the park between Third and Fourth Street.
The city installed its first water fountains in 1912 -- one near the First National Bank corner and one at the park near the Carnegie Library.
Bemidji’s sanitary sewer system was begun in 1906. However, as F. S. Lycan pointed out in 1910, on behalf of Bemidji’s Commercial Club, the lake was being badly polluted by the system.
Sewage was being dumped into the river at the inlet and allowed to flow through the lake past the city. When the water level dropped, the raw sewage was left on the banks. Dr. Gilmore warned that there was grave danger of an epidemic if something was not done at once. The cities down the river had been complaining, and he had been advised by the state board of health that a tank would have to be installed very soon.
In 1911, the first (and only) half of the sewer system’s septic tank was completed. In 1936, the city built a secondary treatment plant, known locally as the “Jolly Green Giant.”
At first, Bemidji had wooden sidewalks and had many ordinances for their size and construction. In 1911, the street commissioner made a report condemning wooden trap doors on sidewalks.
Several lawsuits against the city because of injuries due to falls on these wooden structures prompted the city to replace them with cement ones. Nels Loitved put in a bid for the cement work. His bid was 9 cents per square foot for sidewalks; 15 cents per square foot for alley crossings; and 25 cents per linear foot for curbing.
By May 1913, the paving of streets and construction of cement sidewalks was in full swing. The Work Progress Administration (WPA) also built sidewalks in Bemidji at a much later date. It is doubtful if one can find a Loitved, Crouch or Goodman stamp anymore, but there is a WPA stamp from 1941 still visible on the 1500 Birchmont Drive NE location.
Due to increased traffic during this decade, several changes were made in the bridges on Lake Bemidji. In 1911, the wagon bridge at the outlet was raised four inches, but the river continued to give the launches trouble. In 1914, 300 feet of channel were dynamited by the Aetna Powder Company to create a new channel. A steel bridge was then constructed at the outlet.
Residents were particularly fond of the rustic bridge located on Lake Boulevard at Eighth Street. After years of use, the city made plans in 1914 to tear it out and fill the space with dirt to make it secure from being washed out.
Judge Spooner, who lived nearby, argued that the bridge was one of the city’s most famous and most often visited beauty spots, and that with the development of the city, and the beautifying of the parks along the lake shore, the council in a few years would be better able to make a change in the bridge. The aldermen agreed with Judge Spooner and the street commissioner was instructed to repair the bridge, keeping it safe for teams and automobiles for a few more years.
The condition of the bridge across the Mississippi River between Lake Bemidji and Lake Irving had also deteriorated by 1911. Rather than build a new bridge at that time, city engineer Evarts recommended the reconstruction of the old bridge across the channel. Frank Miller was employed to do the necessary framework on such reconstruction, at a salary not to exceed 40 cents per hour.
The concrete bridge over the river between Lake Irving and Lake Bemidji was constructed a few years later. Contractor disputes and adverse weather caused construction delays, but it was completed in October 1917. This bridge was the last city-funded crossing built over the Mississippi between Lake Irving and Lake Bemidji.
In 1934, the WPA sponsored construction of a new bridge just 100 feet downstream, thereby downgrading the Nymore Bridge. The bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.