Marcus Stoner: Stoner Avenue was named after local leader

There once was an honest man who was known for his forward outlook, his faith and strong convictions. He was a man with many important accomplishments, yet he knew how to make people smile. A man with such fine humor, in fact, that he and his cre...

The man behind the name of Stoner Avenue, Marcus Stoner was the first city engineer and Beltrami County surveyor. Stoner's influence on the Bemidji area is large and varied. Photo Courtesy of Beltrami County Historical Society

There once was an honest man who was known for his forward outlook, his faith and strong convictions.

He was a man with many important accomplishments, yet he knew how to make people smile.

A man with such fine humor, in fact, that he and his crew once told their cook that they had lost the trail in the woods and had him climb a tree to get their bearings. Once the cook had reached the top, the crew set the birch bark at the bottom of the tree on fire and laughed as the cook scurried down the tree, scorched and bruised.

According to Beltrami County Historical Society archives, practical jokes were slightly less refined in the early 1900s, but it was humorous nonetheless.

This man's name was Marcus Stoner, and the street signs that read "Stoner Ave." pay homage to the things he did and the man he was.


Unfortunately for this great man, his last name in today's social context brings connotations related to illicit drugs and the people that use them.

Because of this, the street signs that should be standing tall and proud in his honor are continually stolen by those who see the signs as humorous wall-pieces, rather than a memoriam to a man whose contributions to the city of Bemidji and the surrounding area go largely unappreciated.

Soon, there will be no more street signs in the Bemidji area immortalizing Marcus Stoner.

Beltrami County in 1999 changed the name of Stoner Memorial Drive Northeast (Beltrami County Road 30) to North Blackduck Lake Road Northeast because of repeated thefts of the road signs. The Bemidji City Council voted in July to change the name of Stoner Avenue. Craig Gray, director of public works/city engineer, said replacing the signs was costing the city $2,000 each year.

For those who do not know the story behind one of the most influential men in the history of this area, it went something like this:

At the young age of 15, Marcus Stoner was given the job of helping a surveyor on his family's farm near Dayton, Ohio.

Stoner quickly discovered that he preferred this line of work far more than the usual farming he was accustomed to.

Soon enough, this interest became a career for Stoner. After graduating from Civil Engineering College in Valparaiso, Ind., in February 1892, he began his first job as a government surveyor in Crookston.


In the winters of 1892 and 1893, he and a crew of other government workers surveyed the thick wilderness that is now Blackduck.

The extreme weather that northern Minnesota was known for was an everyday part of Stoner's job.

Stoner used to tell his daughter of the trials of working in the absurdly cold air and deep snow of Minnesota winters.

He explicitly recalled one night with his surveying crew where he slept in a barn loft with temperatures reaching as low as 50 degrees below zero.

In the morning he awoke covered in snow that had blown in through the cracks in the walls and ceiling.

Many nights he would bury himself in snowdrifts, leaving only a small hole for air to travel through.

For four years after the government surveying job, Stoner was the assistant city engineer in Crookston until 1897.

In 1897, Stoner was hired by a private party to try to convince the Great Northern Railroad to bring its railroad through Bemidji rather than three miles south, as it had planned.


After Stoner presented his preliminary surveying results, the railroad switched its plans and began construction immediately for the railroad to run through Bemidji.

During this same year, at the age of 27, Marcus Stoner moved to Bemidji.

The year following his move, Stoner was employed as the engineer in charge of construction of the railroad from Walker to Bemidji for the Brainerd and Northern Minnesota Railway.

The lying of tracks was completed in December 1898. The next year, Stoner began surveying an extension of the railroad from Bemidji all the way to International Falls.

For many years, Stoner was the only engineer north to south from International Falls to Brainerd, and east to west from Grand Rapids to Crookston.

Before his marriage on Jan. 1, 1899, in Dayton, Ohio, Stoner had a house built and furnished for him that became the first house with siding in the history of Bemidji.

The house sat across the street from where the statue of Chief Bemidji is now, facing the lake. The house is still in use, although remodeled and moved.

It is said that, after the wedding, Stoner called ahead and asked someone to build a fire so the house would be warm for his new bride's arrival.

But with what seemed an inhuman amount of work being accomplished and still more to do, Stoner felt like he was wasting time when resting.

His wife once said, "He had so much to do that he regretted having to spend time sleeping. He walked in long, fast strides, leaning forward as though he wanted to get there right now!"

Stoner is said to have enjoyed his family, regretting that he couldn't spend more time with them.

As a gift to them, the town of Margie and several streets in Bemidji and Blackduck are named after some of his six children.

During his time in Bemidji, Stoner was the first city engineer and Beltrami County surveyor.

His accomplishments were many during the early 1900s.

He surveyed the Soo Line from Cass Lake to 20 miles west of Bemidji.

He located and built 175 miles of railroads and logging spurs in the area.

Stoner built the only swing bridge across the Mississippi north of the Twin Cities.

In 1906, he designed and constructed one of the first strictly sanitary sewer systems in the state.

In 1907, Stoner resigned as county surveyor to become highway superintendent, for which he was paid $5 a day.

In 1910, he laid down two blocks of pavement on Third Street, another first for Bemidji.

Stoner also knew enough Ojibwe to converse with his American Indian friends, including the famous Chief Bemidji, whose real name was Shaynowishkung.

Stoner once wrote, "My practice included the construction of a number of electric plants and distributing systems in the various villages in my area, and about 200 townsites and additions."

He also built a 24-foot concrete dam that developed 2,000 horsepower. This was used in the process of getting every mining company in the area to switch to electric drive pumps, compressors and hoists.

In 1947, Stoner was given an honorary membership in the Minnesota Association of Professional Engineers in recognition of his "long and valuable pioneer services in matters concerned with engineering in the northwestern part of this state."

Stoner was nearly 80 years old when he died in January 1950.

Being a man of humility, Stoner's career was not about his financial success, but rather the rewarding knowledge of his contributions to the state of Minnesota.

If there ever was a phrase or blurb that could summarize the man that Marcus Stoner was, it would be the poem he carried with him in his pocket while working.

The poem starts with a builder who comes to a chasm in the ground during the night with a cold, deep, raging river below the banks.

The builder quickly constructs a bridge over the chasm.

Suddenly a man yells, accosting him over his folly, stating that his work was a waste of time, as the builder would only use the bridge once.

The builder responds:

"There followeth after me today, a youth whose feet must pass this way.

"The chasm that was naught to me, to that fair-haired youth may pitfall be:

"He too must cross in the twilight dim -- good friend, I am building this bridge for him!"

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