A Brief History of Ramsey County

Virginia Brainard Kunz

For its first 100 years, the history of Ramsey County was, to a great extent, the history of St. Paul, the county seat and the capital of Minnesota.

Ramsey County was a part of Wisconsin Territory until the Territory of Minnesota was established in 1849. The first territorial legislature established three counties; Washington, Benton, and Ramsey. Ramsey County’s original northern boundary extended beyond Mille Lacs Lake and all of Ramsey, Anoka, Isanti, Kanabec and parts of six other existing counties were part of the original Ramsey County. In 1849 Ramsey County had 2,187 residents and 834 dwellings. The land north of the small settlement of St. Paul, which at that time stretched between the Upper and Lower steamboat landings on the Mississippi River, was open land dotted with small lakes and clumps of trees, laced with streams and crisscrossed by wagon roads that often followed trails used earlier by bands of Dakota and Ojibway traveling through the area. A military road extended north from Fort Snelling to Fort Ripley, north of St. Cloud. Territorial Road ran roughly parallel to present-day I-94, linking St. Paul with the village of St. Anthony at St. Anthony Falls, and several Red River ox cart trails crossed what is now the Midway area, again linking St. Anthony with St. Paul.

St. Paul had begun life as a river city, the practical head of navigation on the Upper Mississippi, and a place where two clefts in eighty-foot bluffs created convenient landing places at the river’s edge. During the 1840s it was a French village settled by French-Canadian voyagers and farmers who had been evicted by the military from their settlement near Fort Snelling. They moved downstream and settled around those landing places – the Lower Landing at the foot of Jackson Street in Lower town and the Upper Landing at the foot of Chestnut Street in the Seven Corners area, once known as Upper Town. Both landings are still there, a reminder that St. Paul developed as two separate settlements during the first twenty years of its existence.

Near the Lower Landing during the early 1840s stood the saloon of a colorful retired fur trader named Pierre “Pig’s Eye” Parrant. For some years the tiny settlement was known as “Pig’s Eye’s Landing.” Father Lucien Galtier dedicated a chapel to Saint Paul in November 1841 and soon the community became known as St. Paul’s Landing, after the chapel rather than the tavern owner. In time the community became known as just St. Paul and when Minnesota became a territory in 1849, St. Paul became the territorial capital.

The passage of the bill creating the territory in the spring of 1849 immediately attracted settlers. Flooding into St. Paul by steamboat, many remained, but others established farms on the vacant land in what is now northern Ramsey County. One of these was Heman Gibbs, a Vermont teacher and his wife, Jane, who acquired land on the wagon trail from St. Anthony to Stillwater – today’s Larpenteur Avenue. His farm still stands at the corner of Larpenteur and Cleveland Avenues. It is owned and operated as the Gibbs Museum of Pioneer and Dakotah Life by the Ramsey County Historical Society.

When Minnesota became a state in 1858, St. Paul remained its capital, but river trade was central to its growth. Streams flowing into the Mississippi from throughout Minnesota formed a network used first by the French and British fur traders and their Indian partners to transport furs downriver for shipment east and to Europe, the first of the region’s world traders. Keel boats and steamboats followed, hauling the flour, tea, sugar and other supplies that helped sustain the early settlers during he winter months. In a single day in May 1857, twenty-four boats were tied up at the Lower Landing.

The rise of the railroads after the Civil War made Ramsey County and St. Paul the transportation center of the Upper Midwest and the gateway to the Northwest. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the railroad’s impact on the 19th century city and county. Toward the end of the century an enormous network of rails linked St. Paul with Chicago and the Pacific. “Empire Builder” James J. Hill had reorganized the St. Paul, Manitoba and Pacific into the Great Northern and acquired operating control of the bankrupt Northern Pacific, and at least ten other lines were serving the region. In 1883, 14, 000 people, 155 trains, and 3,500 bags of mail passed through St. Paul’s Union Depot every day.

At the same time, much of the land in northern Ramsey County had remained farmland. Heman Gibbs, his son, Frank, and their fellow farmers, such as Henry Schroeder who operated a dairy, were growing fruits and vegetables and providing milk, butter and eggs needed by a growing city. During the last decades of the 19th century, villages began to spring up in this section of the county. North St. Paul was incorporated in 1887, New Brighton in 1891, and White Bear Lake in 1921. White Bear Township, the only existing township in the county, dates back to the 1858.

Cultural and civic endeavors that would have an impact on both Ramsey County and St. Paul flourished during the years after the Civil War. The St. Paul Chamber of Commerce was established in 1867; a water system was installed in the 1880s, and the city’s population reached 111,397 by 1885. The Winter Carnival was founded in 1886, the first electric streetcars began their runs in 1890; and St. Paul began fielding a professional baseball team in the 1870s. By the beginning of the 20th century, St. Paul had become a leader in social services that would sustain its people through World War I, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II and the rapid changes in civil, cultural, and social life that would mark the decades of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

By this time, also, the farms that had once dotted the land north of the city limits had disappeared, the communities that served the area – the historic villages of Ramsey County – had become flourishing suburbs whose businesses and industries now occupy the open land once held by Heman Gibbs and his fellow farmers.