Early History

The township and later the City of Rice Lake take their name from Wild Rice Lake. The Ojibwe name for the lake is megwewundjiwmanominikan which translates as “place of the wild rice amidst the hills.” The Indians who lived in the region harvested wild rice each fall from the lake. Early surveys noted that the lake was small and shallow with a depth of about four feet. These surveys also noted that the lake was almost entirely covered with wild rice. The land around the lake was described as gently rolling, swampy, and covered with a mixed forest of aspen, sugar maple, white pine, tamarack, basswood and spruce.

The region now encompassed by southern St. Louis County has been inhabited for hundreds of years. During the seventeenth century French explorers encountered Sioux Indians who were later driven from the region by the Ojibwe. The Ojibwe remained and were given reservation lands in exchange for ceding their territory to the United States by the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe. Upon ratification of the treaty on January 10, 1855 the North Shore of Lake Superior and all the territory that became Minnesota was officially opened to white settlement. By March 1855 there was a rush by settlers who wanted to take up land.

A year later, in 1856, the United States government commissioned William Burt to survey and establish township lines in T.51N, the area that would become Rice Lake within the township. Subdivisions within the township were surveyed beginning in 1857. E.C. Martin was the surveyor in charge of the group hired to do this work.
During the course of their work the survey crews noted several Indian trails leading to and from Wild Rice Lake. They also noted a wagon road being cut through the central portion of the township. This wagon road ran from the base of Minnesota Point near present-day downtown Duluth and, according to the 1857 survey reports, would continue north and west to intersect with the Mississippi River near a place called Norwood. This road was called the Wild Rice Lake Trail.

In 1857 property on the northeast side of Wild Rice Lake was acquired by Antoine LeDuc, Franklin Sarault and Joseph Wood. A townsite named Valley Field was surveyed and laid out by E.C. Martin. A plat was filed with the St. Louis County register of deeds in April 29, 1857. According to the plat First Street, the main street, was to be 80 feet wide, and the other proposed streets and avenues were to be 70 feet wide. Blocks were reserved for a school and church, and some initial improvements were begun. The Wild Rice Lake Trail passed through the western portion of the township and offered good access. Although several lots in the proposed town were sold, the national economic recession in 1857 and 1858 resulted in the abandonment of most potential settler’s claims, and the Valley Field townsite development was abandoned. Years later the townsite was flooded when the dam was constructed, and Rice Lake reservoir was created.

As the national economy slowly recovered from the recession the Civil War intervened with the result that there was little new settlement or development activity in the region between 1861 and 1865. During the war years a large number of men left to join the war effort. Many never returned.

There was speculation about the mineral potential of northern Minnesota at least a decade before the Civil War. J.G. Norwood, a scientist, discovered iron ore near Gunflint Lake in 1850. Little public attention was paid to this discovery. Geologists H.H. and R.M. Eames from St. Paul reported in early 1865 on large deposits of iron ore near Lake Vermilion. They also noted paying quantities of gold-bearing quartz. This announcement resulted in a literal stampede for the gold fields. Thousands of gold seekers made their way toward Lake Vermilion. Mining companies were organized to invest in the heavy machinery that would be needed to mine and process the ore. Claims were staked, but after about a year little, if any, gold was mined, and the gold rush excitement quickly died out.

One lasting result of the Lake Vermilion gold rush, however, was the construction of a road through the forest from Duluth to Lake Vermilion. This route became known as the Vermilion Trail. After the Civil War ended some 1,500 veterans looking for work came to northern Minnesota to cut a wagon road through the forest. They initially swamped out a rough trail to Lake Vermilion. During the winter of 1865-1866 the trail was improved so wagon teams could be used to haul machinery and supplies.

In June, 1869 veteran surveyor George Stuntz was authorized by the U.S. Engineers Department to spend $10,000 to improve the road to Lake Vermilion. Between July 1 and December 10 Stuntz with a crew of eighteen men and two ox teams and wagons improved the eighty-four-mile road sufficiently to allow wagons to haul supplies during the summer months, something not possible on the original very rough trail.

This route ran from the waterfront near present-day downtown Duluth to a place called Winston City at the south shore of Pike Bay on Lake Vermilion. Winston City was a true gold rush boom town. In 1866, barely a year after the Lake Vermilion gold rush started, the townsite had 300 residents, a post office, hotel, several stores, a blacksmith shop, mining company office and four saloons.

Not enough gold was ever found at Lake Vermilion to make mining worthwhile. Winston City soon became a ghost town, but the Vermilion Trail continued to serve those involved in the exploration and development of iron ore mining on the Vermilion Range.
Today’s state highway 4 parallels the original Vermilion Trail corridor for much of the way to Lake Vermilion. The route passed near Wild Rice Lake providing access for settlers seeking land in the vicinity. It also served those interested in harvesting the abundant timber in the area.

writings from the "Rice Lake, Minnesota, Celebrating 150 Years", history book.