Lively past hidden in serene park

by Joni Astrup

Associate editor

Elk River’s Bailey Point Nature Preserve is quiet and serene, a little oasis on the banks of the Elk and Mississippi, where bald eagles nest high in a cottonwood tree.

But under that peaceful veneer hides a lively past.

Joshua Fox led a historical tour of Bailey Point in Elk River.
Joshua Fox led a historical tour of Bailey Point in Elk River.

“This piece of land has been used by people for a very long time,” said Joshua Fox, a historian and member of Elk River’s Heritage Preservation Commission. He recently led a District 728 Community Education historical tour of the point as part of the Active Minds program.

One of the point’s more colorful chapters involved clashes between the Ojibway and Dakota in the 1770s.

William Warren wrote about them in the 1880s in a book titled “History of the Ojibway People”

Dr. Richard Rothaus, who led an archaeological dig at Bailey Point earlier this month, said Warren’s mother was Ojibway and his father was a fur trader.

“He recorded two battles here at the confluence (of the Elk and Mississippi rivers),” Rothaus said.

At the time of the battles, Rothaus said an area south of the Mississippi was mostly Dakota territory while the area north of the Mississippi was Ojibway territory.

There was a small battle in the vicinity of Bailey Point in 1772, and another clash in 1773. Warren reported that about 400 warriors were involved in the 1773 battle, but Rothaus said it’s unlikely there were that many.

But Rothaus said Warren does report that Chief Big Marten was killed in the battle, which he said is believable as it is the sort of thing that would have been passed down from generation to generation.

“For our purposes, it’s just more evidence that this is an important spot where people were coming through all the time,” Rothaus said.

Fox also discussed the battles with the tour group at Bailey Point. He, too, said it’s unlikely that hundreds of warriors participated in the 1773 battle.

“There definitely were battles there, but they were probably more on the level of a skirmish than a massive engagement,” Fox said.

Bailey Point also was the site of more recent activity. The Elk River Tourist Camp was located at the south end of the point, near the Elk River. The camp had a bathhouse and kitchen area.

“In the ’20s and ’30s, they were all the rage, and they grew into the resort industry,” Rothaus said of the tourist camp, which was similar to a campground.

Some of the Sherburne County Fairgrounds also spilled onto Bailey Point when the fair operated nearby, he said.

At one time, Bailey Point was also where high school football games were played, Fox said.

There once was a golf course on the point as well. It was a nine-hole course with two of the holes on the other side of the Elk River on what is now the Houlton farm. There used to be a walking bridge over the river to connect the two parts of the course, Fox said.

An oxcart trail crossing is also thought to be somewhere in the Bailey Point area. “It seems that the likely spot was probably closer to the dam where it crossed,” Fox said.

Bailey Point, located south of Main Street off Morton Avenue, is not yet open to the public. A parking lot will be completed and there will be an official opening later this summer.

“As a member of the HPC, we’re definitely excited to have acquired Bailey Point because of its historical value,” Fox said. The site will also be a great natural park for the community to enjoy, he said.