Steam Dreams

The 1880’s were a time of great promise. The nation had just celebrated its first centennial, Native Americans had been defeated and driven onto reservations, and the rails were moving west. John K. West, a native of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, came to western Minnesota with a grand scheme—he would develop a navigable waterway between Big Detroit Lake and Fargo.

The idea was not so harebrained as it might initially seem. Though there was no river running in a convenient westerly direction, there was the Pelican— angling first to the southwest, then meandering through a dozen lakes to its junction with the Otter Tail south of Fergus Falls, and thence hooking north to the Red at Breckenridge. And there were already steamboats upon the Red, working north from Moorhead to Winnipeg. The Great Northern serviced Fergus Falls and Detroit, Minnesota, as Detroit Lakes was then called. But between the two rail lines was forty-odd miles of beautiful, but rough country, traversed by only a few roads—rutted and potholed—thoroughly miserable in dry weather, utterly impassible in wet. And there was another compelling consideration: West had his eye on the land between Big and Little Pelican Lakes, a prime location for future resort development.

Toward that end, West incorporated the Detroit Lake and Pelican River Slack Water Navigation Company in 1881. A shortage of money led to the demise of that first effort, but six years later, West incorporated the Pelican Valley Navigation Company, with himself as president. There were problems—the five foot drop from Big Detroit into Muskrat, another foot into Sallie. And there was the river itself, narrow, winding, shallow, in places nearly choked with vegetation.

But this was an era of big men and bigger dreams—and no environmental resstrictions. West built Dunton Locks, dredged the channel, and had a fifty foot steam launch brought in by rail from Chicago. Though The Lady of the Lakes, in the parlance of the day, "would float on a heavy dew," she could get no further downstream than Lake Sallie. West went to work again, building the lock and dam at Buck’s Mill and eventually dynamiting a channel into Little Pelican in 1908. But by this time, the Northern Pacific was servicing Pelican Rapids. Tracks were cheaper than locks, dams and canals, so West abandoned the next phase of the project—to extend service all the way to the Pelican Mill Pond. A few privately owned barges, though, did fight their way downstream to bring grain to Pelican’s Frazee Mill.

The Lady of the Lakes was followed by The Mayflower, Shoreham, Dakota, Miss Minnesota, Pelican, and the behemoth Minnie Corliss, though seventy feet long with room for one hundred and fifty, drew only fourteen inches of water.

The boats burned popple cordwood and carried the U.S. Mail, corn, wheat, pop, beer, sundry farm implements, and increasingly, tourists. West realized people were more profitable than freight and cut a deal with the Great Northern to run extra trains into Detroit during summer months and synchronize their arrival with his boat schedule. Vacationers fresh off the Great Northern had but a short carriage ride to the Detroit Lake docks where boats made regular runs to Shoreham and The Pelican Inn, West’s new resort at Midland Beach. Smaller craft shuttled passengers to Fair Hills and the growing number of private cabins on Big Pelican. Passengers wishing to be picked up at unscheduled stops needed only to wave a kerchief at the passing steamer. A round trip from Detroit to Pelican Lake took six hours and cost one dollar. Pop and ice cream were extra.

A 1912 Great Northern tourist brochure described the lakes area as, "one of the most beautiful in the United States… no better fishing anywhere… wives may accompany their husbands with the serene knowledge that they may enjoy life there in just a comfortable and civilized manner as at home."

Though the railroad brought passengers to West’s boat landings, it stymied his attempt to link the Pelican Valley Navigation Company with the headwaters of the Red. And the automobile, of course, was his eventual undoing. Rising prosperity after the "Roaring Twenties" allowed the purchase of automobiles, with resulting increased expectations of mobility and political pressure to improve roads. Ten short years after West was finally able to get his boats into Pelican Lake, highways made them obsolete.

There is doubt whether John K. West ever made much money from his steamboat line, considering a reputed $250,000 investment. But he did bring vacationers to our first resorts, many of whom became repeat customers, and eventually, cabin owners, even permanent residents. Though the success of his entrepreneurship is questionable, the lakes area tourist industry remains his lasting legacy.

~Roger Pinckney
Pelican Press, June 18, 1997