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Cass County awarded $42,400 grant for logging camp archeology

Logging history that eluded researchers for decades finally getting attention.

Archeological search
Archaeologist Doug Birk attempted to find the Munroe Turntable for many years before a tip led him to remains in 2013.
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BACKUS — Years ago on county managed forestland, Cass County workers found foundations and remnants from Minnesota's logging boom.

Now, a grant was awarded to perform archaeological research at the site of what may have been a turntable used to spin train engines around on their tracks.

The newest development in the project came Dec. 8, when the Minnesota Historical Society announced 42 recipients of $4,987,737 in grants from the Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment Cultural Heritage Fund.

Among those recipients was the Cass County project, called the Munroe Turntable-Roundhouse.

Though the grant is a new development, it supports a project that is considered phase 2 of an ongoing investigation going back as far as 1960. That’s when Pine River's renowned archaeologist Doug Birk was on the hunt for this roundhouse thanks to a tip from another Cass County resident.

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Though Birk had thoroughly mapped much of the associated Brainerd and Northern Minnesota Railway route, including lumber camps, spurs and other important features, the roundhouse was nearly written off as unfounded.

Munroe turntable central pivot foundation 1892-94.jpg
This illustrated photo, submitted for consideration to the Minnesota Historical Society, outlines what would have been an important part of the turntable that would spin locomotives around to face the opposite direction on a track. Work to document it began in 2013 with a grant awarded in late 2022.
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In October 2013, Jeremy S. Jackson uncovered new developments using a Light Detecting and Ranging device.

Later that month, Birk visited the site and confirmed that Jackson had found the elusive roundhouse. Along with residents Collin Swift and Bryan John, they continued researching, measuring and surveying the site over five additional occasions.

"It all began with the resource manager noticing something different in the forest," said Cass County Land Commissioner Mark Gossman. "It's part of Land Department procedures that we don't want to bother or interrupt any archaeological features within our ownership."

The initial steps included a phase 1 archaeological study to identify the boundaries of the potential site, approximately 10 acres. The study located what are believed to be a turntable, engine shed and other features that the phase 2 application described as substantially intact.

Phase 1 was completed in 2020. Gossman took over the project in May 2022.

Phase 1 not only determined the boundaries, but also gathered information necessary in determining whether to proceed with a phase 2, a more thorough study and archeological dig of the site to identify features and locate artifacts.

"If they find unique features or ones that justify preservation, they'll extract those features and put them into a dedicated repository, whether that be the museum in St. Paul, the Forestry History Center in Grand Rapids or the Cass County Museum," Gossman said.

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The research will also determine if the site qualifies for enrollment in the National Register of Historic Places, which might qualify the location for different levels of protection. Phase 2 could even lead to a phase 3 study.

The turntable-roundhouse is important because it further demonstrates local history. Research at the Munroe Turntable-Roundhouse could uncover artifacts related to the lumber camp surrounding it, known as Camp 8 before being named "Munroe" after the infant son of B&NM Railroad President Raymond W. Jones, now a past Minnesota lieutenant governor.

Camp 8 would have been an important branch of the tracks in those days. It was here that in 1892, two important logging spurs joined with the main line of the railroad, a main line that existed before the route the Paul Bunyan Trail currently follows.

Much of the lumber coming out of forests west of Pine River and Backus were brought to the main line through this junction, according to research provided with the grant application.

gallows_turntable.jpg
Though found in a different location, the Munroe Turntable in Cass County would resemble the above example.
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"This original site is part of a logging camp established along the old railroad grade," Gossman said. "It was utilized essentially to haul logs from Cass County to Gull Lake where they would float the logs down to a sawmill."

The project is also receiving funding from Cass County. The full grant amount is $42,400 with $4,240 from Cass County.

Gossman said their bids will include a stipulation that $1,440 of those funds be matched with volunteer labor, including tree removal and other site prep.

"It's all public dollars," Gossman said. "Not only the citizens of Cass County, but the citizens of the entire state of Minnesota are helping to fund this project."

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After Cass County commissioners accept the grant award, Gossman will send requests for quotes in January for a phase 2 qualified archaeologist.

If a bid is approved, background investigation of records for the site will be done from February through May with the dig starting after the ground has thawed, possibly continuing through October with findings available for review, tentatively, in January 2024.

Travis Grimler is a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal weekly newspaper in Pequot Lakes/Pine River. He may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com.

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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