Pierre Bottineau, a trader and guide, staked a claim in 1848 where the Elk River joins the Mississippi River. The village of Orono (later called Upper Town) incorporated in 1855 and served as the county seat for a short time. A dam on Elk River provided power for a few businesses including a lumber mill and a flour mill. Ferry service was established by John McDonald at Orono in 1856. The village of Elk River (Lower Town plus Orono) was platted in 1865, but it wasn’t incorporated until 1880. The town center shifted when the tracks were laid for St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. Upper Town was devastated by a fire in 1887; another major fire ripped through town in 1903.
One of the last executions by hanging in Minnesota took place in Elk River on December 5, 1905 when CD Crawford was hanged for the “Box Car Murder.” As you might guess, the crime took place in a railroad boxcar. Heino Lundin was killed by two men who he had been riding with in the same box car. Crawford and George Parmer robbed a couple of guys in the boxcar on a train that was heading south from St. Cloud. Lundin had been sleeping and didn’t respond when nudged, so Parmer allegedly told Crawford to shoot him, which he did. The gunmen were soon caught (at Rogers Siding). Parmer got 30 years at Stillwater prison for his role, while Crawford was given the death penalty.
Highway construction in 1941 took many of the buildings in the original city center. In 1979, the township and the village of Elk River consolidated into the City of Elk River. Elk River today is working on reviving its town center; you’ll find some housing and a couple of places to eat and shop.
Ho Chunk Indians had a village around here in early 1850s (their reservation was up by the Watab River). The village of Otsego got going in fits and starts. It was surveyed and platted in 1857 and even got a sawmill that year. It was named after Otsego, New York, which is a township, county, and the first name of the village now called Cooperstown that became famous for being the home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Samuel Carrick started ferry service between Elk River and Otsego in 1854. Most of the early settlers were New Englanders. David Ingersoll arrived from Maine in 1854 and started a brick factory on the Mississippi that lasted until 1890. Most folks in the area were farmers, however.
The Panic of 1857 drastically slowed the village’s development. The village got a post office in 1856 but it closed in 1904. Otsego’s kids went to high school in Elk River. The city roared to life in 1990 when the entire township was incorporated as the City of Otsego. Because it was organized so recently, it has an unusual setup: Otsego has no post office, three school districts, six zip codes, three different phone companies, no fire department, and police service is provided by the county sheriff. Most residents commute to work elsewhere.
Exploring the Area
Otsego City Hall (13400 90th Street NE; 763.441.4414) has a few displays showcasing the town’s history.
Otsego Regional Park (15186 – 96th St. NE) has 70 acres of open space adjacent to the Mississippi River, with a paved multi-use trail, picnicking, and canoe access.
The Oliver H. Kelley Farm near Elk River (15788 Kelley Farm Rd.; 763.441.6896) replicates a working farm from the 1860s-era, complete with guides in period clothing and demonstrations of 19th century cooking techniques. The homestead also has a 2.5 mile hiking trail along the Mississippi.
Where to Stay
Wapiti Park Camp Grounds (18746 Troy St.; 763.441.1396) in Elk River has scenic sites along the Elk River that accommodate tents to RVs.
Next stop downriver: Dayton and Ramsey.
Next stop upriver: Monticello.
© Dean Klinkenberg, 2015