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Lanesboro: Scenic gem of the valley

Mon, May 1st, 2000
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Time Capsule 2000By Mike McGrath

Editors note: This is the second in a Journal series of area city profiles.

In the early days of pioneer settlement of this region, the railroad was the king of transportation. Where the railroad went, prosperity followed. Much like the interstate highways of today, the railroad carried the bulk of interstate commerce, and likewise brought in the bulk of visitors and settlers.

When the Southern Minnesota Railroad was planned for the Root River Valley, those who had vision for economic opportunity and hope for the future went out ahead of the railroad and searched for suitable sites for new cities and villages.

It was on the Fourth of July, in the year 1868, when a group of such visionary types, investors from New York in this case, arrived on the banks of the Root River at the site of what is now Lanesboro. Calling themselves the Lanesboro Townsite Company, they had come to build a town.

The course of the river over eons of time had carved a natural setting for a dam, and the lake would be framed by the surrounding hills and bluffs.

According to local historian Don Ward, the towns founders had a specific plan in mind. Lanesboro was supposed to be a resort town, but after they built the dam they realized the water power was just too good, explained Ward.

It is hard to imagine the spirit of that time, the unbridled energy which transformed the quiet river valley into a bustling, thriving frontier community. The new townsite company commenced work immediately on the dam, a large hotel, and the road up the west bluff which now goes to Fountain. The land for the village had been purchased for $30 an acre from some early settlers who had arrived in the 1850s, and was described by one old timer as a howling wilderness.

When the railroad arrived it brought train loads of energetic entrepreneurs who built stores and banks, hotels and restaurants, bridges and dikes, churches, a school and even a brewery. A photograph taken from the north bluff in 1876 reveals a community already spreading out over the hills and neighboring fields. The downtown was centered around the grand Phoenix hotel, located immediately adjacent to the railroad depot.

Though the original plan for the village was to create a resort town, it certainly was the railroad and a water-powered milling industry that defined what Lanesboros legacy would be for the rest of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. The flour and flax mills along the mill pond processed the harvests of the surrounding farm lands, then shipped it in barrels (assembled right in town) down the valley on the railroad to the rest of the world. Wheat was the primary crop of farmers and their harvests supported the Lanesboro mills where the wheat was ground to flour and sold to eastern markets.

After the failure of the regions soils to continue to produce an adequate supply of wheat, the grain was imported from farther west to keep the mills running. Eventually, one by one they were gone. The last mill burned down in 1934, bringing to an end an era which characterized the citys industry since its beginning.

Around 1910, a cannery was opened and processed sweet corn and peas that were locally produced. It provided summer employment for many residents until it, too, was gone with the ages.

The Depression years were not easy on the little village on the river. Gradually the community moved away from processing the farm crops and became a service center for the surrounding agricultural community. In 1947, the Lanesboro Sales Commission opened for business providing the only livestock auction arena between the Mississippi and Austin. For over 50 years farmers have bought and sold their stock at Lanesboro and it remains today the largest industry in the city.

But riding the tide of agricultures ups and downs began to take its toll on the little town. By the 1960s, the days of the railroad were coming to an end. The last regular passenger train went down the tracks in 1964. Although freight trains continued on the line for a while, they too were doomed , with the last freight train passing through Lanesboro in 1979.

Rails to Trails

It was shortly after the departure of the last freight train that talks began about the possibility of establishing the Root River Recreational Trail. In the beginning, the talks were controversial. Some property owners were opposed to this type of development. But in the 1980s, times were tough in farming and the little village was dealing with a declining population and falling property values. By the time the trail was constructed and opened in 1989, interest in the community was beginning to arise again.

The last ten years have surely seen some significant change to this scenic gem of the valley. It is easy to say that the town has, yet again, been discovered. Ironically, the same railroad grade that once brought many new settlers and visionaries to this village in the valley now attracts thousands of visitors each week during the summer months.

In the days when the railroad brought the visitors to Lanesboro the bluffs of the Root River Valley were nearly devoid of trees, revealing long walls of formidable limestone cliffs to the observant eye traveling up the valley from La Crosse. Today the trees nearly obscure the bluffs, exposing their sentinel presence only sporadically.

Similar to many other tourist towns, Lanesboros rapid fame has brought with it a constantly changing face on its main street business district. Where once were stores and shops and services to serve a typical Midwest agricultural community, one now finds gift shops, restaurants, an art gallery, and recreational outfitters.

In many ways, the end of the last century was an end of an era for this community, and the beginning of a new one. Changes in the way business is done all over this country, with more emphasis on shopping in corporate owned chain stores in larger cities, where prices are much cheaper and supply much greater, has helped to spell the demise of every small town business district.

Just like in the old era, when visionaries came to tame the howling wilderness in the name of progress, new visionaries now arrive on summer afternoons and find new opportunities.

A resort town

Ironically enough, while it was the rise of economic opportunity in a young, growing agriculture industry that squelched the plans to make Lanesboro a resort town in the beginning, it has been the decline of agricultural opportunity that has brought life around full circle and is creating a resort town here in the valley.

Each summer, Lanesboro becomes more of a public place, or public playground, as visitors arrive from all over the nation to enjoy its scenic beauty and quiet lifestyle. Community leaders and school officials watch cautiously as home prices rise and school enrollment declines. City officials must deal with increased demand for some services while reluctant to raise levies. Being a tourist town during the summer months requires extra services such as police protection and park maintenence.

While it was the unique bluff and riverfront topography which enticed early townbuilders to the valley, it is that same landscape which presents challenges to Lanesboros future growth.

New city administrator Barbara Hoyhtya puts it in perspective: One of the problems Lanesboro has is because of the topography of the area. We dont have room for industrial or commercial development which could alleviate or help carry the tax burden for the home owners.

As the Root River Trail expands throughout the area, other communities look on e

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