The First City of the Mississippi

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on May 7, 2000

Everything has to start somewhere, and the mighty Mississippithe longest river in the United Statesbegins as a small stream 30 miles southwest of Bemidji, Minn., (population: 12,249). This makes Bemidji the first community on the river, which hasnt escaped local notice.

About 25 feet across at its headwaters, the river flows north out of Lake Itasca, through the city of Bemidji and into Lake Bemidji on its 2,348-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. “You can see to the bottom of it where it starts,” says Jane Van Hunnik, director of the Mississippi Headwaters Board in Walker, Minn. “Its pristine and crystal clear. You can wade across it.”

The board was set up to protect the Mississippis first 400 miles because the river provides drinking water to millions of Minnesota residents in addition to its scenic, cultural, and recreational values.

Bemidjis location on the Mississippi was important to the fur trade in the 1800s, says Wanda Hoyum, director of the Beltrami County Historical Society. “The waterways were a major source of commerce,” she says. “Then the train came in, and the traders could use the waterways to come to Bemidji and connect with the trains. Bemidji turned into a crossroads.”

It also lies in the heart of timber country, where folk tales in lumberjack camps spawned the legend of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox more than a century ago. Today, with 41 inches of annual snowfall and numerous freshwater lakes, Bemidji is a haven for outdoor recreation such as boating, fishing, skiing, and snowmobiling, and hosts the Headwaters Science Center, an educational museum that promotes learning with exhibits on botany, geology, technology, and other scientific disciplines.

But first and foremost, Bemidji proclaims itself the First City on the Mississippi. That distinction raises other geography questions, such as the rivers length, which is forever uncertain because courses of meandering rivers are always changing. The U.S. Geological Survey says the 2,348-mile Mississippi is the nations longest river, with the 2,315-mile Missouri a close second.

In the 1800s, explorers questioned the true source of the Mississippi. Some believed that Elk Lake, upstream from Lake Itasca, was the true headwaters. But in 1888 the Minnesota Historical Society commissioned Jacob Brower to survey the area and settle the controversy.

“He pinpointed the source,” says Mike Kovacovich, manager of Itasca State Park. “But not only that, he also started the initiative to have the Itasca area declared a state park.”

The late 1880s were a boom time for the logging industry, and Brower was deeply disturbed with excessive logging in the region. “It was a highly controversial issue,” says Kovacovich, “since logging represented jobs and income. But the state, in 1891, declared Itasca to be Minnesotas first state park. It passed by only one vote. Now Itasca has 25 percent of Minnesotas old-growth pine.”

At first people visited the park to view these trees, then they discovered the roots of the Mississippi. Now its just the opposite. “People come to visit the headwaters, but they return because of the big pines,” Kovacovich says.

More than 500,000 people travel to the 32,000-acre Itasca State Park annually, with more than 100,000 staying overnight at one of the parks campgrounds, hostel, or Douglas Lodge. The park also brings tourists to the first city on the Mississippi.

“Its great for tourism and economic development,” Hoyum says. “People come to look at the first city, explore the history of the fur traders and settlers, and they discover all the other things we have to offer.”

The logging industry isnt as large as it used to be in Bemidji, but some wood-related companiesPotlatch Corp. and Northwest Panelboard Constructioncontinue to operate as part of a diversified economy which includes a major health service provider and Bemidji State University.

For more information on Bemidji, call the Visitors & Convention Bureau at (800) 458-2223 or log onto