Boating on the St. Croix River

Many Rivertown Inn guests enjoy an outing on the St. Croix River by canoe, kayak, yacht, paddleboat or even an authentic Venetian gondola.  It’s hard to imagine that this beautiful river we now use mostly for pleasure excursions was once a teaming “freeway” for steamboats shipping goods up and down the river.  By the mid 1880’s the banks of the river had been deforested and Stillwater’s riverfront was lined with huge, noisy sawmills.

John O’Brien and his brother James, owned several steamboats.   The most famous one was the G.B. Knapp, which they acquired in 1888 when they purchased the Marine Lumber Company.  According to an article in the Stillwater Messenger the Knapp was the “longest in service in these waters, and a craft that has carried more people up and down the St. Croix than any other three boats combined.”GBKnapp

The G.B. Knapp

Unfortunately, the Knapp was in very poor condition when it was acquired by the O’Brien brothers.  In March of 1889, she was retired.  Her machinery was reused in a new boat which the O’Briens christened the “Ravenna” and the hull of the Knapp was used as a floating boarding house for lumber rafting crews.

Although the St. Croix River was a very busy shipping route, it was often used for pleasure excursions.  It was reported by the Stillwater Daily Gazette on Monday, July 23, 1900 that, “This afternoon John O’Brien took the Cardinal and Bishop Foley out on the St. Croix in the yacht of George H. Atwood.”   The Atwood yacht was  78 feet long and was built in 1899 by George Muller of Stillwater.  Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore and Bishop Foley of Detroit were guests of John and Anna O’Brien for a week at the home we now know as the Rivertown Inn – but that story will have to be told in a future blog.

Among the many options our guests at the Rivertown Inn often use to enjoy the St. Croix River include the following Stillwater businesses: 45 Degrees for paddleboards, Stillwater Boat Rentals for boats, Gondola Romantica for gondolas, Stillwater Riverboats for riverboats and Wahoo Adventures for kayaks.




Bicycling Stillwater

Since the late 1800’s, bicycling has been very popular in Stillwater and the surrounding area.  We often have Rivertown Inn guests who arrive on their bicycles and many people come to Stllwater to either participate in or watch the local bike races.  On April 27th, Washington County will host the 48th annual Minnesota Ironman Bicycle Ride and on June 5th Nature Valley Bicycle Festival  will be held in Stillwater.  Guests who arrive without a bike can rent bicycles by calling the Rivertown Inn where our staff will gladly make arranges for them through Wahoo Adventure.


The “bicycle craze” in the United States began shortly after the safety bicycle was invented by John Kemp Starley in 1885.  Unlike the earlier bikes with the large front wheel, the safety bike featured a steerable front wheel, equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel.


As early as 1886, bicycle races were held in Stillwater.  The Saint Paul Daily Globe reported on a race held in April of 1886, between “Prince, champion of America; Woodside, champion of Ireland, and Eck, champion of Canada.”  It was a 15 mile race which was completed in 52 minutes and 8 seconds with the fastest mile being completed in 3 minutes and 51 seconds.  In July of 1891, under the heading “Dull Day in Stillwater,” the St. Paul Daily Globe reported on “the ladies bicycle race at the new Athletic park…”

The next major innovations in bicycle design were the use of pneumatic tires in 1888 and the invention of the coaster brake in 1896 (an important need for those who do not live on flat land).  Before the use of pneumatic tires an elaborate suspension system (which made the bikes heavy, cumbersome and expensive) was needed to ride comfortably on hard surfaces.  These new tires allowed for a much lighter frame and the resulting lower production cost brought the bicycle within reach of most people.  In fact the bicycle became so popular and affordable that in 1895 the cost of a good horse hit an all time low.

The Stillwater Cycle Club was organized in July of 1895.  In addition to promoting the hobby, they also raised funds to build local bicycle trails.  John O’Brien, who built the home we now know as the Rivertown Inn, was elected president of this organization in 1896.  Several newspaper articles mention that John O’Brien was an enthusiastic cyclist and on April 24, 1896, the Stillwater Daily Gazette reported that, “John O’Brien has purchased wheels for his children and may occasionally be seen mounted on a cycle himself – and let us add that these good sized folks, like Mr. O’Brien and R.S. Davis, appear graceful on their silent steeds of steel.”

As noted in the Saint Paul Globe, the Stillwater city council soon became involved with regulating this new mode of transportation.  On May 21, 1896, they stated that the city council passed “an ordinace governing bicycling in the city.  It provides for a maximum speed of six miles per hour, prevents riding on sidewalks, and compels riders to carry lanterns on their wheels after dark.”  A few months later, they revisited the new ordinance and removed the lantern requirement.  I have not been able to confirm any other changes to this ordinance, so it might be amusing to racers in Stillwater, that they could be ticketed for traveling faster than six miles per hour.

In August of 1896, the Deere Weber Bicycle Day at the State Fair Grounds was touted as being “the greatest cycle meet ever held west of Chicago” by the Saint Paul Globe.  Among the participants in the “One-Mile Fat Riders’ Race – weight must be over 200 pounds” was John O’Brien of Stillwater.  It was reported that “The fleshy gentlemen provided considerable amusement” and John came in third place.

Bicycle on SUmmit Avenue

In 1897 and 1898, the local newspapers include many articles concerning bike runs from St. Paul to Stillwater by the Capital City Cycle Club.  The Little Falls (Minnesota) Weekly Transcript reported in 1897 and 1898 about Felix Simonet and friends of Stillwater traveling between the two cities on bicycles.

Although the Stillwater Cycle Club had been planning a cycle path to Lake Elmo since early 1897, it was reported by the St. Paul Globe on September 21, 1898, that “The city of Stillwater has no cycle paths.  It is to be excused for this, perhaps, as they would have to be equipped with elevators and safety devices.”  This little jab, may have got them moving, as the Stillwater Gazette reported on April 20th, 1900, that “Work on the Lake Elmo Path began this morning.”  By early 1901, the Stillwater Cycle Club was working with the area boards of county commissioners to complete the cycle path to Stillwater “as far as the Ramsey and Hennepin county lines.”


Typical Ladies Bicycle Attire

The “cycling craze” or “golden age of cycling” dropped off dramatically between 1900 and 1910 as automobiles became the preferred mode of transportation.  One legacy of this “golden age” concerns the rights of women.  According to Wikipedia, “the impact of the bicycle on female emancipation should not be underestimated.  The safety bike gave women unprecedented mobility…As bicycles became safer and cheaper, more women had access to the personal freedom they embodied, and so the bicycle came to symbolize the New Woman of the late nineteenth century…Since women could not cycle in the then-current fashions for voluminous and restrictive dress, the bicycle craze fed into a movement of so-called rational dress, which helped liberate women from corsets and ankle-length skirts and other encumbering garments…”

Thank you for your readership and please let me know if there is anything of local interest you might suggested for future blogs.  Next week we will be announcing an exciting new blog special for the month of May at the Rivertown Inn, so stay tuned.







Rivertown Inn History, Cuisine and the Arts

On today’s date in 1842, John O’Brien’s parents, Michael and Mary (Casey) O’Brien, were married in Miramachi,  New Brunswick.  Although, I’m sure their wedding could in no way be compared to today’s often elaborate celebrations, it was a very important event for them, their friends and family (possibly of most importance was that their first child, Edward Augustus O’Brien, was born just 2 months after their marriage).  Over the course of their marriage, they had a total of 9 children.  Mary (Casey) O’Brien died in Stillwater, Minnesota, on December 4, 1882.  Michael O’Brien died in Stillwater on December 5, 1907.  He was almost 100 years of age at the time of his death (there are several different records concerning the date of his birth, so he was somewhere between 94 and 100 years old).  His obituary in the Stillwater Gazette stated that, ‘Mr. O’Brien was held in high esteem and was noted for a strong personality and for a vigor of manhood that astonished his many acquaintances.”

This week there are three events in Stillwater you should consider attending which are either at or within a short walk of the Rivertown Inn.  On Friday, April 11,  from 5-9 pm , Art On Main will be hosting artist receptions at several of Stillwater’s Main street art galleries.  The participating art galleries this week include the Tamarack Gallery at 112 S. Main St., Gallery 310 at 310 S. Main and the Stillwater Art Guild Gallery at 402 N. Main.  More information can be obtained by calling 651-439-9393


Chef Ray Remler

At the Rivertown Inn on Saturday, April 12, from 1-4 pm Chef Ray will be teaching one of his very popular Cooking Classes.  The theme this month is “Sweet and Savory Crepes – France’s Comfort Food.”  Skills covered in this class include making whole wheat and bran crepes, preparing 3 distinctive fillings and creating a mixed berry compote crepe with a Greek yogurt vanilla mousseline.   As of the posting of this blog, there are only 3 seats available for this class.  Please call (651) 430-2955 to place your reservation.  Culinary students who take Chef Ray’s Cooking class, receive $50. off their nights stay for either the night before or the evening of the class.


Roosevelt Credit

On Saturday April 12th, the Valley Chamber Chorale will perform a concert in Stillwater titled “Words to Live By” with special guest Roosevelt Credit.  Mr. Credit is a bass/baritone and has performed in many Broadway and off Broadway productions.  He is currently touring the U.S. with the production of Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess.”  The concert will be performed at 7:30pm at Trinity Lutheran Church.  You can purchase tickets at or by calling 651-430-0124.  Tickets are $27. each, but guests at the Rivertown Inn may receive tickets at a discounted rate of just $15. per ticket.  Please let us know in advance if you would like to purchase tickets through the Inn by calling us at (651) 430-2955

Come to Stillwater for a stay at the Rivertown Inn, enjoy great art, create incredible cuisine and experience world-class music – it really doesn’t get any better than this!




Local and Civil War History Events

Located just 3 blocks from the Rivertown Inn, Stillwater’s Historic Courthouse  is the site of many exhibits, concerts, events and weddings.  This coming weekend they will be hosting the annual History In Your Backyard.  This free event features the rich history of Washington County through old-fashioned games, historic artifacts and photos, refreshments, and activities. Children of all ages may participate in an architectural scavenger hunt and play with old-fashioned toys.  The event is designed to bring together, in one location, the purveyors of local history so people can learn about the many historic opportunities there are in Washington County and the surrounding area.


Stillwater’s Historic Courthouse


In addition to learning about local history, guests can tour the old county jail, and view an exhibit on the history of Marine on St. Croix, one of Minnesota’s oldest towns.  Presented by a committee from the Stone House Museum in Marine on St. Croix, the installation tells the story of the community on the river from the time the first lumber mill was built, until the community celebrated its centennial in 1938.  At 2 p.m., Mary Smith of the Stone House Museum will give a short presentation on the history of Marine on St. Croix.


Civil War Memorial


In front of the Historic Courthouse is the local Civil War Monument .  This monument was recently restored and rededicated to the memory of the men from Washington County who served during the war.  Among the many names on the monument, you will find Edward O’Brien.

Edward O’Brien was the older brother of John O’Brien (the original owner of the house we now call the Rivertown Inn).  He enlisted in the 6th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company I, as an Orderly Sergeant on October 4, 1862.  The regiment was first sent to guard the frontier from Native Americans who had been forced to leave Minnesota at the end of the US-Dakota War in September of 1862.  After pursuing the Native Americans as they fled west of the Missouri River and north into Canada, the regiment returned  to Fort Snelling where they were placed on garrison duty.  Subsequently the Regiment Captain resigned and as a result of this, on February 10, 1863, Edward was promoted to Second Lieutenant.

On June 14, 1864, the 6th Minnesota left Fort Snelling and were stationed in Helena, Arkansas, where many men died from disease (the final death tally for the regiment was 12 men who died in battle and 165 men who died from disease for a total of 177 loses).  After a few months in Helena, they were sent north to St. Louis, back south to New Orleans and then returned to Arkansas where they stormed Fort Blakely in January of 1865 – one of the last battles of the war.

Helena Arkansas

On March 9, 1865, Edward O’Brien was appointed Captain of the 24th United States Infantry, Colored Troops.  He never assumed this post as the war ended a few months later and he was at home on a furlough during this period.  The United States Colored Troops were disbanded in the fall of 1865.

If you are interested in local Civil War history, we would recommend “In Their Own Words, The Civil War as Seen by Washington County Soldiers,” by Robert Goodman and Peter DeCarlo.  This book was published by the Washington County Historical Society and is available for purchase at the Wardens House Museum, the Historic Courthouse and the Valley Bookseller.  Also, on Monday, April 7th, from 7:00 to 8:30 pm, the Stillwater Public Library will be hosting “Bring Home the Civil War” a presentation by Chuck Logan the author of “South of Shiloh.”  The cost for this event is $30. and you can register on line at, by calling (651) 275-4338 or emailing to