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.







Stillwater Prison

Stillwater’s Territorial Prison is strongly linked to the history of Stillwater and Washington County, Minnesota.  In fact the newspapers in the 1800’s and early 1900’s often refer to Stillwater as “The Prison City.”  As such, it is not surprising that the occupants of the house we now know as the Rivertown Inn also had strong connections to the prison.  John O’Brien who ,with his wife Anna, built the house, had two brothers involved with the prison and a later occupant of the house worked for the prison after it was moved to Bayport.


Stillwater Prison


John’s brother, James, was for many years the president of the Minnesota Board of Prison Managers and their brother, Edward, was the clerk at the prison.  Both of these brothers were involved with the prison during the tenure of Warden Wolfer.  During this period a twine factory was established at the prison.   According to the St. Paul Daily Globe, James O’Brien went east with other committee members in 1890 to buy binding twine machinery for the prison.   This was part of an effort to undermine the twine monopoly in Minnesota.  Twine was a very important commodity as it was used by every farmer, logger and merchant.  The prison could produce high-quality twine at a reasonable price which undercut the prices set by the monopoly.


Stillwater Prison Twine Shop (Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society)

The Stillwater Daily Gazette of September 25th, 1896  stated about Edward O’Brien that, “For the past four years, he has been engaged as and acceptably filled the position of clerk at the prison.”  Apparently, Edward had a flair for interior design, as the in 1896, while Warden Wolfer and President O’Brien were on a visit to prisons in the east, he was “having the private office repainted, repaired and rejuvenated,” according to the Stillwater Daily Gazette.

There are also many newspaper articles about John O’Brien arranging for tours of the prison for out-of-town guests as well as visiting dignitaries.  On several occasions, he arranged visits for the Catholic Total Abstinence Union of Minnesota (of which he was the president) and once for the national convention of this abstinence society.  The dignitaries which he brought to the prison included Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore (the most powerful American Catholic of his day) and Bishop Foley of Detroit.

The other occupant of the house with connections to the prison was Kitty Jo Hohlt.  Her parents bought the house in the late 1930’s and in 1938 divided the house into 3 apartments.  The Hohlts lived in one apartment and rented the other 2 units.  According to the Stillwater Directories from 1962 to 1966 Kitty Jo worked at the new Stillwater Prison in Bayport first as a stenographer and then as a secretary.  It is my understanding that Kitty still resides in the Stillwater area and I would enjoy interviewing her about the history of the house.  If anyone can arrange for us to meet, please contact the Rivertown inn.


Stillwater Warden’s House Museum

On Sunday, April 27th, the Washington County Historical Society will host their annual open house at the Warden’s House Museum which is located in the only remaining original building at the site of Stillwater’s Territorial Prison. This free event will be held from Noon to 4pm and allows visitors to view the latest exhibits and chat with the knowledgeable volunteers.  The staff members at the Rivertown Inn are available to assist you with directions to this open house or to any other local historic site.

The O’Brien Surname

Since today is  St. Patrick’s Day, I thought I might blog about the O’Brien family surname.  John and Anna O’Brien were about as Irish as you can be.  His parents were Michael and Mary (Casey) O’Brien and her parents were John and Bridget (O’Brien) Kennedy.  So John and Anna’s children had a paternal grandfather as well as a maternal grandmother who was an O’Brien.  Of course, there is plenty of information to write about the Kennedy and Casey families, but I will focus this blog on the O’Brien’s (who are arguably as famous in Ireland as the Kennedys are in the U.S.).Brian Boru Dublin Castle

Brian Boru – Dublin Castle

The O’Brien dynasty is a royal and noble house founded in the 10th century by Brian Boru (941-1014 AD).  O’Brien literally translates to “of Brien.”  After becoming King of Munster through conquest, he established himself as the High King of Ireland.   His descendants continued to rule Munster until the 12th century when their territory was greatly diminished by separating the Kingdom into the Kingdom of Thomond (of which the O’Brien’s ruled) and the Kingdom of MacCarthy.  They held onto the Kingdom of Thomond for another 500 years.

The last of the O’Briens to reign in Thomond was Murrough O’Brien who surrendered his sovereignty in 1542 to the new Kingdom of Ireland under Henry VIII of the House of Tudor.  In exchange, Murrough was granted the title of Earl of Thomond and retained a role in governance.  Today, the head of the O’Brien clan carries the title of Prince of Thomond.clontarf_battle

Battle of Clontarf -1014

On April 25th, 2014,  the O’Brien clan will be holding special events honoring the millennium of the Battle of Clontarf and the death of the High King.

O’Brien is the fifth most numerous surname in Ireland and the descendants of Brien Boru are scattered across the globe.  It is estimated that there are over 700,000 O’Briens currently live in the United States.  This proliferation of O’Briens has been quite a challenge for me with the research I have done concerning the John and Anna O’Brien family.  Just recently I have finally made contact with some of their descendants who have been very helpful with information.  I also need to be very cautious with my research as there were at least 5 John O’Briens living in Stillwater, Minnesota, at any given time and in the James J. Hill archives at the Minnesota History Center I have found 3 John O’Briens – the lumber baron I am researching, a Minnesota attorney and a Canadian Senator.  It has been and will continue to be an interesting journey for me which I will enjoy sharing with the readers of this blog.

Please enjoy this youtube video from the O’Brien Clan website which is a beautiful musical tribute to Brain Boru, High King of Ireland:

Our current blog special for the Rivertown Inn is a complimentary bottle of wine with your room reservation in March or April.  Simply reserve on-line at and enter the word BLOG (all caps) as the promotional code, or call us at (651) 430-2955.  This offer can not be combined with any other promotions or discounts.

We are looking forward to seeing you very soon.