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Brent Peterson: The Last of the Lumber Barons - James E. McGrath

The lumber industry ran the economy of Stillwater and helped fuel the economic expansion into other industries, many of which still exist today.

The St. Croix River Valley at one time produced more lumber than any other place in the world. The lumber industry ran the economy of Stillwater and helped fuel the economic expansion into other industries, many of which still exist today.

However, the lumber industry came to an end when the last log passed through the St. Croix Boom in 1914. Or did it?

After the boom closed, there still were lumber operations in Stillwater for many years after. George Atwood continued through the first World War, mainly surviving on logs shipped in on rail. Another lumber baron continued right through the 1930s, the last lumberman in Stillwater. His name was James E. McGrath.

McGrath was born at Pleasantmount, Pa., on June 16, 1861, the son of John and Mary Ann McGrath. His education was limited to the common schools of his home town and worked on a farm and in the logging business in Pennsylvania until 1878.

He came to Stillwater in 1878 and worked in various positions for other lumber and logging companies until 1886 when he went into business under the name of Dougherty & McGrath, which operated near the Totogatic River in Wisconsin. This partnership was dissolved in 1889, and he did business alone for the rest of his career.

Then, McGrath logged for the next 10 seasons on the Tamarack River. Because of his operations there McGrath was known to many lumberjacks as “Tamarack”. For 29 years, he logged on the Upper Snake River in Aitkin County, about 20 minutes from the town of Willow River. In 1909, McGrath built the town of White Pine, where he constructed a large saw mill, including a planning mill which operated until 1923.

In a Feb. 5, 1914, article from the “Stillwater Daily Gazette,” the headline on page two read: “Good Logging at White Pine.” In the article, McGrath said the past winter “has been about ideal for logging operations in our vicinity, and we are doing excellent work at all our 13 camps.”

At that time, McGrath had about 900 men working for him with about 200 of these men having their homes in Stillwater. His brother Frank and Alexander McDougall assisted McGrath during that winter. It was expected 15 million feet of logs would be cut and hauled to the mill that winter. This was the same year the St. Croix Boom closed.

In 1900, McGrath purchased the mansion located at 416 South Fourth Street in Stillwater. This house had a great deal of lumbering history. It was constructed in 1878 by lumberman Roscoe F. Hersey, and was later purchased by another lumberman, John G. Nelson. Nelson sold the home to McGrath.

By 1936, McGrath was in the lumber industry for 50 years. The town of McGrath, Minn., was named for him and at the newly formed Lumberjack Days Celebration in Stillwater, McGrath was the judge for the most “typically” dressed lumberjack contest.

McGrath did what most of the previous lumbermen couldn’t do and that was not only to continue logging operations based in Stillwater after 1914, but he also did it well.

Edward November 13, 2012 at 11:16 PM
Great story. Are there any descendants of McGrath in the Stillwater area today?
Rita November 14, 2012 at 02:58 PM
Yes there is. I work with his great grandson, Mark McGrath. Mark's younger brother is James E. McGrath IV and he lives in the area as well. Rita
John November 17, 2012 at 01:40 PM
Hi John from Ireland and I came upon Stillwater and have fallen in love with the place. I think my Gran Uncle was an inmate in the 1880's. Looking for anyone that maybe connected with the old prison or anything that could help Rita. Any help would be great.
John November 17, 2012 at 01:41 PM
Wow. The more I am viewing the area and history. The more Stillwater is drawing me to her.What a beautifly place.

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