It’s quiet today, but the place where the Little Elk River meets the Mississippi River has a 5,000-year history of human activity, according to the archaeologists who have conducted excavations there.
So many lives had played out portions of their dramas at this place that when archaeologist Doug Birk, of the former Institute for Minnesota Archaeology, started his excavations at the 93-acre site, it must have been difficult to choose a place to start.
Birk has passed on, but the areas he and his team eventually excavated include a French fort, the remains of Anishanabeg (Chief Hole in the Day I)’s cabin, a Methodist-Episcopal mission, explorer Joseph Nicollet’s camp site, retired Indian agent Major Ashley Morrill’s barn, an 1850s-era quarry, and a flour and feed milling site.
There were also prehistoric artifacts; and Birk speculated Native Americans had a portage which led from the Mississippi, past the waterfall on the Little Elk, to water highways that included the Minnesota River.
In August of 1836, explorer Joeseph Nicollet camped here. As part of an effort to map the upper Mississipi River, Nicollet took an astronomical reading to determine the geographical location of the Little Elk. He also sketched the waterfall.
In 1856 William Sturgis built a grain and sawmill using the water power from the falls. He also built a store and established the town of Little Elk. Then, in 1885, retired Indian Agent Ashley Morrill bought Little Elk Mills and built a mansion in the town. Morrill added steam power to the operation and increased output to 125 barrels of flour per day. By 1892 Little Elk flour was being shipped across the country and the ocean.
In 1897, Little Elk River was reduced to a trickle — perhaps due to extensive logging upstream — and Morrill had to discontinue milling at Little Elk.
People like William Sturgis and Ashley Morrill had big dreams for Little Elk City. So did Doug Birk. Because of the site’s rich historical and archaeological significance, Birk imagined establishing an archaeological preserve which could potentially serve as an outdoor museum, nature preserve, and public park, according to the Morrison County Historical Society.
Today, as the Schoessling Unit of the Charles Lindbergh State Park near Little Falls, Little Elk is a nature preserve and public park. There you can see the foundation of the log cabin which Doug used as headquarters for his digs. But the rest is pretty much up to your imagination as you walk through the forest paths along the Mississippi like so many before you.