Pelican Rapids damsite has seen fire–and it’s seen rain–over a history that spans three centuries

Former mayor and local historian Wayne Runningen presenting a program on the Mill Pond and dam Jan. 11 at the
Pelican Public Library.

Rapid rise; steep falls; rising rapids; slow flow; fast flow; dry riverbed; frozen waters; raging river; flame; brimstone; timber; concrete; brick; mortar; and smoke on the water…the Pelican River and the Pelican city damsite has seen fire–and it’s seen rain.

Ever since W.G. Tuttle built a primitive log and timber dam to power a primitive sawmill in 1870, the Pelican River’s rapids and falls have defined the city of Pelican Rapids.

Nearly 150 years of history were outlined by local historian Wayne Runningen, in a Pelican library program Jan. 11. It is a fascinating program, complete with historic photos, that Runningen is sure to repeat as Otter Tail County celebrates its 150th year in 2018.

Controlling and harnessing the river essentially gave birth to the city, explained Runningen , a former mayor of Pelican Rapids.

This computer enhanced photo of the Pelican Rapids suspension bridge was taken by Pelican photographer Drego Nemic in 2015; note the bridge was decorated with flags of nations for the summer Pelican Fest events. The bridge, pond and giant pelican have been photographed countless times over the decades.

In 1879, R.L. Frazee brought the fledgling community into the industrial age with the construction of the Frazee Mill. Frazee is credited with, literally, messing with Mother Nature by changing the flow of the Pelican River. At its peak, his mill had a 120,o00 bushel grain capacity; capable of churning out 200 barrels of flour per day.

Frazee’s name is on what is believed to be the first residential plat for the city, in 1884; and he served as mayor from 1899 to 1901. He died in 1906. But Frazee descendents continued as citizens, business owners and leaders for much of the century.

The Pelican dam, probably pre- 1923, above. Note the Frazee Mill to the right

Stately, riverside structures that still exist from the era include Bell Bank, which were the Frazee offices. Down the street, Riverview Place, was once the First National Bank building, noted Runningen.

From 1890 to 1900, the census of Pelican Rapids grew from 624 to 1,033 –along with a thriving community of agricultural producers surrounding the city on all sides.

Flame, fire and smoke on the Pelican River was the devastating news in 1923, when the Frazee Mill burned. Witnesses reported burning shingles falling from the skies for miles around PelicanRapids.

Another view of the Pelican dam, probably 1940s–including the so- called “windmill” building that once housed a hydro power turbine.

A mill was rebuilt, which included the block structure (which still exists today) that housed a turbine for hydro power. When Otter Tail Power brought cheap electricity into the city in 1921, hydroelectric interest waned and by the World War II years, the immense turbine was scrapped out for metal for the war effort.

By 1960, the rebuilt Frazee mill site was sold, and the process of tearing down the immense structure began.

Runningen’s presentation also brought in “modern history,” with the reconstruction of the dam in 1987-88.

Fueled by more than $175,000 in DNR dam safety money, the immense project included halting the flow of the river. Pace of the project didn’t beat the winter freeze, and the Pelican dam was in an uncompleted state during thewinter of 1988.  “Frazzle Ice,” a phenomenon that occurred when upstream water temperatures above freezing “collided” with sub-freezing downstream temps obstructed flow and backed up water into Pelican businesses. It was probably the most serious public works disaster until the water line break that was just experienced in the early days of 2018.

Even the Army Corps of Engineers, in a 1988 statement, expressed concern that Pelican Pete’s concrete slab would lift and the “World’s Largest Pelican” would float away.

Those repairs of the dam 30 years ago were brought into focus by Runningen, in part, to offer historical perspective as the city investigates another round of possible repairs or dam modifications.

A town hall meeting is set for Jan. 30 7 p.m., at the Lake Region Electric Cooperative community meeting room, south of Pelican Rapids on Highway 59.

At the session, DNR officials are expected to present a wide range of information – including options for dam modification that would include a more natural river flow that would allow for fish and aquatic species movement up and down stream.

Many, especially lifelong Pelican residents, are concerned about modifications or dam removal –because of the iconic role the dam has played in the city’s history.

Runningen’s historical program was objective, with no viewpoint regarding dam modification. However, Runningen does have reservations about the impacts on water level; the Mill Pond reservoir; and the water flow back and through the city.