A dam is ruining one of America's greatest rivers. Though the river was supposed to be protected by a park, the dam was built and operated in complete disregard for its consequences to the park. Irregular water levels are damaging the ecosystem and camping beaches. Encouraged by a prominent conservationist named Brower, who believes passionately that the river ought to run free, the park's superintendent, a beautiful 24 year old woman, obtains a court injunction ordering the draining of the reservoir. When she strides onto the dam and orders the spillways opened, the dam authorities point a rifle at her and warn her that if she touches the control valves, they will shoot her...
his isn't the wishful plot of some unpublished Edward Abbey novel. It's a page of American history that has been nearly forgotten. This story, which happened a century ago, has remarkable parallels with our own experience with Glen Canyon Dam. The extraordinary woman at the center of this story deserves to be a hero of Grand Canyon river guides and people everywhere who believe in the value of wild rivers.
The river in this story is the Mississippi. For 350 years after Hernando de Soto became the first European to see the Mississippi, the river's source remained a mystery. Minnesota's intricately interconnected lakes, plus the fact that the infant river was small and flowed north instead of south, caused much confusion and debate. Only in 1889 was Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota proven to be the source by the expedition of Jacob Brower.
Jacob Brower may not have been an ancestor of David Brower, the Sierra Club leader who in the 1960s prevented Grand Canyon from being dammed, but they are certainly kindred spirits. At age 21, during the Civil War, Jacob Brower discovered the grandeur of the Mississippi River when he traveled from his home in central Minnesota to serve in the U.S. Navy on the lower river. After a career as a state legislator, railroad builder, and newspaperman, Brower indulged his enthusiasm for exploration and archaeology by trying to discover the route of the Coronado expedition. Then Brower achieved his own fame as an explorer, spending two months surveying the Lake Itasca basin and proving that the tiny, swampy creek flowing from it was the true headwaters of the Mississippi. Brower was enthralled by Itasca's pine forests, the tallest in the state, and felt that the headwaters were important to all Americans and ought to be preserved. He used his legislative connections to introduce a bill proposing Itasca as a state park. This was less than 20 years after Yellowstone became the world's first national park, and the whole idea of creating parks to preserve natural areas was still new and baffling. In the entire country there was only one other state park, Niagara Falls. By one vote the Minnesota legislature established Itasca as a state park, but failed to appropriate funds to actually buy the land. Brower became the park's first—unpaid—superintendent, and began a long struggle to acquire the land and protect it. He knew the timber companies would soon arrive at Itasca, and they did.
By 1903, logging at Itasca had reached a crisis. Huge tracts of land had been stripped, the trees dumped into the lake. The prospect of driving logs hundreds of miles down the Mississippi was irresistible for the timber companies, and the only obstacle was the smallness of the headwaters. To create a better canal, they built a timber and mud dam a quarter of a mile downstream from the lake. The rising water obliterated the original headwaters and began raising the level of the lake, flooding the shoreline, meadows, forests, creeks, and camping beaches.
Earlier that year, Minnesota's Governor had appointed a new park superintendent. Twenty four years old, Mary Gibbs was the first female manager of any state or national park in the world. She was appointed upon the death of her father, who had served as superintendent for two years. Mary had assisted her father in his duties. The Governor was a timberman and wasn't expecting Mary Gibbs to cause the timber companies any trouble.
Before long, Mary Gibbs showed up at the dam and demanded that the sluice gates be raised and the water lowered. She said that the timber company hadn't received legal permission to build the dam and was violating a 3-week old state law forbidding them from flooding the park. She threatened to have them arrested and prosecuted. The timbermen replied that they had legal rights to cut the timber and she had no right to interfere.
Three days later, this time with several witnesses, Mary Gibbs returned to the dam. According to a timber company affidavit filed against her in court a week later, she “in a loud, threatening, malicious and unlawful manner, commanded affiant, and those working under him, to raise sluice gates of said dam, and undertook, without warrant of law, to arrest M. A. Woods, one of the employees of plaintiff...that by threats of prosecution and arrest said Mary Gibbs, defendant, greatly alarmed affiant, and other employees.” Again she was rebuffed.
The next day Mary Gibbs returned with the sheriff, and an arrest warrant. The sheriff began to read the warrant but the lumbermen threw it back at him. M. A. Woods, rifle in hand, declared “I'll shoot anyone who puts a hand on those levers.” The Sheriff meekly handed the warrant back to Mary Gibbs. Gibbs stared at Woods and declared: “I will put my hand there, and you will not shoot it off either.” She strode onto the dam. She said later that she didn't think Woods was bluffing, “I don't think it was a very smart thing for me to have done that as he might have just done what he said.” Mary gripped the sluice levers and pushed as hard as she could. The levers wouldn't move. It took six strong men to push the levers and raise the gates.
But having outnerved the timbermen, Mary Gibbs and the sheriff, as described in the affidavit against her, “by force of arms wrongfully removed affiant and Joe Belmore… to the village jail at Bagley, Minnesota… in removing said Belmore, said parties intimidated, maltreated, and greatly alarmed affiant, that said Mary Gibbs still threatens to interfere and prevent… and continue to intimidate… by discharging firearms and threatening to further prosecute affiant if he returns.”
Having failed to intimidate Mary Gibbs, the timber company turned to its lawyers and got the county judge to issue an injunction threatening Gibbs with arrest if she returned to the dam.
Mary Gibbs went to the state Attorney General, who overturned the injunction against her, and secured an order to open the sluice gates and lower the reservoir to 18 inches.
Mary Gibbs got to watch the mighty Mississippi River being set free. But not for long. The next week, the Governor appointed a new park superintendent who would let the timbermen have their way. The dam remained in operation for another 14 years.
Before Mary Gibbs left Itasca, she selected logs for building a beautiful rustic lodge on a bluff overlooking the lake. The lodge remains today, named for the Attorney General who helped her defend the park. Today a million people a year come to Itasca from all over the country and the world. Perhaps most of them take for granted the idea of a park preserving a great river in its natural state. But we need to remember that this idea is only as strong as the people who believe in it and fight for it.
Perhaps Mary Gibbs had a unique personal reason for her fight; in her grief for the father she loved, she wished the park to remain an undisturbed memorial to him and his work. But I'm sure that Gibbs shared the awakening national consciousness that led President Teddy Roosevelt to declare at Grand Canyon on May 6, 1903, one week after Mary Gibbs lost her battle: “Leave it as it is.”
Mary Gibbs lived the rest of her life very quietly, almost completely forgotten by history. But it is important that we don't forget such models of courage and commitment. She died at age 104 in 1983—shortly after the reservoir behind Glen Canyon Dam was finally filled.
Material for this article was supplied by Connie Smith, Lake Itasca State Park Naturalist; Steve Nielsen, Minnesota Historical Society; and Charlie Maquire, Ranger at Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area.
Charlie, a longtime regular on Prairie Home Companion, has done more than anyone to recover Mary Gibbs' heroism from historical obscurity. He has toured Minnesota performing his ballad about Gibbs and Jacob Brower. He will be doing a program about her at the Mesa Community & Conference Center, 201 North Center St., Mesa, AZ on March 14 from 3:45 to 5:15. For more information call ASU Women's Studies, 602/965-2358.