A Brief History of Pelican Rapids

Pelican Rapids 1884
Pelican Rapids 1884

A Brief History of Pelican Rapids

The first settlers arrived in the Pelican Rapids area in 1868 to locate and establish trading posts for the British Northwest Company, which was interested in trading with Chippewa Indians living in the area. Word soon spread of the beautiful countryside and the area was quickly homesteaded.

The City of Pelican Rapids, located in the northwest part of Otter Tail County, was located close to a trail leading from the Minneapolis- St. Paul area, about 200 miles to the southeast, through St. Cloud and Alexandria, to Fargo-Moorhead, which are 45 miles to the northwest. The railroad arrived in Pelican Rapids in 1882, a branch line from Fergus Falls, which was to continue northward. This never happened, however, and the line remained a "dead end" until its removal some 100 years later. The city was incorporated in 1883.

Originally the area depended on agriculture, with numerous small farms dotting the countryside. Over the years, the dependence on agriculture has broadened to include processing of farm products, notably turkeys. At the same time, growth has been enjoyed in tourism and a variety of other industry; heavy manufacturing, electronics, wood products, precision machining, etc.

The opening of Maplewood State Park six miles east of Pelican Rapids provided additional growth in tourism. Visitors can view the "World's Largest Pelican," a 250-ft. steel and concrete pedestrian suspension bridge, and two city parks connected by the walkway: E.L. Peterson Memorial Park and Sherin Memorial Park. Park facilities include a junior Olympic-size swimming pool, a picnic shelter, campground and shower house, plus a playground.

By 1990, population was 1,886.

Markers of Pelican Rapids History

Discovery of the oldest human skeleton on this continent put Pelican Rapids on the map for the archeology community. Although the 1931 road crew repairing a frost boil in the new highway #59 did put in a box and set aside the bones and two artifacts, they did not stop digging and call the scientists to properly record the dig. We could have had more than just the bronze plaque but a real interpretive center marking the site of the discovery of the more than 10,000 year old MINNESOTA WOMAN.

A dog team transported the first white men in 1868 that were searching for sites for fur trading posts for the Canadian Northwest Trading Company. They discovered the waterpower of the rapids in the Pelican River.

Local people built the World's Largest Pelican of an iron frame plastered and painted, to stand at the foot of the rapids in 1957 in time for the Pelican Rapids' Jubilee Celebration in 1958.

Down in the basement of some main street stores is evidence of the old storefronts used before the river-level road was raised. Businesses just moved upstairs one floor to be level with the new street.

Missing among the historical markers is any reference to the bogus Lord Gordon. Gordon, actually only an English butler, who took the money, absconded, almost ruining the new little village in 1871 but probably the greatest scoundrel ever to have set foot in Otter Tail County.

- Marguerite Andrews, March 5, 1997

For additional information on Pelican Rapids, and Otter Tail County, please follow the links below.