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One letter makes all the difference in creek's name

A century ago, the Petrell family members were big shots up in the Fairbanks-Brimson area of St. Louis County.

Edwin Petrell was a bricklayer in Duluth who homesteaded in the area, local historians say. In 1912, he sold the three-acre Town Hall site to the township for $3. The Petrells also ran the Petrell Post Office from 1909 to 1920. There's Petrell Road in Section 2 of Fairbanks Township. And a log school that ran from 1908-1920 was called the Petrell School.

Not surprisingly, the local creek that ran through the area was named after the family, too. The problem is Petrel Creek somehow came to be misspelled, missing an "l" in official state records, maps and road signs; even on U.S. Forest Service maps.

That was a grammatical wrong that needed to be righted for posterity's sake, said local resident and history buff Michael Unger. There are no surviving Petrells living in the area, but there are some descendants who still own land and cabins nearby, Unger said. Two Petrell family members even sent letters supporting the change.

"Some of the family came back Labor Day weekend for the centennial celebration of the town hall," Unger said. "We had hoped to get the name changed by then."

Not so fast, said the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, which is in charge of renaming lakes, rivers and other natural features in the state. Minnesota statutes require that the DNR's Division of Waters investigate to make sure there are no other conflicting uses of the name Petrell Creek, trying to avoid problems and confusion caused when two places have the same name.

It's a formal process that seems to have been needed decades ago as the state sprouted a confusing plethora of Island, Round and Rice lakes.

"There's about 200 Mud Lakes out there, maybe more," said Pete Boulay, assistant state climatologist who also is in charge of all geographic name changes for the DNR. "We aren't going to start changing them, unless people ask."

The goal is to avoid duplication and controversy when possible, Boulay said, noting that if they wanted to rename Petrel Creek "Mississippi Creek, or Minnehaha Creek, we'd probably have a problem with that."

Boulay gets a few requests each year to rename lakes, rivers, creeks, islands, hills, bluffs, "just about anything geographic. If it's named on a map, we are the ones it goes through," Boulay said.

Before the DNR will consider a change the rules require a petition with 15 signatures and a public hearing before county commissioners to make sure there's no outpouring of opposition. That public hearing on Petrell Creek was Nov. 13, before the regular meeting of the St. Louis County Board of Commissioners in the Duluth courthouse.

"People think, why all the fuss? But we do all of these requests by the book to make sure we don't change something and then have to change it back," Boulay said.

"The hearing went really well. We're going to get the name changed," Unger said on Wednesday.

Starting on signs

Unger said he first went to local U.S. Forest Service officials in Aurora, who agreed to make the name change for the next revision of Superior National Forest maps. They even okayed Unger making two new wooden signs now marking Petrell Creek along St. Louis County Road 44.

"I made them by hand, but they look pretty good," Unger said.

His next effort was getting the extra 'l' on the small green "Petrel Creek" signs on County Road 16, Town Line Road, where it crosses the creek. County Highway Department officials pointed him to Boulay's office to get the ball rolling.

"When this started to drag out I was just going to go out there and paint on an extra l by myself," Unger said. "But I figured they'd know who did it. So I decided to wait and do it the right way."

Now, Unger said the county will probably put up the new signs once the renaming process is complete.

Not all name changes are non-controversial, however. Many people protested when state officials unilaterally wiped the name Squaw off all lakes and rivers in 1995, requiring them to be renamed. Many Minnesota residents charged that the term squaw is derogatory and racist.

Lake County was at the forefront of the controversy, refusing to rename its Squaw Creek and Squaw Bay. When pressure was applied, the County Board offered to call them "Politically Correct Creek" and "Politically Correct Bay," but the DNR nixed the idea, believing it was a joke. Eventually, the bodies of water were renamed Fall Bay and Mist Creek.

Readers may recall that Robin Washington wrote a column this summer for the News-Chronicle about Dago Creek in Lake County, which has maintained its controversial name in spite of the Squaw River and Creek debate.