We often call a person who does something new while causing others to follow a trailblazer. This analogy comes from the real trailblazers who marked real trails. Someone might have put some marks on trees as signposts through a seemingly undifferentiated mass of woods and swamps. Sometimes, nobody followed and the trail faded away. Other times, more and more people followed and the worn path became easier to walk on and easier to see. Sometimes trails were improved enough that they graduated into being roads. The Gunflint Trail is such a trail.

One thing you must understand is land routes over this part of the country were once rare.

“The waterways were the transportation routes of this part of the country. Before the roads came along everybody used canoes to get around and hiking was very modest,” said Bruce Kerfoot of the Gunflint Historical Society.

Although the trail is relatively new, history in the area is old. Native Americans lived and hunted in this area a long time and later traded with the Voyageurs. Later interactions between the natives and the newcomers led to the Gunflint Trail.

GunflintTrail-1944“The Indians developed a hiking trail from Gunflint Lake to Grand Marais,” said Bruce. “It was 45 miles with an overnight stop at Swamper City. They would walk to Grand Marais to get their supplies and then they would come back to Gunflint Lake and get in their canoes and paddle off to wherever they lived, because Gunflint was sort of a lake that helped you travel in a couple different directions in your canoe.”

Bruce mentions how the historical society sponsored a roadside turnout where Swamper City once stood. It was really just a cabin of a man who let those passing by sleep on his floor.

Over time, logging and then the prospects of profitable mining brought people up the trail and the trail gradually became a road. Optimism for these industries brought a different kinds of path—the railroads.

When using the railroad for logging was found unprofitable and mining didn’t pan out, the railroads went away. One railroad was the General Logging Company Railroad. It started its life working as a railroad only to become a road.

“They are using that right of way to drive on right now,” said Bruce. “It was part of the timber efforts from the Minnesota side to get the pine and the white pine.”

Parts of another railroad’s path are under the process of reverse-trailblazing and are returning to nature. This includes the remains Port Arthur railroad which once ran near the failed Paulsen mine all the way to Port Arthur (Thunder Bay).

“There is the right of way visible up around the Kekekabic Trail which gets kind of close to where the Paulsen Line was. They have some signage that relates to that at the trailhead of the trail,” said Bruce. “Once you get to the Canadian side it is getting grown and falling back to nature.”

Although nature is erasing history in places, one place is working to preserve the history of the Gunflint Trail–the Chik-Wauk museum. This museum is housed in a building from the old Chik-Wauk lodge, which was abandoned for many years. This lodge was built in 1934. This was built when the Gunflint was becoming more known for a wilderness vacation getaway than mining and lumber.

stelprdb5187870The museum is open during the summer and highlights much history including that of the early Native Americans, the Voyageurs, later Europeans, and even geology. The museum is currently adding five more buildings to the site and adding many more interpretive trails. The museum currently has two full-time staff members and other workers.

“They are historically versed people who have lived in the community for years and they are there to tell history stories and legends and those sorts of thing,” said Bruce. “It is a very alive and very active museum. We are averaging between nine and ten thousand visitors a year.”

Bruce notes that much of the history is recent, since the area was settled relatively late in American history. It all started with a simple trail and people following this trail and making it bigger. Still, it is runs very close to wilderness that is still relatively untouched by civilization.

Snowy old gunflint trail photo from Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) Community Discussion Board
Lumber photo from WTIP
Gunflint Trail Map photo from United States Department of Agriculture