The chain of lakes that make up North-Gunflint corridor are located approximately 100 kilometres southwest of the city of Thunder Bay and 50 kilometres southwest of Silver Mountain. These lakes, North, Little North, Little Gunflint and Gunflint, lie astride the Canada-United States border and are encompassed by La Verendrye Provincial Park. The area is also part of the Canadian Heritage Rivers System and borders the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) of Minnesota.
The history of this area, known to the society as the North-Gunflint Lakes Historic Corridor, dates back the Archaic period (6000BC to 500AD). Examples of First Nations people’s presence can be found at many sites, particularly to the north of Gunflint with the Saganaga Lake pictographs. The narrows separating Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes has a special significance for the Native peoples; they call it “Cow-o-bob-o-cock,” where the rock ledges come together. This seems to be the reason why they chose this area as one of their primary settlement locations.
The first Europeans to visit the area were French explorers Jacques de Noyon and Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye. La Vérendrye’s explorations would form the basis for the Grand Portage Voyageur Canoe route to the west, which was the primary route until it was abandoned in favour of the Kaministiquia route in 1799. Many traces of the voyageur presence have been found throughout the area.
In 1842 the area officially became part of the International Boundary with the adoption of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Eight years later Joseph Norwood identified the presence of iron-bearing rocks at Gunflint Lake; these deposits would be confirmed by Grand Marais, Minnesota pioneer Hazael “Henry” Mayhew in 1886.
In 1887 the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railway (PAD&W-first incorporated in 1883 as the Thunder Bay Colonization Railway) changed its name and re-routed its line to cross the border into Minnesota at Gunflint Lake to presumably tap the iron deposits of the “Gunflint Iron Range.” In 1888 explorations began just west of the Gunflint Narrows led by Minneapolis businessman John Paulson and a year later construction began on the PAD&W. In July 1892, as work crews were laying rails in the corridor, the railway and the Gunflint Lake Iron Company signed a contract to ship 1 million tons of iron from the Paulson Mine to Port Arthur. In January 1893 the line was completed, and the railway established a new town at the western end of Gunflint Lake called “Leeblain” (named after two major Toronto investors-Arthur Lee and Hugh Blain).
The world depression of 1893 caused the failure of the iron mine, which deprived the railway of its most important source of revenue. The railway lost money for the next six years until it was sold to the Canadian Northern Railway (C.No.R). Due to a lack of business, C.No.R stopped running trains past North Lake, virtually abandoning the line to Gunflint and Leeblain (at some point between 1893 and 1900 most of the buildings at Leeblain were shifted to the Gunflint Narrows).
In late 1902 the Pigeon River Lumber Company began construction on a logging line that stretched from the PAD&W on Little Gunflint Lake (now known as the C.No.R-Duluth Extension) into Minnesota to Crab Lake and beyond. This line was incorporated as the “Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad.” In response, the Government of the Dominion of Canada established a customs house at the narrows between Little Gunflint and Gunflint Lakes.
In 1907 C.No.R constructed a new station at North Lake, which was an exact copy of the station they had constructed 39 miles to the east at Silver Mountain. Two years later the Pigeon River Lumber Company closed their logging operations at Gunflint, and that June a forest fire destroyed a 1000 foot trestle on the main line at North Lake (now known as Trestle Bay).
Around this time Archie Bishop, whose Northern Land and Lumber Company lent its name to the village of Nolalu, established a homestead and sawmill at North Lake. His cutting operations would spread all over the lake to places like Sac Bay, the Height of Land and Rose Lake. Another sawmill, this one owned by George Matthews, would later be constructed on the railway approximately 2 kilometres east of North Lake Station.
In April 1908 the Governments of the United States and Great Britain signed a treaty to officially demarcate the international boundary between the US and Canada and surveys would begin three years later. When the maps were published in 1929, they represented the North and Gunflint Lakes as they were in 1911. We can also thank the International Boundary Commission (IBC) survey crews for one of the few images of the PAD&W railway in the area.
In the winter of 1915-1916 J.T. (James Thomas) Greer had crews cutting logs north of Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes. The logs were then rafted upstream to North Lake and loaded on rail cars just east of Trestle Bay. It was probably in 1915 that C.No.R removed the rails from the Minnesota portion of the line and possibly along parts of North Lake as well. At some point during this period the Ontario Department of Lands, Forests and Mines established a Ranger Station in the vicinity of Little North Lake with a lookout tower at Little North Lake Peak (2100ft.). The rangers may have patrolled the area on portions of the abandoned rails with gasoline speeders.
In June 1919 a forest fire burned both Bishop’s and Matthew’s sawmills, and four years later in 1923, Canadian National Railways (CNR) stopped running trains to North Lake following the loss of a trestle at Mackies (24 miles to the east). In 1937 CNR removed the rails to North Lake and the line was officially abandoned in 1938. During World War II the remaining portions of rail on Gunflint Lake were lifted and sold for scrap.
Even though parts of the corridor are encompassed by La Verendrye Provincial Park and lie within the Canadian Heritage River System, the historic sites in the area lack any formal recognition. Many of these locations are very fragile and are susceptible to any potential land developments. Recent events, such as the 1999 Boundary Waters-Canadian derecho and the subsequent logging that followed, have confirmed this vulnerability. The Silver Mountain and Area Historical Society is committed to working with the Government of Ontario, other non-profit organizations and private citizens to ensure that the history in the corridor receives the protection it deserves now and in the future.
There are many sites scattered throughout the corridor, which include the following notable locations:
- North Lake Station-This structure was originally constructed by C.No.R in 1907. It was abandoned in 1923 when trains stopped running past Mackies at Whitefish Lake. The station and associated structures (coal bunker, section house, turning wye) sat derelict until the 1970’s when a group called the Localmotive Society attempted to save the station from collapse. Unfortunately they were forced to construct a replica one mile east at Addie Lake, which survived until 2004.
- Trestle Bay-The site of the former 1000 foot trestle across a bay (also known as Goose or Bridge Bay) on North Lake is filled with remains of the structure. Pilings and rails litter the bottom and are very visible in the shallow water. Somehow a 1952ish Pontiac found its way into the water as well, its chrome bumpers still glittering in the sunlight.
- Leeblain-The town of Leeblain was founded in January 1893. Prior to that, it was the site of a construction camp in the fall of 1892. The workers who lived there left behind at least four rock ovens that were used to bake bread. Upwards of seven buildings, including a two-storey hotel, were located there.
- Gunflint Cross-In the fall of 1892 construction on the Canadian portion of the PAD&W was nearing its end. On October 8th crews were blasting a rock cut 1.5 kilometres east of the narrows when worker Joseph Montegia was killed in a tragic mishap. In remembrance of him, his fellow workers carved a cross in the south side of the cut near the spot where he died. The cross still remains in this location, though it has been subjected to an ill-conceived attempt to mark its location.
- Gunflint/Native Burial Ground-Near the narrows where the PAD&W crossed into Minnesota was located the “town” of Gunflint, which consisted of several buildings, including a hotel and a customs house. As already noted, the First Nations people tended to congregate in this area. Somewhere north of the town site, on the south shore of Magnetic Lake, was the site of a burial ground/cemetery.