Very mysterious. Murder? Intrigue? Failed dreams? Sounds like it would be the title of a cool book huh? Maybe something you would have found in the Hardy Boys collection. But this is no work of fiction. Many do not know it even existed, partly because its tenure was so brief. Much of what was there is veiled in a cloak of mystery and it does not give up its secrets easily. Historical and archeological investigation has offered a few glimpses into life at this remote frontier village that was poised to become a metropolis in the wilderness. Its story has certainly captivated me and will continue to do so for some time.
So here we are; we have just passed the halfway point of June. Summer is just around the corner and so is vacation. There are only 2 more days of classes before exams and the end is in sight. I still have a bit of marking to finish, but once that happens I am in the clear. It will be nice to not have to worry about assignments, marks and or even getting up early. It has been a long semester and I really need to recharge the battery.
Now speaking of vacation, I am very excited about our upcoming plans for the month of July. For many years my brother, who lives in Toronto, has been bugging my wife and I to bring the boys for a visit. The boys are also getting older (8 and 6), and the window is rapidly closing for us to do “kid” things with them. So we made the decision that we would “kill two birds with one stone” and do Toronto and Disney in one shot. We’ll be driving to Toronto, head to Disney for 12 days and then spend some time in Toronto before returning home. Should be an awesome time!
So what’s the ghost town stuff? Did you go to the old west or something? Well, as you probably guessed from the title, the ghost town is a real place on Gunflint Lake. Leeblain…you may have heard me mention it a few times in the past (just a few). Anyway, though I’ve been to the site of this former “town” on many occasions in the past, I had never really explored where many of the “buildings” were located (mostly because I didn’t know where they were). What I found was very exciting and makes me want to go back as soon as possible.
I was up bright and early on Friday morning, which was very tough considering I had a late night on Thursday (we had our school convocation ceremonies and then it was out for a drink and some conversation). I didn’t get to bed until 1:00, so I was pretty tired when I rolled out of bed a 6:00. Why was I going hiking on Friday you ask? Well, I had the day off; I get one free day off per year (personal day) and I usually take it on this day since the kids have a PD day at their school.
After loading up my stuff and the dog in the truck, I had to zip over to my mom’s where the boys had spent the night (mom and dad were both at grad). From there it was supposed to be a 2 hour drive to Gunflint, which ended up taking me 20 extra minutes since the road is so rough. I was in a bit of a hurry since I was supposed to meet up with Bruce and Sue Kerfoot at the site. Bruce grew up on the lake, and is very familiar with the historic locations in the area. It was Bruce, through his own explorations and those of his mother Justine and the local natives, who told me about the other buildings at the site.
I arrived just after 10:00, very apologetic to Bruce and Sue who were waiting for me. The road in is so rough that one must drive slow, but it is also very picturesque. I always like to stop just north of Magnetic Lake, where the road begins a long decent from the surrounding ridges down to the lake. Here, at an elevation of nearly 1800ft, you are afforded a spectacular view of the lakes and area; it makes for some great photos. Definitely God’s Country for sure!
Once I got to the lake we began our explorations. Unfortunately for everyone, the area we were exploring was not as pristine as it once was. I was at Leeblain in 1997, but I did not know to look for remains in this particular spot. Two years later, in 1999, the Boundary Waters was hit by a large storm called the Boundary Waters-Canadian Derecho (derecho means straight line wind). The storm caused massive blowdowns throughout the area, including Leeblain. The Canadian side of Gunflint was then logged to remove the deadfall lest it provide dry tinder for a forest fire. The falling trees and then the logging disturbed much of the site, so finding things wouldn’t be as easy as it once was.
Bruce and I were going to look for the most obvious remains, which were those of a two-storey “hotel/trading post” located along the beach, some 120 metres southeast of the railway grade. Just a couple of metres off the beach, Bruce showed me two large depressions in the ground, oriented north to south. They were about a metre deep and separated from each other by about a metre and a half. Bruce had deduced that these were the cold storage cellars below the hotel. Some of the “walls” of the hotel could be made out (mostly small mounds now), and they were littered with nails. This building would have had quite a breathtaking view of the lake!
Several metres west of the hotel one finds a small trough or ditch in the ground. A few metres in length, it deepens as it runs west and ends in another depression surrounded by mound walls. Bruce had suspected that this was a root cellar, with the trough being the ramp into it and a wood structure above it. I found a few items in it, but most appeared to be more recent additions to the area.
The hotel is the subject of most of the mystery at Leeblain; as a two-storey structure, it must have been quite a large building. However, it is not shown on the best map we have of the area done in 1911; in fact only one of the 9 buildings at Leeblain is on that map, presumably what is the station near the railway siding. The evidence that Bruce provided me with (both his own discoveries and what was told to him by local natives) and what I saw with my own eyes clearly indicates that the structure was there…so what happened to it? That same 1911 map reveals a collection of structures at Gunflint Narrows near Magnetic Lake. An article written by Bruce’s mother Justine in the 1960’s mentions a station, hotel and customs house at the Narrows. My theory is that the structure was abandoned or moved to that location sometime between 1893 and 1911.
Bruce and I looked around unsuccessfully for some of the other structures in the vicinity, but that search may have to wait until the fall when the leaves are down. We were joined on our exploration by friend and amateur archeologist Harold Alanen who has spent a lot of time on the lake. After Bruce and Sue left to return to Gunflint Lodge, Harold and I began the next phase of our search with the metal detector. Our previous visit to the area last August turned up some very fascinating items under the ground and this time was no exception. Tons of nails, cups, pots, a pry bar and the big prize, a skate blade, all reveal glimpses of life in this turn of the century settlement. Maybe the video I shot does everything more justice.
It was another very successful visit and our discoveries make me eager to return and find more. I obviously cannot turn back the clock and repair the past damage, but I am quite determined to preserve and protect this very important piece of our history. I am working both through the Historical Society and on my own to accomplish this goal. I know that it is a slow and tedious process but one that needs to be done. Maybe awareness is part of the battle; maybe my words, images and video are making a difference. Only time will tell.
Anyway, it’s time to move on…marking to finish! It will be a quiet couple of weeks as I won’t be able to get out hiking for a few weeks (I need to catch up on some stuff around the house). However, I’m sure I’ll have plenty to talk about next week. Until then…