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The Ghost Town of Gunflint

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!

Gunflint Road above Magnetic Lake, June 2013.

Gunflint Road above Magnetic Lake, June 2013.

Gunflint Lake, June 2013.

Gunflint Lake, June 2013.

Magnetic Lake, June 2013.

Magnetic Lake, June 2013.

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!

Beach north of the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

Beach north of the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

Beach south of the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

Beach south of the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

Cold cellar, Leeblain, June 2013.

Cold cellar, Leeblain, June 2013.

Nails at the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

Nails at the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

View of the lake from the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

View of the lake from the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

View of the lake from the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

View of the lake from the hotel, Leeblain, June 2013.

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.

Western Gunflint Lake, International Boundary Map 1931 (1911).

Western Gunflint Lake, International Boundary Map 1931 (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.

Pot?, Leeblain, June 2013.

Pot?, Leeblain, June 2013.

Skate blade, Leeblain, June 2013.

Skate blade, Leeblain, June 2013.

Cup, Leeblain, June 2013.

Cup, Leeblain, June 2013.

Pry bar, Leeblain, June 2013.

Pry bar, Leeblain, June 2013.

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…

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Posted by on June 18, 2013 in Hiking, History, Miscellaneous, Railway, Travel, Writing

 

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Gunflint Day 3

So I’m sitting on the front deck of the lodge looking out at a beautiful evening here on Gunflint Lake. Living in northwestern part of Ontario (even though I’m in northeastern Minnesota right now) we often take for granted how lucky we are to be able to experience this amazing scenery on an almost daily basis. I wish I could live out here on this lake…it is breathtaking!

So the third day of my adventure began much better than the previous one. I woke up rather early, five o’clock exactly (central time), and decided to take a peek outside before I tried to roll back into bed. The sun was just rising over the calm lake and it made for a neat picture. Had I not been wear just my boxers I might have ventured down to the water for a better view!

Sunrise on Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

Last night I promised my host John that I would stick around for his hot breakfast at 8. He was actually early, so I had a filling meal of eggs, sausage, bacon and fresh strawberries. After that it was straight to the boat, and off across the lake to my first destination, the ghost town of Leeblain.

Since the lake was relatively calm, I was able to crank the boat up to full speed, 39kph, which made my trip much faster. With the wind cooperating, I decided to make a short detour and take a quick look at some of the rock cuts along the shore of the lake. After setting up the fish finder, I puttered along the shoreline a bit until I reached what I was ultimately looking for. The water depth ranged from 7 to 25 feet, but I really wanted to re-visit the retaining wall site.

In this location, the railway grade was blasted right out of the shoreline of the lake. However, unlike in other places, the water depth necessitated the use of some elaborate iron and wood retainers to keep the rock fill from sliding into the lake. The engineers pinned and buried large metal rods under the grade, and inserted thick iron bars through the loops and in front of wood timbers. It is amazing to see most of these items still in place after 120 years!

Retaining wall, Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

The water depth right beside the wall is 13 feet, but as you move away from shore it drops very quickly. Ten to fifteen feet out it is at 25+ feet and by 30 to 40 feet the depth plunges to a jaw-dropping 90+ feet! I wonder if they knew this beforehand, or did they run into problems after they tried running a train by?

After this short mini-adventure, I turned the boat around and headed west to my original destination. On the way I passed by Dynamite Island (which I just learned the name of a few days ago). During the construction of the railway, the powder house was apparently located on the island to ensure minimal damage in the event there was a catastrophic detonation!

With my previous day’s struggle in mind, I was thankful to be beaching my boat at Leeblain. It is one of the nicest locations on the entire lake and it is probably one of the reasons why the railway chose this site for the town. I always love my trips there, despite the fact that I don’t really get to spend any time on the sand. From the beach it is a very short walk to the railway grade and the rock ovens.

Beach at Leeblain, August 2012.

My first task was going to be a quick examination of the northern most oven, located at the top end of the bay. I spent a few minutes cleaning up the inside of the oven the best I could, removing any growth lest it damage the remains. Just a few hours ago I learned that there is in fact another oven located just nearby, lurking in the bush for my next visit!

From the northern oven, it is a quick 200 metre walk to the site of Leeblain and the other ovens. Since planning this trip one of my main goals was to try and locate more ovens around where the station and hotel were located. On my July trip I had tentatively identified a possible site next to the grade, approximately 15 metres east of the known oven site. In 1994 and 1997 there was an oven next to grade with a tree growing through the middle of it. Was this that missing oven?

I had brought with me a small shovel to excavate the slabs of rock I could see jutting out of the sand. When I began to dig it became apparent that the nearby brush was going to cause a problem, so I retrieved my K-Bar knife to cut away some of the growth. As I did, I instantly recognized that the oven site was just a foot or so north of where I had started to dig. I quickly cut away what I could, trying to disturb as little as possible of the remains. I could make out a depression where the centre would have been, and then the slabs of rock scattered around. It is impossible to tell if the oven was damaged by the blowdown, or the subsequent logging operations.

Remains of a rock oven, Leeblain, August 2012.

After my great discovery, I decided to take a little stroll along the grade to where some of the development is taking place near the unnamed lake. I’m usually in a hurry every time I hike the railway, so my leisurely pace was a nice change. I spent a lot of time staring at the ground, especially along the sides of the grade where some of the soil had been pushed up. I saw a lot of spikes, but a few other interesting things. I spotted what appears to be a hasp from a trunk or piece of luggage, which I decided to pick up. I also saw a lot of little nails, almost horseshoe size, so I pocketed a couple of those as well.

From Leeblain my journey would take me to the end of the lake at Gunflint Narrows. I decided to beach the boat in Charlie’s Bay (or so I call it), near the property of long time lake resident Charlie Cook. Charlie passed away in 1997 but his cabin had still stood on his land just south of the grade about 800 metres east of the Narrows. At the presentation people had told me that his cabin had been bulldozed and I wanted to see for myself. It was very flat, a wasteful destruction in addition to creating a huge mess. Charlie had lived his whole life on the lake and I assume there might have been some interesting things in that cabin.

Charlie’s Bay, Gunflint Lake, August 2012.

After a short walk, I arrived at the Narrows and proceeded to take a look at where the eastern abutment of the trestle might be. I found it easily enough, but I was shocked at the amount of junk and debris lying around. I guess in days past no one thought of disposing of things properly, and I wouldn’t imagine where you would dispose of garbage around here. I walked down to the lake, but I was not able to see as much as I wanted to since the water level is up from years past. You could see the rock cribs under the water, but the pilings were tough to make out.

Gunflint Narrows, August 2012.

Heading back east, I spent a bit of time poking around the area just north of the grade. In one spot was located the station at the Narrows and in another was the “town” of Gunflint. I wandered around for a while, but I couldn’t see anything substantial. There were people living around that area for quite some after the railway, so it is difficult to determine what objects (cans, metal items) are from when. The new growth has also made it difficult to see what if anything might lie on the ground.

My last agenda item for the day was to venture through the Narrows into Magnetic Lake. Many locals claim that an area about 100 metres north of the Narrows was quarried to create the rock cribs for the trestle. After driving by, it is a certainty that quite a bit of rock was removed from the cliff on the opposite side of the peninsula from the railway. Where that rock ended up can’t be conclusively proven, but it is an interesting theory.

So tomorrow unfortunately marks the last day of this wonderful trip. The boat is on the trailer and ready to roll. I still have a little exploring to do before I leave however, as I have to return to the Minnesota side of the Narrows to take more pictures and video. Then it’s back home to the family. I hate to leave, but I do miss my wife and the boys. I really hope I can get back here next year as there I’d like to explore the Gunflint and Lake Superior Railroad.

Anyway, it will be another busy day soon enough so it’s off to bed soon, but I’ll be back tomorrow with again. Until then…

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2012 in Hiking, Miscellaneous, Research, Travel

 

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