Tag Archives: La Verendrye Provincial Park

Leeblain: The Ghost Town of Gunflint

I hope you’ve been enjoying the live presentations on YouTube. If you have, or haven’t taken them in, the next one is ready to go!

Please join me tonight (Tuesday, May 5) at 7pm EST for Leeblain: The Ghost Town of Gunflint. It is an intriguing story of optimism and failure that revolves around the PAD&W Railway and the Paulson Mine in the pre-1900 Boundary Waters. There are many twists and “what ifs” in this obscure piece of area history.

Please click on the link below for more information.

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Posted by on May 5, 2020 in History, Railway, Video


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Marine Railroad, Little North/Little Gunflint Lakes, MN 2011

Okay, so I lied…I’m not out of videos. I just remembered I have one more to post.

So, our latest PAD&W video takes us to the creek separating Little North Lake (sjö i Kanada, Ontario) and Little Gunflint Lake. Here, in 1892, we believe that a short 50 metre (164ft) marine railroad was constructed to allow boats to be moved around the unnavigable waterway between the two lakes. The crews were using a small steamboat, the Zena, to transport supplies along the route of construction. This device allowed the Zena and smaller boats to transit the portage using rails, a small wheeled cart and a manually-operated capstan.

The railroad continued to be used and maintained by area locals until the late 60s/early 70s. It has since deteriorated rapidly, which has included damage from powerful storms. In the video you will find a link to a video shot years earlier in 1997.

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Posted by on April 17, 2019 in History, Railway, Video


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Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad II

This week’s episode of our YouTube tour of the G&LS covers the section of line where it crosses the International Boundary from Ontario to Minnesota. Telegraph wire, the former trestle crossing, spikes and pieces of rail are all featured.

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Posted by on February 5, 2019 in Hiking, History, Railway, Video


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Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad I

This week we are switching our focus from the PAD&W to the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. The G&LS was a logging line that was operated by the Pigeon River Lumber Company from 1902-1909. While not part of the PAD&W, it branched from the railway at Milepost 79 and was an important source of business.

This episode covers the section of the G&LS from its junction with the PAD&W to the International Boundary. This piece of line lies entirely within Ontario and features several embankments and cuts.

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Posted by on January 28, 2019 in Hiking, History, Railway, Video


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Gunflint Narrows 2012

This week’s episode of our YouTube tour of the PAD&W takes us to Gunflint Narrows, the Canadian terminus of the line (MP 85.5). From here the railway continued west across the narrow channel between Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes and into the State of Minnesota. A station and hotel were located in the area, along with a small population of settlers and Indigenous people. The First Nations considered the waters of the Narrows, the Cow-o-bob-o-cock (where the rock ledges come together), a place where evil spirits resided.

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Posted by on December 11, 2018 in History, Railway, Video


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Gunflint Cross

Hey, so let’s try something a little different for a change. Since I’m not always able to write a full blog regularly, I thought I’d copy a little initiative I’ve been doing on social media.

Since January, I’ve been featuring videos from my YouTube channel on social media, which highlight parts of the line. These videos date back to 1997 and I am still producing new ones regularly. Part of their purpose is to promote the history of the railway as well as to chronicle some of the physical remains of the line and its infrastructure before it all disappears. I know I started this many months ago, I am doing this rather mid-stream, but there never can be too much publicity. In any case please enjoy!

This week’s episode of our YouTube tour of the PAD&W takes us to the section of line west of Leeblain (MP 84). Here, in October 1892, crews were working a rock cut for the right of way. Unfortunately one labourer, Joseph Montegia, was tragically killed in a blasting accident. In his memory, his fellow workers carved a cross in the side of the rock cut near where he died. It still remains, 126 years later, as a silent tribute to all those that toiled constructing the railway.

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Posted by on December 3, 2018 in History, Railway, Video


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If they don’t find you handsome, Part II

If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that the phrase concludes by saying that “they should at least find you handy.” That might be true, but your assuming I’m not handsome. I can say with some degree of certainty I’m no ____________ (insert attractive guy), but I’m definitely better looking than Red Green for sure. I guess it depends on what your definition of handsome is; are middle-aged, bald dads your type? We’re a petty large demographic, so I’m sure we have our fans.

Well, summer vacation is almost over kids. I really need to write more regularly, as the last time I posted, it had just started. What can I say, I’ve been very busy, but what’s new? Speaking of that, I did acquire a new toy last month. With the kids getting older and therefore bigger, we had a need for a more powerful boat for our water activities. After a bit of looking around, we replaced our 1991, 14-foot 25 HP boat with a 2012/2016, 16-foot 60 HP model. Boy does it really move, but too bad our lake isn’t big enough to really stretch its legs. It’s an Evinrude E-Tec as well, so I love the fact that I no longer have to mix gas to put in the tank!

Sadly, our summer hasn’t been what I expected it to be. The conditions and temperatures have improved, but things are just as unsettled as they were in June and early July. There have been some really nice days, but unfortunately, they are interspersed with some really crappy ones. It is certainly not the warm, dry summer we had last year. But a bad day at camp is better than a good day at work, right? All I can hope is that things settle down for the fall.

Calm morning at camp, July 2017.

Sunset at camp, August 2017.

So, you’re probably wondering what was keeping me busy this summer and what the title was all about. Well, I’ve written in the past how I’ve done some construction/carpentry work and how I rather enjoy it. Last year I finished our basement office, built a kitchen island for camp as well as a new dock. I thought I did a pretty decent job on those; this year it was a shed. For many years we realized that we needed more storage space, but I had never built anything close to a shed. It took me from the end of June until this weekend to finish it, working whenever I had time. There were many first for me with this project; framing a building, shingles, soffit and fascia and siding. It isn’t the best shed ever built, but it turned out pretty good and was a huge learning experience.

New shed, August 2017.

With the end of August approaching, a new school year is on the horizon. I’m obviously not excited about heading back, but I guess that is life. I’ve already started part of my fall routine however. Noah begged us to let him play summer football, and since he was, we signed Ethan up as well. And of course, I was asked to help coach. It wasn’t easy getting back into the saddle this soon, but it’s like riding a bike. The tournament is coming up this weekend in Princeton, MN and hopefully both teams will do well.

When I last wrote, I was preparing to head to Gunflint for a presentation and hopefully some field work. Well, one of those things turned out the way it was supposed to. Last year I did my first presentation at the Chik-Wauk Museum on the Gunflint & Lake Superior Railroad. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, the crowd was not as large as they have been in the past. After chatting with the museum director, Bonnie Schudy, we decided to do it again this year on a less busy date.

There was a full house for the lecture and having done the same presentation on two previous occasions, I felt very comfortable with the material. Those in attendance we very appreciative and had a lot of questions at the end. As it turns out, I gained two very valuable pieces of information from the presentation. The first, which occurred right after the event, was when one of the audience members told me about a trestle/bridge they had seen along the G&LS route. I had not come across it in my travels, and it lends credence to fact that there were other branches to this line. I will be checking out this site during my October visit to the area.

Audience at the Chik-Wauk Museum, July 2017.

The other breakthrough came a few weeks after. For many years I have been searching for a photo of William Scott Jr., who was one of the founders of the Pigeon River Lumber Company and a well-known person in the Lakehead from his arrival in 1900 until his death in 1939. My efforts to locate an image of him had all come up empty. Fortunately, one of the audience members thought of me when they attended a presentation on the Outlaw Bridge a week later in Grand Marais. As it turns out, the Thunder Bay Museum did have a picture of him all along, just not an individual portrait. I am certainly grateful that these people were looking out for me!

After the presentation, we (the family and I) had a chance to relax at the Cross River Lodge and have a nice dinner at the Gunflint Bistro. I was a beautiful evening, so we took the opportunity to explore a little of Gunflint and Magnetic Lakes. The plan was to spend the night and do some field work the next day, but unfortunately, I forgot a piece of video equipment that I needed, so my plans went out the window. We went out on the lake anyway, more so because it was a nice morning and I really want to try out the boat on the big lake. She really flies!

Cliffs at Magnetic Lake, July 2017.

Sunrise at Gunflint, July 2017.

While I was out there I thought I’d try out the fish finder and better explore an area of the railway on the north shore of Gunflint I call the “Retaining Wall.” Building the PAD&W along the shore of Gunflint was very difficult, mostly due to the uncompromising geography of the Canadian Shield. In spots, such as this one, the grade had to be blasted right out of the shore of the lake, which resulted in trains passing precipitously between the rock face and the lake. The engineers had to construct a retaining wall in this spot to keep the grade from sliding into the lake. Most of it is still there, some 125 years later. The water is about 10-15 feet deep next to the shore, but quickly drops past 100 feet within a short distance. It amazes me every time I see it and I shot a little video which you can view here.

Well, I think it’s time to wrap things up. I’m not sure when I’ll be back again, since the beginning of the school year is rather hectic. Most likely I’ll have a few things to say before my annual Thanksgiving trip to Gunflint in early October. Until then…

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Posted by on August 22, 2017 in Hiking, History, Railway


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Dave’s Outdoor Adventures

Picture it. Three intrepid explorers, probing the wilderness of the Canadian Shield while battling the elements and conditions. It is a test of wills and endurance; a modern version of the Revenant if you will. Makes for an interesting story does it? Come on! Did you forget who’s writing this? It’s more like a dumbass dad and his two sons blundering around in the outdoors all the while being swarmed by hordes of blackflies. Sound intriguing now? Wait until I tell you the while story!

So here we are nearing the end of May? Where did the time go? Time does move faster when you’re on vacation. I have been making good use of every moment though: I can say that I’m almost too busy. There are way too many things to do, inspite of the fact that I am on sabbatical. What have I been up to you ask?

Well, if you recall from my last post, I was a few days away from a trip to Toronto and my brother’s wedding. As you can imagine, that week flew by in a heartbeat. It was a great time, but insanely busy. It was an honour for my family to part of this event, and if I do say so we quite a good looking bunch all dressed up. We also had some family visiting from Italy, so some time was spent showing them around the city, which is ironic since I was a tourist too.

Part of my plan for this visit to the provincial capital was to sneak away for a few hours and look at some files at the Archives of Ontario. It was quite an interesting mix; a map, some photos and an Order in Council. What I thought would take me a morning took me less than an hour to get through. The map answered a few questions and the photos were very pretty cool, having been taken during a highway survey along the railway right-of-way in 1930. There were shots of Mackies, the rail line and narrows between Little and Big Gunflint Lakes.

The Orders in Council, there were actually two, provided the biggest challenge of the day. I first had to locate the docket number from a microfilm in the reading room. I thought it would take me forever, but mercifully I happened on the right page after a short search. Then I had to request copies of them and then have them emailed to me. Both documents, dated 1900 and 1903 respectively, related to the Pigeon River Lumber Company receiving permission to do business in the Province of Ontario. Not anything I didn’t know, but important information nonetheless.

Since returning from TO, I’ve kept my nose to the grindstone with projects around the house. Our office is almost done-it’s just waiting for a final coat of paint on the door and then the installation of the pocket door latch. My wife then decided that she needed to do something about the lack of counter space at camp; cue Pintrest…again! So we’ve been looking for a while for the right dresser that could be converted into a kitchen cart. Turns out, we had one right here. It’s taken a little bit of work, and a few bucks, but when it’s done it should look pretty good. We ordered a countertop for it today and its paint transformation will begin tomorrow. I’ll post some pics when it’s done.

Now speaking of camp (yes, camp…let’s not have this conversation again), we have been spending a bit more time out there as we move toward summer. This winter we inherited the camp from my wife’s parents and we’ve been doing clean-up work and some upgrades. Last Friday we brought a new fridge out to supplement the original tiny 11 cubic foot one that was way too small for our needs. We were back on Sunday to Monday cutting down a big pine tree in the yard that was slowly dying. Using the chainsaw made me feel very outdoorsy, though I did learn an important lesson; don’t cut pine trees without long pants on. Really, I should have been wearing long pants from a safety perspective, but it was bloody hot on Sunday and I was trying to keep cool. What I ended up with however, was sap stuck to my legs and leg hair. Rubbing alcohol usually gets it out, but since we didn’t have any out there, I tried a bit of vodka. While my logic seemed sound, the execution left a lot to be desired. Second lesson learned!

Sandwiched in between those visits to camp, was my first hike of the year. Yes, I finally got out there after months of talking about it and boy was it a doosy! I think you might have gotten that impression by my introduction, but I guess I should elaborate.

The plan for my first piece of field work of the season was to travel to the east end of Gunflint Lake, staying on the Canadian side of the border. Since I was staying north of the international divide, I thought it would be easier to get there via North Lake than travelling into Minnesota and directly into Gunflint Lake. The drive is a bit shorter, though it probably works out to be the same since the boat ride is much longer. Speaking of which, getting to Gunflint from North Lake is a bit of a challenge, as you have to cross not only North Lake, but then Little North and then Little Gunflint before you reach Big Gunflint, a distance of nearly 11 kilometres.

We arrived at North Lake by 9am and quickly had the boat in the water. The first thing we noticed, or rather was impressed upon us, was the clouds of blackflies in the air. It was unbelievable how bad they were. If you’ve never had to deal with blackflies before, count yourself lucky. Anyway, within a short amount of time we were zipping across the fairly calm waters of North Lake and were making good time.

North Lake, May 2016.

North Lake, May 2016.

The first trail of the journey comes when you enter the narrow channel separating North from Little North. With Ontario on one side and Minnesota on the other, the waterway is less than 70 metres wide at points. At its end, when you enter Little North, it drops to 25 metres and is very shallow, necessitating a cautious approach. You can pick up speed on Little North, but it’s only over a kilometre to the portage to Little Gunflint and there are rocks in the water, so you need to be careful.

The watercourse that separates Little North from Little Gunflint is extremely narrow and runs for about 50 metres. It is little more than a creek, and due to it’s location over the continental divide, its waters run west, eventually making their way into Hudson’s Bay. The creek itself appears to have been modified by human hands, most likely in 1892 during the construction of the railway. From our best understanding, the engineers laid down a small marine railroad on the Minnesota side of the narrows, which, using a small cart and capstan, were able to haul boats and supplies from one lake to the other. It was maintained by locals until the early ‘70s, but now sits as a stark reminder of the labours of centuries ago.

Railroad Portage, May 2016.

Railroad Portage, May 2016.

I’ve been through the creek when there was less than a foot of water in it; this time, given the fact that it is spring and there was an attempt by a beaver to dam it, several feet of fast-flowing water courses its length. It made for a crazy, bumpy and somewhat concerning journey downstream. Little Gunflint was much less dramatic, though there are several rocky and shallow sections that require a slower speed.

My course of action for the visit was to walk the 400 metres of the Gunflint & Lake Superior in Ontario (technically it was only branch of the Canadian Northern since the G&LS started in Minnesota) and explore the location of the Canadian customs houses near the grade. The land in this area is actually privately owned so I had to check with the new owner to do this work.

I’ve walked the Ontario portion of the G&LS grade many times before, the first time was back in 1994. However, I’ve never been there without leaves (or many leaves), so I was curious what I’d see. It was pretty warm as you moved away from the lake, and of course the blackflies were swarming anytime you stopped. I didn’t take us long to get to the PAD&W grade and then start working our way back. We came across a neat pile of spikes, which made me wonder if it was done when the rails were being removed or later.

PAD&W-G&LS junction,, May 2016.

PAD&W-G&LS junction,, May 2016.

Spikes, May 2016.

Spikes, May 2016.

Little-Big Gunflint Narrows, May 2016.

Little-Big Gunflint Narrows, May 2016.

When we returned to the beach, the boys decided it was lunchtime and I pulled out the metal detector to see what I could turn up. My first area to explore was the point of land where the two lakes meet and where the G&LS crossed into Minnesota. I wasn’t really holding out hope of finding anything, but as it turns out I made a critical discovery (actually two).

If you read this blog on a regular basis you’ll know that one of goal of my field work on the G&LS is to discover how far the telegraph line extended along the line. Last year I found a coil of wire on the Little Gunflint, though I could not find any evidence near the junction of the two railways. After turning up a long-lost tent peg, I uncovered a 50+ cm length of what I believe to be telegraph wire (I didn’t excavate the whole thing). Working off of that, I found another section of wire several metres further back on the grade. So I think I can say with some certainty that the line at least crossed into Minnesota.

Telegraph wire, May 2016.

Telegraph wire, May 2016.

After that, I turned my attention a little way up the beach to the north to where two buildings were once located; I presume that they were once the Canadian customs houses while the railroad was in operation. I’ve never really explored this site before, so I was curious what I would turn up. The detector immediately lit up and I could see several depressions in the ground. I’m not a trained archaeologist, nor do I want disturb any potentially important artefacts in the ground, so I treaded very lightly. I picked one spot and carefully dug down several inches to see what was there. What I had stumbled upon was either a garbage pile or a fire pit. There many nails of various sizes, assorted bits of metal and iron, pieces of glass and even a spent rifle cartridge (.30-30 I think). Some of the glass appeared to be fused together, which is why I thought it might be a fire pit. After photographing the items, I returned them to the ground; hopefully I can get some real archaeologists to the site to do the job properly.

Customs items, May 2016.

Customs items, May 2016.

All in all it was a successful trip, but the fun didn’t really start until the ride back. When we reached the aforementioned Railroad Portage, I then realized the challenge it would be trying to get the boat upstream into Little North. I thought I could pull it along the shore but the current was having nothing of it. Even jumping into the frigid, waist deep water to try to move it along did not help. It was going to be tough.

My next move was to lose some weigh, which meant putting my youngest, Noah, ashore. He became quite upset, convinced that we were going to be stuck there. Unfortunately that didn’t help much; the current was still pushing the boat back and on to the rocks. I was getting tired, the blackflies were eating us alive, and my oldest, Ethan, was even getting a bit rattled. It wasn’t until I decided to use the anchor rope to secure the boat farther upstream that we started to make progress. It took us more than 30 minutes, a ton of exertion and a bunch of bruises to get through. I learned a valuable lesson that day; never go though that creek in the spring…and I have all the blackfly bites to prove it.

Stuck in the creek, May 2016.

Stuck in the creek, May 2016.

I told the boys on the final leg of the boat ride back that they would remember days like this one many years from now. The more eventual trips with my dad are the ones that stick out in my mind. They can look back with fondness on all the stupid stuff their dad got them into, even though at the moment it didn’t seem so humorous. Honestly I was a bit concerned for a few moments myself, but hey, a little excitement makes life that more interesting. I’m sure there will be more well though-out moments in the future.

Anyway, it’s time to get rolling. Ironically, I’m off again for my next hike tomorrow morning. This time there is no boating involved, just more walking. I’ll be in Minnesota, hiking the Border Route Trail near Crab Lake. Hopefully it will be just as productive as the one I just described. I’ll be back again next week with all the details.Until then…

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Posted by on May 26, 2016 in Hiking, History, Railway, Research, Travel


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