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Boundary Waters

By Stephen Wilbers


This chronology is presented in four versions so that you may choose according to your interests. The long version contains all entries, the short version is a knock-down version of the long one, and the wilderness management and natural history versions contain entries specific to those topics.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is a 1.1 million acre wilderness located in northeastern Minnesota. I hope you enjoy browsing through this history as much as I have enjoyed compiling it.

Long          Short          Wilderness Management          Natural History

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers

Three photographs by Craig Blacklock          Principal Sources




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Boundary Waters Chronology: Short

Birch-bark canoes replace dugout canoes, increasing the mobility of the boundary waters' inhabitants.

Some 400 pictographs are painted by Ojibwe artists on granite cliffs and outcroppings across the Canadian Shield, usually located on lake shores a few feet above the high-water line.

During "the Voyageurs era," fur traders canoe the lakes and portage routes of the boundary waters region transporting furs for French and British fur companies.

Felt hats made from beaver fur go out of style in Europe and are replaced by silk hats, ending a fashion that lasted 300 years. By this time, the beaver population in the boundary waters region is decimated. It doesn't fully recover for 150 years.

Late 1870s:
The first part of the Gunflint Trail is laid out from Grand Marais to the eastern end of Rove Lake, where a trading post is established and operated in the 1870s and 1880s by Henry Mayhew. The trail takes its name from Gunflint Lake, a body of water known to the French fur traders as Lac des Pierres Fusil, because they used the flint-like rock found along its shore in their flintlock rifles.

Around this time what is now called the Springdale Road is constructed from Tofte, where settlers arrived in 1893, to a settlement named Springdale, a couple of miles inland from Lake Superior. The first mile of the Springdale Road becomes the first segment of the Sawbill Trail when construction of the trail begins in the 1920s.

June 30, 500,000 acres of public domain in Lake and Cook Counties in northeastern Minnesota, much of which is now part of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, are set aside from logging, mining, and homesteading by Minnesota's Forestry Commissioner Christopher Andrews.

Major fires are suppressed in the boundary waters area during "the fire-suppression period."

July 10, 1930, the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, the first statute in which Congress expressly orders land be protected as "wilderness," is signed into law by President Herbert Hoover at the urging of a group of conservationists led by Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enlists thousands of unemployed men to plant trees, rebuild and improve portages, build canoe rests, install landing docks, post direction signs, build four lookout towers, fight forest fires, and do other conservation projects in the boundary waters area. The docks, signs, and rests are later removed to comply with the 1964 Wilderness Act, but still evident today are the raised walkways, the rocks placed to reinforce trails, the canoe landings (now mostly submerged), and other signs of trail improvements.

Jack pine, black and white spruce, balsam fir, northern white cedar, aspen, and paper birch are logged during "the pulpwood logging era," the second major logging era to affect the boundary waters area.

Nearly 20 resorts serviced by pontoon-equipped planes are operating on Basswood, Crooked, Knife, La Croix, Saganaga, and Seagull lakes. Some offer amenities such as bars, slot machines, and motorboats, with Ely now serving as the largest inland seaplane base in North America.

December 17, Executive Order 10092 is signed by President Truman creating an "airspace reservation" that bans private flights below the altitude of 4,000 feet above sea level, in part as a result of the work of activists Sigurd Olson, Charles Kelly, Frank Hubachek, William "Bill" Magie, and others.

Around 1950:
Aluminum canoes and boats are now widely available, making travel easier and resulting in dramatic increases in the number of canoeists accessing remote lakes.

September 3, the Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 88-577, is signed by President Lyndon Baines Johnson, establishing the U.S. wilderness preservation system and prohibiting the use of motorboats and snowmobiles within wilderness areas except for areas where use is well established within the Boundary Waters, defining wilderness as an area "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man . . . an area of undeveloped . . . land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements." This date is considered by many to be the birth of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

June 6, conservationist Ernest "Ober" Oberholtzer  dies at age 93.

October 21, Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 95-495, is signed by President Jimmy Carter. The act adds 50,000 acres to the Boundary Waters, which now encompasses 1,098,057 acres, and extends greater wilderness protection to the area.

All logging in the wilderness ceases under the Boundary Water Canoe Area Wilderness Act, U.S. Public Law 95-495, ending some 85 years of logging in the Boundary Waters.

January 13, conservationist Sigurd Olson dies at age 82 after suffering a heart attack while snowshoeing with his wife Elizabeth near his home in Ely.

August, Benny Ambrose dies at age 86, 84, or 83 (birth date uncertain), probably of a heart attack. He was the second to the last permanent resident of the Boundary Waters.

December, Dorothy Molter dies of natural causes at age 79 while living alone in her cabin on Knife Lake. Dorothy was the last permanent resident of the Boundary Waters. Because of her homemade brew, she was known to many as the "Root Beer Lady."

July 4th, a severe windstorm described as a "storm of a century" blows down and damages trees in a 30-mile swath across the Boundary Waters, severely affecting approximately 367,000 acres or 32% of the Boundary Waters, 477,000 acres in northeastern Minnesota, and 108,000 acres in Canada.

July 14, a lightning strike starts a fire near Cavity Lake and expands north to Sea Gull Lake near the end of the Gunflint Trail. Fueled by dry winds and timber blown down in the 1999 storm, the Cavity Lake fire burns about 50 square miles (about 39 square miles excluding lake surfaces), an area that makes it the largest fire in the Boundary Waters since 1894.

May 5, following a prolonged drought, a fire starts near Ham Lake off the Gunflint Trail and is fueled by strong winds. Before it is extinguished, it becomes Minnesota's largest and costliest forest fire since the 1918 Cloquet fire. By May 11, the fire has grown to 55,000 acres, or nearly 86 square miles, destroying 138 structures worth $3.7 million, including the Seagull Outpost Lodge, Superior North Canoe Outfitters, 44 structures in the 51-year-old Wilderness Canoe Base on Sea Gull Lake, and 62 cabins and homes. On May 22, after consuming nearly 119 square miles in Minnesota and Canada, the fire is contained.




Wilderness Management

Natural History





Principal Sources

Michael Furtman, Magic on the Rocks: Canoe Country Pictographs (Birch Portage Press, Duluth, 2000)

Mary Alice Hansen, Sawbill: History and Tales (Sawbill Press, 2005).

Miron "Bud" Heinselman, The Boundary Waters Wilderness Ecosystem (University of Minnesota Press, 1996)

Duane Lund, Our Historic Boundary Waters (Adventure Publications, 1980)

Kevin Proescholdt, Rip Rapson, and Miron L. Heinselman, Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (North Star Press of St. Cloud, 1995)

Joe Paddock, Keeper of the Wild: The Life of Ernest Oberholtzer (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001)

Newell Searle, Saving Quetico-Superior, A Land Set Apart (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1977)

Jerry Stebbins & Greg Breining, Boundary Waters (Nodin Press, 1983)

Boundary Waters Journal articles by Larry Ahlman, Michael Furtman, Mary King Hoff, Patrick Karns, Helen Sue Manzo, and Jon Nelson

Friends of the Boundary Waters Timeline for Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Superior National Forest at http://www.friends_bwca.org/aboutus/timeline.html

W. J. McCabe Chapter of the Izaak Walton League of America at http://pws.chartermi.net/~duluthikes/bw_ikes.htm

Superior National Forest History at http://www.superiornationalforest.org/history

Please send comments, information, and corrections to me at wilbe004@umn.edu. Thanks. Stephen Wilbers



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