Voyageurs National Park

Voyageurs National Park


Although the first proposal to designate the area as a national park occurred in 1891, it wasn't until 1975 that Voyageurs National Park was established after a lengthy legislative battle that began in 1962. Many people were involved in the movement to establish Voyageurs National Park, including Ernest Oberholtzer, one of the founding members of the Wilderness Society in 1935.

Voyageurs National Park was established in 1975, but the stories of people who lived in this place stretch much farther back in time.

The First People

The first people to occupy the lands now designated as Voyageurs National Park arrived nearly 10,000 years ago during the Paleo-Indian Period.

Groups entered the area as the waters of glacial Lake Agassiz receded. This ancient lake once covered 110,000 square miles of Minnesota, North Dakota, Manitoba, Ontario and Saskatchewan in Canada.

During the Archaic Period (8,000 B.C. - 100 B.C.) people followed a mobile, hunting and gathering lifestyle. Fishing was a major source of food, although the gathering of plants continued to be important as well.

During the Woodland Period (100 A.D.- 900 A.D.) people increased their use of the wild rice that is native to this area. They began to use ceramics and to fashion small, side-notched triangular projectile points.

Over 220 pre-contact archeological sites have been documented within the park, including sites that are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Please remember while exploring the park that all archeological and historic resources are protected by law. Do not destroy or collect any items that you find; instead enjoy looking at the items and leave them where you found them.

The Fur Trade

The earliest European exploration of this area is believed to have occurred about 1688 when French explorer Jacues de Noyon wintered along the Rainy River.

The European demand for beaver pelts brought fur traders into the region. The voyageurs paddled large birch bark canoes carrying trade goods and furs between the Canadian northwest and Montreal.

The voyageurs were prompted by competition over the diminishing supply of furs in the east, and were the first Europeans to explore the northwest territory and to engage the indigenous peoples in the trade of furs on a commercial scale.

The Cree, Monsoni, and Assiniboin tribes were the primary inhabitants of the region at the time of initial European contact. However, by the mid-18th century they had largely abandoned the Rainy Lake area, leaving the region open for settlement by the Ojibwe.

By 1780 the Ojibwe had become the primary residents of the border lakes region, and they played a key role in commerce as suppliers of food, furs, and canoes. They were also guides during the fur trade, their intimate knowledge of the geography and resources was crucial to the European fur traders.


The depletion of the large stands of white pine in Michigan, Wisconsin and central Minnesota through logging brought the lumber industry north into the area now designated as Voyageurs National Park.

An initial logging frenzy occurred in the 1880s and 1890s, followed by the development of two major logging companies. The International Logging Company operated primarily in Koochiching County and transported timber to sawmills at International Falls and Fort Frances until 1937.

In order to meet the constant water supply needs of sawmills, dams were constructed at International Falls, Kettle Falls, and Squirrel Falls in the early 1900s.

The Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company controlled much of the area to the east in St. Louis County of Minnesota. They conducted much of their operations until 1929 by rafting logs to Hoist Bay, which can still be viewed by park visitors.

Hoist Bay is named for the machinery that was used to hoist floating logs out of the lake and onto a waiting train. The tracks extended out over the water to facilitate loading. From Hoist Bay the logs were taken to sawmills located in the town of Virginia, Minnesota.

The extensive logging operations that occurred in the park area have altered the composition and structure of the park's forests. White and red pine are now a much smaller component of the park's forests, and there are fewer stands of large, mature trees.

The Rainy Lake "Gold Rush"

During the summer of 1893, a local prospector, George Davis, was funded by Charles Moore to search for gold in the Rainy Lake area. Moore was a businessman with prior mining involvement in the Lake of the Woods, Ontario, Canada.

In late July of 1893, while camping on a small island near Black Bay Narrows, Davis discovered a gold-bearing quartz vein -- the "Little American" discovery. Given the good news and gold-bearing specimens, Charles Moore hired a former Black Hills miner named Jeff Hildreth to secure a title to the island and arrange financing.

Development of the Little American Mine proceeded rapidly in the spring of 1894, along with the growth of the nearby settlement of Rainy Lake City to support the areas newfound exploration and mining activities. Rainy Lake City was incorporated on March 17, 1894, and by early summer was a bustling community of several hundred people with a school house, bank, general store, hotels, restaurants, a newspaper, hardware store, butcher shop, and several saloons.

Following the development of the Little American Mine, several other prospects saw extensive activity during the summer of 1894, including the Lyle Mine north of Dryweed Island, the Big American Mine on Big American Island, the Bushyhead Mine on Bushyhead Island, the Soldier Mine on Dryweed Island.

Despite all of the numerous attempts to make gold-mining a profitable activity on Rainy Lake, the low production of the mines resulted in a gold-bust by 1898. The "Boom" was over, and the Rainy Lake City School and newspaper were closed down in 1898. By 1901 the city was a ghost town.

Commercial Fishing

Commercial fishing followed the initial logging boom of the 1890's. Large-scale fishing operations began on the Rainy River as early as 1892. At its peak in the late 1890's and early 1900's, roughly seven or eight large-scale fishing companies operated in the area, primarily on Crane Lake. The production of caviar, the eggs of lake sturgeon, was a major economic pursuit at this time. However, due to the great distances to markets, and the lack of refrigerated transport, these enterprises were relatively short-lived, although some remained in operation until the 1930's.

Small-scale family fishing soon developed as a result, with the largest number or licensed family operations in the area reaching 48 in 1910. These family operations depended on local auctions at Kettle Falls to sell their catch. Commercial fishing was banned on Kabetogama Lake in 1923, and by 1942 only 10 licensed family operations were active in the area. Evidence of fishing camps and net-tarring sites exist in the park today, including the Oveson Fish Camp (ca. 1950s) which has been determined eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.

Early Settlement and Recreation

By the time Voyageurs National Park was established in 1975, over 60 resorts surrounded the park, with 12 resorts, 97 leased cabin sites, and over 120 privately owned recreational properties located within the park's boundaries. Some private property continues to exist in the park today.

Many people sold their property to the U.S. government when the park was established. Some people chose to sell their property and leave immediately, while others chose to sell their property, but maintain use for either a lifetime tenancy or a 25-year use and occupancy reservation. As these properties are vacated, the park will remove many structures to restore natural conditions. Twenty properties, containing over 50 structures, will be retained and managed by the National Park Service because of their historic significance.