Footsteps of the Past – Tracing Minnesota’s Historic Portages

Minnesota is known for its water. Ever the water tumbles and flows from lake and beaver pond through creek and river into distant lands beyond. In the past, when rivers and lakes were the highways of this region, portaging was the method by which the greatest obstacles were overcome. When massive waterfalls or treacherous rapids made canoeing an unreckonable hazard, the portage trails allowed a bypass. The portages also connected watersheds allowing travelers to cross from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi or over the Laurentian to the watersheds of the far northern reaches. In 1992, a report was concluded as portages of historical significance were surveyed in order to be included in a bid for the National Register of Historic Places. As part of this survey, archeologists looked for signs of the past and recorded the conditions of the trails and how time had changed them. The results were varied. Some trails had vanished completely or become so overgrown that they were nearly impossible to follow. In a few places in Minnesota though, there are still opportunities to trod in the tread of voyageurs and native peoples alike with a canoe on your shoulders and a sense of adventure in your heart. The spirit of the portage is still very much alive in the land of 10,000 lakes. Here are some of the most historic portages in the state.

The Great Northwest Trail (Savannah Portage, Knife Portage, Woman’s Portage, and the Grand Portage of the St Louis)
For most of human history, the great cross-continent travel routes in the eastern half of North America revolved around the largest bodies of water in each respective watershed. The Mississippi provided access to the Gulf for much of the central part of the continent, the Great Lakes provided access to the Atlantic, and a massive network of lakes and rivers provided access to the Arctic. Between them, portages allowed trappers, traders, indigenous peoples, missionaries, and more to move between watersheds. From the Mississippi to Lake Superior, a trail known as the Great Northwest Trail provided one such route. Moving between the two presented a monumental challenge. In what is today one of Minnesota’s largest state parks, the first portage along this route provided the first obstacle. A six-mile-long trail known as Savanna Portage crossed through the open marshes, bogs, and forests. It was utilized by the French during the height of the fur trade and then by various expeditions after the fur trade began to falter. In 1820, the Lewis Cass expedition, in search of the source of the Mississippi, passed this way. They describe the horror of the portage: “The length of the Savanna portage is six miles, and is passed at thirteen pauses. The first three pauses are shockingly bad. It is not only a bed of mire, but the difficulty of passing it is greatly increased by fallen trees, limbs, and sharp knots of the pitch pine.” The 1832 expedition headed by Henry Schoolcraft, which is credited with finding the actual headwaters of the Mississippi and further described below, also passed this way. Their journal entry from July 2, 1832, lays out the misery that could befall Savanna Portage after a rain “The rain has rendered the portage almost impassable for man or beast. The mud, for the greater part of the way, will average ankle deep, and from that, upwards. In spots, it is difficult to find bottom – a perfect quagmire. Our men look like renegades, covered with mud from head to foot. Some have lost one leg of the pantaloons, others both. Their shirts and moccasins are of a piece, full of rents and mud. Face hands and necks, look like men scarred with the small pox.” and “the musketoes came in hoards and threatened to carry away a man alive, or devour him ere they could get him away.” He goes on to describe many further hardships, but it is evident that the Savanna Portage left an impression. Heading on toward Lake Superior, travelers next encountered the challenges of the St Louis River. The St Louis falls quite steeply on its track to the Great Lakes. Below present-day Cloquet is the roughest stretch where the 1 mile-long Knife Portage navigated around Knife Falls. Just downstream, the half-mile-long Women’s portage navigated another hazardous set of rapids. And then finally, the “Grand Portage of the St Louis” was a 6-mile-long trail around the last major series of rapids to more navigable water. Fast forward to today, what remains of the Great Northwest Trail? The Savanna Portage is preserved within the bounds of the state park. It has gone through stages in its history. After the end of the fur trade and the advent of the railroad, the old portage routes across the region saw a loss in traffic and, by extension, deteriorated. Worse yet, as the Savanna Portage crossed marshland, traces of it quickly absorbed back into the marsh. Today, stretches of the portage are preserved as hiking trail 9 the eastern 1.6 miles of it is minimally maintained. The Knife and Women’s Portages fell victim to industry when the Cloquet Dam was built in 1899, the Knife Falls Dam in 1921, and the Scanlon Dam in 1922. These erased the major rapid sets through this stretch. The Grand Portage of the St Louis is partially preserved in Jay Cooke State Park with a trail that bears its name.

The Grand Portage
Gichi Onigamiing, or the Great Carrying Place, was first used by indigenous people at least as early as the first millennium AD as a means to bypass the treacherous rapids and falls along the lower reaches of the Pigeon River. With the landing of Pierre de la Vérendrye in 1731, the European Fur Trade reached the eastern shores of the territory. By 1780, forts were established at either end to facilitate the travel of voyageurs into the interior for pelts and back east to trade ports for the export of those furs to wealthy markets abroad. By the 1840s, the forts were abandoned with the failing demand for furs and company profits. By the 1850s, the Grand Portage Reservation was formed. In 1960, the Grand Portage National Monument was formed to preserve the fort site and the historic trail. Since then, the Grand continues to make history as many of the border challenge canoe routes (see last year’s article) finish at Lake Superior via the Grand Portage.

Big Stone Lake to Lake Traverse
The divide between Big Stone and Traverse is another watershed divide between the Mississippi and the Arctic as Big Stone is the headwaters of the Minnesota (which flows to the Mississippi) and the Bois De Sioux which flows into the Red River flowing north to Lake Winnepeg. The space in between the two lakes is known as the Traverse Gap. This fertile valley has been important far back into ancient times and the space between proved an important travel route because of the rivers which eventually connect with it. It is a unique geological oddity because of the relatively level space between them. Many changes in watersheds involve steep topography where water is easily delineated to one watershed or another. The peculiarity of the Travers Gap is that a flood from one side or another can relatively easily overtop the divide and send waters flowing to the other watershed. In modern times, dams maintain the levels of both lakes, but flooding can still occur, backing up the excess and drastically changing the waters’ destination. On another note, this spot was part of a famous canoe expedition read the world over by paddlesport enthusiasts in the book Canoeing with the Cree. On their route from Minneapolis to Hudson Bay, Eric Sevareid and Walter Port would have passed through the gap after having paddled up the Minnesota River.

Height of Land
The Height of Land Portage is a historic crossing over the Laurentian Divide between North and South Lakes on the edge of what is now the BWCAW. All water north of the portage flows to Hudson Bay while water south flows to the Great Lakes and the Atlantic. Like many portages on this list, its location made it an important travel route for native peoples and the voyageurs and explorers who learned from them. For the Voyageurs, the Height of Land marked a point of initiation. Any new member crossing the divide for the first time was “baptized” in a ceremony so described: “I was instituted a North man by Batême [baptism] performed by sprinkling water in my face with a small cedar Bow dipped in a ditch of water and accepting certain conditions such as not to let any new hand pass by that road without experiencing the same ceremony.” When the land began to be divided between the US and Canada, a decision had to be reached as to where to place the border. The most efficient canoe route was chosen for its significance for in-land transportation for both countries. Height of Land, due to sitting along the historic Voyageur Highway, became part of the new international boundary. Today, the Height of Land is known as the South Lake Entry Point into the BWCA and is listed as a National Historical Sight for its significance throughout history.

Prairie Portage
Like Height of Land and the Grand Portage, Prarie Portage was part of the historic Voyageur route inland. It sits on the eastern edge of Basswood Lake and was an important stopping point. In 1902, a dam was built at Prarie Portage to increase water levels on Moose/Newfound/Sucker, benefiting the logging operations there. In modern times, Prarie Portage has become an important gateway to recreation. Prarie Portage was developed into a truck portage to assist in moving motor boats into Basswood Lake. As it sits along the border, a Canadian ranger station sits on the north side as a launching point into Quetico Provincial Park. Today, dozens of groups pass through the portage most days either heading off onto multi-night canoe trips or a day trip fishing on Basswood.

The Old Portage Trail – St Anthony

St Anthony Falls held a special place in the pages of geologic history as the only major waterfall on the Mississippi. Its tempestuous tumble, cascading over the broken shards of its rapidly eroding sandstone foundation, held major cultural significance to the local Dakota tribes which called this region home. It also captivated the early European explorers to the site in awestruck splendor. The name “St Anthony” was bestowed upon this grand torrent by the first white visitor, Father Hennepin, in the year 1680. Many expeditions followed as the Mississippi proved a major corridor for the exploration of the region. Jonathan Carver, in his 18th-century book, Travels through the Interior Parts of North America, described the falls in this paragraph, “The country around them is extremely beautiful. It is not an uninterrupted plain where the eye finds no relief, but composed of many gentle ascents, which in the summer are covered with the finest verdure, and interspersed with little groves, that give a pleasing variety to the prospect. On the whole, when the Falls are included, which may be seen at the distance of four miles, a more pleasing and picturesque view cannot, I believe, be found throughout the universe.” The portage around this cascade was, likewise, an important one. The falls stood as an otherwise impassable barrier forcing portagers to navigate the steep cliffs surrounding it. As it flowed over a soft, sedimentary base, the falls moved quickly, in geologic terms, upstream and eroded their base as they went. By the early 1800s, with the establishment of Fort Snelling and then Minneapolis and St Paul, the area around the falls developed quickly. With the booming settlement, the falls became the focus of powering the newest mills in the region. Increased development sped up the erosion of the river bed (the falls today sit 1500 feet upriver of their location at the visit of Father Hennepin.) By 1849, the final event condemned the natural falls forever. “Digging began in September 1868. Similar tunnels had been dug through the sandstone on the west side of the river and under Main Street in St. Anthony, so the 1868 project was considered feasible. However, none of the previous projects had excavated under the river. The tunnel under the river was six-feet square, and work progressed without difficulty for a year, until October 4, 1869. That morning, workers returning from the weekend found water seeping into the tunnel. They thought it would be an easy fix and continued work. However, by noontime, the seep had become a flow, and the workers were forced out of the tunnel with all of their tools, never to return. The next morning, Tuesday, October 5, the river broke through and the top of the tunnel collapsed. Water scoured the tunnel wider and deeper until the resulting hole was sixteen-and-a-half feet deep and as much as ninety feet wide. By this time, all of the falls were in danger of collapsing into rapids. With them would go all of the region’s water power. By October 5, everyone in the area knew of the growing disaster at St. Anthony Falls. Hundreds of men volunteered to help fill the gaping hole in the rock wall of the falls. First, they threw rocks, dirt, and logs into the hole, only to see them swept away. Next, they constructed two cribs (rafts of logs), weighted them down with rocks, and sunk them into the hole. These worked briefly but eventually were swept away and made the damage worse. Finally, under the direction of businessman and civic leader George Brackett and the Minneapolis Fire Department, volunteers built three cofferdams to block off the area of the break. Work on these cofferdams continued day and night for weeks until the water was diverted, the break sealed off, and the sandstone erosion lessened. The falls were saved, for the short term. Further breaks in the sandstone under the falls required more work during the next few years. Eventually, the United States Army Corps of Engineers intervened. The Corps built a full concrete curtain wall and a protective apron before the falls were fully stabilized.” (minnpost, 2022) And thus HaHa Tanka, the great cataract of magnificent power and beauty which once impounded travel up the Mississippi was reduced to little more than a begrimed stream flowing over a manmade wall through a manmade landscape. The portage is preserved only in the above-pictured informational sign on the University campus.

Schoolcraft’s Portage:
The Schoolcraft’s portage is a historic six-mile-long trail near the headwaters of the Mississippi. It was the final obstacle to overcome before reaching the source of the great river, Lake Itasca. Hand-drawn maps from the era show the portage as having traversed from the southern edge of Alice Lake to the southeastern corner of Lake Itasca near the park entrance and the Jacob V Brower visitor center. Here is Schoolcraft’s recorded description in his 1832 papers “We appeared to be involved in a morass, where it seemed equally impracticable to make the land, or proceed far by water. In this we were not mistaken; Oza Windib soon pushed his canoe into the weeds and exclaimed, ‘Oma, mikunna’ (here is the portage.) A man who is called on for the first time to debark, in such a place, will look about him to discover some dry spot to put his feet upon. No such spot however existed here. We stepped into rather warm pond water, with a miry bottom. After wading a hundred yards, or more, the soil became firm, and we soon began to ascend a slight elevation, where the growth partakes more of the character of a forest. Traces of a path appeared here, and we suddenly entered an opening affording an eligible spot for landing.” He later goes on to describe the portage as “the portage from the past to the west branch of the river is estimated to be six miles. Beginning in a marsh, it soon rises into a little elevation of white cedar wood, then plunges into the intricacies of a swamp matted with fallen trees, obscured with moss.” and “The path is rather blind, and requires the precision of an Indian eye to detect it. Even the guide was sometimes at a loss, and went forward to explore. We passed a small lake occupying a vale, about midway of the portage, in canoes. The route beyond it was more obstructed with underbrush. To avoid this, we waded through the margins of a couple of ponds.” His party did finally reach their goal described as thus “the desire of reaching the actual source of a stream so celebrated as the Mississippi – a stream which La Salle had reached the mouth of a century and a half (lacking a year) before, was perhaps predominant; and we followed our guide down the sides of the last elevation, with the expectation of momentarily reaching the goal of our journey. What had been long south, at last appeared suddenly. On turning out of a thicket, into a small weedy opening, the cheering sight of a transparent body of water burst upon our view. It was Itasca Lake – the source of the Mississippi.” The area around Itasca Lake would go on to be protected as Minnesota’s first state park, sharing its name with the lake it encompasses, in 1891. As for the portage so described in Schoolcraft’s account? In all likelihood, it has vanished into the recesses of history. We know that it was surveyed as part of the 1992 historical report and the findings of this report likely persist in one of the historical archives. However, most paddlers today follow the Mississippi from its source, not portaging from an adjacent stream. With the development of the surrounding state park, thousands of visitors arrive by car to visit the headwaters of the Mississippi; paddling upstream in search of it is no longer necessary. It now takes about 15 minutes to drive from the headwaters to Alice Lake, the distance which took Schoolcraft and his party 13 posé (a voyageur term for breaks) to cross.

The Stairway Portage

One of the most popular portages in canoe country owes its characteristic architecture to the 1930s and government programs like the CCC who were shaping the future of recreational facilities across the nation. Undoubtedly, this waterfall was well-known to native peoples and the voyageurs who utilized Rose Lake below as part of the primary travel route inland. It is a dramatic climb up from Rose to Ducan and so the first stairway was built in the 30s. As recreation began taking off after the war, use of the portage escalated. With the formation of the BWCA and increased canoe use, the stairway became an important destination for trips with good fishing nearby, impeccable scenery, and a dose of history, hundreds of groups made the portage every year. Over time, the original stairs eventually needed replacing, and the USFS have replaced them many times since. Last year, the historic stairway portage was finally replaced with stone steps ensuring that many thousands of canoeists can climb the steps, just as so many of their forebears have, for many years to come.

The Long Portage
After Voyaguers completed the Grand Portage heading inland, one of the next major portages for them to overcome was the Long Portage connecting Rose and Rove. It runs approximately 2 miles in length along the border and provided a major challenge during the fur trade era. It was described by Alexander McKenzie in a historical account as such “is three thousand one hundred paces in length, and over very rough ground, which requires the utmost exertions of the men, and frequently lames them: from hence they approach the Rose Lake.” In 1885, Henry Mahew built a cabin on Rove Lake and would have used part of the long portage to access it. Part of his trail from Grand Marais would form the basis for the future Gunflint Trail. In the 1920s, a railroad was built by the General Logging Company following the shores of Daniels Lake to Rose Lake which leveled much of the historically challenging portage. The area was protected early on as part of the Caribou Roadless Area and would go on to be part of the BWCAW as a route connecting Rose, Rove, and Daniels Lake. On the 4th of July, 1999, a major storm known as a derecho leveled large swaths of the BWCA including bringing down ancient pines along the Long Portage (a forest which hadn’t burned since the 1680s and had many ancient pines preserved near Rove Lake.) This was the portage trail I took on my first BWCA trip just a few short years after the big blowdown. I remember being fascinated by the giant pine logs cut on either side of the trail where they fell. Today, as canoeists just like me brace themselves for the long trek between lakes, they partake in part of the history. The long portage is an important part of the history of the Gunflint Trail region

There are plenty of other fascinating stories connected to portages in Minnesota such as the historic Turtle Mound and its place in battles between the Chippewa and the Dakota. The infamously long Turtle Lake Portage is another milestone. And truly, every waterfall in the state likely had some sort of portage or trail around it from times when the rivers were the highways by which people could travel and trade in an otherwise rugged and wild landscape. As innovation and industry have relegated the canoe to recreational uses far from the primary purpose of travel it once held, many of the old portages have receded into the underbrush. As dams have changed the rapid-filled rivers and roads have bisected the wild country, the memories of past hardships and the strength and endurance that travel once demanded have been easily forgotten. And yet, in reflecting upon the pages of this state’s history, it’s important to remember that almost every story, whether of war, trade, exploration, or a pioneering spirit pushing into new lands, has some tie into the old portage trails for by them some portion of the wild landscape on the western shores of Superior began the transition into being Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes. Remember it, for whenever you see the word “portage” given to a lake or stream, on a hiking trail cutting through a park, or affixed on some historical marker, the memories and stories of the past are never very far away.


Author Bio:

Riley Smith

Riley is the Director of Community Engagement and Public Relations for Portage North and Sundog Sport. He comes from a background in wilderness programing and environmental education with four years of BWCA outfitting and guiding before taking this role. In his free time, he can be found out canoeing, hiking, snowshoeing, capturing photography, and writing.
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