People of the lake country in northern Minnesota were a resourceful bunch during the late 1800s and early 1900s and, true to human nature, they were determined to make life easier. Among their inventions: mechanical portages. Such ingenuity eliminated the legwork in shouldering heavy loads across land from one body of water to the next.
Today, that might be a welcome sight for paddlers of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness whenever the next portage looms along the shoreline. Trouble is, mechanical portages are almost extinct — but not quite.
Superior National Forest archives cite the first mechanical portage construction from 1898-1902. They were used for railroad logging. Locomotives hauled massive board-feet of timber across land for later transport on water to mills in the region. Similar portages, constructed in 1912 and 1920, featured motorized systems powered by gasoline engines and winches, rather than steam engines. Winch cables pulled trolleys and watercraft along narrow-gauge rails.
Over time, rails from early logging portages were removed and some portage trails were improved for small trucks to carry boats and cargo. The first such portage was built in 1938 by a resort owner. Other mechanical portages used nonmotorized devices powered by grunt labor such as portage wheels for carting boats, or rollers to glide boats across.
Some controversy arose regarding government agencies issuing special-use permits to private portage operators on public land. Soon, government officials recognized the importance of special-use regulations.
Two truck/ATV portages and five portage-wheel routes are currently permitted in the Superior National Forest. But only two motorized rail portages and one roller portage still remain. Here’s some back-story on these final three.
According to a Superior Forest memo in 1964, James Beatty opened a rail portage in 1913 with the permission of the Canadian government. At the time, the portage was on the Canadian side. However, the International Boundary Committee changed the boundary in 1928 to follow the drainage from Lac La Croix to Loon Lake. A 1.58-acre land transfer from Canada to the U.S. was approved in 1940.
Beatty operated the portage and made improvements until 1915. Documentation of subsequent operators after the close of commercial fishing activities in the boundary waters is somewhat sketchy until 1942 when Eino Maki received the first special-use permit. The use of the portage (which is 50 rods, or just less than one-fifth of a mile) was contrary to the government’s management plan of the area. However, it was an accepted use of the land transfer at the time, and they agreed to live with it.
The government also benefited from portage accessibility for fire protection, plus it didn’t have to provide rail maintenance. It eventually reached an agreement with portage owners that allowed U.S., Minnesota and Canadian government officers to use the portage, hoisting facilities and docks at no charge when on official business.
Throughout the decades, the quality of customer service varied with the lineup of owners. One letter of public complaint to the Superior Forest supervisor in 1956 described a rude, highly uncooperative operator who, when intoxicated into a tantrum, refused to provide service.
Loon Falls portage
Commercial fishing and ice-cutting also played a big role in portage construction during the early 1900s. As explained in a 1941 Superior Forest letter to the Minnesota Conservation Department, a group of individuals organized a commercial fishing project in the Lac La Croix region along the international border. They built railroad portages on numerous lakes to improve transportation. However, they didn’t always follow legal landlines or established portage routes, but constructed paths of least resistance.
That’s basically the lore Charlie Cowden also has heard from old-timers around Loon Falls Portage. Cowden is the current owner-operator of the 80-rod rail portage. He’s also learned about ingenious portaging techniques from entrepreneurs of yesteryear.
Cowden described steam-driven “alligator” boats with a winch fashioned onto the front. Its cable was hooked to large anchor rings across the portage. When the winch started, crews would lay log rollers in front of the boat as it pulled itself over the land.
His contract with the state requires him to operate the portage 24/7 from Minnesota’s fishing opener through September. He said he’s independent and the separation from society doesn’t bother him. He enjoys the scenery, lifestyle and working at something built in 1916 that has the same basic principle with slightly changed components. But when travelers tell Cowden they’d love his job, he said they should think that through.
“The problem is that none of them know what the solitude is. People have this pipe dream [that] they’re going to go fishing all the time,” he explained. “Well, I don’t because I’m stuck in my yard. I have to be there. Not only is it a business for me, but it’s a safety net for everybody that comes through. Different emergencies happen.”
As an amenity for guests at Deer Trail Lodge east of Ely around 1948, co-owners Les and Mary Jane Larsen, and Charlie and Margaret “Bobs” Strachan installed a five-rod roller portage between Ojibway and Triangle lakes. The portage offered guests easy motorboat access to a second lake.
The two women were twin sisters and the couples bought the property shortly after World War II as a partnership. Retired Duluth attorney Dexter Larsen is the Larsen’s son. He was 5 when his parents bought the lodge. Now 76 and living at Pequaywan Lake, he reflected on how the portage evolved.
He said his father had a reputation as an outstanding carpenter and worked as such for General Mills in Minneapolis during the war. He also drove a delivery truck for the Minneapolis Ford factory. But the connection between the sisters and the lodge opportunity made moving to Ely worthwhile.
Larsen explained that the primary portage method at first was skidding boats over bare logs. However, his father acquired rollers from the Ford factory and set them into logs across the portage.
Though not inside the BWCA, the property became part of the Superior Forest in the 1980s.
Scott Stowell is a freelance writer and photographer from Ely. He can be reached through writingoutfitter.com.