DULUTH – A popular beach just east of Grand Marais, Minn., may return to tribal ownership as the state moves to transfer the property to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation owns the former gravel pit and is looking to pass it on after deeming the nearly 2-acre parcel "excess."

"We wanted to figure out how to manage it in a way that keeps it in public use," said Duane Hill, MnDOT's district engineer for northeastern Minnesota. "As that discussion ensued, the tribe stepped in and said they have some cultural connection to the property.

"In the community, government-wise, there's unanimous support for that."

It would be the first time the department has transferred land to a tribal entity off-reservation, Hill said. The Grand Portage Reservation covers the northeastern corner of the state beginning about 23 miles from the Old Shore Road beach.

Locally known as "Passion Pit" but likely destined for a new name, the beach in 2020 was the site of "adverse parking issues, litter, loud parties and trespassing onto private property," Cook County officials said, which prompted neighbors to ask MnDOT about conveying the property. This year, beach traffic has been less disruptive.

"A lot of the public discourse we've had has raised some awareness — we don't see the site getting used as much, and the use we do see has been more low-impact," said Tim Nelson, county land services director.

The transfer could take up to two years because of legal requirements surrounding the conveyance of public property, officials said. Part of that process will include determining if the land can be transferred at little to no cost or if it must be sold at market rate. The county has assessed the parcel at $283,000.

Meanwhile, an advisory committee began meeting this spring to plan the short-term management of the area, which will include installing a waste receptacle on a county-owned sliver of the beach to the west. Private property that stretches to the water otherwise borders the roughly 160-foot-long public beach on either side.

The beach and the surrounding area was once part of Chippewa City, an Indigenous settlement that numbered about 100 families in 1900, according to accounts in Staci Drouillard's history of the area, "Walking the Old Road."

By the late 1930s, residents had largely moved away because of pressure from white development and federal policy, and today the St. Francis Xavier Church is the lone surviving structure built in that era. The church sits just north of the beach, between Old Shore Road and Hwy. 61.

"It is this strong connection to our homelands that lies at the center of who we are, and it explains why the people who were born and raised in Chippewa City have maintained such a strong bond with both the physical place and each other," Drouillard wrote.

John Beargrease, namesake of the annual dog sled race, was a resident of Chippewa City, and it was the birthplace of artist George Morrison and Ruth Myers, known as the "grandmother of American Indian education in Minnesota."

Grand Portage Band Chairman Robert Deschampe said at an advisory committee meeting in April that "if we do end up acquiring this land, it's to educate people, it's to let them enjoy the beach, the lake."

"One of my biggest things is to make sure this property stays accessible for tribal members, for anybody, that wants to go down there and visit the beach," he said. "The lake is a gift to us. It's getting to be fewer and fewer places along the North Shore where you can actually go down and enjoy Lake Superior."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496