The boathouses are rusty, ramshackle. One alone would attract little attention. A simple structure, framed by tamarack logs and covered in corrugated steel. But together, strung along Lake Vermilion’s south shore, the 143 boathouses reveal the lives of the men who built them.
Together, they reveal Minnesota’s mining past.
“It’s quite a sight,” says Denis Gardner, the National Register Historian of the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office.
The first boathouse was built in 1884 to shelter a steamboat for the nearby Soudan Underground Mine. The rest were built for fun. The company that operated the mine allowed longtime workers lakeshore leases as a job perk. Such rewards kept its workforce content, according to the application to add the boathouses to the National Register of Historic Places. A 1937 mining company magazine boasted that “Beyond the Mine Lies Vacationland.”
“It was a way of life,” says Gardner, who wrote about the boathouses for the Minnesota Historical Society. “You worked at the mine, then you went hunting and fishing.”
From the turn of the century through the 1950s, miners erected the shelters, which extend over the water, with materials borrowed from the mine’s scrap pile, including sheets of metal.
The boathouses sit — so close some nearly touch — on what’s now public land, part of the Lake Vermilion-Soudan Underground Mine State Park. So as park manager, Jim Essig works with the owners and the Stuntz Bay Association to manage the boathouse leases.
It’s tough. There have been fights, locally and at the Legislature, over whether and how they should be sold or passed on to future generations. The current rules allow an owner to transfer a lease once to a family member. But who should maintain those that have been abandoned? Should they be repaired, rented, demolished?
“We just need a good plan,” Essig says, shaking his head while walking the rocky path of boathouses. His goal is to create a guide for the historic district that’s a “win-win” for owners and taxpayers. He reaches the end of the row and points out, through the trees, No. 1 — collapsed into the lake.
“And No. 5 is going to go in a couple of years,” he says. “I compare it to a smiley face, and right now we’re losing teeth.”
Each boathouse sports a number — 1 through 151. Many also include nicknames and family names, some hand scrawled. A few boast brightly-painted doors, or decorations like ducks, anchors, warnings. On No. 99: just three “no parking” signs.
Inside, construction tends toward utilitarian, with little room on either side of the boat channel for more than tools. But among the winches, ropes and “ice-out” calendars are hints at lives of miners and their families.
The mining company paid for electricity, so each Sunday, families would gather to give haircuts and do laundry. They picnicked and played music, fished and fixed their motors.
Lee Branwall has a photo, snapped in 1938, of his mother holding him at 6 weeks old, on their way to the cabin on Lake Vermilion’s north side, inaccessible by road. They’re standing in front of the boathouse his father built. Branwall, now 83, spent his childhood summers on that lake. His father, a former fur trapper, worked in the mine until it closed, then guided public tours, telling stories — some of them true.
“People complain about companies and how they treat their employees,” Branwall says. “Those people just loved to work for U.S. Steel.”
But by the time Branwall started kindergarten, his father told him: “Lee, you are not going to work in the mine.” He ended up living the better life his father had hoped for him — earning a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and working at 3M. Still, several times a year, he returns to his parents’ land on Lake Vermilion, via the boathouse his father built with his fellow miners.
On a recent morning, Gregg and Lisa Larson bring a quart of green paint to No. 109. “It’s boathouse love day,” Gregg says, smiling.
Gregg’s grandfather built a nearby boathouse in the 1940s after returning from World War II. His father fished off a big rock in the bay each day. Now, Gregg and Lisa trek here from Scottsdale, Ariz., with their English bulldog Boogie, who loves being on the water but requires a life vest.
They can see the row of boathouses from their cabin, on a nearby island. When the sun is setting, Lisa says, it hits the patchwork of metal, casting colorful light into the bay. “You’ve never seen anything so beautiful.”