DULUTH — Two of northeastern Minnesota's most popular tourist destinations aren't linked by road, bifurcating the region into different journeys for travelers.
The towns are Grand Marais and Ely, reachable from one to the other using highways that take you south then north on a 108-mile journey. Reader Troy Allen wants to know why there isn't a more direct connection, pointing to a potential long-ago dispute between lumber and railroad tycoons. He posed his question to Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reporting project fueled by reader questions. We are answering it as part of A Little Curious, an occasional series based on more specific reader questions than those addressed in the main column.
When federal legislation was signed in 1978 assuring the utmost protection of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, it included a ban on logging and road development throughout the remote area. Even with logging and mining exploration inside the Superior National Forest for decades prior, a direct road route never connected the two towns — a vast swath of rugged, lake-filled terrain between them.
The tale of a dispute was shared by a fishing guide, Allen said. There's no evidence of that, historians said, but a major railroad did look into laying down tracks.
The Duluth and Iron Range Railroad Co. surveyed a route — now roughly the 46-mile Kekekabic Trail that begins near Ely and ends on the Gunflint Trail — in the 1890s. It found it would be too costly to build a railroad through that country, and the scarcity of marketable timber didn't warrant the expense, said Lee Johnson, an archaeologist with the Superior National Forest.
Ely, on the Vermilion Range, one of three ranges that form the Iron Range, sprang up for logging and then mining iron from the late 1800s until 1967. The area used rail lines built to reach Lake Superior loading docks south of Grand Marais, said Aaron Brown, a professor and author who writes about the Iron Range.
"It didn't need a special route to Grand Marais," he said, a town that was then more about fishing than any other commercial endeavor.
Local chambers of commerce and the Forest Service pushed for an Ely-to-Grand Marais road in the 1920s as part of a larger road construction effort, said Kevin Proescholdt, co-author of "Troubled Waters: The Fight for the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness."
Some roads did get built, such as an extension of the Gunflint Trail to Saganaga Lake, but the proposal for a road from Ely east to Grand Marais failed, he said, after a campaign helmed by early conservationists, including the Isaak Walton League, mounted.
Aside from the desire to preserve the primitive wilderness, constructing a road "would have been terribly difficult and slow-going," Proescholdt said, with its boreal forests, bedrock, swamps and glacially carved lakes.
The Forest Service adopted the roadless designation for the area in 1926.
Civilian Conservation Corps crews patrolled the Kekekabic Trail for fires in the 1930s, and today it's a backpacking trail. So, a direct land route exists, since the Gunflint Trail leads to Grand Marais.
"It just exists as a trail, rather than a road," Johnson said.
Although a series of county and Forest Service gravel roads just south of the Boundary Waters wind through that vicinity, the quickest way to travel between the two towns is via Hwy. 1 and Hwy. 61.
While it appears no captains of industry fought over a road on the eastern side of the Superior National Forest, one timber tycoon did stir major controversy with his plans to build dams in the Boundary Waters near the Minnesota-Ontario border, said Minnesota Rep. Roger Skraba, a BWCA fishing guide and former Ely mayor.
That was Edward W. Backus, whose attempts led Congress in 1930 to pass the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act, protecting water levels in the Superior National Forest by banning dams and logging.