Over the years, many visitors to Grand Marais have discovered a unique little beach just east of town. Driving to the end of Old Shore Road you will find a small parking lot where you will find a narrow path. Follow that path and you will find yourself at the Old Shore Road Beach, more commonly known as Passion Pit. Recently, this small, unassuming beach on Lake Superior has made history. For the first time in Minnesota, off-Reservation land belonging to the State of Minnesota has been returned to the Native tribe it belonged to. In this case, the land has been returned to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa (Anishinaabe).
Historical Importance of the Old Road
Chippewa City was a small settlement populated primarily by the Anishinaabe people. The settlement was located about a mile outside of Grand Marais. In between Chippewa City and Grand Marais was the Old Road. At the time, just a small path connecting the two towns. Residents of Chippewa City would walk the Old Road, following along Old Shore Road Beach, to Grand Marais as part of their daily routines, and the area became an essential part of their lives and culture.
These were the days before Highway 61 cut the settlement in half. The days before the land around the Old Road became private property as Grand Marais slowly expanded east. Before the 1918 flu epidemic. And before the 1907 fire that destroyed several of the homes. These were the days covered in local author Staci Lola Drouillard’s book “Walking the Old Road: A People’s History of Chippewa City and the Grand Marais Anishinaabe”. The days when Chippewa City was a small but prosperous community.
If this all sounds familiar, it’s because we covered Chippewa City in our Ghost Towns episode of the “Exploring the North Shore” podcast in 2019. As we said then, the small settlement of Chippewa City experienced several difficult tragedies in the early 1900s. These eventually led to the town being abandoned by the mid-1930s. Now, all that remains are the church, cemetery, and memories.
Although Chippewa City eventually became a ghost town, the cultural significance of the Old Road remained.
The Long Process to Return the Land
In 2020, a small community dispute over the maintenance and management of Old Shore Road Beach brought this significance into the spotlight. As Staci Lola Drouillard’s book was being nominated for several awards, access to the Passion Pit beach was being challenged.
The beach and the surrounding land belonged to the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MDOT). The parking area and beach received little maintenance and care. Because there was no trash can present, many groups left trash along the beach and in the wooded area between the parking lot and the beach. No bathroom meant beach visitors would often retreat into the wooded area to do their business. And lack of boundary signage meant beach visitors would often wander onto private property surrounding the beach, upsetting local residents.
When Cook County decided to form a committee to review how to manage the beach, the Grand Portage Anishinaabe came in with another idea: Give the land back to them.
On November 20, 2022, that’s exactly what happened.
Two years after the discussion started over how to manage the beach, MDOT gave the Old Shore Road Beach back to the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Grand Portage Tribal Chair Bobby Deschampe signed the deed alongside an MDOT representative during a ceremony held in Grand Portage.
Continued Public Access to the Old Shore Road Beach
One of the main reasons the Grand Portage Anishinaabe expressed interest in the land was to keep it available for tribal members and the general public. This small section of public space is all that remains of the Old Road. The rest of the land where the path to Grand Marais once was has been divided up by private owners. They have houses and “No Trespassing” signs blocking access to the full path. But now, the beach can remain. Forever.
Although the land is now owned by the Grand Portage Anishinaabe, it will remain open to the public. All visitors are welcome. There will be some more maintenance and improvements on the land and beach. Done so in order to keep the area clean and accessible for all. So feel free to go down there. Enjoy a sandy Lake Superior beach on your next visit to the North Shore. While you’re there, imagine the dozens of Chippewa City residents strolling along the beach on their daily commute to Grand Marais. You will be standing on a historic beach, in more ways than one.