Curtis and Adair Erickson and the Northern Lights Cottage
Newlyweds Curtis and Adair Erickson moved to Grand Marais late in 1937 to begin their new life together. Curtis’ job was placing, managing, and maintaining slot machines, known as “amusement machines”, in any gas station, bar, restaurant, resort, and even car dealerships who were willing to share in gambling profits by having machines located within their establishments. The Ericksons set down roots in Grand Marais and built a cabin we now know as Northern Lights Cottage.
When the couple first moved to town they rented a small cabin located directly adjacent to the Fireweek Bike Co-Op where an open parking lot sits today. That cabin was later home to the original bike shop in Grand Marais (briefly) before the owners moved operations into the building next door. Curtis and Adair lived in that home for the first year in Grand Marais before buying property at the top of the hill on Highway 61, just inside the Grand Marais village limits for $300. Their first son, David, was born in 1938 while they were just starting construction on their cabin. They worked on it over the summer of 1939, with Curtis personally doing most of the construction, and finally moved into their hand-built cabin in October of 1939. In January of 1940, their daughter Dorothy was born. In addition to managing the slot machines up and down Highway 61, Curtis supplemented his income by hauling pulpwood in the offseason.
Life was good for the Erickson family. Great paying job, great friends in town, hunting and fishing, and a healthy, growing family. Soon, however, the tides changed.
The war against gambling and slot machines was going on throughout the country. While the State of Minnesota didn’t outlaw gambling outside of reservations until 1945, it seems Cook County’s government pre-emptively took action sometime in the years 1940 or 1941. One day, there was a knock on the door of the cabin and standing on the doorstep was Sheriff P.J. Bayle and County Attorney Edwin Chapman. Curtis was given just 48 hours to remove all 130 slots machines out of every establishment in Cook County. He hired a friend, Emerson Morris, who would later go on to be the Sheriff of Cook County, to help him scrambled around the county gathering the heavy, weighed down slot machines.
From the reports given by Curtis later in life, they were able to retrieve most of the slot machines. Three, however, met the fate of some angry shop owners who were unhappy about the decision made by their government and the loss of the income generated by the slot machines. Curtis claims one shop owner took his two slot machines to the Poplar Grove Cemetery, less than half a mile from the Erickson cabin, and buried them beneath a grave that had been dug in preparation for a burial the next day. With no one knowing this had been done, the deceased was laid to rest atop two presumably full slot machines. A real “buried treasure” so to speak. (We’d like to make it clear that it is absolutely illegal to desecrate a burial site in hopes of finding these slot machines. And the exact site was never disclosed. It may very well be local lore, so please don’t go hunting for it!) Another proprietor is reported to have thrown his slot machine off of Terrace Point just west of Grand Marais. Curtis took a canoe out and spotted the slot machine at the bottom of Lake Superior. Knowing its weight and challenge to retrieve it, Curtis decided to leave it there. Since the early 1940s, we imagine, there has been enough wave activity to destroy and bury whatever remains of that slot machine now.
Now unemployed, Curtis and Adair made the difficult decision to sell their beloved cabin and move back to Minneapolis. They bought a little house in Richfield and the couple would eventually go on to have six children. Curtis took a job at Honeywell where he helped to develop autopilot systems for planes used in Worl War II. The children were raised with the stories and fond memories their parents had of Grand Marais and their first homes together.
After a triple bypass lead to Curtis’ early retirement, the couple returned to Grand Marais. They purchased a home on Devil Track Lake where they spent the next decade back in the community the loved so much. When age eventually caught up with them, their children encouraged them to return to the cities for the remainder of their retirement. Adair passed away in 2000 and Curtis in 2002. A commemorative plaque that reads “Honoring Curtis and Adair Erickson, 3 years in Twon and 120 on the Trail” sits on the memorial benches across the street from the Trading Post in downtown Grand Marais. If you sit on the bench and look between the buildings you will see the exact spot their first cabin once stood.
As for the cabin that Curtis built, it would eventually fall into disrepair and was abandoned- it was foreclosed upon in 2010. It was then that Dean Erickson, Curtis’ youngest son, was able to go inside the cabin his father had built 70 years prior for the first time. It had changed since it was first built- it now has running water and a full kitchen. What was once a mudroom is now a bathroom- the front door moved to where the living room was. The home would eventually be purchased out of foreclosure by its new owner and beautifully renovated into the cabin that stands today. And in September of 2019, for the first time in nearly 80 years, an Erickson finally slept under its roof again. After attempting to book the cabin for their annual trip to Grand Marais every fall, Dean, his wife Ann Marie, their daughter Katie, and her husband Tyler were finally able to find an open weekend to stay at Northern Lights Cottage.
I sat down with the Ericksons during their stay to hear the story of the cabin. We sat at the dining room table and flipped through old photographs Dean’s parents had taken during this time. The visit was fascinating and I left with a newfound appreciation to a cabin I had been in a handful of times before but had never really considered its history. While it may not have the well-known history of Glensheen Mansion in Duluth, this little cabin in Grand Marais has a rich history all its own! Grand Marais is a city with a lot of history and a lot of stories. I now know that of the Erickson family and the origins of Northern Lights Cottage.
You, too, can lay your head where Curtis, Adair, David, and Dorothy once laid theirs. The cabin is available as a vacation rental through Cascade Vacation Rentals as Northern Lights Cottage.
Listen to Jaye’s interview with Dean, Ann Marie, and Katie Erickson on Exploring the North Shore Podcast:
Are there haunted places on Lake Superior’s North Shore? Of course, there are! Many stories swirl around shadowy figures, disembodies voices, strange smells, and random bursts of cold in an otherwise warm room. There are many well-known haunted places on the North Shore- so many that telling all these stories will likely take many years. So we will kick off our “Haunted North Shore Guide” with a few more well-known hauntings. Over the years, we’ll add to this guide (expect that around Halloween time each year) so you can know where to explore to get your chance to spot a ghost, or, perhaps, where to avoid!
Have you experienced a North Shore ghostly experience? We’d love to hear about it! Send us an email at [email protected] and your story might be featured in a Halloween article or podcast episode in the future.
Listen to the 2019 edition of the Haunted North Shore Guide on the Exploring the North Shore podcast:
Glensheen Mansion is a beautiful home in Duluth, former home to the Congdon family. The Congdon’s were a wealthy family who donated a lot of time and money to various programs and charities in the Duluth area. The Congdons were respected and beloved in the community and were known for being a caring and generous family. However, Glensheen Mansion is probably most well-known for it’s more notorious history- the double murder of Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila by Elisabeth’s son-in-law.
Upon Elisabeth Congdon’s death, ownership and control of Glensheen Mansion was passed on to the University of Minnesota. The University aimed to maintain the home’s integrity and started offering tours. For many years, the tours given at Glensheen attempted to gloss over the murders- not mentioning them and even closing off the master bedroom where Elisabeth was killed from tourgoers. Today, they are a bit more open and will answer questions regarding the murders when asked, and the master bedroom has been restored to its former glory and is now a part of the tour experience at Glensheen. However, the tours put more emphasis on the family and the many contributions they made to the Duluth community, as well as the many unique art and furniture pieces that decorate the home.
The question is- is the mansion haunted? I once directly asked an employee if they believed the mansion was haunted. I got a bit of a smile but a definitive “no, I have never experienced anything.” However, they did add that other people have reported strange and unexplained occurrences that happened around the mansion. Employees and visitors have supposedly made reports of seeing “shadowy figures” moving about the hallways. Guests have report suddenly feeling cold while standing on the landing of the staircase where Velma Pietila was murdered. Others have said to experience sudden feelings of sadness while standing in various parts of the home.
Having been in the home several times over the years, including a trip where I received a private tour in 2018, I have personally never experienced any sort of haunting while there. Rather, I’ve always felt like the mansion was a place where there was a lot of happiness and you can still feel that, especially in some of the family rooms and on the upper level where the boys had their bedrooms.
Glensheen recently started touching a bit on the rumors that the mansion may be haunted by offering a limited 21+ Flashlight tour during the month of October. Although not directly implying it’s the best opportunity to see a ghost roaming the halls of the mansion, it’s advertised as a way to appreciate the mansion’s rare collections in a new way, many go on the tour in hopes of encounter the spirits of Elisabeth or Velma. Have you visited Glensheen and experienced something you couldn’t explain?
Split Rock Lighthouse
Rumors have always swirled that Split Rock Lighthouse was haunted by past lighthouse keepers and their families. While no one met an untimely end to their life on the grounds of Split Rock Lighthouse, one life was lost in the sinking of the Madeira which sparked construction of the Lighthouse on Split Rock Point, so one life was lost nearby. Also, back when it was an active lighthouse guiding vessels along Lake Superior, it was a place where many dedicated a large chunk of their life and retain many happy memories. It’s not a stretch to believe that, upon their death, their spirits chose to return and continue watch on the Big Lake.
A few ghost stories are more well-known, but as is common with stories past down, they’ve changed a bit over time. The one I recall best from my childhood was one of a visitor who lost his wallet on the grounds and went back to search for it after the lighthouse had closed for the day. In one version of the story, the man encountered what he believed to be an employee, dressed as a lightkeeper, on the stairs to the lighthouse. The employee handed him his wallet and then the man went on his way. The next day, he returned to the visitor’s center to thank the employee for finding his wallet. It was then he learned that there had been no employee in costume at the lighthouse that day and especially no one there after hours. In another version of the story, the man returned but found the gates locked and couldn’t access the lighthouse grounds. He glanced up at the lighthouse and saw a man in a lightkeeper’s outfit standing on the catwalk of the lighthouse, staring out at the lake. The man attempted to get his attention but the man on the lighthouse didn’t respond. When the man returned to retrieve his wallet the following day, he was informed that there was no way there would have been anyone on the catwalk at that time. Whichever version of the story you hear, they both suggest the same thing: Split Rock is haunted by the spirit of a former lighthouse keeper.
Other stories include people suddenly smelling women’s perfume or the strong smell of diesel fuel in the keeper’s homes, which is open for tours during business hours. Employees have also claimed that items on display in the bedrooms of the keeper’s home have inexplicably been moved from one table to another as if someone was tidying up. Many believe these things to be done as the result of Pete Young, the original lighthouse keeper, and his wife Florence still wandering around the grounds.
There are a few stories of hauntings on Isle Royale. The remote island on Lake Superior has been the home of numerous untimely deaths– mostly surrounding the copper mine that once existed on the island. However, one of the earliest deaths that have often been associated with a haunting, happened to a man named Charlie Mott in 1845.
Charlie was a voyageur and prospector was hired to survey Isle Royale for copper deposits in hopes of setting up a copper mine on the island. He was left there in July with his wife, a young Anishinaabe woman named Angelique, who was only 17 years old at the time, with only a few supplies and the promise that a supply ship would be returning shortly to provide them with the provisions they would need to stay several months on the island.
The supply ship never came.
With just a half barrel of flour, six pounds of butter, and some beans, Charlie and Angelique initially lived comfortably on the island. With a provided birch bark canoe and fishing net, they were able to fish and gather berries on the island to live. Then, one day later that summer, a storm destroyed their canoe. The fishing net, tired from overuse, also fell apart and became useless making fishing even more difficult. Angelique then started using her hair to make snares to trap rabbits.
For months they stared out at the distance, waiting for the supply ship to arrive. Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months. Soon, it was winter and the available foods they were able to forage during the summer months became covered with snow. Temperatures dropped and their predicament became more dire each day.
Illness took hold of both of them. They fought the fevers and were slowly starving to death at the same time. At one point, Angelique claimed that Charlie, in the midst of a fever spell, sharpened a butcher knife in her presence and called her a “sheep”, threatening to kill her and eat her. He didn’t, and in the end Charlie passed away from starvation.
Angelique, who was reportedly a larger woman at the time they were left on Isle Royale, was able to survive the winter on what limited food supplies she could gather together. Having been raised in the Anishinaabe culture, she was equipped enough with native teachings to survive. Then winter turned to spring and one day in May relief finally came. The company that sent Charlie to the island attempted to claim that a supply ship was sent the previous summer and they didn’t know that it had never reached them. Others in the company told Angelique that this was not the case- no ship was ever sent. Whatever the case, Angelique survived the harrowing winter on Isle Royale with limited supplies and her deceased husband’s remains. She would go on to live another 30 years, dying of natural causes.
In modern days, rumors of Charlie Mott’s ghost wandering the woods looking for food have been reported. Although not as widely as some other Isle Royale hauntings, this early story of death and suffering on Isle Royale has laid way to the lore that the island is inhabited not only by moose and wolves, but also by the many ghosts of the men who sacrificed their lives for the copper on the island.
The Charlie and Angelique Mott story was the basis of a 2018 film called “Angelique’s Isle”
Photo of Angelique and Charlie Mott credit to “Angelique’s Isle”.
Of course, there are many more stories of haunted places that we can share. Come back next year to see part 2.
While Taconite Harbor Town, located near Schroeder, MN, just might be the area’s most well-known Ghost Town, it is not the only Ghost Town that dots the landscape of the North Shore. In fact, there are several dozen communities from Duluth to the Canadian border that were once thriving and now lost completely to time. Many communities were formed because of industry- be it minerals or lumber- and then ceased to exist when materials ran out or when government regulations limited their industry. These communities came and then left leaving behind only memories. Here is the story of four such communities in Lake and Cook Counties that were once thriving communities filled with families and homes that have since vanished, leaving little to nothing behind.
Listen to Joe and Jaye discuss these communities in the Ghost Towns episode of “Exploring the North Shore”:
Forest Center, Lake County
In 1949 the Tomahawk Timber Company created the town of Forest Center along the southern shore of Lake Isabella in Lake County to house employees and their families working the nearby logging operation and lumber mill. At its peak, the community was home to 250 residents and over 50 homes. The company also built a school, a restaurant, a coffee shop, a recreation hall, a general store, two churches, and a post office.
Located about 40 miles from Ely, the community was isolated from the rest of the world- set deep in Minnesota’s Northwoods down unpaved roads that were scantly marked and could be difficult for an outsider to find. Because of this, it became a tight-knit community that has been described as “1950s suburbia, Northwoods style”. The community would come together on weekends for dances at the recreation center or a community baseball game. Most of the homes boasted white picket fences and a garden in the back.
Like many towns in the area, Forest Center was abandoned when the industry it was built on ran out of materials or faced more government regulation. Because of its proximity to the BWCA, the Tomahawk Lumber Company found the area becoming greatly limited for logging operations. After logging more than 100,000 cords per year for 15 years, operations ceased in 1964 and the residents of Forest Center moved on to other communities. Many of the homes and buildings were moved or demolished, leaving behind just a few signs that a once-thriving town once stood there- mostly the roads in town and a few foundations.
The forest quickly reclaimed the area, making it nearly impossible to detect. In 2011 whatever relics were left of Forest Center were destroyed in the Pagami Creek Fire that swept through the area. The fire, however, cleared out some of the overgrowth once again revealing some of the foundations and other signs of the community. It would still take a knowledgeable eye to spot anything that was once a park of Forest Center, however. Even former residents who have returned say the area is unrecognizable to them.
These days, the Forest Center site is now a parking lot used for the Isabella Lake entry point for the BWCA and as the trailhead for the Powwow Trail. If you are ever in this lot for those purposes, take a look around and see if you can spot any signs of the community that was once there.
Getting There: Take Highway 1 from Highway 61 (near Tettegouche State Park). Turn right on Co Rd 7/Wanless Trail near the town of Isabella. Turn left on Trappers Lake Road. Stay on Trappers Lake Road for 5.8 miles and take a slight right onto Forest Road 173. After 2.9 miles turn left onto Forest Road 369 (NOT MARKED WELL!). This road eventually becomes Forest Road 379. When the road ends, turn right onto Tomahawk Road. Look for signs for the Powwow Trail Head, turn into the parking lot. The town was located in this area. Please note that these are not paved road and not well marked. Please consult a map before heading out and ensure you know where you are going. Cell phone reception is not available here. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
Sawbill Landing, Lake County
Forest Center was not the only community to spring up deep in the Northwoods during the 1940s lumber boom. There were more than half a dozen logging camps that dotted the northland during this time. Sawbill Landing is another one that was founded in the late 1940s, thrived for two decades, then vanished. In the case of Sawbill Landing, however, the community was not built by a lumber company but rather by families who chose to create their own, independent town. They chose the landing area for the railroad where lumber would be transported to Lake Superior to be shipped out.
These families created a lovely community complete with a cafe, grocery store, gas station, post office, school, community center, and roughly a dozen homes. The school at Sawbill Landing, like the school at Forest Center, taught the town’s children until 8th grade. In the early days, high school students from the two communities would board in Ely as the roads between Ely and the area were often too treacherous to pass in the winter months. In the mid-1950s the town of Silver Bay was founded along Lake Superior’s North Shore and high school students were now close enough to be bussed daily.
The town prospered for many years until 1964 when the first sign of trouble came with the school building burning down. In 1965 the BWCA boundaries were established and cut off part Sawbill Landing- residents living in the portal zone had to move out. Finally, as the lumber industry slowed the need for the railway was eliminated and the rails were removed in 1970 and the remaining residents left with it.
Like Forest Center, very little signs of the community exists today- much of it having been reclaimed by nature. Those who once lived in the area can still detect traces of the community, but visitors would look upon the area and simply see the forest.
Getting There: Follow directions to Forest Center, but instead of turning left onto Forest Road 369, continue on Forest Road 173. Tale a slight right to stay on Forest Road 173. The town is located at the intersection of Forest Road 173 and Forest Road 174/Dumbell Road. Please note that these are not paved road and not well marked. Please consult a map before heading out and ensure you know where you are going. Cell phone reception is not available here. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
Forest Center and Sawbill Landing Photos Courtesy of the Ely-Winton Historical Society
Mineral Center, Cook County
Before the logging rush of the 1940s, the area experienced the Mineral Rush at the turn of the century. In the 1880s and 1890s settlers were attracted to the areas along Lake Superior’s shoreline further south near the communities now known as Knife River and French River, and then the passage of the Nelson Act in 1889 opened up areas of the Grand Portage Indian Reservation to white settlers and the Mineral Rush moved north. One of the most well-known settlements that was born during this time was Mineral Center.
In 1909 Malcolm Linnell visited the area with family members from Black River Falls, Wisconsin. They came to see if the rumors of mineral deposits and rivers full of fish amongst the vast wilderness were true. What they found was even greater than what they had expected and when they passed through Duluth on their way back to Wisconsin they filed their homestead claim on an area about 15 miles inland from Hovland.
In 1910 the first settlers who would eventually call Mineral Center home arrived in Hovland and started building their homestead. Despite some hardships early on- including wildfires that destroyed much of the surrounder area in 1913, Mineral Center survived and thrived, reaching a population of around 350 by 1930. The town would grow to have a post office, a general store, three schools, a church, and a cemetery. Interestingly, it was tourism that helped Mineral Center thrive. Visitors from Minneapolis and St. Paul would come up to experience a week in the wilderness- hunting for white-tailed deer, getting a ride on an ox-pulled cart, and hauling water from a nearby spring. Souvenir stands lined the main road where native artisans would sell jewelry, blankets, and other goods.
Mineral Center’s eventual demise didn’t come as the result of natural resources drying up. They didn’t lose their primary industry and jobs the way other towns in the area had. Instead, Mineral Center became a ghost town due to the Federal Government purchasing the homesteads back and returning them to the Grand Portage Tribe in 1940.
Eventually, the buildings and homes in Mineral Center were moved to other communities or dismantled for scrap wood. But not all was lost- the cemetery was preserved and in 2010 a renovation was undertaken to ensure the cemetery would remain and the area still open to visitors.
Watch Mineral Center: Passport Into the Past by the Cook County Historical Society.
Getting There: Take Highway 61 and turn onto Co Rd 89/Old Highway 61 a few miles north of Hovland, MN. Stay on Old Highway 61 for 6.3 miles until the intersection of Old Highway 61 and Co Rd 17/Mineral Center Road. The town and cemetery are located near this intersection on the Grand Portage Reservation. While these are maintained roads, they can be difficult to pass in poor weather. Please use caution and be aware of your route ahead of time. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended.
Mineral Center photos courtesy of the Cook County Historical Society
Chippewa City, Cook County
This next ghost town is probably the easiest one to get to and see- Drive through the town of Grand Marais and right as you are leaving, just as the speed limit picks back up to 55, you’re there. Chippewa City was a thriving little village founded in the 1880s. By the 1890s it was home to about 100 families and growing. There are a few well-known residents of Chippewa City that North Shore visitors will likely recognize the names of. John Beargrease, made famous for his mail delivery route and subsequent sled dog race that bears his name, lived here with his family and artist George Morrison was born in Chippewa City in 1919.
Like other North Shore towns, many thought Chippewa City would continue to thrive for generations. However, the town’s population started to dwindle in 1901 when Highway 61 was expanded past Grand Marais, causing the removal of several homes and significant loss of land to the highway. A second blow came in 1907 after a fire destroyed several more homes. Luckily, the newly built St. Francis Xavier Church, the pride and joy of the community, was spared thanks to sailors from a government boat that came ashore to fight the flames. The 1918 flu epidemic hit the community hard, and the Great Depression found even more families leaving the area, all of this eventually lead to Chippewa City becoming a ghost town. By the late 1930s, none of the original residents remained.
Luckily, this is not a ghost town lost entirely to time. In fact, one building still exists and you can actually still go inside of it! According to the Historic Cook County website, the St. Francis Xavier Church was built in 1895 under the direction of Father Joseph Specht. The building was built in the French style by Ojibwe carpenter Frank Wishkop of hand-hewed, dovetailed timber. It served as the only Catholic church in the Grand Marais area from 1895 until 1916 when St. John’s was built in town. As the population of Chippewa City slowly diminished, so did the use of the church. Its final mass was conducted on Christmas 1936. The building sat mostly empty and unused for 2 decades until 1958 when efforts began to restore the building with the Lions and the Catholic Church working together in the restoration process. In 1998 the church was donated to the Cook County Historical Society and is on the National Register of Historic Places. It is open for a few hours in the afternoon on weekends during peak season (May through September or October).
There is also a historic cemetery that still exists setback from Highway 61. Sadly, the “old side” of the cemetery is on the east side where most of the markers have been lost to time or removed due to being irreparably damaged, with little thought given to preservation. A few headstones remain, however they are difficult to read. In recent years there have been some efforts made to identify the location of those buried in this part of the cemetery and to chart out the plots. This chart is on display in the church. Plans to renovate the cemetery have been ongoing for several years with little progress made.
While Chippewa City is no longer there, the area is still inhabited. Homes and cabins once again dot either side of Highway 61 and the Cook County Home Center now sits where the community once was. It is now considered part of Grand Marais.
Getting There: Chippewa City is located along Highway 61 about 1 mile northeast of Grand Marais, MN. You will see the church on the lake side of Highway 61.
If you find this sort of history fascinating, we recommend checking out the book “Minnesota’s Lost Towns Northern Edition” by Rhonda Fochs. Rhonda’s “Lost Towns” series covers the rise and fall of hundreds of communities from all over Minnesota with her “Northern Edition” focusing on the northern half of the state, which includes St. Louis, Lake, and Cook Counties. Also visit the Cook County Historical Society website, or the museum in Grand Marais, to learn more about the North Shore’s lost communities. There are dozens of towns, each with its own unique story to tell, that have been lost to time in the area. Other North Shore communities include Cramer, Illgen City, and Section 30 in Lake County and North Cascade, Parkersville, and Pidgeon River in Cook County- all of which are covered in Foch’s book. The Ely-Winton Historical Society is a wealth of information for lost towns in the Lake County and Ely areas.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald made history on June 7th, 1958 when it made its inaugural trip on the Great Lakes. Measuring in at 729 feet long, it was the largest ship to sail the Great Lakes at that time and became known as the “Pride of the American Side” as her existence was a sign of post-Great Depression progress for the iron ore shipping industry.
She was a spectacle and visitors would often flock to the Duluth Harbor to see her coming and going, just to catch a glimpse of the “giant” ship. Duluth was her home as she sailed between the Twin Ports to other port towns, primarily Detroit.
In the early years of the shipping industry sailors learned a deep respect of the Great Lakes and the storms that could suddenly erupt around them. The Mataafa Storm of 1905 and The Great Lakes Storm of 1913 both sank 11 vessels in a single day. Both storms happened in November during weather systems referred to as “The Gales of November”, which are said to “test the hulls of ships and the souls of men”. However, by the time the SS Edmund Fitzgerald set sail, improved ship designs, modern radar navigation, reliable weather forecasting, and steady communication on the Great Lakes greatly reduced the number of shipwrecks. In fact, there hadn’t been a shipwreck on Lake Superior since 1953 when two freighters collided in heavy fog near Thunder Bay, Ontario. So when the SS Edmund Fitzgerald left port on November 9th, 1975, for her last trip of the season, despite knowing of an impending storm system due to hit Lake Superior in the next couple of days, those on board carried on as usual. The ship met up with the SS Arthur M. Anderson around 5PM that evening, just as the storm started passing by.
Early the next morning, Lake Superior was starting to show her fury with a Gales of November storm. Even as the storm grew, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, with her experienced Captain Ernest M. McSorley at the helm and a knowledgeable crew, carried on, knowing the ship could withstand the storm. After all, the forecast had expected the storm to pass by 7AM and the two ships had altered their course to use the Ontario shoreline in hopes of avoiding most of the storm, which was expected to hit further south. But Lake Superior decided to prove just how unpredictable she could be, and instead of passing by, the storm grew. By mid-afternoon on November 10th, the combination of the high winds and waves and heavy snowfall caused the SS Arthur M. Anderson to lose sight of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which had pulled ahead of the Anderson by several miles. The two ships continued to have radio contact.
Around 3:30 PM, Captain McSorley alerted Captain Jesse B. Cooper of the Anderson that the Fitzgerald had started to take on water and was beginning to list. He made the decision to slow the Fitzgerald down to allow the Anderson to close the gap between the two so the ships could sail on together. As the storm grew, the ships made the decision to seek shelter in Whitefish Bay on the Michigan shoreline until they could continue on safely.
The SS Arthur M. Anderson would make it to Whitefish Bay. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald would not.
Just an hour after reporting that the Fitzgerald was taking on water the ship reported a radar failure. The storm grew even more with sustained winds of 58 MPH and gusts up to 86 MPH and the two ships moved toward safety with the Fitzgerald stumbling along, essentially blind from loss of radar. At 7:10 PM Captain Cooper asked Captain McSorley how the ship was doing. “We are holding our own,” was the reply. The SS Edmund Fitzgerald would sink just minutes later.
After the SS Arthur M. Anderson reached White Fish Bay safely, it became clear that something had happened to the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. No distress call had gone out, but the radio communication had ceased and there were no reported sightings of the Fitzgerald by the Coast Guard. At 9:03 PM Captain Cooper reported that the Fitzgerald was missing. The Anderson, under the request of the US Coast Guard, left the safety of White Fish Bay and went back out into the storm to search for the missing freighter. By 10:30 PM the Anderson was joined by the SS William Clay Ford. Other ships attempted to assist in the search efforts but were unable to as the storm continued on. Despite great efforts in the search, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald was gone.
All 29 on board, gone with her. There were no survivors and no bodies ever recovered.
The true cause of the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald has never been determined. It is clear that the Gales of November and the unpredictable winter storm that hit Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, played a hand in her demise. However, the ship had faced similar storms in the past and had been built to withstand the beating. Numerous theories have been proposed, including that the ship had unknowingly run aground while seeking refuge along the Canadian coastline, that a series of rogue waves known as “The Three Sisters” had overloaded the deck with water, and that the Fitzgerald itself was not as structurally sound (and was carrying a load far too heavy) as it was believed to be. While theories abound, the true cause will likely never be known.
In 1995, 20 years after it went to the bottom of Lake Superior, the ship’s bell was pulled from the wreckage and given to the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society to serve as a memorial for the 29 men who lost their lives. The bell can be seen at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum in Paradise, Michigan. Meanwhile, back in Minnesota, the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald is commemorated every year on November 10th with the lighting of Split Rock Lighthouse and a small ceremony reading off the names of the crew members to the tolling of a ship’s bell. This is the only opportunity visitors have to go into the lighthouse after dark and see the lit beacon.
The SS Edmund Fitzgerald was the last iron ore ship to sink in Lake Superior. It is also the largest ship to have ever met its end at the bottom of one of the Great Lakes to this day. The sinking was, perhaps, made even more famous thanks to the song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot in 1976. Lightfoot claims to have written the song as a show of respect for the men onboard the Fitzgerald. His lyrics “Does anyone know where the love of God goes, when the waves turn the minutes to hours? The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay if they’d put fifteen more miles behind her” describe how truly perilous those final minutes were for the ship, and just how close she came to safety.
Organized Crime on the North Shore
The North Shore of Lake Superior and areas up the Gunflint Trail served as a “secret hideaway” for many notorious Chicago-area gangsters of the 1920s and 30s. The area was also home to one of the most prolific bank robbers in US history. Being so far north, far away from major cities, and with Lake Superior in its backyard, the North Shore was the perfect place for making moonshine, running illegal liquor, and just a great place in general for someone to hide out, when needed.
These are just a few stories that have been passed down or well-documented tales of organized crime on the North Shore.
Al Capone and the Lutsen Resort Fish House
From “Lutsen Resort History”: Gangsters from Chicago found Lutsen to be a great “getaway,” including Baby-Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and Al Capone. Capone arrived with his “wife” and requested a more remote spot than the lodge. They were offered a fish house two miles away, and when it was discovered that the fish house was riddled with bullet holes, the owners demanded, and received, $20 extra from Capone.
So what was Al Capone doing that required a remote place to stay? Sure, he came up with his mistress (I’m assuming) and probably wanted some privacy for her, but what else went on in that fish house? From the story, it doesn’t appear anyone was injured or “offed” during Capone’s stay, but one has to wonder why he’d shoot the place up. “Riddled with bullets” implies more than just a couple of one-off gunshots. Perhaps he got a bit trigger happy after having a few? But, hey, props to Capone for handing over the $20, right?
It is also said that Al Capone was a frequent visitor to Illgen City’s resort. He and other well-known gangsters of the time would often stop by and spend a few nights before continuing on to “secret” Northern Resorts.
The Naniboujou Social Club
In 1927, construction on a private club on Minnesota’s North Shore began, funded by the rich and elite from Minneapolis, Chicago, and other midwestern cities. The Naniboujou Social Club opened its doors to a select few who were “in the know” in 1928. The social club catered to a few well-known guests, including famous names of time like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. It was also a popular destination for those mobsters from Chicago that needed a quiet place to rest for a little while.. Al Capone and John Dillinger are said to have been frequent visitors. Usually, when someone references a “secret North Shore resort” where gangsters and their associates would hideout, they are usually referring to the Naniboujou Social Club. Although there were several others in the area during this time, Naniboujou was the most popular and most well-known today.
The Great Depression led to Naniboujou’s closure in 1935 and the clubhouse was shuttered for several years. It later reopened as a public lodge and resort that is still in operation today. You can head up to the resort, located near the Brule River just outside Hovland, for an incredible Sunday Brunch or Afternoon Tea. It’s ties to the mob were relatively short-lived, but remains notorious local lore.
Interestingly, John Dillinger is noted as being a frequent visitor to Naniboujou and his name has been in the news recently- On October 4th, 2019, the Indiana State Department of Health gave permission for Dillinger relatives to dig up and then rebury Dillinger’s body. The family does not believe that the body buried in Dillinger’s grave is his as police reports from his fatal shooting in 1934 in front of a Chicago movie theater describes a man with a different eye color and fingerprints taken post-mortem do not match those known to belong to Dillinger. The exhumation is scheduled for December 31st.
In the 1940s and 50s, Tommy Banks made a fortune running bars and liquor stores in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, despite being a convicted felon which should have prohibited him from owning an alcohol business. Before that, during Prohibition, Tommy Banks operated The Syndicate, supplying alcohol to Minneapolis bars. Despite being connected to several high profile murders and, of course, running alcohol during Prohibition, Tommy Banks was never convicted or even tried, for these crimes. Instead, much like Al Capone, authorities got him in a 1937 charge of tax fraud.
Tommy’s connection to the North Shore can be found on the Gunflint Trail where Tommy owned a cabin located on Hungry Jack Lake. It was a part of Hungry Jack Lodge and maintained by Bill Needham, a Gunflint Trail local who formed an “unlikely friendship” with Tommy Banks. This friendship was the basis of the display at Chik-Wauk Museum during the summer of 2019.
Unlike other Mobsters, Tommy Banks ended up living a long life. He died in 1985 at the age of 91 from heart disease.
Hear more about Tommy Banks and his connection to Hungry Jack Lodge in this 2016 report by WTIP’s Joe Friedrichs:
The Trench Coat Bank Robbers
“The Trenchcoat Robbers” were a pair of bank robbers named William A. Kirkpatrick and Ray A. Bowman. The pair had been meticulously robbing banks all over the US starting with a 1982 robbery in Annapolis, MO. Their heists included pulling off the largest bank robbery in U.S. history. On February 10th, 1997 they robbed Seafirst Bank newar Tacoma, WA, netting $4,461,681 cash they carried out in bags that weighed 355 pounds. In total, they robbed 28 banks and made off with over $8 million in cash between 1982 and 1997.
They were careful and meticulous, spending months planning a heist. They never robbed banks close to home. Then, once the robbery was completed, the two would part ways and return to their perspective homes in different states to avoid being connected to one another. Bowman would return home to Kansas City, MO while William Kirkpatrick headed north- to the tiny town of Hovland, Minnesota.
It was a cash exchange in Hovland in 1996 that finally put the Trench Coat Robber’s on the FBI radar. Kirkpatrick had given his girlfriend, a woman named Myra Penney, $188,000 cash to pay for a newly constructed log cabin. It was the builder, a man named Michael Senty, who found this amount of cash to be suspicious and reported the payment to the IRS after having an argument with Penney. After not being able to verify income for either Penney or Kirkpatrick, who had assumed the alias Donald Wilson, the IRS alerted the FBI, and the heat was on.
Though that was the initial tipping point, a few other mistakes were made by the pair along the way. Around the same time that Senty was making his report to the IRS, a mini-storage owner was contacting the authorities after finding a cache of firearms in a storage unit in Missouri that Bowman had failed to make a payment on. Kirkpatrick had also been pulled over in Nebraska for going 7 mph over the speed limit on his way home from collecting money he had stashed in a Las Vegas storage locker. He had given the officer his fake ID. Suspecting it was a fake ID, the officer searched his car and found guns, a ski mask, as well as other disguises, and $1.8 million cash. Kirkpatrick was arrested and the FBI was able to connect Bowman and Kirkpatrick together as the Trench Coat Robbers.
In 1998, about a year after the Seafirst Bank robbery, Bowman and Kirkpatrick were indited by a federal grand jury. After being urged by Penney to admit to his crimes, Kirkpatrick plead guilty to three bank robberies and received a 15-year, 8-month sentence. He was only charged with three as the statute of limitations had run out on other robberies the FBI had connected him to. Kirkpatrick has since served his sentence and has been released. Bowman continued to deny his connection to the Trench Coat Robbers and took his case to court. He was found guilty of four bank robberies and was given a 24-year, 6-month sentence. I could not find confirmation as to whether Bowman was still in prison or if he, too, has been released.
The two were featured in a 1992 episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
So whether the area was used as a hideaway or for actively producing moonshine during prohibition, it’s appeal to these notorious leaders of organized crime is what brings many visitors to the area today. Well, perhaps not the moonshine part, as Prohibition in the United States ended in 1933 and liquor is available in liquor stores and restaurants, but the desire for a quiet escape still rings true for many. Even if it’s just the need to escape from the hustle and bustle of real life for a couple of days.
A North Shore Ghost Town
In the 1950’s, a bustling little town sprung up along the shore of Lake Superior. The tiny two-block town, built by the Erie Mining Company, housed the employees of the nearby taconite plant and their families. 22 pre-fabricated homes were brought in on trucks and lined either side of the street in this picturesque town.
The town was called Taconite Harbor, and from 1957 until 1990 it had its ups and downs. In the beginning, the convenience of living near the plant was a big draw to many families. To accommodate the growing community a fire hall, community center, playground, baseball field, basketball court, and tennis court were constructed. The town’s close proximity to Lake Superior meant it was a town with a view and a desirable place to live. It was especially perfect for young families just starting out.
It was also an affordable place to live. For just $400 down and $100 a month, families could comfortably live in the tidy three- and four-bedroom homes. Each home came with a paved driveway and spacious tree-lined backyard. In many ways, Taconite Harbor was the idealistic 1950’s neighborhood with pastel-colored homes and a car in every driveway. During its peak, close to 75 children called Taconite Harbor home, and in the evenings kids would run around playing games in the streets and the yards until the street lights turned on and it was time to go home for dinner. It was a postcard North Shore town.
The appeal of the town began to fade in the 1970’s and 80’s when the original families began to retire or chose to move away due to the growing issues of taconite dust and noise pollution from the plant. In 1982 the taconite business took a hit and the workforce was reduced to only about 100 employees. Most families left the area to find work elsewhere and Taconite Harbor started its descent into a ghost town.
In 1986 the remaining residents were told the town was no longer going to be supported and they would have to start moving. Those residing in the homes were offered the chance to purchase them, for just $1, but were told they’d have to remove them from the land. Many of the houses were moved into nearby Silver Bay and privately-owned plots along Highway 61. In 1988 the final resident left, officially making Taconite Harbor a ghost town.
In 1990 the remaining homes and buildings were packed up and sent out on trucks. All that remained of Taconite Harbor were the foundations, streets, street lights, and remnants of the vibrant community that it once was.
Less than 30 years later, nature has reclaimed most of the land. You can still make out two of the main streets in town, and a rusted old street light still sits at the entrance to the town. There are holes where the sewer system once was, and if you venture off the beaten path you can still find a foundation or two. For the most part, however, Taconite Harbor has returned to nature, leaving only the memories of those who once called this place home.
Work continued at Taconite Harbor over the years, switching hands several times until Minnesota Power took over. In 2016 Taconite Harbor Energy Center idled it’s coal-fired operations affecting the remaining 42 employees. It currently runs on a skeleton crew of a few employees and is only operated occasionally. It is expected to close for good by 2020. Perhaps, another 30 years from then, the entire area will have been reclaimed by nature and all that will remain are the stories.
Taconite Harbor is now a safe harbor with a small outdoor museum that tells the story of how the harbor was built out. If headed down that way you may miss the town, or what remains of it, entirely. To the right, as you turn off Highway 61, a single street light still stands, marking the entrance. Walk straight and you will walk down the main street. There isn’t much to see anymore, but it’s a quiet and peaceful place. Perhaps it’s worth a quick stop and look around before heading out to other destinations along the shore.