If you’re walking along the shore of Agate Bay in Two Harbors near the lighthouse, you might stumble upon something strange: A set of railroad tracks that begin at the edge of the water and lead into the harbor. It’s a strange sight that will immediately make you wonder about the history of the tracks and why they lead into the water.
No, there is not an underwater train that you can ride. Instead this set of tracks once served the booming commercial fishing village of Agate Bay, and now it sits eerily disappearing into the depths of Lake Superior. The tracks were used to transport boats to and from the water and led into a boathouse that sat in the middle of the Scandinavian fishing village.
What happened to the fishing village and the industry that once thrived in the area? The invasion of the sea lamprey in 1935 led to the downfall of commercial fishing on the Great Lakes by 1955. The sea lamprey, originally from the Atlantic Ocean, entered the Great Lakes through the locks and canals, and eventually led to the demise of Great Lake commercial fishing.
The sea lampreys latch onto fish such as lake trout and whitefish and live off of their blood and bodily fluids. A lamprey kills approximately 40 pounds of fish throughout its life time and grows up to 20 inches long, giving it a slimy eel-like appearance.
Since the invasion, biologists have been able to deplete the sea lamprey populations by 90% throughout the Great Lakes by securing the canals that they once traveled freely through.
The Great Lakes fisheries are alive again, valued around 4.5 billion dollars per year. However, the Agate Bay fishing village has not made a comeback. Regardless, the village played a large role in the rise of the fishing industry on the great lakes.
Though little is left to remind visitors of the vibrant fishing village that existed many years ago, it’s an important piece of history that many people take pride in keeping alive.
Travel 25 miles north of Duluth on Hwy 61 to Two Harbors, take a right onto Park Rd and continue for 1.1 miles. Park in the parking lot and begin following the paved walking trail to the north (the opposite direction of the lighthouse). The railroad tracks and a marker will be on the left side of the trail.
The small town of Burlington, which consisted of a sawmill and a few shacks near present-day Two Harbors, was built by David A. Currier and Charles Hibbard in the mid-1800’s. The two men initially came to the area to salvage lumber after a nearby forest fire ripped through the area. A steam-powered sawmill and dock were built on the east side of the bay to support their efforts. At the peak existence in 1957, there were 25 residents.
Just a few short years later, after the timber salvage was over, the sawmill was moved to Duluth. Eventually, the town was taken over by Two Harbors. Now, the location is primarily used for picnicking, boating and recreation. It is a perfect place to come and enjoy an afternoon on the water and dip your toes in Lake Superior.
Although it’s mostly known for its great beach, the bay also has great access to the beautiful Sonju Trail that winds through Two Harbors and the shore of Lake Superior. The beach has several picnic tables available to the public that provides a perfect place for lunch with a view. Although the water temperature rarely reaches above 60 degrees Fahrenheit, some love to dip in the cold water when the summer sun is beating down on the North Shore.
The Duluth and Iron Range Depot is a two-story, brick building that was built in Two Harbors in 1907. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was the past headquarters and corporate office for the Duluth and Iron Range Railroad. The railroad played a major role in both passenger and freight service, while still meeting the needs of the area’s lumber and iron mining operations until 1961.
Today the building houses a museum, the new Judge William Scott Library (a work in progress) and the Lake County Historical Society. The museum features exhibits that reflect the development of Lake County’s big three industries: iron mining and the railroad, timber, and commercial fishing. It maps out how the rail line was first used to transport workers and supplies to lumber camps north of Lake Vermilion.
On display are two steam locomotives of distinctive history to Two Harbors: The “3 Spot” which was built by Baldwin in Philadelphia for a Mexican railroad that never took delivery and a Mallet locomotive built by Swiss engineer, Anatole Mallet. The museum faces the harbor where more
then 10 million tons of iron ore are still shipped annually.
Located 7 blocks south of Highway 61 in Two Harbors. To get there from Highway 61 in Two Harbors, turn to the south (toward Lake Superior) on Waterfront Drive, then turn left on South Avenue and you will see the two story brick building.
Built in 1896, the Edna G Tugboat was the last steam powered tugboat that operated on the Great Lakes. It sits at 110 feet long, with a 23 foot beam, and has a 1000 horsepower engine. The engine generates a bollard pull of a whopping 30 tons (bollard pull is the nautical equivalent of horsepower)! During its operation, the engine would use roughly 25 tons of coal per week, or 5 tons per day. That equates to about 12 shovels full of coal that had to be manually shoveled into the boiler every 10 minutes!
Named after Edna Greatsinger, the daughter of Jacob Greatsinger, the president of the D & IR Railroad in the early 1900’s, the tug served the Two Harbors shipping industry for decades. It also and had a brief stint in WW1 when it was moved to the east coast by the US government.
The boat ultimately had to retire in 1974 when it was designated as a National Historic Site. In 1981 it was donated to the city of Two Harbors. The boat is a very important part of the city’s heritage. If you drive through town today, you’ll notice that the boat appears on town signs and the city seal.
Today you’ll find the tugboat anchored in the harbor near the large iron ore loading docks. Though tours of the boat were given to visitors in the past, they have been suspended for the last few years for restoration work. The historical society hopes to secure funding to move the boat on land and resume tours in the future. If they don’t find the funding, the damage that results from the boat sitting in the water year-round may cause the boat to sink.
In Two Harbors from Highway 61, proceed south (toward Lake Superior) on 6th St. to Waterfront Dr and you will see the boat in harbor.
Flood Bay near Two Harbors is a unique spot on Lake Superior with a panoramic view of its natural harbor and pebble beach. Named after a settler who operated a small steam sawmill in 1856, this bay was once an important log landing and raft site.
All can have a great view from the parking lot, but there are steps to get down to the beach for those who want to explore further. On the beach, you can often find driftwood piled up by a storm. Flood Bay is also well known for its tiny agates. These small gems are found all along the North Shore and many hope to one day get lucky and find a big one! Try your luck and don’t be afraid to get down close to the rocks to get a better look.
In addition to being a great place to spot an agate, Flood Bay is an excellent place for paddlers to access Lake Superior and picnickers to enjoy a relaxed lunch.
To get to Flood Bay, take highway 61 about 1 mile north of Two Harbors and on the right watch for a blue sign that reads “Flood Bay Wayside”.
On November 28, 1905 the schooner-barge called the Madeira was making one of its routine trips on Lake Superior, under tow of the steamer William Edenborn, and found itself in the middle of a violent storm. Winds were blowing around 70 to 80 miles per hour with swells significantly larger than ships of the time could handle. The captain of the steamer that was towing the Madeira quickly realized he could not fight it and cut the Madeira loose.
Shortly after the Madeira had been cut loose, it crashed into the cliff named Gold Rock (pictured above). One of the crewmen was able to jump to safety, bringing along eight others of his crew. Two days later, the tugboat Edna G was able to rescue the remaining stranded crewmen and bring them to safety. Only one of the men aboard the ship went down with it. The brutal storm, which became known as the Mataafa Storm, damaged over twenty other vessels on Lake Superior over its duration. This ultimately led to the creation of the Split Rock Lighthouse to aide with traveling through these storms.
In 1955, divers first explored the wreck of the Madeira but found no treasure on board. A salvage company soon followed and were able to remove the anchors and the ship’s wheel, which was eventually sold to the Split Rock Trading Post. The anchor can be seen today outside the visitor center at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park. Despite all the dismantling of the ship, today the Madeira still lies at the bottom of the lake and is often investigated by divers from around the world. A special diver parking lot has even been provided for shore diving (located north of the Split Rock Lighthouse State Park main entrance on MN-61). Even if you’re not into diving, it’s worth driving to the parking lot. Sometimes on a sunny day, the wreck can be seen from the surrounding cliffs.
Who is Pierre the Voyageur and why is he so interesting? Well, imagine driving down the highway and seeing a 20 foot tall, mesh and fiberglass cartoon-like statue glaring down at you. This statue was placed on the Smithsonian’s list of historic landmarks and is something the people of Two Harbors are very honored to have near their city. Some say he resembles Paul Bunyan, but what makes him different are his slits for eyes, a slight grin, and no pants?
Pierre first stood in front of the Voyageur Motel in Two Harbors. It is said that long ago, Pierre’s eyes glowed a scary red and a motel employee sitting in a hidden booth operated his controls and even made him speak. The “no pants” feature comes from the historic appearance of voyageurs. According to an exhibit at the Fort Frances Museum and Cultural Center in Ontario, back in the day these voyageurs usually wore a long sleeved woolen skirt and a pair of deerskin leggings that ended just above the knees.
Today, Pierre stands proudly in front of a motel outside of Two Harbors, MN and has even been given a red paddle to hold. Spotlights give him a strong presence at night and his glowing red eyes make him especially scary during a bad snowstorm.
From Two Harbors, take Highway 61, turn left (toward Lake Superior) onto Stanley Road. The address is 933 Stanley Road, Two Harbors, MN.
Although this hike is only around 2 kilometers, you’ll be amazed at how long it takes you to complete it – not because it is extremely difficult (though there are a number of stairs on the trail), but because you’ll be making many stops to enjoy the views!
Jutting into the waters of Lake Superior, Shovel Point is one of the main attractions for visitors on the North Shore. It is located within Tettegouche State Park and is one of the many wonderful hikes that the park is famous for.
Made of a billion-year-old cape of red rock, this feature provides a great way to get above water level and enjoy some of the greatest views in Minnesota. The hike is perfect for all ages because it is short, yet incredibly beautiful. There are plenty of steps along the way that provide an easy stroll down to the edge with signs pointing you in the right direction as you move along.
As you make your way along the path, make sure to keep an eye out for views of sea and ice caves (if you’re visiting in the winter), as they can typically be seen from points near the trail. When you reach the end, you will be greeted with views that stretch for miles, including those of Lake Superior and Palisade Head. This is a perfect spot to break out the lunch you packed and take in the beauty that is right in front of you.
To get to the trail go to Tettegouche State Park (on Highway 61, 4.5 miles northeast of Silver Bay). Park in the visitor center parking lot. Start walking east (or to the left if you’re facing Lake Superior) on the trail between the visitor center and Lake Superior.
Have you ever driven northeast on Highway 61 between Two Harbors and Silver Bay and wondered about the history of the pilings that stick out of the water at the mouth of the Split Rock River? If so, you’re not alone (and you’re also in luck)!
The pilings date back from the late 19th and early 20th century when the Split Rock Lumber Company, a subsidiary of the Merrill and Ring Lumber Company, logged the area. The company logged Norway and white pine and hauled the timber down a 10-mile railroad to the mouth of the Split Rock River. The pilings are remnants of the old wharf and dam that the company used from 1899 to 1906.
Note: The hiking trail to the north of Highway 61 follows a section of where the rail line used to operate.
On Highway 61 around mile marker 43 (about 18 miles north of Two Harbors), look for the Split Rock River pullout/parking lot. The pilings can be found at the mouth of the river.
One of Two Harbors many famous attractions, the Two Harbors breakwall, is really a spectacular piece of art. Native Americans first called this place Wass-we-winning, or “place to spear fish by torchlight”, and the first European settlers actually set up shop right here in 1856.
You will find the breakwall at the end of a parking lot in Two Harbors. It is made of giant boulders stretching out almost one-third of a mile through Agate Bay. Agate Bay Harbor is home to the industries that were most influential in making Two Harbors known: lumber and pulpwood, commercial fishing, and iron ore. As you walk out to the wall, you will notice dock number 1, which was the largest iron ore loading dock at the time it was built.
The breakwall itself is extraordinary. Its huge boulders and cement walls stop the waves from crashing into the shore and give the harbor calm waters for boats to pass through. A hundred years ago the breakwall was not connected to the shore. Instead, a lighthouse keeper had to paddle out to the end of the breakwall to fuel the oil lamp in the lighthouse. Imagine having that job!
In Two Harbors, turn toward Lake Superior off of Highway 61 onto Waterfront Drive/6th Street. Follow the brown signs directing you to the Breakwall at Agate Bay.
Have you seen the strange man-made structures that tower over Agate Bay in Two Harbors and wondered what they were? If so, you’ve come to the right place.
The structures are docks located inside the bay offering protection via the two breakwaters located between the bay and Lake Superior. The breakwaters total about 2,500 feet and help stop prevailing waves from the south.
The docks, made out of steel, are over 1300 feet long and seven stories tall. The immense size of the docks allows ships to pull alongside some 112 chutes where the iron ore is then deposited into the hulls of the boats. The docks are operated by the Canadian National Railway (CN), which is Canada’s largest freight railway. Every year about 12 million tons of taconite are shipped out headed south to the lower Great Lakes where it is then unloaded, heated up to temperatures greater than 1000 degrees in blast furnaces, and eventually converted into steel.
The first dock was built in 1883 and by 1938 there were six fully operating docks. The docks were a major source of iron ore during World War II. In 1944 the docks set a loading record of 859,959 tons in 72 hours. By the mid-1950’s the docks were shipping out about 50 million tons annually, but this all came to an end in the 1960’s as the once rich source of iron ore was mined out.
Area miners then began mining taconite as their primary source of metal. The development of taconite lead to the reopening of three docks in Two Harbors, and two of them are still in operation today.
Visitors can view the docks anywhere along the shores of Agate Bay and get an up-close look at some of the massive ships that enter the harbor.
From Duluth, travel 27 miles north on MN-61 into Two Harbors, and then take a right onto Park Rd until you reach Agate Bay.
Just 13 miles north of Two Harbors stands one of the most unique and well-crafted pieces of work on the North Shore. Without knowing its history, the water tower that is found at Gooseberry State Park appears out of place and somewhat mysterious. Built from red and blue granite, it looks so unique, some even say it’s from a fairy tale.
The water tower itself stands around 25 feet tall with a 17-foot diameter. Housing a 10,000 gallon tank that is no longer in use, it served as a water source many years ago because there was no well nearby. The Civilian Conservation Corps managed to fill the tank from the CCC camp up the river, making its presence a crucial factor in the surrounding community members’ lives. They knew they needed something that would blend well with the natural beauty surrounding it, so they hired U.W. Hella and two Italian masons to construct the beautiful stonework surrounding the tank.
Today, the water tower still stands tall and proud, drawing in anyone who happens to pass by. There is a short dirt path from one of the roads in the park that makes it easy for people to get to and enjoy. So, during your next trip to Gooseberry State Park, be sure to stop by to enjoy its grandeur.