Life on the Iron Range: An Early History of Lake Vermilion

Ludlow's Island Resort

Mar 28, 2023
Mar 28, 2023
min read

The reasons that draw vacationers to pack their bags and drive north for an unforgettable summer vacation on Lake Vermilion each year are the same reasons that enticed French explorers hundreds of years ago to pack their ships and wagon trains and venture out into the wilderness in the mid-1600s.

Granted, the European explorers likely experienced a far less relaxing time navigating Lake Vermilion’s vast wilderness, endless shorelines, and hundreds of islands than today’s resort-goers! 

Integral Trade Routes

The French explorers and fur traders were the first Europeans to land on the shores of Lake Vermilion. Promptly building a friendly trade relationship with the Sioux who called the land home, the fur trade boomed.

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The French also formed a trade relationship decades later with the Chippewa, who still reside in the area today. With the fur trade thriving, the French settlers established the first port on the lake in 1670, creating an integral link in the chain of rivers and lakes connecting Lake Superior to Hudson Bay in Canada.

One popular route for traders, explorers, and travelers took them through the Pike River on the south side of Lake Vermilion to the Vermilion River on the north side. Another well-worn route began on the east side of the lake via Mud Creek that ended in Grand Portage, which was the hub for the fur trade. Furs from the area were all sent north to the Hudson Bay Company in Canada. 

Border Disputes

As the passage from Duluth through Lake Vermilion to Rainy Lake readily became an integral channel for trade, the route operated as the international border under the 1763 Treaty of Paris, in which France ceded Canada to Great Britain. With this newly established border, the Tower area was deemed Canadian territory, and the Cook area belonged to the United States.

However, due to vague language in the treaty, the Americans and British argued over whose land belonged to whom until 1842, when United States officials convinced Great Britain the Grand Portage route was theirs, ultimately bringing the Lake Vermilion and Arrowhead regions under American control. 

False Gold Rush

A few decades later, in 1865, a geological survey team reported gold deposits on Lake Vermilion. Naturally, with the promise of wealth and quick cash, a gold rush had begun. Looking to get rich, gold seekers flocked to the area following a rough road built along a centuries-old Native American travel route. This crude road to the gold fields was named the Vermilion Trail.

Over 100 miles long, traveling the trail was not an easy journey. Due to swampy conditions in the summer, gold diggers could only traverse the route with their wagons in the winter months when the ground was hard.

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Unfortunately, a get-rich-quick scheme was to no avail as only two years later, after extensive digging and mining, no significant amount of gold was found, and the gold rush quickly fizzled out. However, in their efforts to find gold, what miners did discover was a land rich in iron ore.

By 1882, settlers created the town of Tower to support what would become a lucrative iron mining industry.

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Life on the Iron Range

As the iron industry rapidly expanded, lumber camps, homesteads, and business establishments sprung up across Lake Vermilion. The first resorts on the lake also appeared. In 1907, a lumber camp near the head of the Vermilion River was converted into a moose hunting camp named Hunters Lodge, which is known today as Vermilion Dam Lodge.

Soon, other resorts cropped up, including Fabian’s Resort on Birch Point and Goodwill’s Landing on Frazer Bay.

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Snippets from the Vermilion Iron Journal reveal the daily goings-on of life on the iron range as the town developed and more people settled in the area.

On July 19, 1888, one commenter sent to the Journal, “Saloons are getting quite numerous in Tower. Only three new ones this week.”

Another wrote in, “Ely has got a baseball club, and wants to tackle our Maroons. Our boys should have both pity and mercy in this instance if they ever come in.”

On May 7, 1891, the Vermilion Iron Journal reported, “Capt. E. Morcom, of LaPrairie, spent several days here this week looking after his brickyard. He says that while Tower may seem a little dull this season, he notices business here is livelier than any other town he visited and that there appears to be more money in circulation—the consequence of regular payments by our great iron company.”

While Lake Vermilion has transformed tremendously since the French explorers landed on its shores, the allure of beautiful wilderness, stunning waters, and a rich landscape continue to bring vacationers each year in search of their own adventure!