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PART II: (continued)


On July 15, 1969, an exceptionally bright flash of lightning ripped through the pre-dawn skies of Grand Portage, followed by a deafening report of thunder. Within minutes flames rose above the reconstructed Great Hall. Two hours later, the structure was in ruins. No adequate fire prevention system was available to fight the blaze. Local residents and NPS personnel watched helplessly as the building burned. They scored a major victory, however, by ensuring that the flames did not spread to the reconstructed east gate and palisades. By the time the fire was finally extinguished, the national monument was left without its key attraction and interpretive center.

The only items recovered from the Great Hall were some flags and a small amount of craft supplies located near the front entrance where Maintenance Foreman Gordon LeGarde was able to grab them. The lost exhibits, mostly Chippewa materials made by the Grand Portage Band dating to 1938, included three birch bark canoes, decorative baskets, deerskin clothing and accessories, MHS artifacts and specimens of voyageur trade goods, and two muskets used in firing demonstrations. ENP & MA cash and stock totaling $474 and $2,500 in new interpretive panels were also lost. Along with the museum, the coffee shop concession operated by the Grand Portage Band was gone. The small restaurant in 1968 had grossed $12,500 (mostly from serving breakfast to Isle Royale travelers and souvenir sales) and employed five to eight Indians. The Great Hall fire represented a total loss of $68,719. [33]

An NPS investigative team from the Midwest Regional Office was dispatched to survey the damage. Regional Chief of Maintenance J.L. Dunning observed:

It appears that the building was struck by lightning which ignited the building from within. One of the chimneys has a small spalled area at the top and a large crack down one side, which could very well be lightning caused. It is difficult to be certain since there is so little remaining of the building and the intense heat has caused breaking and spalling of the rock used in construction of the chimney. The damage to the chimney is such that it appears no salvage is possible and it will be necessary to tear these two chimneys down before any reconstruction is attempted.

Dunning's main concern was the absence of sanitary facilities. Another problem was that until normal business operations could resume, the Grand Portage Band was without a major source of income. To remedy the situation, Dunning recommended that an unused, State-owned house near the Mount Maud Lookout Tower be moved to Grand Portage to serve as a temporary cafe/curio shop. (The building was moved to the site in September). A temporary information and publication sales office was set up in the Crawford Log Cabin. To provide for visitor interest, cultural demonstrators from the Grand Portage Band erected a large birch bark wigwam within the stockade where they sat and worked on handicrafts.

Estimated costs to reconstruct the Great Hall were set at $50,000 for the exhibits and $250,000 for the main structure. Plans and photographs from the MHS reconstruction project in 1938-40 would be relied upon to form the foundation of a new reconstruction effort. [34]

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Last Updated: 27-Jan-2005