Administrative History
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In July 1935, Edward A. Hummel, National Park Service Assistant Regional Historian in Omaha, submitted his observations and study on a fact-finding trip to the area. Grand Portage, Fort Charlotte, and the portage which connected them, Hummel reported, possessed "sufficient national historic interest to be recommended for a national monument." [1]

On the advice of the NPS Director, the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments investigated Grand Portage and concurred. In 1936, it declared that Grand Portage was nationally significant "because of its important association with the fur trade and exploration and colonization of the Northwest." The Advisory Board also noted Grand Portage was a historic and geographic link between the United States and Canada and represented an "excellent state of preservation in a semi-wilderness setting." [2]

While the cooperative agreement was in effect between the Indian Service and the MHS to do the excavation and reconstruction work, the NPS did not involve itself directly at Grand Portage.

The April 3, 1940, establishment of Isle Royale National Park gave added significance to the Grand Portage area. A mere 22 miles from Isle Royale, Grand Portage afforded the closest mainland port to the new national park. Isle Royale's mainland headquarters were at Houghton, Michigan, an inconvenient 60 miles across a heavily traveled channel. Evaluating the pros and cons of moving the NPS Isle Royale headquarters to Grand Portage, a 1941 memorandum accounted why the two sites could not be coordinated. First, Grand Portage Bay was too shallow to accommodate large vessels. An Army Corps of Engineers estimate showed that $100,000 in harbor improvements would have to be made. Second, the new route of Highway 61 had not been determined. Grand Portage was still largely inaccessible to the huge urban population to the south. Finally, any such relocation to Grand Portage would require an agreement with the Indians to acquire the land (an Act of Congress) and to build the proper support facilities. [3]

Three days before Pearl Harbor, the Park Service contacted the Office of Indian Affairs in regard to a joint effort to devise a master plan for the Grand Portage area. A meeting was scheduled for early 1942 to discuss the proposed State highway route, parking for visitors departing for Isle Royale, and the dock. [4] But with the country at war, governmental priorities shifted away from the secluded northeastern tip of Minnesota. An area master plan would not be prepared until the late 1960s.

On June 9, 1950, the Grand Portage Band, tired of seeing the economic potential of Grand Portage go unrealized, passed a resolution inviting NPS representatives to a tribal executive committee meeting to discuss the possibility of acquiring national historic site status under the Historic Sites Act of 1935. [5] This marked the first time that such talks with the NPS, which had begun as early as 1935, were placed on an official level.

Two representatives from the Region II office in Omaha were dispatched by Regional Director Lawrence Merriam to the Grand Portage Indian Reservation. Regional Historian Merrill J. Mattes and landscape Architect George Ingalls were sent to negotiate with the Grand Portage Tribal Council and attempt to secure a signed agreement to establish a national historic site owned and operated by the Indians, not the Federal Government.

Mattes and Ingalls met with the tribal council for three days and two nights and presented a list of promises and principles upon which the National Park Service was willing to agree. The Indians raised numerous and objections during the discussions. Mattes typed six different draft agreements on an old portage typewriter he had brought along to the remote village. The final draft they produced provided for the Secretary of the Interior to declare a national historic site within narrow boundaries enveloping the portage and both termini, although excluding the Indian settlement adjacent to the Grand Portage depot site. In turn, the Indians promised not only to operate the new national historic site for the benefit of the American people, but to provide for visitors by building a facility to house and feed the anticipated influx of tourists.

The agreement was signed by the tribal council members, but not Mattes or Ingalls. They packed the document away for the return trip to Omaha and the subsequent signing by the Region II Director and the NPS Director. Before the men left, however, they made the long trek up the historic portage to Fort Charlotte "to lay eyes on what we were committing the Government to." [6]

Grand Portage was in a sad state of disrepair. No maintenance of the existing reconstructions had taken place since 1940. Neither the CCHS or MHS were in a position to dedicate the large financial expenditures required to rehabilitate Grand Portage. The same applied to the NPS. An appeal to the Park Service to rearrange and relabel the CCHS museum exhibits in the Great Hall was vetoed for lack of funds, but in reality the NPS lacked any legal authority to help Grand Portage. The NPS determined that it "does not have the primary authority for development of the museum." [7] Under the cooperative agreement signed by the Secretary of the Interior, the Tribe, and the Band in mid-1951,the historic site remained under Indian control and ownership while the NPS provided technical assistance limited by available funding.

Dedication ceremonies for Grand Portage National Historic Site were held August 9, 1951. President Harry S Truman approved the agreement between the Indians and the Federal Government to protect the trail and fur post sites as a national historic site. A message from the President was read at the dedication where the Premier of Ontario and the Chief of the Minnesota Chippewas spoke of the importance of Grand Portage to the development of the U.S. and Canada. The MHS was praised for its extensive involvement with the historic site. [8] The NPS was represented by Associate Director Ronald F. Lee. Dr. Grace Lee Nute, MHS researcher and primary authority on Grand Portage history, was the featured speaker. The Indians dressed in their ancestral clothing, provided native dancing and singing, and served a dinner of lake trout and blueberry pie. [8]

The Designation Order was issued by the Secretary of the Interior on September 15, 1951.

According to Historian Merrill J. Mattes, the motivating force behind the drive to establish Grand Portage National Historic Site were the conservationists, in particular the Wilderness Society and its staunch Minnesota advocate, Sigurd "Sig" Olson of Ely. The Wilderness Society pressed the Park Service to establish the national historic site in northern Minnesota in order to secure a foothold or anchor in the region. Once the Government had established a presence there, it was hoped that other historic or wilderness areas would fall under the umbrella of Federal protection in the form of a wilderness reserve along the international border. Mattes recalled:

....the background of this... wasn't given to me at the time. The background is that the conservationists, led by a gentleman by the name of Sig Olson, a prime mover in the Wilderness Society, were anxious to establish a National Wilderness Park along the international boundary. They wanted to do this because the hunters and the fishermen and others were making so many inroads against the wilderness area, disturbing the serenity of the scene. I didn't realize it till later, but I realized it before long that the main thrust for establishing Grand Portage National Historic Site was an anchor. The National Park Service would get a toehold up in that part of the country and then they'd be in a better position to go to work on the wilderness project. By way of proof of that has been the establishment within the last ten years or so of the Voyageurs National Park. [9]

In early 1952, a Memorandum of Agreement between the Secretary of the Interior and the Indians pledged that the National Park Service would erect two bronze national historic site markers, publish literature for distribution to visitors, and cooperate with the Indians for the site's preservation within the limits of appropriations.

In response to a letter from Minnesota Senator Hubert H. Humphrey, National Park Service Director Conrad L. Wirth spelled out the Park Service's role at Grand Portage. Effective administration, Wirth explained, required that the Park Service obtain the title to the land. Since the Indians had refused to relinquish the property, the National Park Service role there could only be minimal. Wirth informed Humphrey that President Truman, when he approved the national historic site designation, specified, that not more than $2,200 per year could be spent by the Department of the Interior on any project there. Like any loosely associated site, the Park Service's purpose at Grand Portage was "focusing public attention on the site and giving technical guidance in preservation and use." [10]

Dissatisfied with the limited amount of financial assistance the NPS could provide, on June 8, 1953, the Tribe's executive body agreed that it was "highly desirable to create Grand Portage National Monument in lieu of Grand Portage National Historic Site." The Indians for the first time indicated their willingness to sell their allotments to the Federal Government following Congressional action. In exchange for preferential employment privileges and other rights, the same boundaries, plus additional acreage at the Grand Portage depot, would be adopted. [11] Negotiating and formulating the necessary legislation did not end until 1958.

In the meantime, a 1956 NPS report on Grand Portage revealed the deteriorated condition of the complex. No maintenance had taken place since construction in the late 1930s. Sections of the palisade were falling over. Many post butts were rotted from standing in water-filled trenches. The Great Hall, weatherbeaten and neglected, was structurally sound, but had one leak near a chimney where lightning, had once struck. The exhibits were deteriorating because those that were not enclosed in glass cases were handled indiscriminately by visitors. The only major repair that the Park Service financed was a $500 project on the 250 foot dock which was damaged in an ice storm. One thousand dollars was approved in 1954 to clear the Grand Portage and to rebuild some of its foot bridges.

Visitors to Grand Portage were provided with no interpreters or guides. Automobiles damaged the site and detracted from the historic scene by being permitted to park within the stockade just feet away from the Great Hall itself. The Indians obviously could not financially maintain Grand Portage. Under their control it would only continue to deteriorate. The 1956 report recommended that the site was worthy of preservation, and that it was incumbent on the National Park Service to restore it.

State and local government agencies could offer no financial help. Government relief funding ended in 1942 as the economy of the area was tooled primarily to the war effort. Already hard pressed during the Depression, economic hardship continued on the North Shore which depended on tourism for its livelihood. With the wartime rationing of tires, gas, and cars, few people visited the reconstructed fur post on the Grand Portage Indian Reservation.

Following World War II and into the early 1950s, the MHS was in the slow process of rebuilding itself from the debilitating budget reductions imposed on it by the Minnesota Legislature. Unfortunately, no funds could be diverted away from the Society's basic programs to help Grand Portage. The Cook County Historical Society, a lively group of local citizens with a negligible budget, also could not stop the sad deterioration of the fur depot. They were vocal, however, in promoting the site through local and State media, and to congressional representatives.

It was becoming clear to many in the 1950s that the only real assistance for Grand Portage could come from the Federal Government. [12]

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Last Updated: 27-Jan-2005