Administrative History
NPS Logo



Seven men have served as Superintendent since Grand Portage was declared a national monument on January 27, 1960. Each one has been extremely competent and dedicated, and has represented the goals and ideals of the NPS well. Each Superintendent has left his mark on the development of Grand Portage, serving, with only one exception, at least two years in the position (see Appendix E). One important prerequisite of the job is to maintain a cordial working relationship with the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe and the Grand Portage Band. Most superintendents have felt a compelling obligation to be forthright and, if promises are made, strive to see that they are carried out.

Full-time permanent staff personnel total six in the rented Grand Marais headquarters office. In 1982, these positions were Superintendent, Park Ranger, Park Ranger-Interpreter, Maintenance Leader, Administrative Technician, and Clerk. Sixteen percent of the permanent staff is American Indian. Since 1975 there has been no Historian at Grand Portage. The worst year for staff turnover was 1972 (during the second reconstruction of the Great Hall) when 60 percent transferred to other NPS areas. Part of the reason why some career employees do not stay at the monument involves the cool climate and relative isolation of northeastern Minnesota. Additional non-permanent employees are hired in the Maintenance Division when carpenters and laborers are needed (see Appendix G).

Preferential hiring procedures for members of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe as per Public Law 85-910 are followed in the retention of seasonal employees. Ranging from interpreters to workers, seasonals usually do not total more than 12 and no less than 5. In 1973 for example, 88 percent of the seasonal staff was American Indian and, of this group, 50 percent were women. [1] Seasonal interpreters are used only during the "peak" visitation months when the monument buildings are open—May 15 through October 15. In 1976, Dr. John Hanna of Texas A & M University contracted to supervise the summer seasonal program to determine its scope, direction, and individual duties. He prepared a valuable document titled Interpretive Operations Plan following the program's conclusion.

Cultural demonstrators are also hired during the busy summer months to help the interpretive effort. All are American Indians, mostly women from the Grand Portage Band who operate an informal "gift shop" in the Crawford Log Cabin where they it making handicrafts like bead necklaces and moccasins which they are permitted to sell. As there have been few, if any, Volunteers in Parks (VIPs), the contribution of the cultural demonstrators is an important ingredient at the monument. They help to personalize the Grand Portage story to the visitor. Without this human element, the monument would only be a collection of logs. The number of cultural demonstrators varies from year to year depending on available funding. In 1976 for example, 10 members of the Grand Portage Band were hired at the GS-01 pay scale. [2]


Preserving the "unique historical values" of Grand Portage and presenting them to the American public is the raison d'etre of the monument and the task of the National Park Service. In the 23 years since Public Law 85-910 went into effect, Grand Portage has undergone a remarkable transformation. Much more, however, remains to be accomplished.

The interpretive program has gradually evolved from rudimentary (1950s to early 1960s) to its current modest level. Grand Portage did not reap any dramatic benefits from the "MISSION 66" drive, the concerted effort to "beautify" the nation's parks before the 50th anniversary of the NPS in 1966. This was because of the late date that Grand Portage came under NPS jurisdiction and the pressing need to accomplish archeological, historical, and architectural research before any major development project could be decided. The 1969 fire at the Great Hall was a watershed in the administrative history of the monument. Following the second reconstruction, dramatic restoration and reconstruction programs were initiated to give Grand Portage a more historically accurate appearance.

MHS archeological excavations and the detailed reports of Alan R. Woolworth enable an interpretive program to exist at the monument. Prior to the archeological expeditions and exhaustive research by fur trade historians, almost nothing was known about the built historical scene at Grand Portage. No illustrations or complete descriptions are extant which can facilitate easy, accurate reconstruction. Excavation has revealed much. For 60 years scholars have been piecing together the hazy clues of events which transpired two centuries ago to get a clear picture of the Grand Portage story. Much of what is known today has been gleaned from the MHS archives at St. Paul.

Significant historical research concentrating on Grand Portage has been conducted by two NPS scholars, Robert J. Riley and Erwin N. Thompson. Riley, park historian when the monument was established, produced two important studies which remain pivotal works; Grand Portage: Fur Trade Metropolis of the Past (1962) and An Analysis of Historical Descriptions of the Grand Portage (1963). Thompson, using Riley's research as a foundation, incorporated valuable research from Canadian sources to compile Grand Portage, A History of the Sites People Fur Trade (1969). His comprehensive bibliography is of valuable assistance to fur trade scholars. Erwin Thompson's historic structure reports on the Great Hall (1970), the Canoe Warehouse (1972), and the Kitchen (1973) have resulted in the high degree of historical accuracy that these present reconstructions possess. Russell W. Fridley, current MHS Director and Minnesota SHPO, was contracted by the NPS to compile The Story of Grand Portage (1963). These major studies have resulted in the high degree of quality of the present interpretive program at Grand Portage, and have helped preserve this significant link in the pioneer heritage of the United States and Canada.

Grand Portage will never reach its full potential without the construction of the proposed interpretive center. Interpretation will continue to suffer and be incomplete without such a facility to "bring alive" the historical significance of the site to the visitor. Many of the earlier criticisms of other NPS reports concerning the interpretive program remain valid today, especially the 1964 Interpretive Prospectus observation.

Today the person visiting Grand Portage National Monument comes away with only a meager, possibly distorted, and certainly fragmentary knowledge of this historically significant area.... [There is] little, if any, excitement about seeing the area and its significance.... The existing interpretive signs and markers, although adequate per se mean little to the visitor who has not first been given the chance to get a glimpse into the drama, color and deep human interest of the Grand Portage story, and its significance to the history of our country. [3]

Much of what is done today to interpret events at Grand Portage is "minimal" compared to what can be accomplished through a permanent visitors services center. Relieving the Great Hall—the only present interpretation facility—of its role as a museum will allow it to serve exclusively as the Great Hall of the North West Company. Only an interpretation center can orient the visitor to his unfamiliar surroundings and house a museum facility.


Because of the absence of any proper display facility, the majority of historic Grand Portage artifacts owned by the NPS cannot be enjoyed by the general public. These artifacts, either purchased, donated, or acquired through archeological excavations since 1961, are in storage at the Superintendent's Office in Grand Marais.

Most Grand Portage artifacts are not in the possession of the NPS, however. More than 10,000 artifacts dating back to the early 1936 and 1937 archeological excavations are owned and managed by the Minnesota Historical Society. The MHS displays the artifacts periodically at the MHS Museum in St. Paul and at facilities throughout the State for exhibits on the fur trade. Although some individuals have expressed the desire for the NPS to receive the MHS Grand Portage artifact holdings, until the Park Service has the capability to manage them, such a transfer is unlikely to occur.

Artifacts owned by the NPS were first catalogued after the monument was established with inventoried artifacts numbering from 500 to 1426. A more recent cataloguing of museum pieces originating from NPS-sponsored archeological expeditions of Alan R. Woolworth was compiled in the late 1970s. The pieces number 534 and include few significant items beyond nails, miscellaneous metal fragments, bale seals, and padlocks. In addition, the Superintendent's Office houses 12 historic pistols and two reproductions of period trade guns. Various types of furs at an estimated value of $1,500 are on display at the Great Hall. The NPS Library at Grand Marais also houses collections of maps and photographs.

Exact NPS artifact collection holdings can be determined by consulting with catalogue files at the Superintendent's Office. Here is a cross section sampling of the NPS artifact holdings:

animal skins
powder horns
nail staples
bow and arrows
fish spear
hide scraper
keyhole plate
spear points
paint fragments
snow shoes
glass fragments
earthenware fragments
grave marker
religious medals
flint pieces
ceremonial clubs
fishing equipment
modern dog sled/toboggan
cradle boards [4]


Public Law 85-910 which has done much to help Grand Portage has also been responsible for hindering its full development. Road rights-of-way which bisect the monument are retained by the Indians. The boundaries themselves leave little room in which to augment effective management. Traditional rights and privileges of the Indians, some of which can potentially threaten the Federal preservation goal, are guaranteed in Public Law 85-910.

Comparatively little has been done to develop the Fort Charlotte site which is just as important as the heavily-visited Grand Portage site. Fort Charlotte's inaccessibility and interpretive role remain problems to be resolved in the future. Completion of archeological investigations at both termini of the portage is essential to lay to rest speculation on precisely what cultural resources both yet conceal.

Private commercial development has already begun in the region. The first major project was the construction of the luxury hotel on Grand Portage Bay. An offshoot of this was the proposal to build a large marina extending out into Grand Portage Bay. The affects of this action, had it succeeded, would have significant negative impacts on both Grand Portage and Isle Royale. It is incumbent that any "improvements" in the area be carefully scrutinized to determine any deleterious effects on the monument, including a future Indian park.

Timber farming poses a potential threat. Yet, Public Law 85-910 guarantees the traditional rights and practices of the Indians, specifically citing lumbering. Lumbering has come close to the Federal boundaries enough times that calls have gone out to expand the NPS jurisdiction, or declare the area a wilderness under Federal protection. A few lumbering trails bisect the portage. It is a tenuous situation because the Indians are reticent to give up rights to any more reservation lands. The problem has not become critical since the Indian community feels obligated to preserve this historic and economic asset. Few Indians doubt that the Congress will act if the national monument is threatened. Therefore, it is naturally in their own interests that the community cooperates with the NPS.

Charges that the NPS has not acted expeditiously to develop Grand Portage has always plagued park administrators. Juggling Grand Portage back and forth between the NPS Mid-Atlantic, North Atlantic, and Midwest Regions has not helped. Many people draw comparisons between the well-staffed and reconstructed Old Fort William attraction and the rather stark Grand Portage sister complex. The argument is moot since the purpose of Grand Portage is to get "the big picture" of the voyageur's continental experience, not a fur depot which recreates each minute detail and is a major commercial tourist attraction.

Funding has always been a prime consideration in the park's administration. Without adequate appropriations from the Congress to the Department of the Interior, however, large developments like a visitors services center, comprehensive archeological excavations, and more reconstruction all hang in limbo. In late 1982, however, the speculative outlook for Grand Portage National Monument brightened. Congressional interest in the construction of a visitors services center grew as one member of the Minnesota Congressional Delegation lobbied for an appropriation of $102,000 for advance planning in the 1983 fiscal year budget. [5]

What has thus far been accomplished under 23 years of administration by the National Park Service has transformed Grand Portage National Monument. A visitor in 1960 returning in 1983 would see significant changes. When the proposed visitor/interpretive center is finally built, the monument will enter an entirely new chapter in the continuing "Story of Grand Portage."

<<< Previous <<< Contents >>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 27-Jan-2005