Historic Themes

A historic log cabin surrounded by pine trees.
This cabin on Namakan Lake is one of more than 50 structures preserved within the park and was once owned by I.W. Stevens.


Tourism and Recreation

The Minnesota wilderness attracted health seekers and vacationers. Recreational fishermen and hunters had visited the area throughout the 1800s, and beginning in the 1880s, summer homes and resorts were developed that catered to wealthy tourists.

Rainy Lake was one of the first areas in the region to be developed. It featured exquisite summer homes owned by prominent businessmen from distant cities. Owners built their homes on islands and peninsulas, accessible solely by water transportation. The wealthy members of this elite community became known as the "Rainy Lake Aristocracy." Their summer homes were used to entertain friends and business associates, relocating the social cliques and social stratification from the city to their properties in the wilderness.

Despite early interest in touring the Voyageurs National Park area, its inaccessibility kept the volume of recreational travel comparatively low during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Travel was chiefly by water, confining all but the hardiest tourists to the summer months. Summer travel was over waterways, canoe portages, and a few tote roads built by early loggers. Eventually steamboats connected Kettle Falls to Rainy Lake City and Crane Lake. The first seasonal lodging on this route was the Kettle Falls Hotel, built at Kettle Falls in 1910.

By the time Voyageurs National Park was established in 1975, over 60 resorts, 97 leased cabin sites, and over 120 privately owned recreational properties were located within the park's boundaries.

Many people sold their property to the U.S. government when the park was established. Some people chose to sell their property and leave immediately, while others chose to sell their property, but maintain use for either a lifetime tenancy or a 25-year use and occupancy reservation. As these properties are vacated, the park will remove many structures to restore natural conditions. Twenty properties, containing over 50 structures, will be retained and managed by the National Park Service because of their historic significance.

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Historic photo of five men sitting in front of a screened in porch of a Minnesota Forest Service Station
Forest Ranger Fred Bessette, far right, Shau-wan-ne-gwon-abe (Chief Drift), Al Telford, and unknown others at the Minnesota Forest Service Station in Orr, 1913.

NPS/VNP, Barbara Beatty McKie Collection


As part of a nationwide conservation movement, the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905. The Kabetogama State Forest, portions of which were located in what would become Voyageurs National Park, was established in 1917. State Forests were created out of lands that had been abandoned by the lumber companies. Typically, once the lumber companies had removed the timber the land was of no use to them, and was abandoned when it couldn't be sold. These tax delinquent lands then reverted to the State or Counties. In 1927 there were 4 1/2 million acres of delinquent tax lands in sixteen northern Minnesota counties-much of it in Koochiching and St. Louis Counties. Overcoming these financial difficulties and the increasing demand for lake shore property in the 1920s prompted the State to establish the summer cabin leasing program. The first state forests began developing picnic and camping areas, portage trails, and cabins for the increasing numbers of tourists. The construction of a Minnesota Forest Service patrol cabin on Kabetogama Lake established a permanent ranger, who monitored the forests for fire and ensured compliance with fire protection policies by logging companies.

In the 1910s E.W. Backus, a wealthy and powerful timber baron, built rock-masonry water storage dams near Kettle Falls that facilitated the movement of logs downstream. Construction and control of these dams affected lake levels, causing unnatural fluctuations in each of the region's large lakes. This damaged wild rice stands and fish habitat, and led to grievances from local environmentalists, including writer and conservationist Ernest Oberholtzer. In 1925 Backus, who had become the second largest paper producer in the world, proposed building several additional dams in the region. It was the most ambitious private hydro-electric development ever launched in America. Opposition by Oberholtzer and other conservationists was strong; they countered with a proposal to preserve the natural beauty of the shorelines for recreation and to preserve the resources that the Ojibwe needed for their traditional lifestyles. Backus's plan instigated a long and contentious debate, which eventually ended in 1930 with the passage of the Shipstead-Newton-Nolan Act. The Act prohibited construction of dams without Congressional approval, restricted logging near waterways, and ended homesteading in some areas. This was a step forward for the conservation movement, and facilitated the later creation of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. However, the passage of the Act marked only the beginning of a long line of bitter clashes between the conflicting needs of industrial, commercial, and recreational users and the goals of conservationists.

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Historic photo, float plane at a dock with several people loading or unloading goods in the foreground, open water and trees in back landscape
The Spirit of St. Louis County operated by bush pilot Dusty Rhodes of Kingston and Rhodes Airways, ca1930 at Crane Lake.

NPS/VNP Catalog 1450


In 1919 the Eighteenth Amendment, known as the Prohibition Amendment, was passed by the United States Congress. The amendment banned the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages. The Volstead Act, the name of the enabling legislation, had its roots in the national temperance movement of the 1880s, led by organizations such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU, the Anti-Saloon League, and the Prohibition Party.

Prohibition was not agreed upon universally. Most of Minnesota's population favored moderation rather than total abstinence. The year the Volstead Act passed, Minnesota had thirty-seven breweries producing over a million barrels of fermented liquors, distributed to more than 3,000 retail liquor dealers. In 1915 a "county option" bill was passed by the Minnesota legislature. This allowed individual counties to vote themselves dry. The County of Koochiching, which includes portions of present-day Voyageurs National Park, voted to go dry that year. A year later, the authorities in International Falls began a battle with blind piggers (illegal producers of alcohol) and bootleggers (illegal transporters of alcohol) who found the remoteness of the region an ideal place to do business. For the next eighteen years, authorities would feebly attempt to enforce the Volstead Act.

Smuggling booze across the international border was common. A bush pilot from Virginia, Minnesota named Dusty Rhodes flew his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis County across the border in the 1920s to 1930s. During Prohibition, he hauled illegal beer, whiskey, and beaver furs across the border in the Sand Point/Crane Lake area. After years of eluding U.S. and Canadian rangers, he was finally caught by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police at a resort on Lac la Croix in 1931.

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Homesteading and Shackers

The earliest settlers to Minnesota established themselves in the southeast part of the state. The creation of the Minnesota Territory in 1849 and passage of the Preemption and Homestead Acts attempted to stimulate settlement throughout the Territory. The Acts promoted the sale of small tracts and were intended to aid the development of agricultural land. A homesteader had to be the head of a household or at least 21 years of age to claim a 160 acre parcel of land. Settlers from all walks of life came to meet the challenge of 'improving' and keeping this 'free land.' Each homesteader had to live on the land, build a home, and farm for 5 years before they were eligible to prove up and own the land in entirety. A meager fee of $18 was the only money required.

By the turn of the twentieth century, a number of individuals chose to call the border lakes home year-round. They were primarily people who worked in the fishing, timber, or mining industries, but included several colorful characters as well. Certain individuals gained a reputation for being eccentric. They lived simply and were either squatters or loners who lived off the land or took odd jobs. They became known as 'shackers.'

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More Stories

A recent cultural landscape study details a span of time as preserved in the locations, artifacts, and history found in a specific area. Landscapes change and evolve over time, and reconstructing how an area or community existed in the past is a key challenge to preserving cultural history. Voyageurs is developing cultural landscape studies that represent distinct time spans and locations found throughout the park and its history.

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Last updated: May 21, 2018

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International Falls, MN 56649



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