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Gunflint Trail, a 'road built for no reason' becomes National Scenic Byway

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Gunflint Trail
The 57-mile-long Gunflint Trail rolls and winds from Grand Marais close to the Canadian border at Saganaga Lake.
MPR file photo/Bob Kelleher

Hundreds of years after American Indians forged a footpath through eastern Minnesota to Lake Superior, the Gunflint Trail has received National Scenic Byway designation.  

The 57-mile byway, also known as Cook County #12, has since become a popular tourist route. The road begins at Grand Marais and ends at Saganaga Lake on the Canadian border.

The byway also provides a lesson in Minnesotan history, stretching back hundreds of years, through the travels of the voyageurs, the beginnings of the iron ore industry, and the development of modern roadways. 

"In this day and age, we have no concept, really and honestly, of what it was like to live here," said Sue Kerfoot, president of the Gunflint Trail Historical Society. 

In the early 1890s, county officials improved the road, as a way to transport iron ore from the newly established Paulson mine. But the first load of iron ore hauled out of the mine was low-grade, and the project was quickly abandoned, according to Kerfoot. 

"In essence, it was a road built for no reason," she said. 

Local residents pressured for improvements, and two local businessmen even paid to improve sections of the route in the 1920s, but the road was not fully paved until 1979.

Kerfoot said her mother-in-law used to tell stories about living in the area in the 1930s. "It twisted and turned," she said. "It zigged when you thought it would zag."

Motorists held contests to see who could hold out the longest before making the journey to town. The reason was simple: the first person on the road had to shovel it. 

"Someone had to go eventually, whether you liked it or not," Kerfoot said. 

The modern roadway bears little resemblance to the poorly maintained dirt roads of the early 1900s. 

Resorts, canoe outfitters, campgrounds, and bed and breakfasts now line the route. Local business owners and residents pushed for the National Scenic Byway designation as a way to attract business and continue to preserve the historic road.

"I know my guests start reconnecting with the woods as they drive up to the Gunflint Trail," said Nancy Seaton, of Hungry Jack Outfitters. "It's an invitation to be part of our neighborhood."

Seaton said visitors can still see glimpses of the road's long history. She said she hopes the designation will encourage visitors "to enter a calmer time away from the hectic modern demands, a place to reconnect with the natural environment and recharge."

The U.S. Secretary of Transportation provides the designation. The agency bases its decision on archeological, cultural, historic, natural, recreational and scenic qualities.