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A (brief) history of Tettegouche State Park

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Fog hugs the shore of Lake Superior.
Fog hugs the shore of Lake Superior as seen from Palisade Head at Tettegouche State Park.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Before it became one of Minnesota's most beloved outside places, Tettegouche State Park had a long history — from fire to ice to tribes to loggers.

Tettegouche's beginnings, in a sense, were a billion years ago.

That's when the Lake Superior basin began forming as North America started breaking apart, said retired University of Minnesota Duluth geologist Jim Miller.

"A huge rupture came through from lower Michigan up through the Lake Superior region and then all the way down to Kansas," he said. "And on the inside of that big rupture that part of North America started to break away.

Blue skies soar above High Falls.
Blue skies soar above High Falls at Tettegouche State Park.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"It was doing what's called continental rifting, which is how we make ocean basins. But it didn't go to completion. The shape of Lake Superior totally reflects the trough that was created in this rupture."

Magma seeped through the earth's crust and spilled out, layer by layer, over a period of 30 million years, Miller said. 

The lava cooled and formed a basin, which filled with sand. About two million years ago, the soft sand was dug out by a series of glaciers that spread over this area and then retreated.

"When the glaciers came over the border into this area, there was no Lake Superior," Miller said. "What is now the middle of Lake Superior used to be a big wedge of sand." 

That sand can be seen today from places like Bayfield, Wis., or the Apostle Islands. But elsewhere, there were hard crystal and igneous rocks — like those at Tettegouche. 

Sunshine filters through the treetops at Tettegouche State Park.
Sunshine filters through the treetops along a trail at Tettegouche State Park.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Tettegouche's human history

Native people were the first to live in what is now the state park. Historians say they fished along the Lake Superior coastline during the warmer months and moved into the woods to hunt game during the winter. 

In 1854, the U.S. government negotiated a treaty with the Ojibwe, which established the Fond du Lac and Grand Portage reservations. That opened the rest of the North Shore to settlers and speculators. 

The ecosystem changed dramatically after loggers arrived, said Tettegouche interpretive naturalist Kurt Mead.   In 1895, the Alger-Smith Lumber Company set up a camp on Nipisiquit Lake inside present-day Tettegouche. The company stayed about 10 years, Mead said. 

"It was pretty devastated after they were done logging," he said. "This was an old growth forest. We're talking spruce, fir, pine trees that were 5 feet in diameter. Huge, old, old trees. Pines that were hundreds of years old.'

With trees that tall, not much sunlight reached the ground, Mead said. "You could just simply walk everywhere."

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After the trees were gone, the logging camp and surrounding area was sold to a group of Duluth businessmen who used it as a fishing camp and retreat. They named it the Tettegouche Club. 

The club was around from 1910 to 1921 when the leadership decided they wanted to sell the land.

Clement Quinn was furious the club was selling the land, so he bought it and used it as his own private retreat until 1971 when he sold it to another family.

The state of Minnesota acquired the land from the Nature Conservancy in 1979 and turned it into Tettegouche State Park in 1979.