North Shore Ghost Towns

Welcome to Forest Center

Forest Center was a company town where lumbermen and their families settled, beginning in 1946, when Tomahawk Timber bought rights to log 155,000 acres in what is now the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

About a quarter of today’s BWCAW and much of the Arrowhead inland from the North Shore was logged before the Great Depression. More timber would have been harvested, but the wet, rugged landscape of Northeastern Minnesota did not accommodate logging equipment available at the time.

Logging technology consisted of teams of horse-drawn sleighs hauling out logs felled by hundreds of men with handsaws and axes. The only mechanized equipment was the McGiffert log loader, manufactured by Duluth’s Clyde Iron Works, which was created in 1902 and worked off steam power. Because of the area’s swampy soil, the logging was done in the winter—a centuries old tradition. From November to April the ground was frozen solid, but Ice roads could be created to haul timber on sleighs pulled by draft horses. Chainsaws and other petroleum-powered heavy equipment fundamentally modernized logging in the 1930s, opening up the area like never before.

Between cheap labor provided by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the US Forest Service authority, new roads were laid into remote, old-growth sections of forest. The first big harvest began near Angleworm Lake in 1939 by the firm Carlson and Oppel, but less than a decade later a big player, Tomahawk Timber, was cutting more board feet than all the others. Most of the wood was shipped to Wisconsin, where Tomahawk’s parent company—Kraft Paper—operated multiple paper mills.

Initially, the modern lumberjacks of Tomahawk Timber survived in wagons. During the cold weather months Tomahawk’s employees used bulldozers and trucks to clear roads for the summer months, dragging rocks out of the way and hauling in gravel to make temporary pathways.

Slowly, as the roads improved, the ’jacks could live further from where the actual logging was done. They could establish more permanent, residential living with their families rather than temporary camps with other unwashed men. Soon, modest woodframe houses replaced trailers. Families grew in the wilderness, necessitating a school. By the early 1960s, the company had established a small, permanent community about 40 miles northeast from Ely. They built a grade school, but 53 homes, a general store, and a lumber mill—all for a population of about 250. They called it Forest Center.

Welcome to Illgen “City”

It wasn’t the first time someone had tried to develop that spot. It is near the site of Lake Superior’s Crystal Beach Sea Cave, where in 1902 John Dwan and some fellow investors began mining corundum to make sandpaper in their rented former flour mill on Rice’s Point in Duluth. But they only found anorthosite, not corundum—and Duluth proved too humid for proper manufacturing, so they moved to St. Paul and called themselves the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing company, better known today as 3M. The ruins of their mining operation still litter Crystal Beach.

In 1924, Iowan Rudoph Illgen purchased the 3M property at Crystal Beach, moved his family north, and set up a sawmill, a store, a ‘hotel’, and some cabins. He called his retreat Illgen City, though it was never incorporated. He named a nearby waterfall Illgen Falls, and even made postcards of it to sell in his shop, but it didn’t last. Illgen City is long gone, but it is not really a ghost town as much as it is a ghost resort.

Forest City didn’t last either. Public concern about the future of the Arrowhead’s wilderness had been growing since 1909, when the Superior National Forest was first established. It culminated with the Wilderness Protection Act of 1964, which established the BWCAW, essentially outlawing logging roads in the region. With the exit of Tomahawk Timber, the townspeople dispersed. In 2001, a wildfire erased whatever remained of Forest Center.

Ghostly Greetings from all the Others

Minnesota’s Arrowhead is home to other ghost towns, including Meadow, North Hibbing, Spina, Cooley, Chippewa City, Mineral Center, North Cascade, Parkersville, Pigeon River, Cramer, and Sawbill Landing. Still other places settled by European immigrants in Minnesota’s early days did not have schools, post offices, stores, or often even names—these too have been lost to time. As have fishing villages populated by Norwegian immigrants—such as Little Two Harbors near the Split Rock River—that once dotted the Minnesota North Shore from the Knife River to the Pigeon River.

As the Iron Range ages, more of these mining communities will be added to the list above—there are already empty streets in Leonidas and nearly so in Sparta. A sad fact of mining communities is that that the companies that built them almost never intend for them to be permanent. The ore below the settlements has always been more important than the people who live there. That’s why the mining companies paid for the entire town of Hibbing to be moved south between 1919 and 1921, and why the state is about to reroute Highway 53: in 1919 Hibbing was—and today the highway is—in the way of profit. Once the raw material is gone, the mining companies lose interest in the community rather quickly. By their very nature, all mining operations are temporary. The same goes for the communities that were built only because of their proximity to the mines. Unless they can find something other than mining to drive the economy, more Iron Range communities are doomed to disappear along with the ore, be it hematite and taconite, or copper and nickel.

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Story by Dan Turner. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Dan Turner. Or, visit Dan's website, http://substreet.org/.