White Iron Lake
Located just outside the B.W.C.A.W. a few miles roughly southeast of Ely, White Iron Lake covers 3,429 acres of surface area and is well known for its abundance of northern pike, walleyes, and crappies.
The area was surveyed for a township in 1884, long before any settlers arrived. The likelihood of a community developing looked bleak, as the surveyor described the area as “about as worthless a tract as it is possible to find” and went on to mention rocky, barren soil unfit for agricultural activity and pine trees of limited quality for harvesting. But that didn’t stop nine immigrant families from Finland from homesteading the area fifteen years later, when they cleared the land by hand, built log dwellings (and saunas), and sustained themselves by turning the rocky soil into gardens, creating the township of White Iron. By 1920, with the local economy supported in part by a small lumber company, 182 people called the area home.
Chief John Beargrease (not the famous North Shore sled dog mail carrier, but perhaps a relative) and his family lived on one of White Iron Lake’s islands, referred to as “Indian Island” by local settlers. The Beargreases traded with their Finnish neighbors and two of the chief’s daughters married White Iron homesteaders.
The population declined steadily during the Great Depression and never recovered, as many moved to find work after finishing high school. The school the community started in 1903 with seventy-two students closed in 1941.
White Iron Lake is part of a chain that also includes Farm Lake and Garden Lake. Silver Rapids (above) is on the White Iron-Kawishiwi waterway, the site where the White Iron narrows as it flows into the other two lakes. The waterway drains the run-off from the largest watershed in northern Minnesota. Cyrille Fortier, Sr. first built a bridge over the rapids in 1908—just two planks, each wide enough for one horse—as a convenience for settlers and his lumber operation on Garden Lake. In 1930 the township purchased a pre-built metal bridge to traverse the rapids, but it was too short. The river banks had to be filled in to make it fit, which in turn caused flooding each spring. That bridge was replaced in 1972.
Found just north of Ely, Shagawa Lake (pictured above, once called Long Lake) has long been a center of commercial activity surrounding the tourism trade. Hotels, resorts, and fishing camps have supported the community’s economy since at least 1910, and many were found on Shagawa and nearby Burntside Lake. Seaplanes launched from Shagawa to reach resorts deeper into the Superior National Forest along the Canadian border on lakes such as Crooked, Knife, and Basswood. By 1948, twenty-five planes operated out of Shagawa, making it the largest inland seaplane base in the world at the time. But pilots, outfitters, and resort owners who profited from the fly-ins found themselves arguing with local sportsmen who saw their favorite spots depleted of stock; conservationists like Sigurd F. Olson lamented the loss of solitude and silence. Controversy rapidly grew around a movement to ban planes from flying below four thousand feet. Things got ugly. Signatures were forged, lives were threatened, a bomb was thrown. But conservationists prevailed, and in 1949 President Truman signed legislation banning planes from flying low over the area—the first such ban in the world. Some pilots disregarded the law and were later arrested and fined by a federal court.
Burntside Lake northeast of Shagawa Lake was named by local Ojibwe, who lived on its shores at least thirty years before European settlers arrived. They called it Ganuboneabikedeagumagsaganing or “the lake where the timber has been burned off on one side” because a forest fi re had once ravaged its north shore. The land surrounding the lake was logged by the St. Croix Lumber Company in 1909. A year later P. T. Brownell and other Ely businessmen bought some of the logged-out property and formed the Burntside Outing Company. They hired Finnish log builders Meitunen and Peterson in 1914 to construct the ten-thousand-square-foot Burntside Lodge; the building is now in the National Register of Historic Places.