The History of Tower, Minnesota (through 1910)

Camps and posts were maintained at intervals on or near the site of the present city of Tower from an early date in the period of exploration of the Lake Superior region. Lake Vermilion has been a favorite hunting and fishing ground for the Indians for many generations, and a well-beaten trail led thence to the old trading post at Fond du Lac, Minn., and to points on the upper Mississippi. This trail was utilized as a route of travel by many early explorers, as well as by people who are now living.

The present city did not become the permanent abode of white men until about 1882, when a few homesteaders and prospectors located there, and the following year active developments began in the way of mining, railroad building and the erection of frame houses. John Owens started a sawmill but was scarcely able to meet the demands for lumber in the growing town. The completion of the Duluth & Iron Range railroad from Two Harbors to this place in 1884 worked a revolution in transportation and other business systems. The town grew rapidly and in the course of time experienced the inevitable periods of successive activity and business depression but, for some years past, has been established on a durable and substantial basis. Most of the business places are of brick construction and the residence district has more of the appearance of an eastern town than any other place on the Minnesota ranges.

At an early date the people of Tower began to cultivate their moral, spiritual and intellectual natures, and the schools, churches and other organizations designed to perpetuate this spirit are ample in number and well supported. To this city belongs the honor of erecting the first monument to William McKinley in the United States. The necessary funds were raised by popular subscription and the monument was dedicated a few weeks after the death of the martyred president.

The chief manufacturing enterprises are represented by the sawmills of the Alger-Smith Lumber Company, the Vermilion Lumber Company, and a brewery. About one mile east of the city is the Soudan mine, the first in the state from which iron ore was shipped and which has been wrought almost continuously since. The ore was taken from the surface for some time, but is now mined by means of a shaft which has been sunk to a depth of 1, 400 feet or more. It was opened by Capt. Elisha Morcom, long a resident of this city, now deceased, for the Minnesota Iron Company, but for a number of years past has been controlled by the Oliver Iron Mining Company.

The Soudan location is one of the largest in northern Minnesota, housing a population of 2, 000 or more, and is provided with a postoffice, public school, churches, halls and other conveniences common to towns of equal population.

The First State Bank was organized in 1895, succeeding the First National as a reorganization, the First National having commenced business in 1887. The officers are G. A. Whitman, president; 0. W. Ackerson, cashier; R. R. McQuade, assistant cashier.

Vermilion Lake is situated near the summit of the divide 729  which separates the waters of the great St. Lawrence basin from those flowing to Hudson’s bay, and is included in the latter system.

Its elevation above the sea is more than 1, 300 feet. The extreme length of the lake is about thirty-five miles, but it is very irregular in form, having many bays, arms and indentations, and its shore line is more than 500 miles in length. The surface of the water is dotted with islands, numbering three hundred or more in all, and varying in size from a few yards across to nine miles in length. The shores are high and dry, in many places rocky, and covered with timber to the water’s edge. A trip on the lake may be appropriately compared with an excursion through the famous Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence river.

When the natural beauties of the former come to be as widely known to seekers of pleasure and recreation as are the attractions of the latter, a large portion of the vast tide of vacationists who throng the fashionable resorts and watering places will be diverted toward this rare gem of the North, with its setting of picturesque rocks and wildwood scenery. Several passenger steamers and a number of private launches navigate these waters throughout the summer season. The former make regular trips to the principal points of interest, connecting at Tower with the passenger trains of the Duluth and Iron Range railroad.

Historic Gold Island. Near the center of the lake is this famous reminder of an almost forgotten episode in the history of northern Minnesota. There still survive, scattered through various parts of the country, a number of people who participated in the “Vermilion lake gold fever, ” which raged during a period of two or three years immediately following the Civil War. This locality was, at that time, as remote from civilization and improved routes of travel as was the Klondike region when it began to attract the attention of the world three decades later.

Prospectors and adventurers flocked hither from all parts of the Union and, reinforced by nearly the entire male population at the head of the lakes, spent most of one winter in clearing a route through the wilderness from Duluth to this point, a distance of about one hundred miles. This famous highway, still known as the “old Vermilion trail, ” was passable for teams only in winter, and most of the supplies and mining utensils for the prospectors were drawn on sleighs from St. Paul. The pits opened by these miners are still visible, and specimens of gold-bearing quartz are still found on the island, but, as far as known, the precious metal does not exist in sufficient quantities to justify extensive mining operations. Most of the prospectors abandoned the country in disgust after delving for one or two seasons in the soil of the island, while a very few sought in vain for years thereafter to turn to practical use the knowledge of iron deposits acquired during the expedition.

Fish and Game. Pike, perch, muskollonge and other varieties of game fish abound in these waters. All varieties of water fowl may be taken in season from the lake and contiguous streams, while partridges and larger game are numerous in the adjacent woods. During the summer season, when shooting them is prohibited, it is not an uncommon sight for a deer or a moose to swim alongside a passing boat, and numbers of bears are annually brought in by the hunters who penetrate the forest in quest of big game.

One of the tributaries of the lake is Pike river, so called on account of its being a favorite breeding place for this variety of fish. The principal spawning grounds are at the rapids, a few miles above the lake, where millions of pike fry are gathered annually by the state fish commission for distribution through other waters.

– An Indian reservation on the western shore of the lake is the home of a remnant of the once powerful Chippewa nation. A few miles from Tower on the lake shore the United States government has established an Indian school, in which the youth of this and other tribes are instructed, not only in the white man’s book lore, but in agriculture and various industrial and domestic arts.

The Tower “Weekly News” was established June 19, 1899, by Frank C. Burgess, who published it until October, 1907, when he leased the establishment to R. M. Sheets. It is an independent journal and is devoted chiefly to advancing the interests of the city and contiguous territory. After spending some time in the West and elsewhere, Mr. Burgess resumed the management of the paper in June, 1909.


  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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