December 3, 1865: The beginning of the Vermilion Gold Rush

On this day in 1865, the Minnesota Gold Mining Company was established, marking the start of the Vermilion Gold Rush. Earlier that summer, geologist Henry Ames traveled to Lake Vermilion to look for valuable minerals. By the time he arrived in St. Paul on October 28, 1865, rumors were already swirling about a valuable gold strike on the lake’s shores. Ames reported finding signs of gold and he had a small sample with him, and that was all it took: the rush was on. Mining companies organized, and at least one St. Paul newspaper sent a correspondent to the region to report on the gold rush. In the winter of 1865–1866 these mining companies hired gangs of men—many recently discharged veterans of the Civil War—to break a road along a path used for centuries by the local Ojibwe and Dakota before them. They began near today’s First Avenue East and Washington Avenue, one block above today’s Fitger’s Brewery Complex, and worked their way eighty-five miles north to Pike Bay on Lake Vermilion roughly following a path traced today by County Road 4 and State Highway 135. Mining began in 1866, but very little gold was ever extracted—but someone did find a chunk of iron ore, which led to the opening of the Vermilion Iron Range in the 1880s. The road, known as the Vermillion Trail, was improved between 1868 and 1869 under the direction of surveyor George Stuntz. According to the town of Tower’s website, the Vermilion Trail was “no picnic. It took three days and two nights to cover the more than 100 miles by wagon. Only in the winter could teams be used. In the summer, the swamps were many and long, and no horse could negotiate the trail, so the only way north was by foot.” That someone who found the piece of iron ore? That too was George Stuntz. He had been shown a similar ore sample by blacksmith North Albert Posey, who was given the rock by two Ojibwe men who said it came from near Lake Vermillion.While everyone else who used his road was busy looking for gold, Stuntz looked for iron ore.

This sign is located on the north side of Martin Road, somewhat west of the end of Woodland Avenue. (Image: Heidi Bakk-Hansen)