Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Hike past site of Minnesota’s only gold mine

Map of trail Little American Island sites. Courtesy of Voyageurs NPS.
Day hikers can explore the only authentic gold mine discovered in Minnesota.

The Little American Island Trail loops 0.25 miles in at Voyageurs National Park’s Rainy Day area. In summer, a boat is needed to reach the trail on Little American Island, but you can hike, snowmobile or ski there in winter.

If you need to hitch a ride there, the Grand Tour, a ranger-led boat tour, heads to and from the island in a Rainy Lake bay three days a week each afternoon during summer. Along the way, you can see active eagle nests and a commercial fishing camp. The tour does charge admission separate from the park entrance fee.

From the dock on the island’s north side, the trail heads about 100 feet inland. At the first junction, go right/west on the trail. This loops over an adit, a passage that leads into a mine, usually built for access or drainage.

In 1893 while prospecting on the island, George Davis discovered the gold in a six-foot wide vein of quartz. He crushed some of it and an analysis found about 25 cents worth of gold in the sample.

With that news, the island's owner, Charles Moore, sold the land to some Duluth businessmen, and mining began in earnest. To support the operation, Rainy Lake City sprung up on the east side of Black Bay Narrows about a mile southeast of the island. At its height, the mining town boasted a population of a few hundred with 17 saloons (which sold whiskey at 15 cents a glass), a dry goods store, lumberyard, bank, furniture store, bank, hotels, bakery, brick factory, post office and even a school.

At the next trail junction, go right/south. This spur leads to another shaft and a pile of tailings. Most of the mine’s tailings were used to construct nearby International Falls’ main street, causing many to jokingly nickname it the “city whose streets are paved with gold.”

Returning to the main trail, go right/east. You’ll pass a large pulley wheel that was attached to a winch for hauling gold-bearing rock out of the mine. After that is another adit.

During the height of the rush in 1894-95, a 200-foot shaft the trail passes was dug with about $5600 of gold mined.

Magma pushed the gold up to the surface about 2.1 billion years ago when a fault line ran through the area. The fault was similar to today's San Andreas Fault, caused by two tectonic plates sliding past one another, as this region was near the southern edge of the Canadian Shield, the beginning of the North American continent we know today.

In the late 1890s, many other mines, both shafts and exploratory pits, across the “Rainy Lake Gold Fields” were dug, but no more gold was found. The boomtown soon went bust and became a ghost town by 1901.

At the next junction, turn right/east. In about 200 feet is an overlook of scenic Rainy Lake. Once you’ve taken in the view, return back to the junction except continue walking straight/west. The trail at the intersection that follow heads back to the dock; turn right/north onto it.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.