There is one thing that is common along the North Shore of Minnesota, and that is change.
And a significant change to the North Shore in 2022 was the closing of the North Superior Coast Guard Station in Grand Marais. The two-story white building in the Grand Marais harbor is a daily reminder of the town’s innate historical past and the industries that once fueled it.
Stemming from the late 1880s and well into the turn of the century, Grand Marais and numerous North Shore communities prospered on a thriving logging and commercial fishing lifestyle.
During this period, there were limited modes of transportation, and in the summer months, the North Shore was primarily accessed by boat. According to the St. Louis County Historical Society, before the building of Highway 61, several small gas-powered boats comically coined the “Mosquito Fleet” operated out of Two Harbors and serviced the fisherman along the North Shore.
Simultaneously, the Grand Marais harbor acted as a port to distribute pulpwood, gravel and other forest products across Lake Superior. The North Shore was a booming hub for commercial fishing and shipping.
As both industries expanded in the early 1900s, the need for a Coast Guard station became evident following multiple accidents and fatalities on Lake Superior. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson approved constructing and staffing a Coast Guard station in Grand Marais. However, it wasn’t until nearly a decade later, in 1929, that the station officially opened.
The newly formed Coast Guard station proved to be a valuable asset for the North Shore. Not only did the station ensure safety for the local residents and commercial fishermen on Lake Superior, but the crew and their wives became integrated as members of the small community.
Nonetheless, a shift occurred in the 1970s that set the station’s longevity on an uncertain path.
With the dwindling of commercial fishing and shipping industries, Grand Marais’ economy slowly transitioned towards tourism. In addition, navigation technology increased, and the federal government was looking to exercise budget cuts. As a result, the need for a Coast Guard station became less pertinent.
The shift that began in the 1970s still lingers to this very day. The federal government announced on June 9, 2021, that the North Superior Coast Guard Station would close, leaving a 1,500 square-mile stretch that extends from the Ontario border south to Schroeder and out to the Michigan border to the responsibility of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department and the Grand Portage tribal government.
The Coast Guard said the decision to close the Grand Marais station was due to a lack of calls per year. In addition, with the continued advancement in navigational technology, well-crafted boats, and the reduction of fishing and shipping industries along the North Shore, there was no longer a need for a Coast Guard station.
The Coast Guard also stated that consolidating the Grand Marais station with the nearby station in Duluth would result in a more robust response system by increasing staffing levels and capacity.
While the closure of the Coast Guard station might be seen as a consolidation of resources and an increase in efficiency, it has left members of the community and the Cook County Sheriff’s Department uneasy.
Following the official closure of the North Superior Coast Guard Station last summer, members of the Cook County Sheriff’s Department, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and Grand Portage tribal government approached the Cook County commissioners and Grand Marais city councilors for support.
“We’ve been left high and dry here, and we need some help,” Pat Eliasen, Cook County sheriff, said during an Oct. 12 meeting.
The Cook County Sheriff’s Department currently has an 18-foot open vessel to respond to water rescue calls, but the boat is not equipped or designed as a rescue craft. Meanwhile, the Grand Portage tribal government has relied on the Minnesota DNR fisheries and conservation officer vessels to respond to recent troubling water rescue calls.
The Grand Portage tribal government expressed concern for an uptick in rescue calls amid the pandemic as individuals unsuccessfully attempted to navigate to nearby Isle Royale National Park. The recent increase in outdoor recreation experienced nationwide and along the North Shore has added another layer to the complex equation.
During the October meetings, local officials stressed the need for adequate resources if an accident on Lake Superior occurs. The Cook County Sheriff’s Department is actively seeking funding from the federal government to outfit the county with two 30-foot safe boats with navigational and safety equipment. The funding request is nearly 1 million dollars.
In the meantime, the responsibility of on-water rescues falls on the back of the Cook County Sherriff’s Department, the Grand Portage tribal government, and the willingness of a good Samaritan or local charter captain.
What lies ahead for the future of the two-story white building on the Grand Marais harbor is uncertain. But for the foreseeable future, it will remain a remnant for individuals to reflect on the past and a symbol of the change yet to come along the North Shore.