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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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April 2003

A human and natural history

Nancy Larson & Karen Plass


Many Native American groups have lived in the region, most recently The Lake Superior Chippewa (Ojibwe or Anishinabe) the treaty of 1854 opened the region to industrial mining and logging and set up reservations. Today, Chippewa tribal governments manage natural resources from several reservations around Lake Superior and maintain their interests in off-reservation resources assisted by organizations such as the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, fishing, mining and logging interests exploited the Lake Superior basin. Logging companies clear-cut their way across Lake Superior's South Shore. Historic photos show a denuded landscape. Streams were straightened and "cleaned out" for log drives, and further damaged by runoff. Sawmill waste and sunken timber remain in some rivers and bays.

Wildfires raged across parts of the basin. Although fire, a natural process is necessary for creating and maintaining some habitats, slash left behind by lumberjacks fueled unnaturally hot and vast wildfires, which raged across parts of the basin. Fire consumed the forest's organic duff layer – the natural litter that had covered the forest floor and had prevented erosion by slowing water during rain storms and snowmelt, and storing water like a sponge. Fire also changed forest composition, sometimes eliminating the seed source for native trees such as white pine, white cedar and other conifers.

Railroad in the late 1800s helped create spectacular population growth. The Twin Ports of Duluth and Superior grew from 4,000 in 1870 to 120,000 by 1910. Resources from the Lake Superior region - timber, fish, ore and stone - flowed to distant markets over the rails and via ship. "Brownstone" quarried from the Bayfield Peninsula and Apostle Islands graces many buildings in Chicago and New York.

Commercial fishing has been a way of life for some on Lake Superior. © Karen Plass
Commercial fishing has been a way of life for some on Lake Superior.

© Karen Plass

The region is rich in minerals. During the 1800s, copper, iron and, to a lesser extent, silver and gold mines developed around the lake. Iron ore shipped from Ashland came from mines throughout the Gogebic-Penokee ranges in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin. Because many of these deposits were narrow and deep, early operations were underground, and 11,000 miles of underground tunnels created a huge demand for timber. The Gogebic Range was most active in the 1880s, with the last iron mine closing in the 1960s. Copper mining in Michigan's Upper Peninsula continued into the 1990s. Some open-pit taconite (low-grade iron ore) mines continue today on Minnesota's Mesabi Range.


Shipping has long been a part of life and legend on Lake Superior. Some 350 shipwrecks attest to the lake's power. The Duluth-Superior Harbor, the largest Great Lakes port, shipped 36.5 million metric tons of cargo in 2001. Top bulk commodities are taconite (bound for steel mills on the lower Great Lakes), low-sulphur western coal (arriving by rail for power plants on the lower lakes) and grain (arriving by truck and train for overseas markets).

Ted Smith, retired DNR's Lake Superior Basin Water Team Supervisor, cited the Twin Ports as a model of peaceful coexistence between commercial navigation and environmental interests, partly because dredging to maintain shipping channels, has been greatly reduced.

Nancy Larson is Wisconsin DNR's Lake Superior program coordinator. Karen Plass is a former Lake Superior specialist with the Wisconsin DNR and former executive director of the St. Louis River Citizens Action Committee; she currently works for the University of Minnesota-Duluth.