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The deaths of fishermen on Lake Superior led to the opening of Grand Marais’ North Superior Coast Guard Station

In 1918, Grand Marais was considered the center of the North Shore fishing industry, with 126 official licensed fishermen and an annual yield of 4,283,684 pounds of fish.

image of coast guard station
North Superior Coast Guard Station, Grand Marais, Minnesota, 1994.

The Coast Guard station at Grand Marais, originally known as Superior North, was built in 1928 to aid the people who traveled and worked on the sometimes turbulent waters of Lake Superior. Since the opening of the station in 1929, Coast Guard personnel from the station have rescued hundreds of fishermen, boat crews and passengers, and recreational boaters from the lake.

In 1918, Grand Marais was considered the center of the North Shore fishing industry, with 126 official licensed fishermen, an annual estimated value of $172,684, and an annual yield of 4,283,684 pounds of fish. The natural harbor of Grand Marais was also a port from which loads of pulpwood, gravel, and other forest products were shipped to mills across the lake. Ships carried locals, visitors, and supplies to the communities along the shore. Fishermen, boat crews and passengers, and other travelers on Lake Superior were at grave personal risk from intense storms, which could blow up without warning. The nearest life-saving station was ninety miles across the lake in Michigan or 120 miles (by car) down the shore, in Duluth.

The North Shore Fishermen’s Association petitioned for a life-saving station in March 1919 after losing “about 15 men, just by having them caught in these storms and being swept out to sea.” In response, Congressman W. L. Carss from Duluth introduced a bill (H.R. 9228) that provided $54,175 for a station on September 11, 1919. The estimated yearly cost was another $17,215 for crew, rations, and upkeep. Though President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill in May 1920, it wasn’t until February 1928 that funding was available to construct and staff the station.

In August 1928, the Whitney Bros. Company began excavating the site using a scow and steam shovel. Local contractor Ed Nunstedt won the bid of $27,992.00 for construction of the facilities, which were to be completed by November 20. A lifeboat, self-bailing surfboat, wagon, motor dory, two small pulling boats, two beach carts, and other equipment made up the additional appropriation.

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CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) Daniel Magnusson arrived in January 1929 to take charge of the new station. Thirteen crew members followed him in April. As was typical in the Coast Guard, they worked long hours and stood a rotating watch over Lake Superior and the harbor. A forty-foot watch tower was built on what is now called Artists’ Point.

In the 1930s, crew at the station kept up the lookout twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. While standing watch, four hours on, eight hours off, they also performed duties such as cooking, maintenance, and record keeping. The crews remained on duty but were allowed to go into town and could be called to return at any time in an emergency. The base pay at that time was $60 per month, with thirty dollars for rations.

Each Lake Superior station was assigned a thirty-six-foot self-righting lifeboat, crewed by three to four men, to be used for rescue. These boats were improved over the years for the safety of the crew, with added navigational aids.

The station was closed in March 1973 by the impounding of $10 million of appropriations for the Coast Guard. Its name was changed to North Superior Auxiliary Station, after which it was manned by Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers during the boating season. Auxiliary personnel donated their time and boats while the Coast Guard provided fuel, food, and station maintenance. The station reopened in 1977 as North Superior Station but again closed in 1988, reopening for only the months of May through October, with two Coast Guard crewmen.

Over the years, the need for a fully manned Coast Guard station declined as new technology and faster rescue crafts were built. Ships no longer supplied the communities, in part because an improved Highway 61 provided tourists and residents with quick access to the North Shore. The last load of logs was rafted across the lake in June 1972. Rising operating costs and an invasion of lamprey eels into Lake Superior took a toll on the ability of fishermen to make a living, and many left the business.

In 2019, large ore boats, recreational boaters, and some fishermen still operate on the lake.

The mission of the station today is Law Enforcement, Marine Safety and Homeland Security from Taconite Harbor to the US Border including Isle Royale. Four Coast Guard Reservists man the station from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.