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How Gooseberry Falls became a ‘destination park’

One of Minnesota’s most popular nature areas, Gooseberry Falls was the first of eight state parks developed along Lake Superior’s North Shore.

Lower and upper Gooseberry Falls.
Lower and upper Gooseberry Falls

The dark, fine-textured basalt rock that characterizes the North Shore of Lake Superior was deposited 1.1 billion years ago as volcanic lava flow. Ice Age glaciers, along with wind, water and the weight of the lava itself, created a depression that became the cliffs and bed of Lake Superior. The last of the glaciers etched into the basalt to define the course of the Gooseberry River and its waterfalls.

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An enduring controversy surrounds the name of the Gooseberry River. Some say Ojibwe people named it Shabonimikani-zibi (Place of the Gooseberries) for the gooseberries that grew nearby. Others claim it was named Riviere des Groseilliers to honor Frenchman Medard Chouart, Sieur Des Groseilliers, who explored Lake Superior’s North Shore in 1659–1660 with his brother-in-law, Pierre-Esprit Radisson. (Groseille translates to gooseberry or currant.) The French explanation carries the weight of written history, since the river was labeled with Des Groseilliers’ name on the earliest French map of the area in the late 1600s, some 50 years before the Ojibwe were known to have lived on the North Shore. It is possible, though, that the Ojibwe hunted and fished in the area while completing their migration from North America’s East Coast.

Throughout the peak fur trading years (c. 1679-1847), transportationcommerce and development largely bypassed the Gooseberry River. In the late 19th century, trout fishing was popular in the rivers along the lakeshore, and logging companies started to move into the Gooseberry River area. In 1899 Wisconsin timberland speculators William F. Vilas and John C. Knight purchased a 30,000-acre tract of land, including the Gooseberry River watershed, and leased it to Thomas Nestor of Ashland, Wisconsin. Nestor clear cut the trees, rafting logs across Lake Superior to mills in Wisconsin and Michigan. By the time Nestor’s lease expired in 1909, both Vilas and Knight had died, leaving the property to Vilas’s estate.

With the growing popularity of automobiles and tourism during the 1910s and 1920s, adventurous Minnesotans took to the state’s rough, narrow roads to explore the North Shore. In 1925, the Minnesota Department of Highways completed two major projects that drew even greater tourism to Gooseberry Falls. One was rerouting Trunk Highway 1 (later designated Trunk Highway 61), bringing the still-unpaved roadway out from the backwoods to provide visitors with panoramic views of Lake Superior. The second project was the construction of a bridge over the Gooseberry River.

The increase of automobile traffic led businessmen from nearby Two Harbors to propose that the Minnesota Legislature purchase 640 acres from the Vilas estate. They envisioned a park encompassing the river’s five waterfalls and extending to the lakeshore. The legislature approved the site as a game refuge in 1933, to be managed jointly by the Department of Highways and the Department of Conservation. In a Depression-era economy, no funds were appropriated for development.

A year later, however, the federal government created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Administered by the National Park Service (NPS), the CCC was charged with developing an infrastructure of roads, trails and buildings at the Gooseberry Falls site. Under the NPS’ authority, all major structures were designed in the Rustic Style (sometimes called Parkitecture), reflecting the natural features of a park’s vicinity. At Gooseberry Falls, that meant using local stone and timber, providing a uniquely colorful construction palette. CCC workers quarried red granite near Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica. Blue, brown and black granite came from East Beaver Bay, north of the park. Sand was brought in from Flood Bay near Two Harbors, and logs were hauled from Cascade River State Park, 55 miles north.

Workers built more than 80  structures and facilities for the park, including a water tower, shelters, cabins, stone steps, fireplaces and drinking fountains. The most impressive structure was the Stone Concourse, known as Castle in the Park, a 300-foot retaining wall which provided parking and a viewing area.

The park, which now comprises 1,662 acres, offers hiking, camping, picnicking and lakefront access, but the main attraction continues to be the park’s five waterfalls. Gooseberry Falls is designated as one of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ 16 “destination parks,” offering modern facilities and naturalist-led interpretive programs, designed for heavy use and attracting visitors from throughout the state. Eighty-eight of the park’s CCC/rustic-style structures were listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

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