Discover Duluth: French River, Vol. I-IIIMatthew R. Perrine’s photo essay series returns with a look at the French River. Believe it or not, it’s more than just a well-stocked playground for North Shore anglers.
If you make the mistake of taking the expressway to Two Harbors, kindly get off on Ryan Road and prepare to experience the North Shore the way it should be experienced (at least via motorcar): Scenic 61.
And what trip on ol’ 61 — known to postal regulators as North Shore Drive — would be complete without a stop at the cozy little French River. In case you didn’t know, it’s more than just a fisherman’s paradise. It’s a miniature slice of paradise in and of itself.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a second to learn a little more about the area — courtesy of the county’s historical marker on the matter: “Clifton, first townsite surveyed in the U.S. section of the North Shore, was platted west of the mouth of the French River in 1855. This river was known to early explorers as Riviere des Francais. Rumors of nearby copper deposits resulted in widespread prospecting and townsite planning in the 1850s.”
Like many of the projected towns, however, the city of Clifton never came to be.
“From 1864 to 1866,” the St. Louis County Historical Society research continues, “the French River Mining Company and the North Shore Mining Company dug several exploratory shafts but failed to locate profitable copper deposits. Extensive lumbering operations were carried on here in the 1880s.”
Also of note: the area once housed 48-foot, 16,000-pound anti-aircraft missiles.* That’s right; as was recently unearthed by the News Tribune Attic, a blog run by the newspaper, the dozens of Bomarc missiles being held at the French River Air Base were all removed by August 1972.
“The Air Force activated a Bomarc anti-aircraft missile base in the Town of Duluth in 1961,” the post stated. “It included 28 missile-launch facilities with concrete silos, missile service and assembly shops, an auto maintenance shop, a dormitory, a fire hall and supporting utility systems. It reportedly was staffed by 157 airmen.
“The Air Force spent $3.65 million on the base before closing it in 1972 when the Bomarc missile became obsolete. The missiles were shipped to a naval storage depot in Virginia, and Air Force officials at the time said they might be used as practice targets for other missiles or aircraft.”
Another notable presence in and around the river is Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s fish hatchery, which is situated near the mouth of the river across North Shore Drive from Lake Superior.
Obviously, the DNR fishery and that now-defunct missile base (marked by a still-present red-and-white water tower) aren’t what make French River such a desirable place to play outside — that would be the gifts that Mama Nature bestowed upon it.
Hence the reason for the recent “Discover Duluth” outing: I hiked up and down the French River last Saturday with my camera (at least the parts allowable by law) to give you a taste of what it’s all about. If you like what you see, I invite you to take a hike up the river yourself. It’s a pleasurable, low-danger-level adventure, perfectly suited for outdoors novices.
*If you are interested in the military's cache of anti-aircraft missiles, historian Christopher J. Bright is putting together a book on the matter. Visit http://christopherjohnbright.com to learn more about his research.
“Discover Duluth” is an ongoing photo essay series by Matthew R. Perrine that highlights points of interest in and around the region. For more photos from this set, click on the accompanying photo galleries.
Tags: discover duluth, photo essay, french river, north shore, lake superior, highway 61, north shore drive, christopher bright, duluth, budgeteer, photography, outdoors, nature, fishing, angling, anti-aircraft, missiles, nuclear, bomarc