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Portion of Grand Portage trail rediscovered in Jay Cooke State Park

A new section of the Grand Portage was recently rediscovered in Jay Cooke State Park. News Tribune graphics1 / 2
This is a portion of the original Grand Portage of the St. Louis River trail, rediscovered in the fall of 2014 during an archaeological survey at Jay Cooke State Park. (Photo by Tina Blondell)2 / 2

As an archaeologist, Sigrid Arnott likes to keep an open mind about what she might discover.

Still, Arnott said, she wasn’t optimistic about finding any previously undiscovered portion of the Grand Portage of the St. Louis River last fall.“I thought there was a pretty low likelihood that I would find something that somebody else hadn’t already found,” said Arnott, who is from the Twin Cities and specializes in historical archaeology.

But Arnott, surveying Jay Cooke State Park for what she calls “cultural resources” on a contract with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, found exactly that: a stretch of trail used centuries ago by fur traders traveling between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River on what was known as the Northwest Trail.

She was accompanied by Andrew Wise of Duluth, who was the first to spot a segment of the trail, and his brother Michael Wise, also of Duluth.

The archaeological study in September, October and November was in preparation for rebuilding state Highway 210 through the park to Duluth, said Kristine Hiller, a state park naturalist.

Parts of the highway were washed out in the June 2012 flood.

“Archaeological review has to be done before they destroy something important,” Hiller said.

Not to be confused with the Grand Portage in Cook County, the Grand Portage of the St. Louis River began around the site of the present Fond du Lac dam, Hiller said, and rejoined the river in the Scanlon area. From there, the Northwest Trail continued on water and land to Big Sandy Lake in the present Savanna Portage State Park, in Aitkin County.

The Grand Portage avoided a section of the St. Louis River that wasn’t navigable because of its rapids, but at a price.

“It’s all up and down,” Hiller said of the trail. “They were going through swamps. They were hand over fist going up those clay hills. It was a difficult section. There’s a lot of grumbling going on when you read the journals.”

Jay Cooke State Park has a Grand Portage trail that includes a portion of the original trail, Hiller said.

But the present-day Grand Portage trail is used for recreational hiking. That purpose would have been unfathomable to the voyageurs of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, said historian Larry Luukkonen of McGregor, whose book about the Northwest Trail is called “Between the Waters.”

“Those guys weren’t out here for tourism, for scenery,” Luukkonen said. “They were out here to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as they could.”

That was obvious in the section of trail Arnott and her team discovered, she said. It clearly had been a trail, but it just as clearly wasn’t recreational.

“It looked really different from the recreational trails,” Arnott said.

It also was abandoned, with trees growing in the middle, she said.

“And the third thing was that it followed a very logical path for somebody who was carrying a heavy load,” she said. “It was very different from the recreational trails in that way, too.”

Arnott had done her homework. She used an 1857-58 map of the area from a government land use survey, overlaid on topographic images taken before and after the 2012 flood. It gave her a good idea of where to look, she said.

What she and her team found comprises close to a mile of trail, in a dozen segments with the longest being about a thousand feet. “By connecting the dots, we could see where one of these long sections was,” Arnott said.

Hiller said she could see the Highway 210 roadbed from the rediscovered trail segment.

Because value is placed on preserving the historic trail as it is, it probably won’t be redeveloped as one of the park’s recreational trails, Hiller said — but future interpretive programs might bring visitors to a portion of the site via existing trails.

Rediscovering the old trail made Hiller’s annual report as one of the highlights of 2014, she said. “Walking in 300-year-old voyageur footsteps is definitely a cool part of the job.”