Book: There's more to the North Shore than just a pretty face

Like most people's parents, Deborah Morse-Kahn's mom and dad saw Lake Superior's North Shore as a romantic getaway. From them, this future historic preservation specialist learned to love and appreciate those nearly 150 miles and the two dozen co...

Like most people's parents, Deborah Morse-Kahn's mom and dad saw Lake Superior's North Shore as a romantic getaway.

From them, this future historic preservation specialist learned to love and appreciate those nearly 150 miles and the two dozen communities they encompass.

More than that, Morse-Kahn saw it for something else: a historic hotspot.

One that is disappearing at an alarming rate, according to the preface in her recently released "Lake Superior's Historic North Shore: A Guided Tour": "When I made my final research trip for this book in spring 2007, wildfires had been raging for a week along the Gunflint Trail," she wrote. "Though most of the flames were out, one could still smell the wood smoke as far south as Tofte. But the fire I had come to monitor -- the wildfire of property development that has been sweeping up the shore -- was unabated, even accelerating, taking too many markers of the life and culture, history and pre-history of this magnificent place; erasing great sweeps of historic shoreline and dismantling the story of Lake Superior's north coast."

A mouthful, sure, but words the author holds close to heart: Morse-Kahn, who grew up (and still lives) in the Minneapolis neighborhood of Linden Hills, can vividly recall her first of many visits to the North Shore.


"It was spectacular weather, and I remember coming into Duluth through 35 -- you get that first view of the lake and all the bridges and the entire harbor," Morse-Kahn said in a phone interview earlier this week. "Then, coming up from Two Harbors, everything began to change; by the time I got up to Grand Portage, I don't think I'd ever seen as varied a landscape. It's like endlessly different worlds."

It was something she and her siblings had looked forward to for some time.

"My parents used to slip away (to the North Shore) every autumn, leave us behind," she said. "They always went up to the Lutsen resort, usually in the autumn. So the North Shore was always part of our family mythology because they never took us with them."

With record-high gas prices, however, Morse-Kahn said it's getting harder and harder to get up the shore (in fact, she said she's had to cancel a number of book signings in the northernmost communities just because of this fact). On the plus side, she said those same gas prices might, at the very least, stall the aforementioned "wildfire of property development."

"It's a tough bind for everybody," she said, recalling the trouble some friends were having selling a "costly" house in the hills above Silver Bay. "I think there will always be people with money to spend, but there will be fewer of the middle class (in the North Shore communities). ... It's going to be tough, because, you know, they truck the gas up -- or down from Thunder Bay. Everything's just more expensive there."

She wanted to act fast with "Lake Superior's Historic North Shore," before any more historic artifacts were lost forever.

Morse-Kahn described the pivotal trip up the shore that prompted the book. She had been hired by a client who had just purchased land up there to see whether or not they could find some "remnants of earlier residents." (They found an old fishing shack and a stretch of a trail that hasn't been used in some time.)

"What had really shocked me was how much had changed since the time I'd been there before -- probably about five years," Morse-Kahn said. "A lot of new construction, and a lot of it's very expensive -- and a lot of old buildings were gone. I pitched the book on the trip south; when I got a signal in Tofte, I called the director of the press and said, 'We have to do this.' And he said yes right over the phone."


To flush out the project, Morse-Kahn insisted that the book include the stretch of communities along the St. Louis River down to Fond du Lac (where the book starts) -- in addition to the entirety of the North Shore.

"They were thinking, Well, maybe you'll just do central Duluth, and I said, 'No. Central Duluth exists because of everything else around it.' I insisted that if we were going to go to all that extra trouble, that everybody got included," she said. "I presented them the three separate Duluth tours, and they agreed. They pretty much followed my lead, which is really an honor, because they were in a position to dictate what that book was going to look like and they gave me a tremendous amount of leeway in the design of the book.

"So I'm very happy with it, very happy with it."

Morse-Kahn's book mentions almost all of the Zenith City's "below the hill" neighborhoods, from Gary and New Duluth to Lakeside and Lester Park to former communities like New London.

While "Lake Superior's Historic North Shore" incorporates a great many "What, really?" facts about Duluth (as well as all the other communities mentioned, of course), Morse-Kahn said the most fascinating aspect of our fair city is that all of its individual puzzle pieces are identifiable.

"Remnants of the small towns that used to make up their own communities are still there," she said. "If you look at the West Duluth tour, that town center of West Duluth, which was its own community, it's still there.

"And the buildings, though they're not really well-maintained, have not been touched. That means, architecturally, they're in perfect condition for restoration and reuse. We just need to get people invested and interested in using the buildings again."

That's why including those additional Duluth tours in her book was so important.


"Everybody knows about the central city, but the south and north ends are very new to travelers; they tend to go through it to get to the center part or get up the shore," Morse-Kahn said. "I want people to stop and look at these wonderful, wonderful old buildings -- including the schools and the parks -- they're truly beautiful."

Deborah Morse-Kahn's "Lake Superior's Historic North Shore: A Guided Tour" is available now through the Minnesota Historical Society Press. She will be signing copies of the book at noon Saturday, June 14, at Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Canal Park. Call (800) 868-8904 or visit for more information.

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