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Lake Vermilion boathouses make way for progress

TOWER -- The tiny, old-fashioned lifejackets and rusty minnow pail left behind in Boathouse No. 219 on the East Two River hinted at summers past on the river and on the east end of Lake Vermilion.

TOWER -- The tiny, old-fashioned lifejackets and rusty minnow pail left behind in Boathouse No. 219 on the East Two River hinted at summers past on the river and on the east end of Lake Vermilion.

The massive backhoe that chewed through a row of boathouses Friday afternoon emphatically announced plans for the river's future -- and the possible future of tourism in the area.

Demolition contractor Tom Nemanich of Ely took down the short row of corrugated metal boathouses to make room for a planned $10 million harbor redevelopment project south of Tower.

Plans call for a new, 2.3-acre harbor to be carved out of the river's corridor, with room for public boat docks, dozens of new homes and commercial building space, walking trails and a riverfront park. The city has secured nearly $7 million in federal, state and local money so far, and removing the boathouses was the first visible step toward the project.

Tower Mayor Steve Abrahamson said the harbor project will harken back to Tower's roots.

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"You've got to go back 100 years," he said. "At one point, Tower was a harbor point. Everything that went out on the lake went through Tower: supplies for resorts on the lake, tugboats hauling coal out to the mines."

There was once a thriving community of almost 100 metal and wooden-construction boathouses on the river, including boat and motor shops and a livery boathouse.

But a highway realignment south of Tower in the mid-1900s started to change that. Dozens of boathouses were demolished to make way for the new road, and two large box culverts were installed in the East Two River. That halted the dredging that kept the harbor open, and the river gradually closed in on itself until it became the narrow channel it is today.

The remaining boathouses, though many had become ramshackle and a little rusty, were still used until May 2007, when the city asked the remaining lease-holders to vacate.

"There are mixed feelings in town," Abrahamson said. "Some people loved them; some thought they should have been torn down a long time ago."

Another cluster of well-used boathouses will live on in Lake Vermilion's nearby Stuntz Bay. The 143 boathouses built by the Minnesota Iron Co. for its employees were recently granted a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, and those boathouses still are in use.

Contractor Jerry Nemanich -- father to Friday's backhoe operator -- said he was a little sad to see the East Two River boathouses go. Nemanich grew up in nearby Soudan and knew several people who used the boathouses.

If completed as planned, the harbor project could help position Tower for future growth, Abrahamson said.

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Still, even with the visible progress beginning, "there's a lot of hurdles ahead of us," said harbor project review committee member John Niemiste of Tower. He owns a boat and motor business on Lake Vermilion and thinks the harbor project will "lay the ground rules for improvement in the whole area."

"The boathouses [being gone] will be a big mental hurdle to get over; they're not doing anything for the town," Niemiste said. Tangible progress on the harbor project might help more local businesses get behind the harbor project, Niemiste said, "but it will take more than the boathouse removal to convince them."

Nemanich made quick work of one boathouse after another Friday afternoon. As he pawed through thin layers of corrugated metal and wood, relics of decades of boathouse use flew through the air. Bait buckets, tires, hoses, wire and nails rained down amid the debris.

In Boathouse No. 219, two little lifejackets, a rusty minnow pail and an ancient fishing rod were obliterated in a moment.

"Once they're gone, they're gone," Abrahamson said of the boathouses. "But the city has a higher and better use for that area. It was time to move forward."

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