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The Battle Over Roads in the Boundary Waters

By the 1920s, people across the United States had caught the wilderness bug. The generation that introduced the idea of conservation into the American conscience — of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt — had given way to a generation of people eager to get out and explore America’s natural beauty.

For example, from 1910 to 1923, the annual visitors to the National Parks leaped from 173,416 to 1,364,024. During the same time period, the total number of visitors to Yellowstone went up from 19,575 to 138,352 a year.

This phenomenon was happening in Minnesota as well. The pristine lakes and gorgeous wilderness of the northland attracted droves of people in the 1920s. This was a unique place where people could experience a true wilderness, relax, canoe, swim and fish.

Essentially, all the reasons people continue to visit the area.

The 1920s were also the time when Americans were falling in love, and falling hard, with the automobile. Though automobiles allowed people to travel to places of natural beauty, they also conflicted with the idea of a wilderness left in its natural state.

Inevitably, the issue of where to build roads and how to protect the wilderness character of the area led to one of the first big fights in the modern history of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

Birth of northern Minnesota tourism 

In 1920, if you wanted to go up Minnesota’s north shore, you would most likely take a steamer from Two Harbors. You could drive, but the road was — to put it generously — primitive.

You’d have to be more foolish than adventurous to attempt the drive.

Businesses, whether in logging or tourism, knew that constructing highways was the key to unlocking the economic potential of the Arrowhead. When the scenic highway from Two Harbors to Ely was complete in 1922, it connected the Iron Range with Duluth and with the metropolitan areas to the south.

This road, along with a smart advertising campaign, made Ely into a tourist destination. The town had a reputation — one it still holds today — as the gateway to America’s only exclusive canoe country.

The easiest and most efficient way for the majority of visitors to reach this canoe wilderness was by car.

Roads and conservationists  

This increase in visitors and increase in traffic prompted plans to build more roads in the Superior National Forest. This would give visitors greater access to the wilderness, open broad areas up for economic development, attract new landowners to build vacation cabins and make it easier for the U.S. Forest Service to administer the area.

Not everyone liked this idea.

Most controversial was the plan to build a road that would connect Ely with the Gunflint trail, and to the north shore.

To many, this was going to far. Roads and automobiles may have allowed people to access the wilderness, but they now threatened to permanently alter the character of the wilderness.

It was one of the first major controversies and ultimately determined the shape of the future BWCAW.

Saving canoe country

A year after it was founded in 1922, the Izaak Walton League was at the head of a coalition of groups and individuals that saw the road as an attempt to turn canoe country into automobile campground.

“Build the roads, and the wilderness is gone,” Will Dilg, president of the Izaak Walton League said at a conference. “The roads, with the others that are bound to follow, will not only defeat the motorist in his efforts to see the wilderness but will spoil it for the great numbers of canoeists who are flocking from all parts of the country and from foreign countries to enjoy this wonderful region.”

For several years the debate continued, and in many ways, it sounded surprisingly simular to the mining debates we hear today.

In 1926, after several years of negotiations, meetings and conferences, a new policy was implemented that would limit the construction of new roads to dead ends and forest-service roads, and set aside 640,000 acres of the Superior national Forest to a primitive, roadless area.

And as you probably know, the Gunflint-Ely road was never constructed.

Ironically, roads introduced more people to the Superior wilderness, but at the same time, threatened the canoe country wilderness.

Those who opposed the road didn’t oppose automobiles or roads, rather, they knew there was something unique about the lake country in northern Minnesota, something worth preserving in its natural and pristine state.

This is something every visitor to the Boundary Waters continues to feel today.

Want to know more? Check out R. Newell Searle’s classic book Saving Quetico-Superior. A Land Set Apart. Searle gives a detailed look at long political history and characters from the early 1900s to the passage of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Act in 1972. It’s a fascinating read that is essential  to anyone who wishes to know more about the history of the BWCAW.