MN Gold Rush: Historic Voyageurs National Park Gold Mines
Minnesota's Gold Rush Draws Miners to Rainy Lake: Minnesota's history includes its own gold rush. Take a guided tour by boat of historic gold mines on Rainy Lake in Voyageurs National Park.
Beyond boating and fishing, the draw of Voyageurs National Park near International Falls, MN, is the ability to explore the park’s connected waterways and more than 218,000 acres. In recent years the park has developed about a dozen historic sites for day use, and one such site tells the little-known history of Minnesota’s gold rush.
“When people think of the gold rush, they think of California, but Minnesota had its own gold rush,” said Jenna Anderson, park ranger. “While it certainly wasn’t as large as the California rush, it shaped the history of this part of the state.”
Today, park visitors can visit abandoned gold mines and hear the history of the state’s gold rush on boat tours launching from the Rainy Lake visitors center. Travel back to a time when the glimmer of gold sparked the areas first modern towns.
There’s Gold in Minnesota
The mid-1800s touched off gold fever in America. As people streamed into California in hopes of striking it rich, any whisper of gold in America could spark a rush.
Even among the forests and lakes of Minnesota, the gold hunt was on.
“By 1891 there was $55 million in gold taken out of California alone. That was enough gold to capture anyone’s interest in striking it rich,” said Jenna.
A gold strike in northern Minnesota brought about a gold rush to the area that is now Voyageurs National Park. Visitors to the park today can tour abandoned gold mines and learn about the early mining history that drew people to the area.
“Just a few years after gold was discovered in California, in 1865 gold was found in Vermillion, just south of here,” said Jenna. “They found a little bit but not too much. Then at Lake of the Woods there was more gold found, but still not too much.”
Despite the lack of a significant find, the hunt continued.
“A man named Charles Moore was talking to some surveyors. They told them if there was gold in Lake Vermillion and gold in Lake of the Woods, there is no reason why there shouldn’t be any gold in Rainy Lake,” said Jenna. “Moore hired a man named George Davis to be his grub staker, and make claim of mineral rights to the land.”
Davis came to Rainy Lake and set up camp on what would become known as Little American Island.
“He camped overnight and the next morning he started picking away at the rocks. By the end of the summer he had pulled a tea cup of gold out of the rock. But it was all little flakes,” said Jenna. “He took the teacup of gold to Duluth to get it graded and they told him it was pure gold. You’ve got something here. He sent a telegram to Moore, and Moore told him to put a claim on the land.”
But Davis had worked all summer for just a teacup of gold. He told Moore he didn’t know if it was worth mining the land. Moore decided to continue on.
“The Little American Mining company set up the main mine on the island. It’s a horizontal mine 100 feet deep. It’s filled up with water now, but that was something they had to deal with. They had to pump out the water as they were digging down.”
Adits or exploratory mine shafts can still be seen throughout the island.
“There was a small little whisper, the idea of gold in Minnesota.” The work on Little American Island began to draw attention, and soon, gold hunters were arriving in the area.
“Imagine this – no trees but buildings. A hardware store, a bank, school, hotel, restaurant, and saloon. They were all here because the of gold rush. There were streets and avenues carved out into the land. Today you can still see Duluth and Minnesota Avenues carved into the land today,” Jenna explained, pointing to sections of forest that are now part of Voyageurs National Park.
“As you can tell, nature has reclaimed this landscape back, though there is a small dock remaining.”
The mine on Little American Island was the most profitable, but even so, it only yielded a few thousand dollars in today’s dollars.
Today, a quarter-mile walkway around Little American Island takes visitors past mine shafts and tailings piles. Along the trail, visitors can see surrounding islands that were part of what was known as the Rainy Lake Gold Fields.
Park visitors can arrive at the island by boat. Those without a boat can join a tour that leaves from the Rainy Lake Visitors Center.
“When people think of a gold rush they always think of California,” said Jenna. “Not many people know about Minnesota’s gold rush.”
If You Go:
Tour abandoned gold mining shafts and learn about the history of Minnesota’s gold rush at Little American Island, within Voyageurs National Park. Arrive by boat, or reserve a spot on a tour that leaves from the Rainy Lake Visitors Center.
Head north to International Falls. The Rainy Lake Visitors Center is just 12 miles east.
While You’re There:
Enjoy all that Voyageurs National Park has to offer. Fish, boat, hike and explore more than a dozen day-use sites throughout the park. Spend the night in a houseboat or a campsite in the park.
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