Norwegian-American fish tales (& tours)

The Norwegian-American Historical Association is exploring Lake Superior’s fishy history this summer, and you can too—any time

Split rock

Photo: Pete Markham
Split Rock Lighthouse near Two Harbors, Minn.

Amy Boxrud
Northfield, Minn.

This summer, the Norwegian-American Historical Association (NAHA) plans to explore the special history and culture of the North Shore commercial fishing industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Its North Shore Fisherfolk Tour, Aug. 28-30, will draw on the expertise of local residents with personal and family stories related to fishing, as well as local museums and historians who are working to preserve the archival and material record of this region.

In the late 19th century, Nordic immigrants settled along the North Shore of Lake Superior. Using the fishing and logging skills they brought with them, they built the area’s commercial fishing into a thriving industry. “The iconic features of the land, rocks, and water—that’s what brought them here,” says Virginia Reiner, president of the North Shore Commercial Museum in Tofte, Minn.

Commercial fishing began in the 1820s on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. In the 1880s, it spread westward to Lake Superior. By the 1920s, more than 270 commercial fishermen and their families lived along the North Shore, and 80 to 90 percent of this group were Norwegian Americans.

For many, the story of the immigrants who fished on the North Shore is not as familiar as those who settled elsewhere. “It’s a unique group of immigrants compared to those who came here primarily to farm. Although some of the issues of immigration were the same, many came from Norway with different life and work experiences and ended up in a very different environment,” says NAHA President Dennis Gimmestad.

Many of the immigrants who came directly from fishing communities in Norway had a good knowledge of fishing techniques. However, Lake Superior fishing was a challenging livelihood, even for those who were used to ocean fishing along the Norwegian coast. Lake Superior’s frigid waters were rough, and its weather patterns were less predictable than what the immigrants had experienced back home. “The storms could blindside you. You wouldn’t see them coming and instantly they were upon you,” says Reiner. “There were very few safe harbors along the shore, so if a storm came up, you were at the mercy of the lake,” she adds.

Minnesota

Photos: Paul Stafford / Explore Minnesota Tourism
Sunrise over Lake Superior from palisade overlook on the North Shore.

NAHA Fisherfolk Tour

Traveling by bus, the NAHA group will depart from the Twin Cities and take in the sights, sounds, and tastes of the North Shore from Duluth to Hovland. Stops include the North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum in Tofte, boat restorations in Knife River, and visits to the fishing villages of Tofte, Grand Marais, and Hovland. A lake cruise (weather permitting) will provide a fisherman’s view of the shoreline, fishing grounds, and communities that formed the basis for this chapter in Great Lakes history.

NAHA tour organizers are looking forward to sharing this unique history with participants. “Over the course of the tour, we’ll consider how these fisherfolk adapted an often familiar livelihood to the resources and challenges of Lake Superior as the industry grew, flourished, and faded over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,” says Gimmestad.

NAHA isn’t the only group interested in interpreting this story, according to Reiner. “There’s a lot of renewed interest in this region’s maritime history—it’s undergoing a huge revival,” she says. Reiner is currently working with a group of history enthusiasts who are finding new ways to share North Shore fishing history with the public. “Look for some exciting developments in the next couple of years,” she says.

Plan your own tour

If you can’t join the North Shore Fisherfolk Tour, you can still take in these maritime attractions, listed in order of appearance when driving northeast along Highway 61.

Split Rock Lighthouse

3713 Split Rock Lighthouse Road, 20 miles northeast of Two Harbors, Minn.

(218) 226-6372

This national historic landmark offers a look at maritime life in a spectacular setting. One of Minnesota’s most iconic attractions, the lighthouse has been restored to its 1920 appearance. The visitors center is open year-round, and guided tours are available May through October: mnhs.org/splitrock.

North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum

7136 MN-61, Tofte, Minn.

(218) 663-7050

The museum offers the region’s most complete explanation of North Shore commercial fishing history: commercialfishingmuseum.org.

Cook County Historical Museum

8 S. Broadway Ave., Grand Marais, Minn.

(218) 387-2883

This 19th-century lighthouse-keeper’s residence is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The museum’s rotating exhibits currently include “By Way of Water,” which highlights the county’s maritime history: cookcountyhistory.org.

Hovland Dock

Just off Chicago Bay Road (County Road 88), 19 miles northeast of Grand Marais

Visitors walk at their own risk on this concrete dock, built in the early 1900s. The last of its kind on the North Shore, it served as a busy stop for passenger and cargo ships at the once-thriving fishing village of Hovland. A picturesque cluster of abandoned longshoreman cabins stands nearby.

Jens Erickson

Photo: M.J. Humphrey, courtesy of Cook County Historical Museum
Jens Erickson mends fishing nets, circa 1936.

Isle Royale National Park

Travelers with more time to explore can visit Isle Royale National Park (technically in Michigan), accessible only by seaplane from Grand Marais or by ferry from Grand Portage (and two points in Michigan). The vehicle-free island is open from mid-April through October. In its commercial fishing heyday, nearly every inlet and sound was home to a cluster of fishhouses. When the national park was created in 1931, the federal government purchased these commercial fishing sites, although some have been leased back to families by special arrangement. To plan your visit, see nps.gov/isro/index.htm. To read about the island’s commercial fishing history, visit iri.forest.mtu.edu/Fisheries.htm.

More information on the North Shore Fisherfolk Tour is available at naha.stolaf.edu. Space is limited—to check availability or for more information, contact NAHA as soon as possible at naha@stolaf.edu or (507) 786-3221. To plan your own North Shore exploration, visit northshorevisitor.com.

Amy Boxrud is Executive Director of the Norwegian-American Historical Association.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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