Centuries ago, hardy French-Canadian fur traders paddled 16 hours a day and carried their canoes and hundred of pounds of goods across land trails, often while singing nostalgic French songs. Each July, hundreds of these voyageurs converged on the North West Company's headquarters on the western shore of Lake Superior to trade, eat, brawl, and party. The wooden buildings of the post, built in the late 1700s, have been reconstructed by the National Park Service as part of Grand Portage National Monument.

Grand Portage National Monument
©National Park Service
The North West Company's headquarters have been
rebuilt at the Grand Portage National Monument.

A water highway linked Montreal, capital city of the Great Lakes fur trade, with fur-rich northwestern Canada. Where streams were unnavigable, voyageurs carried their canoes and cargo over a "portage" or trail. Grand Portage, the "Great Carrying Place," bypassed rapids on the lower Pigeon River and was an ideal spot for the company's headquarters.

From 1784 to 1803, Grand Portage was the largest and most profitable fur-trading post on the Great Lakes. After a harsh, lonely winter in the wilderness, fur traders greatly enjoyed the headquarters' plentiful food and free-flowing liquor, often spending what they had just received for the past year's work. They feasted and danced each day until daybreak before taking up their paddles and heading out for another season of travel and trapping.

The Great Hall, furnished in 1797 style, is where the traders talked business by day and celebrated all night. Food was prepared in the kitchen to the rear of the hall. The stockade, constructed from cedar pickets, was the business office of the company. At the fur press, bulky beaver pelts were compacted and tied into neat 90-bound bales. Outside the stockade is a warehouse that now exhibits historic items, including two authentic birchbark canoes.

The nine-mile portage past the rapids is open to hikers and cross-country skiers. The scenery along the trail, shaded by spruce, maple, aspen, and other trees, is little changed from the days when voyageurs passed through carrying their heavy loads.

In 1793, a North West Company trader named John Macdonell wrote one of the few known descriptions of the busy Grand Portage post during its heyday, offering a glimpse into life at the annual rendezvous.

He wrote that the "North Men [those who spent winters west of Lake Superior]...while here live in tents of different sizes pitched at random, the people of each post having a camp by themselves, and through their camp passes the road of the portage." The more frugal "Pork-eaters" (the Montreal men) slept under their canoes.

As for the stockade, "the Gates are shut always after sunset, and the Bourgeois and clerks Lodge in houses within the pallisades, where there are two Sentries keeping a look out all night, chiefly for fear of accident by fire."

Grand Portage National Monument Information
Address: 315 South Broadway, Grand Marais, MN
Phone: 218/387-2788
Hours of Operation:

  • Stockade open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily from mid-May through mid-October
  • Outdoor areas open from dawn to dusk year-round

Admission:

  • $3 for adults or $6 for families
  • Children 15 and younger, free

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Eric Peterson is a Denver-based freelance writer who has contributed to numerous guidebooks about the Western United States.