The Boundary Waters’ early history mirrors that of the state. The first inhabitants were nomadic Paleo-Indians who followed the melting glaciers north hunting large game such as mastodon, musk ox, and giant beaver.
The first French-Canadian fur traders—the very first may have been Jacques de Noyon in 1688—shared these waterways with the Dakota, but by the time the fur trade began in earnest in the mid-18th century, the Ojibwe had taken control.
The fur traders continued to paddle and portage these waters until the dwindling beaver populations and changing European fashions crashed the industry in the 1840s.
Following World War I a national interest in outdoor recreation emerged, and the profusion of automobiles brought a great influx of vacationers to the Superior National Forest, prompting the conflicts between recreationists and commercializers that continues today.
Before 1919 scant regard was given to public use of national forests, though in that year the U.S. Forest Service hired Arthur C. Carhart as a landscape architect to develop multiple-use policies. He initiated the first serious discussions within the Forest Service of protected wilderness, and one of his earliest acts was a management plan for what would become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.
Acting on Carhart’s recommendations, Secretary of Agriculture William Jardine signed a plan for the unnamed wilderness in 1926 that prohibited roads and other development across 1,000 square miles and required loggers to leave “tree screens” around lakes. Thanks to noted conservationists like Sigurd Olson and Ernest Oberholtzer, a series of state and federal laws during the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s solidified and expanded these protections, and the debate helped shape the landmark Wilderness Act of 1964. Beginning in 1948 the federal government began buying out private resort- and homeowners in what was then called the Superior Roadless Primitive Area.
One person who stayed was Dorothy Molter, known to most as the Root Beer Lady. She lived deep in the wilderness of Knife Lake between 1934 and her death in 1986. Her nursing skills and immense popularity prompted the Forest Service to grant her a lifetime exemption, allowing her to remain at her home. Her house was removed after her death and is now a museum in Ely; by all means, visit it.
Restrictions on incompatible uses such as fly-ins, mining, and snowmobiles came piecemeal and not without opponents fighting every step in court; a few even resorted to violence against preservationists. The most contentious period in its history surrounds the 1978 passage of the BWCA Wilderness Act, which established the Boundary Waters’ present boundaries and codified the regulations.
To the chagrin of the wilderness backers, motorboats remained permissible on many periphery lakes. This was, however, far from the final word, and there are still serious efforts to roll back most of the wilderness protection.
© Tim Bewer from Moon Minnesota, 3rd Edition