Once the site of an Ojibwe village, this area’s first European settlers came in 1870 when a sawmill was built at what was then known as Knife Falls. Many more people soon followed, and Cloquet had grown to 12,000 people (a bit larger than it is today) by 1918, when it and two dozen other area towns were almost completely wiped out by a forest fire. The blaze killed 453 people outright, and many more died from resulting injuries or disease.
Cloquet remains a lumber town at heart, and Carlton County’s top private-sector employers, all based in Cloquet, are in the forest-product industries, including at the massive Sappi paper mill, with over 850 workers.
Although Frank Lloyd Wright defined himself with such important works of art as Fallingwater and New York City’s Guggenheim Museum, he also designed the Lindholm Service Station (corner of Hwy. 33 and Cloquet Ave.). Though it was completed in 1958, Wright initially drew up the design as part of his Broadacre utopian city project in the 1930s.
Only a compulsive fan of the famous architect would make the trip here just to see the somewhat run-down and frankly not all that interesting (though unmistakably Wright-designed) building, but if you are passing by it’s worth a look.
Just down the street from the gas station is the Carlton County History and Heritage Center (406 Cloquet Ave., 218/879-1938, www.carltoncountyhistory.org , 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Tues.–Sat., 9 a.m.–8 p.m. Thurs., free admission). The small assortment of historical artifacts includes displays on the logging industry and the fire of 1918.
Two miles west of town at the Tribal Center is the Fond du Lac Cultural Center and Museum (1720 Big Lake Rd., 218/878-7582, 9 a.m.–noon and 1–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., free admission). It’s small, but there is some nice Ojibwe birch bark and beadwork. The tribe hosts the Veteran’s Powwow in July in the nearby town of Sawyer.
Although at its lower reaches the Class V rapids of the St. Louis River offer a wild ride for experienced paddlers only, the 90 miles above Cloquet provide a scenic route with few rapids, all of which are easily portaged if necessary. A good number of campsites and put-ins are spread out between Highway 53 and Cloquet. The Cloquet River, a major tributary of the St. Louis River, which it joins just above the city, is an equally scenic and much wilder route.
Above the Island Lake Reservoir it has many rapids and campsites, but this stretch is only runnable after heavy rains. Below the lake, water levels depend on the amount of water released by Minnesota Power and can be pretty low from July onward, but generally it’s enough to scrape by.
One of the best ways to get out on the St. Louis River and on Lake Carlton is on a tour with Minnesota White Water (tours start at 3212 River Gate Ave., 218/384-4637, www.minnesotawhitewater.com , $40). They provide just about everything for the 2.5-hour tours except dry clothes—which you’ll definitely need. Participants must be at least 12 years old.
The Fond du Lac operate Black Bear Casino Resort (1785 Hwy. 210, 218/878-7400 or 888/771-0777, www.blackbearcasinoresort.com ) just south of town. The attached hotel ($74–135) has a pool, kiddie pool, two whirlpools, a sauna, fitness center, and game room.
During the warmer months the obvious choice for a meal is Gordy’s Hi-Hat (415 Sunnyside Dr., 218/879-6125, 10 a.m.–9 p.m. daily Apr.–Oct., $3–6), just across the river on Highway 33. Their famous hamburgers, fishburgers, and malts are known near and far.