Tower’s historical relationship with the East Two River

Tower’s harbor on the East Two River.

Tower’s harbor on the East Two River. Circa 1910.

A reader has contacted hoping to find out what information we can provide on the Tower Marina, (currently Standing Bear Marina), an East Two River landmark.

We should first look at a brief history of the industrial relationship Tower has had with the East Two River. In the early 1880s, as stories of the Vermilion Lake Gold Fields were fading into memories, Philadelphia businessman Charlemagne Tower financed the exploration of the Vermilion Iron Range. While a significant amount of gold was never located, the early mineral explorers recalled many tales of high-grade iron to be found on the Vermilion Range. Expeditions set out of the Twin Ports to explore the shores of Lake Vermilion and land across the Vermilion Range in present day Tower-Soudan. Representing the Philadelphia entreprenuers these explorers inventoried the mineral lands and the industrial revolution had reached the shores of Lake Vermilion.

Captains of mining, immigrants looking for paying mining jobs, loggers, saloon tenders and store keepers hoping to make a living selling their merchandise descended on Tower and the Breitung and Stone mining locations (Soudan). The East Two River corridor was quickly developed into an important industrial artery. The Owens sawmill was built just east of the river outlet on land near the lake, (present day Mill Point Plat). Steamships large enough to drive the large booms of logs feeding the lumber industry used the river to access the lake. The ship traffic hauled men and supplies to the remote camps and towed the logs back to Tower.

The Tower Harbor quickly developed on the river. Boathouses large enough to house these ships were constructed and boat builders set up workshops and boat yards on its shore. In 1883 Charlemagne Tower worked on building a railroad from Two Harbors, on Lake Superior, to Tower and Soudan to bring his ore from the Minnesota Iron Company to markets back east. The growing nation was ready to consume the products of the Minnesota wilderness.

A rail spur was soon built along the East Two River to Owen’s sawmill. The railroad grade still lies in the riparian areas adjacent to the river. Coal and oil storage was built on the river.  These products necessary to industry and development were dispersed across Lake Vermilion and the resulting environmental pollution remains at the river today.

Over time extensive logging across Lake Vermilion came to its natural end. The big trees had mostly been harvested, but new commercial activity was developing on the lake. The tourism years were getting underway. Resorts were established and the ships were replaced with tour boats.

A box factory was built on the old sawmill site providing limited manufacturing jobs for people in Tower. It continued operations until the demand for wooden boxes and crates it produced diminished following World War II. The factory was later developed into a lumberyard. Ultimately the rail spur was abandoned and the rail and ties recovered.

Roads were developed around Lake Vermilion during the 1920s through the 1960s and the tourist traffic then turned to automobiles to get to the summer lodges, resorts and cottages on the lake. The large boats carrying vacationers began to disappear from the river.

The Aronson family moved its boat works to Pike Bay anticipating that the river would quickly silt-in once the large boats no longer traveled the river, making travel on the river difficult for larger craft. Tower’s harbor all but disappeared and remained only in the memories of people of a certain age.

Tower wanted to reconnect with the river and Lake Vermilion, hoping to draw tourist activity into town. In 1967 the city hired the Dixie Dredge Company to dredge the river and set about developing the Tower Marina (currently Standing Bear Marina). Bonding was sought and issued and Tower built the marina and further developed the Hoodoo Point Campgrounds utilizing more than $500,000 raised from the federal government and bonds.

“The city advertised in Minneapolis and was able to entice two men to lease the marina operation and they put into place a Chrysler boat and motor dealership. This was during the approximate time period of 1970–71. One of the men was a new car dealer and the other was a shyster,” one local historian recalls. Their deal with the city ultimately fell apart and Elwood Gunderson, who had the postal mailboat route at that time, entered into an agreement to manage the marina for Tower. Gunderson continued the Chrysler boat and motor dealership and added a Polaris dealership and Suzuki motorcycle dealership to the business model. He also established his home at the property. “The place was spotless when Elwood ran it,” our primary source reports, “It was also once the number one Polaris dealership in the nation.”

It will come as no surprise to the many people that have tried to conduct business with Tower over the years that the city’s relationship with the Gunderson family soured. The Gundersons closed their business and parted ways with Tower. The Gundersons had operated the Tower Marina since 1975, or 1976, until the early 1980s.

By the mid 1980s the city was leasing the property to a light manufacturing firm, Tartan Transportation, and maintenance of the marina facility began to decline. The city became in default on the bond financing. Tartan moved on to another community and the marina continued to decline while city hall still collected boat slip rentals. Wanting to cure the city’s default on the bonding Mayor Gary Burgess pushed to sell the marina property. The Hilla family purchased the Tower Marina to augment their work developing a large Ely Island land parcel. Tower approved the sale of the marina in exchange for $240,000 and bailed out its bonding default. The Hillas continue to own the marina today.

A work in progress. Anyone with any information to add to this historical account, or corrections necessary to provide a more accurate accounting of this history of the East Two River are encouraged to contact us at info*AT*