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North Superior Coast Guard Station

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Coast Guard surf boat

Coast Guard surf boat at Station Superior North.

The Coast Guard station at Grand Marais, originally known as Superior North, was built in 1928 to aid the people who traveled and worked on the sometimes turbulent waters of Lake Superior. Since the opening of the station in 1929, Coast Guard personnel from the station have rescued hundreds of fishermen, boat crews and passengers, and recreational boaters from the lake.

In 1918, Grand Marais was considered the center of the North Shore fishing industry, with 126 official licensed fishermen, an annual estimated value of $172,684, and an annual yield of 4,283,684 pounds of fish. The natural harbor of Grand Marais was also a port from which loads of pulpwood, gravel, and other forest products were shipped to mills across the lake. Ships carried locals, visitors, and supplies to the communities along the shore. Fishermen, boat crews and passengers, and other travelers on Lake Superior were at grave personal risk from intense storms, which could blow up without warning. The nearest life-saving station was ninety miles across the lake in Michigan or 120 miles (by car) down the shore, in Duluth.

The North Shore Fishermen’s Association petitioned for a life-saving station in March 1919 after losing “about 15 men, just by having them caught in these storms and being swept out to sea.” In response, Congressman W. L. Carss from Duluth introduced a bill (H.R. 9228) that provided $54,175 for a station on September 11, 1919. The estimated yearly cost was another $17,215 for crew, rations, and upkeep. Though President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill in May 1920, it wasn’t until February 1928 that funding was available to construct and staff the station.

In August 1928, the Whitney Bros. Company began excavating the site using a scow and steam shovel. Local contractor Ed Nunstedt won the bid of $27,992.00 for construction of the facilities, which were to be completed by November 20. A lifeboat, self-bailing surfboat, wagon, motor dory, two small pulling boats, two beach carts, and other equipment made up the additional appropriation.

CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) Daniel Magnusson arrived in January 1929 to take charge of the new station. Thirteen crew members followed him in April. As was typical in the Coast Guard, they worked long hours and stood a rotating watch over Lake Superior and the harbor. A forty-foot watch tower was built on what is now called Artists’ Point.

In the 1930s, crew at the station kept up the lookout twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. While standing watch, four hours on, eight hours off, they also performed duties such as cooking, maintenance, and record keeping. The crews remained on duty but were allowed to go into town and could be called to return at any time in an emergency. The base pay at that time was $60 per month, with thirty dollars for rations.

Each Lake Superior station was assigned a thirty-six-foot self-righting lifeboat, crewed by three to four men, to be used for rescue. These boats were improved over the years for the safety of the crew, with added navigational aids.

The station was closed in March 1973 by the impounding of $10 million of appropriations for the Coast Guard. Its name was changed to North Superior Auxiliary Station, after which it was manned by Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers during the boating season. Auxiliary personnel donated their time and boats while the Coast Guard provided fuel, food, and station maintenance. The station reopened in 1977 as North Superior Station but again closed in 1988, reopening for only the months of May through October, with two Coast Guard crewmen.

Over the years, the need for a fully manned Coast Guard station declined as new technology and faster rescue crafts were built. Ships no longer supplied the communities, in part because an improved Highway 61 provided tourists and residents with quick access to the North Shore. The last load of logs was rafted across the lake in June 1972. Rising operating costs and an invasion of lamprey eels into Lake Superior took a toll on the ability of fishermen to make a living, and many left the business.

In 2019, large ore boats, recreational boaters, and some fishermen still operate on the lake.
The mission of the station today is Law Enforcement, Marine Safety and Homeland Security from Taconite Harbor to the US Border including Isle Royale. Four Coast Guard Reservists man the station from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

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Aakvik, Helmer. “Helmer Aakvik’s Daring Rescue Attempt.” North Shore Commercial Fishing Museum (journal) 3, no. 4 (Fall 1995).
http://www.commercialfishingmuseum.org/news_helmeraakvik.html

Billard, F. C. “Coast Guard Survey to Be Early in June.” Cook County News Herald, May 24, 1928.

“Coast Guard Closes Grand Marais Station.” Cook County News Herald, February 1, 1988.

“Coast Guard Station Is No Longer An Active Operation.” Cook County News Herald, May 10, 1973.

“Coast Guard Rejects Request for Summer Operation in G. M.” Cook County News Herald, June 7,1973.

“Reactivation of Coast Guard Station to Begin Immediately.” Cook County News Herald, August 2, 1973.

“G. M. Coast Guard Station To Be Closed On April 1.” Cook County News Herald. March 8, 1973.

“G.M Coast Guard Station Radio, Rescue Operations Halted.” Cook County News Herald, April 5, 1973.

“Grand Marais Coast Guard Station May Be Reopening.” Cook County News Herald, July 26, 1973.

“Harry Flaherty: A Coast Guardsman Who Came to Stay.” Cook County News Herald. December 30, 1991.

2010-055
Letter Collection, Lloyd K. Johnson Estate, Cook County Historical Society, Grand Marais
https://cookcountyhistory.pastperfectonline.com/archive/9C56531E-7F1D-46F6-8D47-197813494037
Description: Letter from Superintendent J. L. Bridwell, Government Services Bureau, regarding opening bids for a Coast Guard Station in Grand Marais, September 20, 1928.

“Life Saving Station on North Shore Seems Certain.” Cook County News Herald, August 27, 1919.
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016544/1919-08-27/ed-1/seq-1/

“May Have Life Saving Station on North Shore.” Cook County News Herald, August 6, 1919.
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016544/1919-08-06/ed-1/seq-1/

“North Shore Fishermen Hold Annual Meeting.” Cook County News Herald, March 19, 1919.
https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83016544/1919-03-19/ed-1/seq-1/

OH-0312-2011
Oral History Interview with Delores Saethre, 2011
Oral History Collection, Cook County Historical Society, Grand Marais
https://cookcountyhistory.pastperfectonline.com/archive/2EAB3456-6890-46C2-81A3-374141301
Description: Saethre discusses her remembrances of her father, Morse E. Rhea, his life in the Coast Guard, and being stationed in Grand Marais. Cassette tape.

Oral History Interview with Ray Nagy, August 24, 2018
Oral History Collection, Cook County Historical Society, Grand Marais
Description: Nagy discusses his time of service at the North Superior Station, daily duties, watches and his participation in the rescue of Helmer Aakvik.
https://cookcountyhistory.pastperfectonline.com/archive/81E8E1F9-1795-4B40-899E-634294632829

OH-0271-2008
Oral History Interview with Ray Nagy, September 10, 2008.
Oral History Collection, Cook County Historical Society, Grand Marais.
Description: Nagy discusses in detail the rescue of Helmer Aakvik and the operations of the station. https://cookcountyhistory.pastperfectonline.com/archive/81E8E1F9-1795-4B40-899E-634294632829

“Re-dedication Ceremonies, Open House Set At Station North Superior Here Tomorrow.” Cook County News Herald, May 26, 1977.

“Station North Superior Back in Business.” Cook County News Herald, June 2, 1977.

"Station North Superior." United States Coast Guard Atlantic Area. Accessed November 22, 2018.
https://www.atlanticarea.uscg.mil/Our-Organization/District-9/Ninth-District-Units/Sector-Sault-Sainte-Marie/Units/North-Superior

U.S. Congress. Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce. Coast Guard Station, Cook County, Minn.: Hearing before the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce of the House of Representatives, Sixty-sixth Congress, Second Session, on H.R. 9228. March 12, 1920. Sixty-Sixth Cong., II sess. Cong. Doc. Washington: GPO., 1920, 165‒68.
https://books.google.com/books?id=vNJGAQAAIAAJ&pg=RA1-PA197&lpg=RA1-PA197&dq=h.r+9228+congress&source=bl&ots=YhugfuSQ5h&sig=sgPR73bPrY2fvggTVL1zftS9Gx8&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjNn8HdgZPdAhVIGTQIHQhsA-MQ6AEwA3oECAcQAQ#v=onepage&q=h.r%209228%20congress&f=false

143.A.10.1B Box 1
William L. Carss papers, 1918‒1929
Manuscripts Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
http://www2.mnhs.org/library/findaids/00018.xml
Description: Papers regarding his successful Congressional bill to establish the Coast Guard Station in Grand Marais, the transcript of the hearing, telegrams and letters to local leaders. Included is a petition by local businessmen dated November 15, 1927, asking for Carss’ influence to provide protection for commercial fishermen.

“Work to Start Soon on Coast Guard Station.” Cook County News Herald. May 3, 1928.

Related Images

Coast Guard surf boat
Coast Guard surf boat
Station North Superior
Station North Superior
Coast Guard crewmen at North Superior Station
Coast Guard crewmen at North Superior Station
Aerial view of flooding off Coast Guard Point
Aerial view of flooding off Coast Guard Point
Coast Guard Crew, 1935
Coast Guard Crew, 1935
Coast Guard practice drills
Coast Guard practice drills
Watchtower on Artists’ Point
Watchtower on Artists’ Point
North Superior Coast Guard Station, Grand Marais
North Superior Coast Guard Station, Grand Marais
North Superior Coast Guard Station, Grand Marais
North Superior Coast Guard Station, Grand Marais

Turning Point

In 2017, the Coast Guard announces plans to close the station permanently.

Chronology

1915

President Woodrow Wilson combines the US Life-Saving Service and US Revenue Service to form the US Coast Guard.

1920

An act of Congress authorizes the creation of a Coast Guard Station in Cook County (location unspecified).

1920

The US House of Representatives approves $54,175 to construct a Coast Guard Station in Grand Marais. Local builder Ed Nunstedt receives a bid for $27,992.00 to complete the project by November 20.

1928

The steamer America sinks off Isle Royale.

1929

CWO (Chief Warrant Officer) Daniel Magnusson and crew arrive to take charge of the station, which is named Superior North.

1958

A Coast Guard crew rescues fisherman Helmer Aakvik, who has been adrift for twenty-four hours in the icy waters of Lake Superior.

1967

Engineman First Class Keith Brubaker drowns in Grand Marais harbor. He is the only Coast Guard crew member to die while the station is in operation.

1973

The Nixon Administration impounds $10 million of Coast Guard appropriations, leading to the closure of the station. Its name is changed to North Superior Auxiliary Station, and it operates on a limited basis with the help of volunteers.

1977

North Superior Station (no longer auxiliary) officially reopens with a crew of seven, due to efforts by Representative Oberstar to provide funding after the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.

1988

The Coast Guard station is closed due to budget cuts. The station houses the U.S Park Service temporary offices from 1987-2007.

1997

Station North Superior reopens from May to October with a two-man rotating crew.

2003

The Coast Guard is transferred from the Department of Transportation to the Department of Homeland Security.

2008

US Border Patrol agents occupy the station year-round; the US Coast Guard uses it during the boating season.

2017

Plans are announced to close the station permanently.