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Gull Lake Dam

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Cass County Historical Society
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Gull Lake Dam

Gull Lake Dam (Cass County), October 7, 1911.

The sixth and final dam in the Headwaters Reservoir System, Gull Lake Dam was built in 1912 to increase the output of mills and turbines downstream. In 2019, the dam maintains water levels for recreation and navigation, and the site is also home to ancient burial mounds and a recreation area.

Gull Lake Dam is one of six dam sites in the Mississippi River headwaters area built by the Army Corps of Engineers to improve navigation and contribute to the commercial development of the adjoining areas. Late in the nineteenth century, logging companies built dams at the site to make floating logs down the Gull River easier.

Originally written off as a potential dam site due to high land costs and pre-existing logging dams on the Gull River, Gull Lake Dam was authorized by Congress in 1907 after John S. Pillsbury of the St. Anthony Falls Water Power Company granted the flowage and land rights necessary to go forward with construction. The St. Anthony Power Company hoped the dam would provide significant increases in output for their mills and turbines in Minneapolis, and put together the land deeds and property leases necessary for construction to begin.

Colonel Francis R. Shunk and George Freeman worked on the design of the dam, which is composed of reinforced concrete on timber pilings. Their design included five sluiceways (overflow channels), a log sluice, and a five foot wide fishway, which has since been closed off. It was constructed half a mile down the Gull River from the Gull Lake outlet and became operational in 1912.

The Gull Lake dam tender's Craftsman-style seven-room house was built in 1912 on a hill above the dam. Former dam tenders such as Ed Sunde and Orin Henderson pointed out that the dam tender’s job was a lonely one, and they often worked alone at the site. As demand for recreational facilities increased at the dam sites, the tender became a park manager, and the “dam tender” title faded into obscurity. The dam’s administrative offices are currently located in this building.

After the Nine Foot Channel lock and dam system was built between St. Anthony Falls and Guttenberg, Iowa, the headwaters dams were less necessary for regulating the Upper Mississippi’s water levels. The US Army Corps of Engineers reconsidered the purpose of the headwaters dams and determined that the regulation of water levels was second to the management of public recreation areas.

In the fall of 1968, the construction of a recreation area was interrupted by the discovery of prehistoric Native American burial grounds on the property. After an excavation in 1969 by the University of Minnesota, the recreational area was redesigned to protect the burial mounds as a sacred site. An interpretive center provides information on artifacts found there, and the human remains found were reinterred in 1998.

In 1995, archaeologists Christy Hohman-Caine and Grant Goltz identified pottery found at the site as belonging to the Brainerd Ware subgroup, associated with the better-known Woodland Tradition (800 BCE–900 CE).
The US Army Corps of Engineers held a public meeting on July 25, 2018, on the potential closure of the single lane road that runs through the Gull Lake Recreation Area and campground and over the Gull Lake Dam. Possible damage to any part of the burial grounds prompted participation in meetings with the Corps of Engineers, local residents, and members of the Leech Lake and Mille Lacs Bands of Ojibwe.
In a January 2019 news release, the corps announced that a portion of the road will be closed in 2025.

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“Army Corps to Close Portion of East Gull Lake Drive in 2025.” Echo Journal, January 24, 2019.

“East Gull Lake Wins Partial Victory.” Brainerd Daily Dispatch, May 17, 1973.

“Gull Lake Dam is Finished.” Brainerd Daily Dispatch, October 31, 1911.

Gull Chain of Lakes Association. Gull Lake Dam–Army Corps of Engineers, 2019.
https://www.gcola.org/gull-lake-dam

“Gull Lake Dam Project.” Brainerd Daily Dispatch, August 14, 1907.

“Gull Lake Shooting.” Duluth Herald, July 18, 1916.

"Gull Lake Reservoir Dam." Historic American Engineering Record, 1968.
https://www.loc.gov/item/mn0394/

“Gull’s Army Corps of Engineers Dam.” Lake Country Echo, June 24, 1993.

Hohman-Caine, Christy A., and Grant E. Goltz. “Brainerd Ware and the Early Woodland Dilemma.” Minnesota Archaeologist 54 (1995): 109‒129.

“Indian Mound Discovery Delays Gull Campground.” Brainerd Daily Dispatch, August 19, 1968.

Library of Congress. “Gull Lake Reservoir Dam, Dam Tender's Residence, Lake Shore, Cass County, Mn.”
https://www.loc.gov/item/mn0458

Lindbergh, Charles Sr. “Invasion of US by Canada.” Duluth Herald, September 2, 1915.

Marohn, Kirsti. “Army Corps Debates Closing Road Near Gull Lake Dam, Burial Grounds.” MPR News, July 22, 2018.
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2018/07/22/army-corps-debates-closing-road-near-gull-lake-dam-burial-grounds

Merritt, Raymond H. Creativity, Conflict & Controversy—A History of the St. Paul District US Army Corps of Engineers. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1979.

“MnDOT Identifies Money to Reroute Roads Around Gull Lake Campground.” Pine Cone Press‒Citizen, February 26, 2019.

US Army Corps of Engineers. “Gull Lake Native American Burial Mounds,” October 28, 2015. https://www.mvp.usace.army.mil/DesktopModules/ArticleCS/Print.aspx?PortalId=57&ModuleId=24230&Article=626235

US Army Corps of Engineers. History Afield oral history interviews, October 1, 1987.
https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a199045.pdf

US Army Corps of Engineers. History, Gull Lake Dam. https://www.mvp.usace.army.mil/Missions/Recreation-and-Natural-Resources/Gull-Lake

Related Images

Gull Lake Dam
Gull Lake Dam
Gull Lake Dam construction diagram
Gull Lake Dam construction diagram
Gull Lake Dam
Gull Lake Dam
Gull Lake Dam site
Gull Lake Dam site
Upstream view of Gull Lake Dam
Upstream view of Gull Lake Dam
Gate lifters at Gull Lake Dam
Gate lifters at Gull Lake Dam

Turning Point

After World War II, the purpose of the dam evolves from providing hydropower for Minneapolis to maintaining navigational control and recreational use of the Upper Mississippi River headwaters.

Chronology

1907

The US Army Corps of Engineers is authorized to build Gull Lake Dam.

1912

Gull Lake Dam becomes operational.

1912

The dam tender’s house is built on a hill above the dam.

1915

In reaction to flooding across northern Minnesota caused by dams on the Canadian side of the Red River, the Gull Lake Dam’s floodgates are completely opened. Some farmers criticize the US Army Corps of Engineers for prioritizing mill owners over locals in

1916

Dam tender A. Mampel is arrested for shooting Brained resident Mike Setula after a heated argument. Setula recovers, and no charges are filed.

1968

Burial mounds are found during construction of a nearby recreation site. They are the last mounds in Minnesota excavated to date.

1973

A listing of the surviving Indian burial mounds is added to the National Register of Historic Places on May 7.