Our First Taste of Minnesota – Duluth and Grand Rapids

Some little voice in my travel head said Duluth was going to be a pretty cool Minnesota town.  And, based on reports from friends who had been there we decided to check it out.  So after spending two months in Michigan we left it in our rear view mirror and ventured west to the land of Ten Thousand Lakes to spend some time in a state we had not visited in the RV.20170801_211141

Duluth has a vibrant downtown so we decided to stay right where the action was.  Some friends had mentioned the Lakehead Boat Basin Marina and RV Park which is within walking distance of the Canal Park District so we decided to give it a try.  Here’s the thing to know about the Boat Basin … it is a parking lot.  Yep, that means pavement with barely a few strips of grass for your dog to pee on.  This is not a “campground or RV resort” it is a parking lot.  But, what you give up in amenities (like grass) you gain in location and a great view of the iconic lift bridge.

There are many reasons to stay in downtown Duluth which has a very high walk-ability rating with restaurants, breweries, distillery, shopping, and attractions all within a few mile radius.  The first thing you notice about Duluth is their most famous landmark – the Aerial Lift Bridge – which has been in operation since 1905.  Duluth (and its sister town of Superior, Wisconsin) are major shipping ports on the Great Lakes where iron ore, coal, limestone, and agricultural products are always on the move.  The 900-ton lift bridge climbs slowly up in the air (nearly 200 feet) to let the thousand foot long Great Lakes freighters and other boats glide through the channel. 


During the busy season the bridge may rise and fall up to 26 times a day which draws thousands of tourists to watch the action.  The bridge and canal are operated and maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who also operate the Lake Superior Marine Museum and Maritime Visitor Center (which is free).  The museum is filled with information about local shipping, historical facts about Lake Superior shipwrecks, and resurrected artifacts from sunken ships.  A computer board displays times and information about ships passing through the canal so you can time your visit to watch the bridge in action.  Decades ago, pedestrians were able to ride on the bridge when it was raised. But, this was outlawed in the early 1980’s after a horrible accident that claimed the life of a woman when she was crushed by the steel bridge.


Just over the bridge in downtown Duluth is the revitalized downtown district of Canal Park.  If you have just a few hours to spend in Duluth this is the epicenter so start here.  Breweries, restaurants, shopping, a distillery, an aquarium, and museums make up this vibrant area.  We drove in on a Sunday and this place was in full swing with people milling about everywhere.  Running along the water adjacent to Canal Park is the Lakewalk which is a paved path and serves as a great place to get some exercise, or in our case, a conduit to our lunch destination – Fitger’s Brewhouse. 


Fitger’s has graced the waterfront since 1859 when the idea of constructing a brewery was proposed to put people back to work in the trying economic times.  In fact, brewing is said to have been Duluth’s oldest continuously operating industry.  Today, the old brewery is a destination with shopping, a hotel, entertainment, and restaurants.  But we really didn’t come here for the beer it was because I wanted to try a Minnesota wild rice burger.  Minnesota wild rice was sold everywhere – gas stations, welcome centers, souvenir shops – and I definitely bought some poundage.  But, a wild rice burger was new to me and sounded delicious.  This one was amazing and while I was eating this juicy rustic flavored piece of Minnesota my fingers were spontaneously Googling recipes.  Betsy just sits and laughs as she enjoys a real hamburger!  20170731_130644

After our lunch it was time to head back downtown with a stop at Duluth Trading Company – a store that got its start by making the “Bucket Boss” a tool caddy that fits around a five-gallon bucket.  The company has really grown since their start in 1989 now making men’s and women’s apparel, tool bags and luggage, dog gear, and automotive accessories.  They also invented the much appreciated apparel item call the Longtail T Shirt which is a “cure for plumbers butt” as it stays tucked in when you bend over to tighten a pipe.  Women everywhere thank you.

Betsy and I split our afternoon with her going to the Great Lakes Aquarium and me going to the S.S. William A. Irvin Ore Boat Museum.   The most prominent exhibit in the aquarium is Unsalted Seas which showcases large lakes of the world, the animals that call them home and the importance of freshwater ecosystems around the world.  It features the largest sturgeon touch tank in North America that brings you up close with these prehistoric creatures.

The S.S. Irvin is your opportunity to explore and delve into the Great Lakes shipping industry and the role it played in moving iron ore across the region.  The moored ship is a prominent downtown feature but in 1938 she began her service as a workhorse for US Steel moving up to 13,000 tons of taconite across the Great Lakes until her retirement in 1975.  It was also a favorite ship of dignitaries and elected officials because of the luxury and comfort of her rich mahogany staterooms and comfortable amenities.  While considered technologically advanced at one time she soon became a dinosaur when 1,000-foot long ships graced the waters moving faster, carrying more cargo, and requiring less crew.  Today, the ship is a floating museum open for hour-long guided tours taking you through staterooms, the galley, engine room, and most interesting – the belly of the ship where the taconite was stored.  (Admission to the ship is $7 unless you go on $5 Tuesday.)   


Before leaving Duluth we ventured out of town 25 miles to the Jay Cooke State Park one of the most visited state parks in Minnesota.  The park is known for its rugged beauty and year-round outdoor activities (including hiking, camping, skiing, mountain biking, and lots of ranger-led programs).  One of the most iconic features is the suspension bridge known as the “Swinging Bridge.”  It was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 and stretches over 200 feet long across the rapids of the St. Louis River.  Rigid steel cables now support the wood and steel structure, but when it was first built it truly lived up to it’s name.  At the time it was built, the wooden bridge swayed when walked on and was only for true adventure seekers.  The new bridge doesn’t have quite a lot of sway which it was originally known for which was fine for me and Spirit who are not really fans of swinging bridges suspended over rushing rivers.  While we were in the park, we decided to hit the trails for a few miles because our next stop was going to require us to be hungry and burn off some calories. 


The book Hamburger America has been at times a road map for us and on page 149 was Gordy’s Hi-Hat which was 20170802_12142720170802_121830way too close to Duluth for us to pass up.  The owner proudly claims that they are a real deal drive-in with no fancy stuff on their burgers.  Gordy’s opened some 50 years ago and has an amazing following.  We were floored at how many people came there during our visit as there was a constant stream of hungry patrons.  The restaurant is only open six months a year during which time they serve up to 2,000 burgers a day.  The burgers were GREAT!   The simple combination of perfectly seasoned meat, melted cheese, onions and pickle was full of juicy goodness that made us happy. 

On our way to Gordy’s was a truly unique gas station in the little town of Cloquet that deserved a look.  What was the fascination with a gas station you ask?  It was the only one ever designed by the famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright.  Wright had designed a house for a resident of Cloquet named R. W. Lindholm, who happened to be in the petroleum business.  Back in the late 1920’s  Wright designed a gas station to be built in Buffalo, New York which never came to fruition.  Knowing what Lindholm did for a living, he convinced his client to build a gas station that was similar in design to the Buffalo station.  The station opened in 1958 one year before Wright died at the age of 91 and is still in operation today.


After Duluth we ventured on west to Grand Rapids.  What was the attraction to Grand Rapids, you ask?  Well, there was a paper mill open for tours and The Greyhound Bus Museum was nearby. The other major tourist attraction in Grand Rapids is the Judy Garland Museum but we didn’t have enough time because our campground was located on a lake that was known to be a fishing hot spot and once we started fishing we couldn’t stop.  Sorry Judy, we’ll see you next go-round.

The Blandon Paper Mill was a fascinating guided tour that started off with a video followed by a tour of the factory guided by a 30-year Blandon veteran.  The paper mill started in 1901 and today is one of North America’s leading producers of lightweight coated magazine and catalog printing papers (which is the only product they make) and one of northern Minnesota’s largest employers.  The paper making process is pretty simple.  Take the raw wood from trees (whose fibers are called “cellulose”) and turn it into “pulp”  which is a watery soupy-like mixture of cellulose, wood fibers, water, lignin and added chemicals.  The next step is to remove the water from the pulp (which makes up nearly 90% of the pulp) which is done by huge machines that pass the pulp through a layered mat which squeezes out the water. Next, the mat passes through heated rollers that removes any remaining water and compresses it into one continuous roll of paper.  The final step is to press the paper into a desired thickness, add coloring, and special chemicals to give it the texture and coating desired.  Rolls are cut to size and packaged for shipping.  Unfortunately, Blandon does not allow photographs to be taken in the plant but I did find this video that illustrates the paper-making process.  This was a very interesting and informative tour and was well worth the two hours it took (and it was free).

A short drive from Grand Rapids is the town of Hibbing which is recognized as the birthplace of the bus industry in the United States and home to the Greyhound Bus Museum.  The museum is filled with thousands of pieces of Greyhound Bus memorabilia and artifacts including 13 buses from years past.  The story of the bus industry started in 1914 when Carl Wickman and Andrew “Bus Andy” Anderson got the idea to charge miners for rides to and from the mines in their Hupmobile vehicle. 


Turns out the miners were good customers and the gentlemen made $11.50 on their first day.  After working long 10-12 hour days in the mines it was a relief to have a ride home.  As ridership increased, the men heard of a company that was building larger vehicles capable of carrying more passengers so they could keep up with demand.  They loaded the passengers onto the new bus but realized the bus unfortunately wouldn’t move.  The overloaded bus was too heavy for the springs which caused the fenders to push down on the tires and act as brakes.  The men changed out the springs and decided to build their own buses.  Wickman and Anderson’s simple idea morphed into the bus line known as Greyhound and they retired as millionaires.  


When we arrived at Trout Lake RV Park and Campground in Grand Rapids it was obvious to us and the owner that we were going to be a tight fit in the spot they assigned to us.  The preferred alternative was for us to park down near their pavilion where we had water and electric coupled with a great view of the Trout Lake with beautiful sunsets.  The campground had a little beach and boat launch so we were happy to get our first fishing lines wet and experience this highly recommended lake for fishing.  A Minnesota annual fishing licence was only $45 which when compared to other states was a bargain.  Turns out Betsy found the walleye honey hole while small mouth bass and I were getting acquainted near the grass beds.

Our first taste of Minnesota was filled with lots of attractions mixed in with outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking, and fishing.  Next up, we will be heading to northeastern Minnesota to visit the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area near the Canadian border where we really fell in love with Minnesota!  And so did Spirit.


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