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Not just the gold.

When human passion and emotion come face to face with the hard rock reality of geology, there is bound to be a good story. The science of geology is often seen as dull and lackluster, but our attachment to the rocks is, at times, visceral. And while geology may form the beginning of this story, it isn't necessarily how it ends. As the story develops, the characters change, and as each story is told, inevitably, it becomes less about the gold and more about the place.

We say 1893 was the start of the rush for mineral wealth on the shores and islands of Rainy Lake in far northern Minnesota, but this boom had its origins much further back in time. To get to the beginning of the Rainy Lake Gold Rush, we need to go back not 100 years or even thousands of years, but billions of years. The story of the Rainy Lake gold rush reaches back 2.7 billion years, over half the age of the Earth. It was a time of volcanoes and continent building, tectonic forces hard at work, shaping the primordial landscape long before life exploded across the planet. The Canadian Shield where Rainy Lake is found today came together as smaller pieces of crust smashed into each other. During this assembly, faulting, heat, and pressure changed the original rocks, created new rocks, and provided a home for gold.

Gold often forms in and around volcanic rocks, which is the case in the Rainy Lake region. The gold fields lie on a boundary between some of the bits of crust that built the continent. The Rainy Lake--Seine River fault zone marks the boundary between a greenstone belt to the north (the Wabigoon sub-province) and a meta-sedimentary basin to the south (the Quetico sub-province). This zone contains a variety of metamorphosed rocks, changed by heat and pressure. Along this fault, liquid mineral-rich solutions were able to flow freely through the cracks and crevasses formed in the rocks. These solutions contained many minerals that were dissolved from the volcanic rocks much as a sugar cube is dissolved in hot coffee. As the solutions cooled, the various minerals begin to precipitate out of the solution like sugar out of cooling maple syrup. Left behind, filling these faulted cracks and open spaces, are veins of precipitated quartz crystals and, most important to this story, gold.

Hundreds of millions of years passed while the continents rearranged themselves like puzzle pieces on a table. New rock was created and eroded away. Inland seas formed, life flourished, and mass extinctions occurred. The North American continent took form and glaciers advanced and retreated across the land. The ice, exposing the billions-of-years-old rocks, scoured off soils that took centuries to form. Humans migrated across the Bering land bridge, populating the landscape from the Arctic to the equator and beyond. The massive Lake Agassiz formed, filled, and drained several times, modifying the landscape and exposing the ancient greenstone and quartz. With the recession of the glaciers, the Ojibwe populated this area, seeking wild rice among the marshes and game on the islands. They walked across the exposed rock outcroppings at the heart of the continent, hunting elk, deer, caribou, and moose. Berries, roots, and fruits were gathered, used in times of feast and famine, survival and celebrations.

French-Canadian voyageurs took advantage of the waterways and traveled the old drainages of Lake Agassiz from Montreal to the Hudson Bay, camping on the islands of Rainy Lake without leaving any commentary on the ancient quartz veins lying just under the thin soil and pine roots of their campsites.

In 1893, after 2.7 billion years, man turned his attention to the rocks below his feet with the aim of seeking fortune in Rainy Lake. On the shore of Little American Island, in August of 1893, Charles Moore spotted the telltale signs of gold in the ore. Gold, once discovered, doesn't remain in the ground long. It has an effect on people that drives them to endure hardship and debt with hopes of striking it rich. The call went out from the North Country, "Gold Discovered on Rainy Lake!"

"Gold quartz was discovered [on Little American Island] in August [1893] where travelers for years had camped. Explorers, Indian traders, and prospectors failed to take any notice of it and it remained untouched until Mr. Moore and his companion Mr. Davis discovered the property, and proved to the world that the theory of geologists who had been so willing to pooh-pooh the idea of precious metals existing in Minnesota, didn't know what they were talking about."

--Rainy Lake Journal, June 28, 1894

Within months a town site was established to support the influx of labor and capital from all over the country. Rainy Lake City was predicted to be the largest city in the Upper Midwest in no time. Claims that over 10,000 people would inhabit the city within a couple of years served to pique the attention of people far and wide. Reports of this being one of the biggest gold strikes ever found their way to newspapers throughout the country, generating labor and, more importantly, capital.

Mining the hard rock of the Rainy Lake country is no simple task of panning through the loose wet gravel in a mountain streambed. First one had to locate a quartz vein. These veins might be as narrow as a few inches or as wide as a few yards. Then you dig, chip, blast, and hammer your way through many feet of dense hard quartz and greenstone to create a vertical shaft and horizontal adits. You then follow the vein, chipping away at the gold-bearing ore and hauling the precious cargo to the surface. The ore is then sent by rowboat over to the stamp mill at Rainy Lake City to be processed. All this expense and work before selling a single ounce of gold. The life of a miner was hard and fraught with danger.

A couple of Utah miners, the other day while at work carried their dynamite in the bosom of their shirts to keep it warm--a too frequent practice among the miners here. While one of them was fixing the cap, the stick of dynamite exploded in his hand and the explosion jarred the dynamite in their shirt bosoms; as a result that mine engaged two more miners right away as it was too much trouble to pick up the pieces of the other men and attempt to put them together again in the same sort of way you might a wrecked locomotive...

--Rainy Lake Journal, July 15, 1897

The result of all this sweat, toil, and expense was a modest amount of gold that made some men happy and none so much as those who traded in mining claims. The newspaper reported glowingly about the rich prospects of the future for Rainy Lake City and its gold mines, all the while the editor himself was dealing in real estate and claim properties. It was said a pair of brothers arrived in town and quietly bought up claims up and down the river, reselling the claims within the year, no doubt at great profit. But real gold could be found and in enticing enough quantities to keep the gold fever humming along.

The mines continued to operate in fits and starts until the expense of operation overwhelmed the profit from the ore. The riches envisioned never really panned out and the great urban center imagined by the early boosters topped out at about 200 people. By 1907, Rainy Lake City was largely abandoned. That same year, news flashed across the nation, "Gold discovered in the Klondike!" and off they went, in search of the next boom.

It turns out that the early day promoters may not have been too far off. The forest has retaken Rainy Lake City, with the most visible remnant being empty paths in the woods. Meanwhile, the nearby village of Koochiching, renamed International Falls in 1903, has grown, reaching a population of around 7,000 and becoming a hub of activity and one of the many gateways to Voyageurs National Park. The interpretive staff at the park, on board boat tours, now tell the stories of Rainy Lake City and the gold mines. The park was established in 1975, in part because of the unique and important geological features, the same geology that brought the gold miners and the colorful characters that are so common in mining towns of a certain era. Another reason for the creation of the park is the outstanding scenery on these lakes and islands on the Canada border. As they walk the quiet paths on Little American Island, visitors might agree with the sentiments of an early journalist who seemed to believe the same:

One may go where he wills, but once the scene here is fixed in mind there will be a desire to return to drink in the beauties of nature here alone so prodigiously unforded. The fact of the variety and beauty of the Rainy Lake scenery, of the splendid boating and fishing, only need be known to pleasure seekers and those who love nature in her wildest and most romantic form, to come here from all quarters to enjoy life to its fullest extent and to breathe the very breath of life by inhaling our pure air, laden as it is with the balsamic qualities of the conifers which are the prevailing growth of timber in this section.

--Rainy Lake Journal, July 12, 1894

Doug Lowthian and Jenna Dunn were 2013 seasonal interpreters at the Rainy Lake Visitor Center at Voyageurs National Park. Justin Olson is the Rainy Lake District Interpreter. The authors can be reached at
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Title Annotation:gold mines in Rainy Lake, Minnesota
Author:Lowthian, Doug; Dunn, Jenna; Olson, Justin
Publication:Legacy Magazine
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Nov 1, 2013
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