When you come to the curve in the road on Highway 61 that is Beaver Bay, Minnesota, for your own sake – pull over.
If you don’t stop, you’ll be missing a friendly town with fine places to eat, fun gift shops to happily spend more time than you plan, and a history worth exploring.
Here you can sit down to a meal of fresh Lake Superior bluefin herring supplied by a local commercial fisherman. Or take those beach rocks that you think are agates and ask a local expert. If you like shopping, you can pick up a souvenir lighthouse, pirate gear for the kids or a more sophisticated regionally produced gift.
And these are just a few things to do or see in Beaver Bay, the oldest North Shore settlement (at least involving Europeans) and today a town of about 181 people. It’s just an hour from Duluth, and Highway 61 is its Main Street.
Beaver Bay was established in 1856, two years before Minnesota became a state and shortly after the La Pointe Treaty of 1854 in which the Ojibwe bands ceded the Minnesota shoreline of Lake Superior to the United States.
On June 24, 1856, the steamer Illinois delivered the Wieland brothers – Christian, Henry, August, Albert and Ernst and their families – to the mouth of the Beaver River and the new village of Beaver Bay. These German immigrants from Ohio would go on to build a sawmill, selling lumber in regional cities including Duluth and Superior, according to a local history display at the Beaver Bay Visitor Information Center. From this founding family, some of the Wielands served in local government in 1866, the same year that Beaver Bay was named the Lake County seat (a designation that lasted 20 years).
Just a couple of years after the town’s founding, one of its most famed residents – John Beargrease – was born. Mayor Mark Russell will tell you, in fact, that the town is well known as the home of John Beargrease, born in 1858, the Ojibwe mail carrier and fur trader for whom the annual sled dog race from Duluth to Gunflint Lake near the Canadian border is named.
At the visitor information center on the east end of town you can see one of John’s wooden dogsleds and displays about local history. He is buried in a tribal cemetery a short walk from the center.
John’s father, an Ojibwe chief, led a small group of Ojibwe people to settle in Beaver Bay and to work in the sawmill. He was also a sailor on the Wielands’ boat, Charley. As a teenager, John also would work on that schooner before he started delivering mail.
“There was lots of lumbering from the 1880s to 1910,” says Ed Maki Jr., president of the Bay Area Historical Society. Plus about 400 families were once engaged in commercial fishing. A descendant of one of those families, Clint Maxwell, continues providing fresh fish to the local restaurants.
Today tourism, retail sales, lodging and dining drive the town’s main economic engines.
“Beaver Bay is right on the highway, so it’s kind of a natural stop for anybody on Highway 61 needing supplies,” says Ed.
Near three of the eight state parks along the North Shore, Beaver Bay is the perfect launching point for recreational activity.
Split Rock Lighthouse State Park is just 4 miles away while Gooseberry Falls State Park is 12 miles from town. These are the two busiest parks on the Minnesota shore. Tettegouche State Park, with breathtaking Palisade Head and Shovel Point, is about 7 miles away.
In summer, activities range from hiking, biking and birding to kayaking, camping and shooting photos.
Trails are among the major attractions, including the Superior Hiking Trail and the Gitchi-Gami State Trail for bikes, both with local trailheads.
The Gitchi-Gami’s 14.6-mile segment between Gooseberry Falls State Park and Beaver Bay is “the longest and most scenic of the completed segments,” reports the Gitchi-Gami Trail Association. According to the Beaver Bay mayor, it’s spectacular.
“The bike trail is amazing,” says Mark Russell. He notes that people from all over the area roll along the paved path on bikes and inline skates.
A spur trail connects to Split Rock Lighthouse, and there are plans to soon complete the 2.3-mile section between Beaver Bay and Silver Bay.
The mayor also highly recommends checking out the Beaver River where it flows into Lake Superior. Mark says sightseers can pull off the highway and park (look for the lot before the bridge) and find trails that lead down to the river and the lakeshore. This is on the eastern edge of town, near where Beaver Bay ends and East Beaver Bay, an unincorporated community, begins.
Recreation is not the only draw, of course. The fine dining options might surprise most first-time visitors to the town.
Crave Scandinavian fare? Stop at Northern Lights Roadhouse on the west end of town to meet owners Tom and Margy Porter, both “100 percent Norwegian,” Tom points out. On the menu you’ll find gravlox – cold-cured Norwegian salmon – as well as lefse and Swedish meatballs.
“This is our 20th year. We do what we call North Shore cuisine with Scandinavian influences,” says Tom. Specialties include the North Shore Sampler: a cup of wild rice soup, pan-fried walleye and North Country Brunch Quiche. There’s also a tasty roast beef pot pie filled with beef, mushrooms, onions, carrots, peppers and a rich sauce flanked by Irish baked mashed potatoes and covered with a flaky crust that melts in your mouth.