The North Shore of Lake Superior runs from Duluth, Minnesota, United States, at the southwestern end of the lake to Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, in the north to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, in the east. The shore is characterized by alternating rocky cliffs and cobblestone beaches, with rolling hills and ridges covered in boreal forest inland from the lake, through which scenic rivers and waterfalls descend as they flow to Lake Superior. Americans often refer only to the Minnesota shoreline from Duluth to the international border at Grand Portage as the North Shore.
Lake Superior was settled by Native Americans about 8,000 BC when the Wisconsin Glaciers began to retreat. By 500 BC, the Laurel people had established settlements in the area and had begun to trade metal with other native peoples. The Laurel people were animists and probably created many of the pictographs present on rock faces along the North Shore and other Canadian rock faces in order to communicate with spirits. In the 12th century AD, on the easternmost portion of the North Shore, the ancestors of the Ojibwa migrated into the area. These people left behind small pits dug in the ground which archaeologists now call Pukaskwa Pits. On the Minnesotan portion of the north shore, there are only three archaeological sites, so it cannot be determined who lived there at the time. By the 18th century, the Ojibwa had settled the length of the North Shore approximately as far as the modern Canadian-Minnesotan Border. The Minnesota portion of the North Shore was settled mostly by the Cree, and the Dakota lived to the south.
The first white explorer to reach Lake Superior was a Frenchman named Etienne Brule who was sent out by Samuel de Champlain to search for the Northwest Passage in 1623 or 1624. His exploration allowed Champlain to create the first map of the lake in 1632. Charles Raymbault and Isaac Jogues, Jesuit missionaries, were the next significant explorers, who tried to establish a more permanent missionary post further west but only got as far as Sault Ste. Marie. In 1658, two French explorers, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers, became the first whites to circumnavigate Lake Superior by sailing south along the North Shore. When they returned, they brought a flotilla of Native Americans with fur pelts, beginning interest in the fur trade in the Lake Superior region.
Conflicts between native tribes began to escalate towards war during this period when an alliance of Anishinaabe tribes was formed and defeated the Ojibwa in a battle west of Sault Sainte Marie in 1662. This warfare between the tribes along Lake Superior prevented European trade in the area for several years. In 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company was founded, which began the fur trade nonetheless. In the late 1670s, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, helped negotiate a more permanent peace between these tribes, thus providing safe trade across Lake Superior for the French. With this, the foundations for European settlement on the North Shore were laid. Fort Kaministiquia, around modern Thunder Bay was established in 1683. In 1688 Jacques de Noyon became the first European to visit the Boundary Waters region west of Lake Superior. A war between Britain and France, followed by a sharp drop in fur prices, slowed exploration for several decades. In 1732, the French-Canadian La Vérendrye built Fort St. Pierre on Rainy Lake near the head of the Rainy River in order to gain access to the west.
In 1763, according to the terms of the Treaty of Paris, the British took possession of all French holdings east of the Mississippi River, including the North Shore. In 1784, the North West Company, the newly organized rival to the Hudson's Bay Company, started moving traders into its new fort at Grand Portage. With new headquarters on the North Shore, the North West Company began to build 40 new forts and ports all along the North Shore and northern Minnesota. In 1821 the North West Company was forced to merge with the Hudson's Bay Company.
With the eventual depletion of fur-bearing animals, the fur trade and associated settlement diminished.
American settlement began in earnest in 1869. When the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad was built, people could move across the country in days instead of months. In 1869, Duluth grew from 14 families in January to a population of 3,500 in July. Construction on the Duluth Harbor was started to allow steamboat shipping between Duluth and Buffalo, Detroit, and Chicago. The town of Beaver Bay was founded in 1869 as a fishing community, and Grand Marais was founded by Henry Mayhew and Sam Howenstine in 1871. Another panic in 1873 put an end to this growth, and Duluth shrunk to a population of 1,300.
In the 1880s, growth began again in Minnesota, and significant growth began for the first time in Canada. The Canadian Pacific Railway was opened in 1881 and brought a wave of settlers from the west. In Minnesota, Two Harbors was founded and became a major iron ore port and a source of labor for the inland iron mines on the North Shore. Besides mining, fishing became the other major industry of north shore communities. In 1885, 195 commercial fishermen lived in Duluth. Duluth fish catches increased to a peak of 10,000 tons of fish caught in 1915. It has since declined. Current annual fish catches have fallen to under 1,000 tons per year.
This growth attracted the interest of Henry H. Porter, a Chicago railroad owner, who bought 25,000 acres (100 km²) of land further up the North Shore than Tower’s holdings around Two Harbors and Tower, a mining settlement named after its founder. Porter coerced Tower into selling the Minnesota Iron Company for 8.5 million dollars. He built Chandler Mine, Pioneer Mine, Zenith Mine, Savoy Mine, and Sibley Mine between 1889 and 1899. In 1896, the iron traveling through Two Harbors exceeded 2,000,000 tons. Two Harbors steadily built more docks and replaced the wooden docks with concrete over the course of the next several decades.
Iron production continued steadily for many more decades, but in the 1950s, traditional iron mines had exhausted most of their resources. However, it had been known for many years that northern Minnesota had an ore called taconite, which could be refined into iron through a process called beneficiation. A taconite processing plant was built further north along the North Shore at Silver Bay, and it quickly became the major taconite shipping port. Minnesota taconite produces over half of the iron mined in Minnesota at the present date.
During the early 20th century, the government decided that continued exploitation of the North Shore would destroy it. In 1909, Teddy Roosevelt organized the Superior National Forest, putting over 3 million acres (12,000 km²) of the forests between the North Shore and the Canadian border under protection. The government of Minnesota slowly began to acquire the lands which became the modern North Shore state parks. The first park to be formally organized was Jay Cooke State Park, in 1915. In the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corps established several camps organized along the North Shore and built rustic structures in what would become several North Shore state parks. The North Shore still has the old resorts which were built for the rich, but they have since changed hands to less elitist management.
The North Shore lies on the north side of the Midcontinent Rift System which ran 1,300 miles (2,000 km) northwest from Michigan, through what is now Lake Superior, and southwest again into Kansas. As the granitic crust was torn apart by continental drift, lava flowed out from 30-60 miles (50-100 km) under the crust and formed a basalt crust instead. Tectonic forces were not strong enough to continue to separate the two sides of the continental rift; when the rifting stopped, the lava cooled and the heavy crust sank and was filled with sediment.
During recent glaciations, a large amount of the basalt and sandstone, which erode much more easily than granite, was removed by the glaciers. This formed the rough, rugged shoreline on the North Shore today. As the glaciers retreated, they left behind eroded igneous material, much of which covers the rocky beaches on the North Shore. The Wisconsin side of the basin and the bottom of the basin, however, filled with the residue from the eroded sandstone and thus are sandy beaches today.
The melting water from the retreat of the glaciers ran into the basin and began to fill and form the Great Lakes. The shoreline at its maximum reached over 500 feet (150 m) above its current height, and at its minimum fell to 250 feet (75 m) below its current level. When the levels of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron fell 2,000 years ago, it created rapids at Sault Sainte Marie, which restricted the release of water from Lake Superior and brought the shoreline to its present level.
The modern shoreline is composed of basalt lava flows. In the south, near Duluth, other materials, such as slate, greywacke, and sandstone, are found a short distance inland; however in the north, the entire bedrock made of basalt and gabbro is exposed in patches miles from shore. When the bedrock hits the surface of the lake at a shallow enough angle, the beach is covered with washed up rocks. When it hits the lake at a steep angle, it breaks off and makes sharp cliffs ending at the lake.
To people who camp in the state parks along Minnesota's North Shore, the term North Shore refers to both the shore of the lake and all the rivers which run into the lake. Thus there are numerous "North Shore state parks," most of which are not actually on the lakeshore, and several of which are not even particularly close to it.
The majority of Ontario Provincial Parks are undeveloped nature reserves with no formal campgrounds or visitor centers.