Cass Lake Area History

The Cass Lake Chain of Lakes was part of the Red Lake-Leech Lake Trail, a series of interconnected waterways used as a water “highway” by Native Americans, trappers and traders. The trail ran from the southern point of Leech Lake to Cass Lake, on to Red Lake and finally to the Red River of the North.

Originally, the lake for which the City of Cass Lake is named was called Red Cedar Lake, after the trees growing on Cedar Island. The name was changed to Cass Lake in honor of the Governor of the Territory of Michigan, who traveled to this area in 1818 and named the lake as the source of the Mississippi River. It was not until 1832 that a party led by Henry Schoolcraft and his native Ojibwe guide, Ozawindib, discovered the true source, Lake Itasca.

Missionaries, as well as trappers and traders, played a great role in the early history of Cass Lake. Probably the first missionaries to work among the native Tribes of Minnesota were the Jesuits, though no individual names have been preserved. Congregational missionaries also took an early interest in this area. By 1885, a log chapel had been constructed on the east shore of Cass Lake, near the Lake Andrusia Bridge. This was originally called the Galilee Mission, and is now known as the Prince of Peace Mission.

The largest rail center in Northern Minnesota

Great Northern rail yards. This is the rail yards for the Great Northern Railway in Cass Lake, which served for many years as the largest switching yards in northern Minnesota. The photograph was taken in the 1920's.
The largest rail center. Cass Lake was once the largest rail center in northern Minnesota for the Great Northern Railway. Seen here are the switching yards in the 1930's. Photo courtesy Claude Ellis Jr.

Early beginnings. Very early in Cass Lake's history there were several sets of tracks for the Great Northern Running in front of Front Street, or 1st Street, in Cass Lake.
The City of Cass Lake
The City of Cass Lake has a rich and interesting history. Of course, native people had been living in the area for centuries before white settlers arrived. When non-native settlers first arrived is not known, but they were believed to have been fur traders and missionaries. The first trading post is believed to have been established prior to 1760, by a Canadian businessman. A fort was built at the same site and was garrisoned by French soldiers, but the fort was abandoned shortly after 1763. Early records indicate that the Hudson Bay Company then took over the post, and in 1821 it was sold to the American Fur Company, owned by John Jacob Astor.

In 1898, the Great Northern Railway was built through the northern section of Minnesota. Through a series of changes in the right-of-way of the railroad, Cass Lake became an important and more densely populated settlement. Logging and sawmill operations became the backbone of the Cass Lake economy in the late 1800s.

Be sure to visit Cass Lake’s many historic sites. Whether exploring the history of camps at Lyle’s Logging Camp (HWY 371 and HWY 2) or experiencing the spirit and pageantry of native culture at an area pow-wow, you are sure to uncover something fascinating.

Cass Lake Museum and Lyle's Logging Camp
Experience some of Cass Lake’s past in the historically accurate museum of logging artifacts. Replicas of equipment once used by loggers are on display and each building is furnished just as it was in the early days.

The museum’s six buildings were built virtually single-handed by a retired forester, Lyle Chisholm, who began working summers in logging camps at the age of 11. Lyle himself raised funds, constructed the buildings and collected the original artifacts for this unique and original display of history.

Adjacent to Lyle’s Logging Camp is the Cass Lake Museum, formerly a railroad depot and one of the few remaining original Soo Line buildings in Minnesota. History of the Cass Lake area is displayed throughout this 2400 sq. ft. facility and includes many Native American and 1800’s artifacts.

The Cass Lake Museum and Lyle’s Logging Camp is open May 26 to October 1; 218-335-6723.

Chippewa National Forest
The Chippewa National Forest Headquarters Building located in Cass Lake was built in 1935 of native red pine, logged from Star Island and Lake Thirteen. It is built entirely out of Minnesota Forest products, including a 50-foot high fireplace constructed from 265 tons of split glacial boulders native to the area.

The Chippewa Forest was the first National Forest established east of the Mississippi River in 1908. Its boundary encompasses almost 1.2 million acres, with over 700 lakes, 920 miles of streams and 150,000 acres of wetlands. The largest population of breeding Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states are located here.

Over 280 miles of trails offer you the opportunity to view the forest, including the Mi-gi-zi (eagle) Trail which is a newly paved trail for bicyclists, joggers, and skaters and the adjoining unpaved trail for snowmobiles.

Bird watchers can discover over 243 species of birds. Fishing for Walleye, Muskies, Crappies, Panfish, Bass and Northerns will keep all ages and skill levels busy throughout your stay. Winter means cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowmobiling and ice fishing. Whatever your interests in the outdoors, the Chippewa National Forest has something for everyone.

Lost Forty
The Lost Forty acres consists of virgin red and white pine that has remained untouched by man, due to an error that incorrectly mapped the area as under water. See the Lost Forty and discover what northern Minnesota looked like before loggers came to the area in the late 1800s.

State Parks
Two State Parks are a short drive from the Cass Lake area. Itasca State Park is the oldest and most popular park in Minnesota and is a 45-minute drive from Cass Lake. Itasca State Park is the start of the Mississippi River. Minnesota has more miles of the Mississippi River than any other state, also the only state where the rivers flows north. The park is home to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, 6,000 acres of old growth pine, including the largest white pine and red pine in the state. There are miles of bike and hiking trails and in the winter groomed cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails for your enjoyment.

Lake Bemidji State Park is a 15-minute drive from Cass Lake and is the northern endpoint of the Paul Bunyan Trail, which begins in Brainerd. There is a two-mile bog walk that takes you through a tamarack-black spruce bog showcasing a variety of orchids and many species of birds and wildlife. The park sits on the northern shore of Lake Bemidji.

Books for Sale - About Cass Lake
Publications by the old curator of the Cass Lake Museum, Ed Hill
Cost does not include shipping and handling.
To order please call 218-335-2238 or email at
One Hundred Year's Journey to Cass Lake
From Where to Here...
The Haunts of Star Island by Otis Marsh
Carver's Travels Vol 1
Carver's Travels Vol 2
The Permanent Home of the Pine
Logging History

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