Photo by Gary Dunsmoor

by Brian Finstad

Most people know of the Brule–St. Croix portage as the ancient travel and communication link between the Lake Superior and Mississippi watersheds; however, it’s not exactly as clear cut as one might imagine. Anyone who has canoed the Brule knows how difficult it is, much less how difficult it would be to canoe upstream. Also, the St. Croix below the Gordon Dam, outside of spring melt water or really good rains, can become so shallow and rocky that it is almost impassable. The Brule–St. Croix portage was an important route, but more likely one that was used under ideal circumstances. Another ancient conduit of travel that is well documented in many scattered primary sources, but less known and that has yet to be comprehensively written about: The Northwest Sands.


There was a Native American footpath that was a land route alternative to the Brule–St. Croix portage. A hand-sketched map that a voyageur made for Henry Schoolcraft labeled this route as the “Map of the Grand Foot Path.” What we now call the Northwest Sands, being on a trajectory between the difficult to travel reaches of the upper St. Croix and Chequamegon Bay, was more than just an ecological landscape—it was an historic travel route. It makes complete sense—being high, dry, and relatively open land. Joseph Nicollet recorded that the footpath was two days shorter than taking the Brule–St. Croix portage.

There were essentially three segments of the original Native American foot path that are documented. Going northward, the first began at the portage of the “Big Fish Trap Rapids” of the St. Croix and went to Chief Kabamabe’s village, which was located on what is now the island just upstream from the Gordon Dam. The second leg continued to follow the high land from Kabamabe’s village to a landing that Joseph Nicollet’s sketch map labeled as “Kabamabe’s Place l’ou Debarque.” That landing, which most know now as the “Heffelfinger Estate” (owned by grandson Phil Wilkie) was the place to disembark on the 80–mile journey across the sand barrens to Chequamegon Bay. That landing, being the point of contact with the St. Croix from Chequamegon Bay via the footpath, was also an important meeting place and campground for Native people and voyageurs (written about several times in missionary Edmund Ely’s journals).

Detail showing “Road to New Gordon”

This map also shows the Location of the Namekagon Bridge, where Edward Gordon was postmaster in the 1860’s. It is difficult to imagine them carrying their provisions on foot over 80 miles of barrens, yet there are a number of sources that document they did just that.

Another interesting event in history occurred when Benjamin Arnold lead a delegation of nine Ojibwe chiefs to Washington to meet with President Lincoln. During that trip they traveled across the barrens following this footpath on their way to St. Paul where they then went down the Mississippi and up the Ohio to head eastward.

The old wagon trail on the South Unit of Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area is still visible.


In 1854, Senator Henry Rice developed Bayfield. As part of promoting this new development, he developed a further improved mail and stage coach route between St. Paul and Bayfield. At that time, the route approximated the earlier Grand Footpath, but as water travel was no longer necessary, took a more direct route across the Northwest Sands. Every 20 miles along this route, there were stage stations. Gordon developed as part of this station network and Gordon’s main street is named “Moccasin Avenue” as it is one segment that is both the original footpath as well as part of the stage line.

Stagecoach Trail in South Unit by Brian Finstad
Stagecoach Trail in North Unit by Brian Finstad

If you know where to look, there are places where the stage coach route is still visible, the wagon ruts being still imprinted into the land. The stage stations through the Northwest Sands were at the crossing of the Wood River (near Grantsburg), Yellow Lake, the crossing of the Namekagon (between the North and South Units of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area), Gordon, Island Lake in Barnes, and then one more somewhere between Island Lake and Bayfield. There is a fantastic account written as a short story in Harper’s Magazine which is an absolute must read for anyone interested in the Northwest Sands. It is titled Overland from St. Paul to Lake Superior. The account even chronicles encountering a fire upon the land somewhere in the vicinity of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area.

Read “Overland from St. Paul to Lake Superior,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. See: Harper’s Magazine (FNBWA thanks Harper’s Magazine for a copy of the article)