History & Issues
1939 Aerial View of the harbor
How it began…
Grand Marais Harbor was declared a federal Harbor of Refuge by an Act of Congress in 1880. Federal appropriations followed to construct a “Safe Harbor” in Grand Marais. The “…project at Grand Marais consists of a Federal navigation channel located between parallel jetties and a 5,770-foot long timber pile dike.” (per letter signed by Jimmy Bates, P.E. Deputy Director of Civil Works – U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dated Dec. 1993 addressed to Wallace Parish of Grand Marais) The purpose of the breakwall was to stop sand, coming in on northeast winds, from filling up the bay.
This three-part system was expanded and maintained by the USACE up until World War II. Maintenance on the breakwall was never resumed. The last maintenance work done on the breakwall was in 1943.
Due to inaction on the part of the federal government and the USACE, the breakwall fell into total disrepair and finally disappeared entirely. Without it, estimates are that at least 100,000 cubic yards of sand are coming into West Bay each year. According to Professor Guy Meadows, University of Michigan marine engineer, that is “approximately 6,000 semi truckloads per year.”
Already lost to this travesty are East Bay, Seagull (Lost) Island and Lonesome Point.
What has happened to this “Harbor of Refuge” was totally predictable, and totally preventable. The price this community has paid is astronomical: property, homes and finally the ultimate price:the loss of lives.
The issues facing Grand Marais are stark and real. The destruction of this Harbor needs to be stopped. The breakwall MUST be rebuilt and the reasons are quite simple.
First, and most important, is to prevent any more loss of lives. The boating accident on Oct. 6, 2006 that claimed three lives can never be allowed to be repeated. It is obvious that a sand filled harbor and marina were directly responsible for the fact that large rescue boats were not able to launch at all. A small park service boat launched after emergency measures were taken to clear some of the sand out of the marina. High waves forced the park service boat to return. It was definitely not safe for a small vessel to attempt such a daring rescue.
Secondly, losing a safe harbor for boaters along this stretch of Lake Superior coast will undoubtedly prove fatal. This is the only safe harbor along a 90 mile stretch, on a lake notorious for sudden and violent storms. Many recreational boats seek shelter in Grand Marais each year. Sometimes Grand Marais is not always so safe though. The wave action that now enters the Harbor freely, because of no breakwall to stop it, can pound a boat moored in the Bay or tied up at the marina. Commercial and research vessels also seek refuge at Grand Marais. (See Photo Gallery)
Third, the economy of this small community depends entirely on tourism. This harbor draws visitors from all over the country. Boating, fishing, swimming, nature loving, bird watching (to name a few) all depend on a viable Bay and Harbor. Loss of this Bay and Harbor would devastate the economy of Grand Marais.
Finally, the loss of wildlife habitat has already been enormous. The island, that no longer exists, was home to seagulls, sand pipers and many other species of birds. Being an island also limited predator access to the birds that nested there. The loss of East Bay took away the ideal habitat for the Coaster Brook Trout. The increasing sediment infiltrating into the harbor has decreased the water depth to the point that fish no longer inhabit the waters as they used to. Construction of the Breakwall would also provide critical habitat for the piping plover, an endangered species.