Irreplaceable and Irrevocable

Harry Drabik

The photo is of the Hovland Dock, which far as we know is last of its kind standing mostly intact. It’s far enough up the shore that the visiting throng who think the word ends beyond Gooseberry would never guess this remnant of days past is waiting to be seen, enjoyed, and learned from. From the 1880’s to a time in the first third of the nineteenth century when the dock you see was built the community of Hovland had a dock as landmark and necessity. Far up the shore as Hovland the combination of difficult roads and unreliable vehicles made water transport of people and goods the practical and cost effective way to serve residents and towns along the North Shore. The end of the package boat era was in progress around the time of the Great Depression, but it wasn’t until the WW II era that land transport essentially replaced shipping by water, in part because trucks could run year round and were not held in port by storms on the big lake.

Most people get the dock idea pretty easily and understand a big, high out of the water dock served taller boats like the 100 foot vessels that often served as package boats. These ranged from purpose built to converted ferries to rehabilitated yachts. Standing off shore at any location along the way the package boat could signal a local fisherman to bring his catch or receive goods or visitors by rowing their skiff to the low side door of the package boat. At locations where there was a dock suited to receive shipping they could offload to that, which was often the best and sometimes only way to drop off especially bulky or heavy cargo. Now, if you were the local school system and ordered a piano for a rural one-room school you would not want that piece of musical equipment left outdoors to get rained on or collect seagull decorations. Docks like the one in Hovland (another partial survivor is in Tofte) had a warehouse on their land end to keep sacks of flour and furniture out of the elements.

Clearly showing its cargo and commercial heritage the Hovland Dock had narrow rain for a small cart to be used to bring goods into the warehouse where a jib crane or overhead pulleys could lift items clear and swing them aside. The tasks of handling goods onshore were as complex and skilled as those of stevedores responsible for loading a ship in trim and planning the removal of cargo in a sequence to keep it so. The word dock is short and simple, but the things people had to know and master to properly utilize a dock were not for the amateur.

I imagine it was true of most if not all the schooner of package boat docks that if not built by a particular commercial enterprise they were the result of concerted community effort done to improve prosperity and add to the quality of life at a time when a functioning dock was as essential as a highway of today. It was local initiative and funding that built these landmarks. It will amaze some that consultants and engineers were not brought in beforehand to study and propose. The case was one of the most competent and experienced locals putting their heads together to plan and execute the job. Again, it might sound simple but think how many loads of sand and gravel had to be brought in before a structure of concrete of that size could even be begun. Small boat after small boat of local beach sand was moved from locations miles down the shore. The concrete and other materials were brought in, but much of the rest, including the essential exterior cribbing, was procured from nearby sources by people who did much of the work by hand or with assistance from horses or small portable engines. An engineer of today might say they did this or that incorrectly, but the dock standing after three quarters of a century facing Lake Superior’s bad moods is testimony that good common sense and doing more than the minimum engineering standard was the best way to have a lasting result. Dock builders were not interested in throw away. They built for things to last. They built for the future. Look at the scale, mass, and quality of a dock such as the one in Hovland and imagine what would be needed to make its duplicate today. I wonder if anyone could. People interested in learning more or getting involved helping to save this remnant of Lake Superior maritime history can contact the Cook County Historical Society in Grand Marais.

I think the Hovland Dock irreplaceable and on another track entirely have come to decide that not all local initiatives are solidly based as the dock was. In the world of small town realities nothing seems to be so permanent and irrevocable as a really good bad idea. Really good bad ideas are a speciality of mine from having committed so many on my own, so I especially like to see others step into the same dog pile I’ve trod so often. For over thirty years this county at the Tip of the Arrowhead has looked at biomass and every time has concluded it is a wonderful concept but rather daunting when you try to sell the notion as practical. I think instead of one big wood cooker with God-knows how much cost and difficulty goosing its heat around the countryside it might be more practical to buy everyone a small wood stove and be done with it. But no one listens to me.