Gold Prospector Turned Legendary Boundary Waters Woodsman

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John Tuma’s Capitol Update – The Summer Version

Lobbyist John Tuma tells the second half of the story of Benny Ambrose, a legendary Boundary Waters woodsman who learned the wilderness was more precious than gold.

“The woodsman spoke of his years of fruitless searching for a legendary ‘lost gold mine,’ finally deciding that he did not need a big mine, ‘just a chimney… just enough to get by on… Independent!’”*

The above account is from Ralph Wright-Peterson’s article in the Minnesota Historical Society quarterly journal regarding the life of legendary Boundary Waters woodsman Benny Ambrose. The above sentence in the article draws from a September 1, 1977, interview with the 80-year-old woodsman in his remote cabin by U.S. forest rangers as part of a Superior National Forest oral history program. What the recount highlights is the transformation of the once determined prospector in search of the “lost gold mine” into one of the most legendary Boundary Waters woodsmen, satisfied to get by with very little for the independence and solitude. Last week I discussed Ambrose’s journey into the region which would later become the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where he became one of its famed last permanent residents. What may be less known about Ambrose is his long history as a renowned prospector of precious metals throughout the region.

The search for precious metals in the northern border country of Minnesota is nothing new. In 1865, the Minnesota Legislature funded a geological survey of the northeastern region. Minnesota’s third governor, Stephen Miller, commissioned Henry Earnes to do a detailed geological survey around Lake Vermilion some 80 miles north of Duluth at the southern gateway of what we now know as the BWCA. The survey did identify large quantities of iron ore accessible to mining, but more interesting to the leading citizens of Minnesota at the time was a particular three-pound chunk of quartzite found by Earnes. The rock was quietly sent to a lab in New York, where it was found to have significant quantities of gold in the hard quartz rock. The analysis was later confirmed by the U.S. Mint.

As a result, 1866 was the year of the infamous Lake Vermilion Gold Rush, as word of Earnes’ rock soon leaked out. Many of Minnesota’s leading citizens helped develop mining companies, enlisting several eager Civil War veterans hungry for a peaceable endeavor after the brutal Civil War battles. It didn’t hurt that several of the veterans had their mustered-out pay to buy stock in the fledgling mining companies. The 1866 Rush fizzled quickly due to the inability of the prospectors to identify easily accessible veins of gold. Nonetheless, rumors of gold in the region continued to persist. There was even a small gold mine that operated for a short time on Little American Island in Rainy Lake starting in 1893 at the far west end of this border region. That mine was not a huge success, but it did lead to the establishment of the community of International Falls.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that Ambrose had visions of quick riches from prospecting for gold as he heard stories of this untamed wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada from his Ojibwe friend in the trenches of France during World War I. Though he learned to survive in the harsh border country by trapping game and guiding wealthy fishermen, his first priority for most of his days in the wilderness was always prospecting for gold and other precious metals.

Most of his first prospecting treks in the 1920s were with Russell Blankenburg, a young mining engineer. Blankenburg’s family ran fishing camps on Gunflint and Seagull Lakes, but his major motivating factor was to find a mother lode and strike it rich. Benny started his fishing trip guiding for the Blankenburgs’ fishing camps, but every spare minute Russell and Benny would be off prospecting in the area. He reported finding deposits of gold, silver, nickel, tin, asbestos and cobalt. The quantities they found were never in such amounts that would be profitable to mine using present technology in this remote area.

The Blankenburgs sold the Gunflint Lodge in 1927 and left the area. Nonetheless, Benny continued to prospect and became renowned for his knowledge of the area’s geology. One of his fishing clients was James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy and later Secretary of the Defense under Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Forrestal brought Benny to Washington, D.C., to provide testimony regarding tin deposits he had discovered in Canada. In the 1960s, Benny actually started to do less trapping and guiding due to spending more time prospecting. He acquired a portable drilling rig which allowed him to contract out to various individuals and mining companies preserving their claims. He would use the portable rig to take core samples to keep the mining claims active to preserve the claimant’s title.

It’s not clear when his heart changed from the wealth seeking prospector to the content North Country woodsman, but the quote above from his 1977 interview at age 80 makes it clear that a transformation did occur. Perhaps it dawned on him, as he lugged that portable rig through the wilderness, that if he were to strike it rich financially he would lose the wealth of the wilderness life he came to personify.

An additional statement made in his 1977 interview may have been more sage wisdom of a prophet crying out in the wilderness than he would have ever anticipated. When speaking of his failed prospects for precious metals that were never in the quantity, location, or purity to make their mining profitable, he stated:

“A seam here, a seam there, a seam over there – that stuff don’t work out now, but a hundred years from now somebody’s going to get rich when the good stuff is all gone.”*

What Benny didn’t realize then is that we’ve had over a hundred years of technological developments in the last 30 years creating a great demand for precious metals. At the same time Benny was losing his interest in prospecting, major mining companies were already setting their sights on exploiting the rich geological formation that runs through Benny’s beautiful border country known as the Duluth complex. Already one major mining project, Polymet, is requesting a permit to mine and several others are proposed in the region using metallic sulfide mining for many of the precious metals Benny had been identifying in the region for decades. The minerals are not readily accessible but locked in sulfide ore requiring extensive processing to extract the precious metals. Unfortunately, when sulfide ore is unearthed and exposed to water and air, the chemical reaction generates a highly toxic sulfuric acid which has caused severe environmental damage to lakes and rivers around other mining operations of their type.

One can only imagine what Benny Ambrose would think of prospecting now with the likelihood of acid mining damaging the pristine lakes, rivers and streams he loved in this wilderness he called home until his passing in September of 1982. So if you’re ever on Ottertrack Lake, stop and pay your respects to one of the last great permanent residents of this canoeing paradise. At his home site, the U.S. Forest Service left a small rock memorial piled up in a cone shape from the native stones that made up his cabin’s foundation. The Canadian Rangers also placed a metal plaque against the rock ledge on the Canadian shore showing an etching of the confident smile of this wilderness legend.

*”Benny Ambrose: Life in the Boundary Waters,” Ralph Wright-Peterson, Minnesota History 54 (Fall 1994): p135. Much thanks to Mr. Wright-Peterson for his well researched historical essay which made up the majority of the information regarding Benny Ambrose’s life in this article.

2 Responses to “Gold Prospector Turned Legendary Boundary Waters Woodsman”

  1. Fred Marks

    Enjoyed your articles on Benny. I have also read Dr. Wright- Peterson’s essay. Since retiring from the army I have guided in the BWCA and Quetico. Can’t tell you how many times I have stopped at Benny’s old homestead and have passed by the plaque on the north cliffs of Ottertrack Lake. I wonder what happened to the Superior Forest oral history interviews. It would be great to read them first hand.