Venture up to far northern Minnesota to discover an untouched world of quiet enchantment.
On clear evenings, the bright stars dazzle, shimmering and dancing overhead when the Northern Lights grace the skies. In the early 1970s, these long-time secrets were on the cusp of exposure as plans were developing to add this land of lakes – soon to be called Voyageurs National Park – to the growing list of nationally protected areas.
However, to Mike Williams, the land wasn’t simply a region to preserve; it was home, and had been to his family for generations.
The Williams family’s claim to fame was owning the Kettle Falls Hotel between Namakan and Rainy lakes, accessible only by boat or seaplane in the warm months and snowmobile when the lakes freeze in winter.
“In 1918, Robert Williams, my grandfather, purchased the five-year-old Kettle Falls for $1,000 and four barrels of whiskey,” Williams said. Those spirits hinted at what he refers to as the “notorious years” long before his time. “[The area] has a fascinating history of bootlegging, lumberjacks and ladies of the night,” explained Williams, whose personal experiences involved at lot less scandal and a lot more fishing, hunting and harrowing travel adventures.
At age 13, Williams boasts having the best teen job: catching fresh fish for the hotel’s diners. His mother’s holler from the kitchen meant it was time for him to run and buy a dollar’s worth of minnows, and then cast his fishing line from his boat at the local dam. “Some guests knew, although most did not, that the walleye they were ordering for dinner had not even been caught yet,” he said.
When Williams was a teenager, the local residents were playing verbal tug-of-war over the idea that one day the area might be handed over to the US National Park Service. Some Minnesotans feared that curious tourists would trample their beloved land, while another group of residents insisted the economy could use the boost. “Others argued that people wouldn’t come anyway since they needed boats to access the proposed park,” Williams recalled.
The plan moved forward with encouragement from many supporters, including aviator Charles Lindbergh. The passionate advocate for environmental preservation grew up in central Minnesota, and as he aged, the importance of protecting nature turned into a calling. "I realized that if I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes,” Lindbergh said.
In 1971, President Nixon signed the bill that established Voyageurs as the 36th National Park in 1975. In 1977, the park service bought the hotel, which the family continued to run. Renovated in 1987, the original lodging’s charisma is still present today, including a tilted bar floor that keeps pool players guessing as they make contact with the cue ball.
Today, the Kettle Falls Hotel is a thriving – but well preserved – mystical escape from city life. While Williams’ management days are over, he said he enjoys staying involved as a park volunteer on a 49-passenger tour boat. Similar to his childhood memories, Williams said, “You never know what’s going to be around the next corner.”
A haunted happening?
For decades, both visitors and members of the Williams family have been convinced that the Kettle Falls Hotel was haunted. Even after it was demolished and rebuilt, people have reported echoes of bar shenanigans and festivities travelling down the halls.
Williams tells of an encounter that occurred while a couple was helping run the hotel over the winter months. When Shannon left around 3am by snowmobile to retrieve supplies, his wife Patty was disturbed by a ruckus from the bar. “She was mad at her husband for opting to go the bar to entertain,” said Williams. “So she went downstairs to the bar to see why Shannon hadn’t left for the supplies yet.” When she arrived, the bar was vacant but the scent of stale liquor and cigarettes lingered in the air.
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