Railroads and Brothels on the Gunflint Trail

     The Gunflint Trail is rich in history.  There are a few people who know quite a bit about the history of the Gunflint Trail and sometimes they share their knowledge. 

     I’m so happy these people take the time to learn about the history of the Gunflint Trail. Dave Battisel is from Canada and knows about the Port Arthur, Duluth and Western Railroad.  He has a blog and a website about it if you’re interested in the history of the area. Northern Wilds paper just did an article about the owner of the brothel on the Gunflint Trail and a friend told me about this awesome audio filled with interesting information.

     There’s lots to learn about the Gunflint Trail and I hope you enjoy this information as much as I do.

old railway bed of PADWRR

Old Railway Bed

Northern Wilds  


The Madam of Cook County

Margaret Matthews, who operated a brothel at the end of the Gunflint Trail more than 100 years ago, was known for her generosity.


The first liquor license issued in Cook County went to a Canadian woman who opened a brothel near the end of the Gunflint Trail. Her name was Margaret Matthews, but people knew her as Mag. She was a powerful woman with a big heart, always looking out for those in need.

Elinor Barr, a historian from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who has researched Mag’s life, calls her "a remarkable woman."

It was not common or easy for women to be business owners in the late 1800s. There weren’t many opportunities for women during this period. Matthews got into one of the few fields open to women at the time. She was a madam and had brothels scattered throughout the Thunder Bay district. For a time, she opened a saloon up the Gunflint Trail near the Paulson Mining camp.

Lee Johnson, an archeologist with the Forest Service, has done extensive research on the old mining camp.

"Mag’s establishment probably served a lot of the men who were working on the rail-line, a lot of the mining speculators that were passing through to go up in the border country, trappers and probably whoever was working at the Paulson Mine in those days," Johnson says.

Matthews was known for generosity.

"She treated her girls very well from what I understand," Barr says. "They were given time off during each month to [relax]."

Matthews also helped folks in need and folks in trouble, Barr said.

"She usually came forward," she said. "She was helpful in many community activities that weren’t supported by the city. There was no welfare then, nothing. If you lost your husband and he happened to be working for a company that had a company house, you also lost your house and then you and your children had to find somewhere else to live. It was a cruel time.

"And Mag could be depended on to try and help. She didn’t have unlimited resources but … she was a mainstay for people in trouble."

No one knows for certain why Matthews took it upon herself to help those in need, but Barr attributes it to her life experiences.

"I think she’d had a hard life and she had crossed bridges herself that she was watching other people cross," Barr said. "She was a very clever lady, and she was well aware that there was no safety net for people."

Matthews’ brothel up the Gunflint Trail folded about the same time as the mining operation, which itself had a brief existence around the year of 1893.

Barr is sure Matthews bounced back and kept moving forward.

"She lost that one, wins another," Barr says. "She was a real entrepreneur. I don’t think she lost any sleep over it."

Madam of Cook County
Elinor Barr, a historian from Thunder Bay who has written extensively about the history of the Port Arthur Duluth and Western Railway, sits by a painting commemorating the old railway. In the late 1800s an extension of the rail-line was built to service a mining camp on the upper Gunflint Trail. It was in this small settlement of miners, prospectors and trappers that Margaret Matthews took out the first liquor license in Cook County for her saloon and brothel.