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LUTSEN, MINN. – Two chimneys were all that was left standing over piles of burned rubble Tuesday morning at the historic Lutsen Lodge on Lake Superior, after fire destroyed the treasured destination for generations of Minnesotans.

Pockets of the wooden structure were still crackling with flames at midday, and firefighters were still on scene. A thick smoky haze filled the air, nearby trees were charred and a plume of water showered down on what remained — the ashy foundation of the historic lodge.

"It's a natural disaster," said Edward Vanegas, general manager for the past five years, who was at the site taking photos. "It's contained to us, but it's a natural disaster."

There were no guests staying at the lodge Monday night into Tuesday, according to the resort's operators, and no one was reported injured in the fire. They posted a statement on Facebook declaring the building "a total loss."

The state fire marshal is investigating. Deputy State Fire Marshal John Ray said he had no other information to share Tuesday, as the ruins were still too hot to start sifting through.

"We are absolutely devastated about this tragedy," owner Bryce Campbell said in a news release. "This place has held so many memories, today we grieve together."

He said he planned to rebuild the lodge.

Cook County emergency dispatch was alerted to the blaze shortly before 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, Sheriff's Office spokesman Todd Ford said. Firefighters from the area joined to bring the blaze under control. The property sits between the Lake Superior shoreline and Hwy. 61, the North Shore's main artery. The sheriff said traffic was not affected.

There was one staff member on duty when he saw smoke in the lobby and called 911, Vanegas said. The general manager arrived at the scene just as the fire extended to the windows and roof. The lodge had a sprinkler system, said Casey Martin, who helps manage the lodge with Vanegas, his husband.

Management attributed the absence of guests at the lodge's 40 rooms to the fact that it was a Monday night in a winter season dragged down by lack of snow.

Vanegas said there were reservations on the books for the rest of the week and that he planned to reach out to each guest personally.

"When you stay here, you become part of the family," he said.

Lutsen Lodge has been in operation for nearly 140 years, billing itself as the state's oldest resort.

"It's devastating to the community," said Dick Nelson, whose great-grandfather built the initial resort in the mid-1880s. "It was a fantastic lodge, solid wood. But you don't build things like that anymore."

Fire destroyed the Lutsen Lodge on the North Shore.
Fire destroyed the Lutsen Lodge on the North Shore.

Provided by Lutsen Lodge

Descendants of the Nelson family ran the resort until 1988, when it was sold to Bill Burns, Nancy Burns and Scott Harrison. Bryce Campbell, with his mother and business partner, Sheila Campbell, bought it in 2018. He also bought Superior Shores Resort in Two Harbors in 2020 for about $15 million.

Harrison, who operated the lodge for more than three decades, declined to comment, noting it was "too tough a day."

A town grew up around the original lodge site, and it expanded in the 1920s. It was destroyed by fire in 1948, rebuilt using a design from St. Paul architect Edwin Hugh Lundie, and destroyed by fire again in 1951. The current lodge was completed in 1952.

About 40 people were on staff, Vanegas said.

Michelle Tessier was married at Lutsen Lodge in 2018.
Michelle Tessier was married at Lutsen Lodge in 2018.

Lindsay Hite Photography, with permission

This is the second major fire in the Lutsen area in less than a year. Last summer, a fire destroyed longtime restaurant and live music venue Papa Charlie's at the separately owned Lutsen Mountains ski resort. Lutsen Resort's historic covered bridges were destroyed during a storm in 2022.

Bryce Campbell ran afoul of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources after repairing one bridge without a permit. Nelson said the bridge work had yet to completed.

Lutsen Lodge, and the North Shore wilderness it sits within, has been the site of important moments in the lives of many Minnesotans and others, from winter recreation, to summer weekend getaways, to milestone events of all kinds. It was also, in its heyday, "a place for locals," said Lutsen Fire Chief Steve Duclos, who once worked as a chef there.

Michelle Tessier, who married Scott Polus at the resort in June 2018, recalled fretting about a rainy forecast that morning, "but the clouds magically parted just in time — maybe 30 minutes before our ceremony was supposed to start," she said.

The Edina couple exchanged vows alongside Lake Superior, followed by cocktails on the patio, dinner in the dining room, dancing in the ballroom and bonfires on the beach late into the night.

"Almost all of our guests stayed on the property with us," Tessier said, "so it felt like a destination wedding in a way."

Keith and Nancy Vonnahme said in an email to the Star Tribune that they honeymooned there in October 1985.

"One particular morning, we were seated for breakfast and were watching a man fishing from shore," the Hastings couple said. "As our server was taking our order, the man reeled in a huge fish. She screamed and immediately ran outside, along with the majority of the staff working, to celebrate the big catch. We had a wonderful time that week and will always cherish the memories."

On Tuesday afternoon, cars pulled into the lodge's driveway off Hwy. 61, but most visitors were diverted by a set of cones laid out by the Minnesota State Patrol. Down the hill, firefighters continued to work and insurance adjusters took photos and circled the debris.

The lodge had recently rebranded one of its restaurants, switching to a fondue concept for the winter. It also operated the Strand, a fine-dining restaurant. Dave Jansen of Grand Marais had just eaten there for his birthday. He went in planning to eat only dessert and ended up with a five-course meal.

Jansen stood on a hill overlooking the former lodge Tuesday. He worked there for about two years earlier in life, and it was a regular stop for his family.

"I think there's a lot of good memories here," he said.

The building plans still exist for the lodge, Vanegas said, and he vowed to rebuild it in the old style.

"It's our obligation to do it again," he said.

Lutsen Lodge is a total loss after a fire early Tuesday morning at the destination on Lake Superior.
Lutsen Lodge is a total loss after a fire early Tuesday morning at the destination on Lake Superior.

Christa Lawler, Star Tribune