Port Superior is the seat of Douglas County, Wisconsin. Port Superior is located at the far southwestern end of Lake Superior, and it is part of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway waterway system. Port Superior is about 2.5 nautical miles (4.3 kilometers or 2.7 miles) south-southeast of the Port of Duluth and is considered part of that port. With Duluth, the "Twin Ports" share a harbor and a nautical history. The St. Louis River separates Port Superior from Duluth, Minnesota. Port Superior was the Edmund Fitzgerald's last port of call before she sank in 1975. The 2010 US Census reported a population of over 27.2 thousand in Port Superior.
Transportation is a major part of the Port Superior economy. The Duluth-Superior port is the Great Lakes' largest port, serving both domestic and foreign vessels. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF) has an operations hub in Port Superior, enhancing the port's intermodal connections. There is a large Calumet Specialty Products Partners refinery in Port Superior that is located on a pipeline that connects the US Midwest and Western Canada. Port Superior is also home to several manufacturers that produce plastic films, vinyl doors and windows, synthetic motor oil and lubricants, shears and grapples, and electronics used by recording studios.
Long before Europeans arrived at the future Port Superior, the area was inhabited by Mound Builders who came here after the last glacier receded. These people mined copper that they formed into weapons, ornaments, and tools that they then buried with their dead in mounds. Eventually, these prehistoric peoples were driven away by the Iroquois and Muskhogean people and disappeared as a culture. When Europeans began to arrive in the Port Superior area, the indigenous peoples were transitioning from the Dakota to the Ojibwe cultures.
The Ojibwe considered Spirit Island in the middle of the St. Louis River about nine kilometers (5.5 miles) west of today's Port Superior as their "Sixth Stopping Place" and the meeting place of their northern and southern tribes as the people migrated west. The Ojibwe called what would become Port Superior Gete-oodena, or Old Town, and it was the center for the Lake Superior Ojibwe population before they moved to their "Seventh Stopping Place" on Madeline Island some 110 kilometers (68 miles) to the east.
At the end of the 18th Century, the Ojibwe controlled much of the future States of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They were members of the Council of Three Fires alliance with the Ottawa and Potawatomi Nations. They were that knew the canoe routes and a land route to the North American west coast. Their early contact with Europeans was with French traders, from whom the people got guns that helped them control their enemies, the Fox and the Lakota.
In 1618, one of Samuel de Champlain's deputies, Etienne Brule, met the Ojibwe on the south shores of Lake Superior. He brought copper and tales of the abundance of the region when he returned to Quebec. Soon after his trip, European fur traders established settlements and missionaries brought European culture to the future Port Superior area. For over 100 years, fur trading companies maintained trading posts in the area.
During the French and Indian War, the Ojibwe allied with the French. After the British victory in that conflict, they sided with the British against the Americans in the War of 1812, hoping to stop the waves of settlers invading their homelands. After the war, the United States began their attempts to move the Ojibwe west of the Mississippi River, but they faced many conflicts to accomplish this. One of these, the Sandy Lake Tragedy, took place about 42 kilometers (26 miles) southwest of Port Superior when US soldiers killed hundreds of Ojibwe. The event changed popular opinion about the removal of the Ojibwe, and many were allowed to live in reservations in their homelands. However, over the years, encroachment and violations of treaty rights eroded the livelihood of the people.
In 1837 and 1842, the Ojibwe signed treaties that reserved their rights to fish and hunt on traditional lands that had been ceded to the US. However, the State of Wisconsin prosecuted Ojibwe who practiced these rights off reservation lands. In 1983, the Chicago-based federal court affirmed their treat rights. Although they had won in court, Ojibwe hunters and fishers were harassed and assaulted, and the State fought the court decision. The Ojibwe refused to relinquish their treaty rights when offered huge sums of money. By the 1990s, much of the violence had subsided. The Ojibwe began to stock walleye in some lakes, putting more fish into the waters than they take out.
Today, the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a band of the Ojibwe, lives on the Red Cliff Indian Reservation in nearby Bayfield County near Madeline Island, the spiritual center of the Ojibwe Nation. They run a fish hatchery and the Legendary Waters Resort and Casino on the banks of Lake Superior about an hour east of Port Superior.
As Europeans populated the future Port Superior area, the Bois Brule-St. Croix River Portage Trail was an important water highway and an important route for the fur trade. Focused on the potential shipping and iron ore industries, businesses from St. Paul and Chicago began plotting a city on the site of Port Superior. In 1853, the first log cabin was built on the banks of the Nemadji River that moves through the hearty of today's industrial and urban Port Superior.
In 1854, Port Superior was incorporated as a city and became the seat of the new Douglas County. For a time, anticipation of a railway fueled fast growth in Port Superior; however, the Panic of 1857 slowed investment, and the population boom collapsed. After 25 years, the Northern Pacific Railway finally arrived in Port Superior. In 1883, General John H. Hammond established the Land and River Improvement Company to develop West Superior. Many coal, lumber, and grain industries soon followed.
The late 1880s and early 1890s were a boom period for Port Superior. New and impressive architect-designed areas grew up in Port Superior, and population grew accordingly. Some 34 thousand people lived in Port Superior in 1892. From 1890 until 1920, many new residents moved to Port Superior from the East Coast and from countries across Europe.