The Minnesota Gold Rush of 1865 brought the first settlers to the Lake Vermilion area, though the prospectors packed up and left the next year after the only nuggets they uncovered were fool’s gold. The village of Tower began in 1882 as a shantytown supply center for the Soudan Mine and was named after Charlemagne Tower, one of the men who fronted money to open the mine.
The town was initially founded at the end of the Vermilion Trail, a rugged path three days from Duluth  by horse and wagon; the railroad soon arrived and facilitated not only mining but logging, and by the end of the decade Tower was a thriving city.
Vermilion, Minnesota’s fifth-largest lake and one of the most popular in the state for anglers and boaters, sprawls over 40,557 acres, but because of its many twists and turns there are still some places where it feels intimate. Wildlife remains abundant—at last count some 25 pairs of bald eagle nested around the lake, and one of the 230 resident loons will sing you to sleep at night. Many of the lake’s 365 islands have picnic sites and campgrounds.
If you don’t have your own boat, and don’t want to rent one, you can hop on the mailboat at Aronson Boat Works (6143 Pike Bay Dr., 218/753-4190, 9 a.m. Mon.–Sat. summer, $18 adults), located on Pike Bay two miles west of town, for the 80-mile, 3.5-hour trip. Reservations are recommended.
To see Vermilion—or any of the thousands of other Boundary Waters  area lakes—from a different angle call Van Air (218/753-2331, www.flyvanair.com ) for an aerial tour in their five-seat floatplane. A basic 20-minute flyover costs $45 per person, though longer options are also available. Call to schedule your flight.
From mid-April to mid-May you can visit the Pike River Fish Hatchery (1429 Grant Momahan Blvd., 218/753-5692, 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri., closed Sat.–Sun., free), where millions of walleye are raised before being stocked into Vermilion and other lakes. Morning is the best time to visit. It is located west of town by the Pike River Dam: Head north on County Highway 77, and take the first right past the dam.
Right in town is the Tower Train Museum (404 Pine St., 800/869-3766, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. daily summer, free), a wee collection of historical photos and artifacts housed in a rail coach car. A gift shop and area tourism information can be found in the adjacent depot.
There are dozens of resorts on Lake Vermilion. The busiest is the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe’s Fortune Bay Resort Casino (1430 Bois Forte Rd., 218/753-2611 or 800/555-1714, www.fortunebay.com , $125) on the south shore, which has 169 rooms, 36 RV sites, and a steady stream of people hoping to beat the odds. Among the many amenities are a pool area, fitness center, 18-hole golf course, and marina.
While this resort is the future of the tribe, you can get a look at their past in the Bois Forte Heritage Center (1500 Bois Forte Rd., 218/753-6017, www.boisforte.com , 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tues.–Sat., closed Sun.–Mon., $5). The collection is small but well presented and includes a wigwam, fur-trading post, and historical and cultural artifacts. Outside is a tepee and short nature trail that passes one of the old gold mines.
West of Tower, at the end of Pike Bay, is the much more relaxing Pike Bay Lodge (9422 Hearthside Dr., 218/753-2430 or 800/474-5322, www.pikebaylodge.com , $180/night, $900/week). Once the summer estate of mining tycoon A. B. Coates, the original home, boathouse, and three other buildings have been converted into cozy cottages, and there are also four massive modern cabins that can sleep 10 to 12 people.
To completely immerse yourself in lake life, call Vermilion Houseboats (9482 Angus Rd., 218/753-3548 or 800/262-8706, www.vermilionhouseboats.com ). They offer midweek, weekend, and weeklong packages, and prices vary considerably with what you rent. A 40-foot Explorer, which sleeps five people, is $765 for a weekend, while a week in the luxurious 60-foot Executive sleeps 14 and will set you back $5,500.
If you want to stay in town there is the Marjo Motel (712 Hwy. 169, 218/753-4851, $45). It has changed little since 1956, when it was built by the same family that runs it today, though the price of the large clean rooms has risen from $2.50.
The popular city-run Hoodoo Point Campground (5788 Hoodoo Point Rd., 218/753-6868, www.hoodoopoint.com , $25 campsite, $35 with hookup) has 85 sites. Ones without a lake view are a little cheaper.
Zup’s (315 Main St., 218/753-2725, 7 a.m.–8 p.m. Mon.–Thurs., 7 a.m.–9 p.m. Fri.–Sat., 7 a.m.–6 p.m. Sun.) grocery store has pasties in their deli case.
If you’re not catching and frying up your own crappies, the local watering hole is Good Ol’ Days Bar and Grill (316 Main St., 218/753-6097, 6 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 8 a.m.–10 p.m. Sun.). Decorated with bits of local area history, it serves up contemporary sandwiches and pizza. Fridays are fish-fry days.
For just a cup of coffee or a quick sandwich, there’s Sulu’s Espresso Café (Main St., 218/753-5610, 7 a.m.–7 p.m. Mon.–Sat., 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Sun.).