July, 2018 – Houghton, Michigan

While we have not spent nearly as much time in Wisconsin as I would like, it will have to wait.  For the next month and a half we are going to explore the upper peninsula of Michigan which we did not get to last summer.  The highlight of the summer will be meeting the family at Mackinaw Island in August, but the adventure began in the extreme western end of the UP on the Keweenah Peninsula.  Years ago, I had been through Houghton and Copper Harbor on the peninsula on my way to and from an extended hiking trip on Isle Royale.  At that time we spent no time on the peninsula itself, so I was looking forward to the extended experience.  Our base of operation was going to be the City of Houghton RV Park which was the only RV park I could find on the entire peninsula that could accommodate large RVs.  A month ago I felt very lucky to get a reservation for the week of July 4 in this very small RV park of only 25 sites.  We were also looking forward to being able to view the Independence Day fireworks from our RV since the park overlooks the canal the cuts through the peninsula.  On this we were disappointed as the cities of Houghton and Hancock, which is just across the canal, had their displays the over Fathers Day weekend as part of their bridge celebrations.  It was probably a spectacular show, but we would have to find somewhere else to celebrate Independence Day.  The drive north through the Northwoods was very nice, even if the highways were all two lane as we wound between the many lakes in the region.  As we got close to Houghton we found a parking lot to pull into and called the campground for directions.   We had been warned that our GPS would not guide us the correct way and they were correct since our GPS would have tried to bring us in the back way which would have meant traveling miles to circle around.  Their directions were clear and we found the RV park with no problem.  As I said before, this is a very small park and had the initial feel of a parking lot.  However, each site came with a picnic table and wooden bench set under a wooden canopy overlooking the canal.  We both fell in love with the location especially after dark with the lights of Hancock just across the canal.  We were both very happy with the location and hated to leave.  For supper that first night in Houghton we decided to try out the local brewery in town, the Keweenah Brewing Company, that along with the next door Pizza Works, is the first stop of returning Michigan Tech graduates, at least according to the manager of the RV Park.  They had some very good beer, great atmosphere, especially since they delivered the pizza right to the bar.

Our main goal for the week, besides Independence Day, was the Keweenah National Historical Park that has a Visitor Center in the middle of Calumet, Michigan about 20 miles further north.  This is a very unusual National Park as it covers the entire Keweenah Peninsula through over 20 National Heritage Sites scattered all through the peninsula.  The NPS owns about 1500 acres around two units at Calumet and the Quincy Mines outside of Hancock.  The rest of the sites are a coordination between the NPS and private, local, and state owned properties.  Obviously, we did not have enough time to visit all of them, so we had to be selective.  A good place to start was at the Visitor Center in Calumet.  There we learned a lot about the copper mining industry on the peninsula where the first boom and bust mining bonanza in the US began in 1844.  A few years earlier the state geologist, Douglas Houghton, had published a survey of the upper peninsula noting the rich copper deposits on the Keweenah Peninsula.  Beginning along the shores of Lake Superior and eventually moving inland to the rich vein running down the center of the peninsula, the next forty years was the first mining boom financed by mostly Boston investors.  While nearly all of these mines failed to turn profits and quickly came and went there were a few highly successful mines.  The first was the Cliff Mine at Eagle Harbor on the west coast of the peninsula and later the Calumet and Hecla Mine and Quincy Mine, located at Calumet and Hancock, respectively.  While the initial shaft would continue to descend, horizontal drifts along the copper seam would eventually lead to additional vertical shafts to access them.  Thus new towns would continue to spring along with the new shafts and you get a string of small towns interspersed with wild terrain down the center of the peninsula.  With the closing of the mines following World War II, most of these small towns are just memories today, but it is still strange to travel through one small town center after another along US 41.  It was also interesting that most of the miners were new immigrants and each wave of immigrants were mostly from different European countries.  By 1900, over 40 languages were spoken in the different small ethnic communities, each with their own town center, schools, and churches.  The number of churches in this small area was staggering, but each ethnic group wanted their own place of worship.  The mining companies would provide cheap housing, free medical services, schools, and materials for churches, etc but this was often in lieu of wages since there was an endless supply of new immigrants.  We learned a lot about the history of copper mining and how it changed from 1840 to 1920 becoming more mechanized and requiring fewer miners.  The Cooper Country Strike of 1912-1913 began the decline of mining in the area as many mines were closed and workers sought better jobs in the automobile industry or western mines.  We also learned a lot about the immigrant communities and the life of a miner and his family.  We especially enjoyed talking with the Park Ranger who pulled out a community map of the Calumet area with all the small ethnic enclaves at the turn of the century.  Very fascinating.  After spending a couple of hours in the museum and eating lunch in the city park, we walked around the downtown area of Calumet which they are still trying to preserve and restore.  There are a number of very large churches in the town and even a fancy theater from the turn of the century.  It is still a very depressed area and needs a lot more tourist activity to revive the center of town.  The NPS is doing all they can to assist in this preservation of an important chapter in our history.

Once we got back to the RV Park we only had a couple of hours before meeting up with Dave Reed and his wife, Beth, who we had not seen since graduate school over 30 years ago.  They grilled some burgers and we had a great time spending the evening catching up on all the years since graduate school.  Dave is still the VP for Research at Michigan Tech in Houghton and has had a lot of experience with research projects in Scandinavia and Russia over the years.  While our college experiences have been very different we found we could still relate through our teaching, research, and administrative experiences.  Kal and Beth had a great time comparing our three kids with their three daughters.  Beth was also a graduate student in Forest Biometrics at Virginia Tech along with Dave and I.  She is still teaching Mathematics and Statistics at Michigan Tech and had a lot of interesting stories to tell.  Thankfully, the next day was Independence Day as we were there until nearly midnight and were reluctant to leave.  It was great to be able to catch up after all of the these years and wished our paths had crossed before now.

Wednesday was July the 4th, so we decided to check out some of the local celebrations instead of any of the historic sites on the peninsula.  There were a couple of Independence Day parades scheduled in small towns not so far away and instead of attending the “Gay Parade” in Gay, Michigan to the north, we headed south to the small town of South Range for their parade.  It was not only closer, but we wanted to enjoy the festivities of a small town celebration instead of the touristy experience of a well attended Gay Parade.  We certainly found what we were looking for in South Range.  At 2:00 the parade headed down Main Street, which is only a couple of blocks, with the storm warning sirens blaring out of the firehouse we were standing in front of to announce the start of the parade.  It would have been a good idea not to be so close to these sirens!!  However, the high school band also stopped at our location to play the National Anthem, so our choice of locations also had its advantages.  Next came all the young kids on bicycles which was a lot of fun to watch.  There were a number of floats from local organizations, including a float from the NPS which was a big styrofoam black rock with two miners.  Kind of strange!!  Mostly the parade was firetrucks from all the communities in the area and a lot of antique cars.  Unlike the Mardis Gras parades where they threw plastic beads and moon pies, this parade featured candy.  All the kids watching had plastic bags to collect as much candy as they could and we were glad to help those near us to get a good collection of candy.  It was certainly a lot of fun.

We returned to the RV Park for the afternoon, but came back to South Range for their fireworks display.  We got there a good hour before the show and found a good parking place right on the side of highway through town.  We were right across the street from their Veterans Park where the show was to be staged.  As it got dark we got to watch all of the individual displays going in different locations within South Range.  It turned out we had prime seats for the show as it was obvious once it began that the launch site was just across the road.  In fact, a lot of the fireworks were directly overhead!!  Except for the fact that they seemed to really like the BIG bangs that shook us and the truck, it was pretty neat.  Especially the ending display which was directly overhead and made you feel like you were inside the show!!  I am just glad all of the fireworks went off as intended and stayed far up in the air!  Except for it being another late night, it was a great show.  It should be noted that this far north means it does not get dark until nearly 10:30, especially since the Boston investors insisted the area be Eastern Time Zone dragging the boundary far to the west to include the peninsula.  Finally, I should note that on the peninsula there is only the main highway through town.  Side streets run only a couple of blocks, so the only way in and out of town is the main highway.  The traffic jam after the fireworks display was probably a once a year occurrence!

Thursday it was back to exploring the peninsula.  We knew there was no way to see all of the historical sites on the peninsula, so we decided to head north to Copper Harbor to the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.  However, on the way we would check out a couple of other sites first.  Instead of staying on US 41 to Copper Harbor, we headed west on 9 mile road which cuts over to Lake Superior to Eagle Harbor.  While most of the road stays within the woods, there are a couple of nice pull-outs where you can see the lake as you approach Eagle Harbor.  It was certainly windy and cool on Thursday which was a great break from the 80 degree weather of the previous couple of weeks.  Eagle Harbor is a natural harbor near the site of Cliff Mine, which was the first successful mine on the peninsula.  Unlike the deep mines inland, this mine was not much more than a surface mine into the hillside following a copper fissure.  The small town grew up in support of this mine and a lighthouse was built to guide ships into the harbor.  The original lighthouse was built in 1851 but was replaced with the current lighthouse in 1871.  Along with the lighthouse which was also the home of the lighthouse manager, there are exhibits about the Life-Saving Service and a couple of famous shipwrecks in the area.  The most famous of these was the wreck of the City of Bangor in 1926.  The City of Bangor was going from Detroit to Duluth with a load of brand new Chryslers.  While those on deck were lost, those in the hold were eventually salvaged.  When the water froze solid enough they built a ramp to drive the cars off the wreck.  Of course, this meant they had to snow plow the road south to Houghton for the very first time!

From Eagle Harbor we headed across the peninsula on the Brockway Mountain Road, which wound our way up to the peak of Brockway Mountain.  The “peak” is a rock outcropping that gives some GREAT views of Lake Superior and the surrounding forests.  Of course, this assumes you can stand against the stiff wind that was trying to blow you off the peak.  On the way down we crossed a number of mountain bike trials.  It turns out this is a favorite and well known location for mountain biking with a large selection of trails to choose from.

From there we descended into the town of Copper Harbor, the natural harbor that was the beginning of the copper rush in the 1840s.  In 1844, the federal government constructed Fort Wilkins for two companies of soldiers to protect the miners and financial interests of the Boston investors from any problems from the local Ojibwa tribes.  It turned out to be unnecessary as there was never any problem with the Indians.  The fort was manned for only two years before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War when they were pulled out.  The fort remained abandoned until after the Civil War when it was used as one of the locations for Union soldiers to complete their terms of enlistment.  After three years it was again abandoned.  Surprisingly, many of the structures survived until it became a state park in 1923.  Beginning with the WPA in the 1930s they have worked to restore and rebuild most of the structures of the original fort.  Within most of the buildings there are nice exhibits about life and living conditions during both periods of use and the volunteers in period dress were a lot of fun to talk with.  While not the most interesting fort we have seen, it is still well worth the visit to learn about life on the frontier of the northwoods.

On Friday we had a day that was the highlight of the week, at least for me.  We traveled to the top of the hill above Hancock to the Shaft #2 of the Quincy Mine.  This was the main shaft of one of the most successful copper mines on the Keweenah and extended down nearly two miles in depth with side drifts extending outward about every 10 feet.  The biggest problem with these mines was water that seeped in everywhere, so much that they maintained a sump at the bottom of each shaft and used Sunday every week to haul out water from the sump.  To help with this problem a drift on level 7 was extended to an exit on the side of the hill with a slight downward slope to drain the water out.  By now every level below level 7 is filled with water.  More recently they have increased the size of this side drift to accommodate an electric tram and to serve as an outside classroom for mining classes at Michigan Tech, sort of like our Forestry Summer Camp.  Along the passage they have opened up classrooms and demonstration areas.  They also use this side shaft to provide mine tours.  The tour starts in the last of four ever larger hoist houses that use steam engines and cables to raise and lower the buckets and mancars.  Built in 1908 this hoist house is the home of the largest Nordberg Steam-powered hoist, which is a massive rotating drum turned either direction by massive steam driven pistons.  The building itself was also a show piece to impress potential investors with Italian tile on the floor and marble on the exterior.  It certainly looked out of place at a mine site.  The tour then continues into the mine which begins with a ride down the hillside on a cog-rail tramcar which was built for this purpose.  Miners would not have entered this way as they would ride mancars straight down into the shaft.  From the tramcar you get on an electric tram that they drive into the mine shaft which is a constant 45 degrees.  They do provide coats and hard hats for everyone as it is quite cold in the mine.  Although it was 45 degrees at level 7, the temperatures would rise as you descended and was likely over 100 degrees at the bottom of the shaft.  After a 15 minute ride into the mine you exit and continue on foot.  They have demonstrations set up of the one man power drill that was used to drill the holes for explosives, a mine car full of ore on a short track, and some views further into the mine.  Even though these demonstrations were interesting, they would have been used at the much deeper levels.  The upper levels are much older and the miners would not have power tools.  Two men with sledge hammers and a third holding an iron spike would have drilled the holes by candlelight.  Ore would be carted to the main shaft using wheelbarrows.  Mining technology changed a lot over the 40 years this mine was in operation.  Once you return to the surface you can take a look at a typical miners house with exhibits inside and the ground portion of Shaft House #2.  Of course the actual shaft has been sealed, but inside the shaft house you can see the buckets and mancars used to transport ore and men, respectively.  The entire tour took the better part of two hours, but it was well worth the time and expense.

After a full week of activities we took Saturday off and watched some of the World Cup.  After the soccer games on Sunday, we decided to get in the truck and drive south to Baraga to check out one of two Ojibwa Casinos.  While it is a much smaller casino then most we have visited, it had all the slot machines we needed to have a fun afternoon.  Of course, coming out with most of our stake didn’t hurt.  Anytime we spend less than $20 we figure we broke even for the day.

 

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