Author: Emily Riippa

Flashback Friday: All Aboard

Green railroad map with red routes on it
Route map of the Keweenaw Central Railroad, 1911. The dotted lines were never built.

At the height of the Copper Country’s success, railroads were omnipresent. Children in Hancock crossed the tracks to get to classes in the morning, while their counterparts at Painesdale High had a school train rather than a bus. Locomotives chugged through downtown Houghton, passing houses, warehouses, and roundhouses. Trains collected industrial products to carry from mine to mill to smelter; they deposited passengers at depots built next to churches and breweries. They pulled through forests, along lakes, and over hills, whistles shrieking over the sounds of mines working at full power and steam rolling high over the branches of pine trees. Onlookers saw a variety of names as the cars and engines passed by: Copper Range Railroad, Mineral Range Railroad, Quincy and Torch Lake Railroad, and many others.

One of these rail lines enjoyed a fascinating two-part existence, if only in name. The Keweenaw Central in its first incarnation was both an industrial enterprise and a leisure line; the second railroad by that name, established half a century later and positioned further south, was intended purely for tourists and pleasure-seekers. Both desired to play up the scenic beauty of the Copper Country and contribute economically, and both experienced only momentary success before fading away.

The first Keweenaw Central began its life in 1906 under the guidance of the Keweenaw Copper Company. Leaders of the parent corporation sought to revitalize abandoned or flagging mines in the northernmost reaches of the peninsula, an area that had been overshadowed by the prosperity of Calumet & Hecla, Quincy, and Copper Range to the south. To that end, the company acquired a number of properties, among them Aetna, Mandan, Medora, Phoenix, and Washington. The Delaware Mine had constructed a stamp mill at Lac La Belle and, in the 1880s, built a narrow-gauge railroad to carry copper-bearing rock from the mines down to be milled. The Keweenaw Copper Company acquired the idled line and quickly worked to expand it to standard gauge. The width of the track was the most modest growth of the railroad, however.

People standing in front of wooden building
Passengers waiting at the Mandan depot, undated.

Naturally, the primary purpose of a mining company railway was to ferry products, and the Keweenaw Copper Company’s line would bring its copper to the mill and to the market. Like its neighbors elsewhere in the Copper Country, however, the executives of the corporation saw another opportunity. Keweenaw County had no passenger railroad, and overland travel for people in the county remained challenging. The industrial Copper Range Railroad in Houghton County, by offering passenger service to the range towns and outlying settlements, had infused life into many of them. Why could not the Keweenaw Copper Company do the same with its own line? The Keweenaw Central Railroad was born from that vision.

Employees of J.J. Byers, contractor, worked frenetically through the summer of 1906, first to complete the original track widening and then to prepare new railbeds. From Delaware, the laborers hewed north to Mandan and south toward Mohawk. They carved out a path on the outskirts of the once-vibrant Central Mine (making possible the town’s annual reunion), through Phoenix at the base of the spectacular cliffs, and past swamps and forests toward Mohawk. A subsequent elongation would carry the Keweenaw Central all the way to Calumet.

Strange train plowing through snow
The Copper Country’s unparalleled beauty also presented unique needs, like a locomotive specially designed to plow the snow.

The line enjoyed breathtaking scenery, a fact that advertisements used to the railroad’s full advantage, attempting to attract pleasure seekers and tourists. “Beautiful Keweenaw!” exclaimed an early brochure. “For many miles its unbroken forests with narrow trails, lakes and streams mark this spot as one of the ideal places where old dame Nature has been allowed to revel in all her primeval glories… the cool and exhilarating climate, and its remoteness from the cares and distractions of the busy and bustling outside world, [make] it a paradise for the weary and the lover of out of door life.” From the hamlet of Ojibway to Phoenix, having left the noise and success of Calumet behind, “the track is bordered on one side by the ‘Cliffs,’ one of the greatest natural wonders of the Northwest. Towering almost beyond the line of vision, the vari-colored rock peers forth here and there from its covering of verdant green… the scenery along the Keweenaw Central Railroad, unlike the usual rail trips, continually changes, and has a most pleasing effect upon the eye.”

Like the Houghton County Traction Company and its Electric Park, the Keweenaw Central capitalized on these scenic surroundings and built a recreation resort. Crestview, situated along a branch from the main line, was “provided with the necessary attractions for an ideal outing. The casino is the handsomest, the most complete and convenient structure of its kind in the copper country.” A dance hall, complete with all the modern conveniences, a magnificent view of Lake Superior, extensive walking paths, swings, a bathing beach, and a house orchestra “to assist the worshipers at the shrine of Terpsichore” called to prospective Crestview guests from its opening in 1909.

People disembarking from train
Crestview guests disembarking from a Keweenaw Central train, undated.

Forces greater than the appeal of Crestview, however, and the allure of nature prevailed in the story of the Keweenaw Central. Despite all the optimism invested in its purchases, the Keweenaw Copper Company’s mines underwhelmed again; production was lackluster. There would be no lasting revitalization of the abandoned properties. By 1919, with copper prices plummeting from heights they had attained during World War I, company officials realized the hopelessness of their situation. Consistent service from Calumet up to Crestview, north to Mandan, and downhill toward Lac La Belle ceased soon after. Although the company held tenaciously on to some of its equipment for another decade, the Keweenaw Central’s life was over.

Its first life was over, that is. The Keweenaw Central name made a reappearance in the Copper Country in a different place and time, providing a scenic thrill and a brush with history. This second incarnation will be covered in a future Flashback Friday, bringing the story of the Keweenaw Central full circle.


Flashback Friday: Bright Lights and Big Names

We’ve all needed a little fun lately, and several prior blog posts have discussed what people of the Copper Country did to entertain themselves back in the mining days. We’ve struck up the company band for a relaxing Sunday afternoon concert, and we’ve headed out on the streetcar for picnics at Electric Park. Now let’s all head to the lobby and venture into Hancock’s venerable Kerredge Theatre, a longstanding home for movies, music, and dramatic performances.

When workers began construction of the Kerredge in 1902, it dominated its block of East Quincy Street. Small houses dotted the hillside behind it, and an abandoned tramway path for the Quincy Mining Company separated it from a modest Finnish Lutheran church. A little closer to Ripley, the first luxe mansions had begun to rise in the affluent East Hancock neighborhood. But the Kerredge–three stories tall at its streetfront, five at the back of the lot–rose above all of them. With its heavily-ornamented facade and expansive brick walls, it radiated prosperity and spoke to a Copper Country with grand ambitions.

The men behind the theatre had aspirations to match. Echoes of the great American success story resonated in William Kerredge’s life. His father Joseph, a gamekeeper turned general laborer, and mother Phoebe brought young William over to southern Ontario when he was no more than three years old. From there, evidently concluding that the infant Copper Country held greater promise than Canada, the Kerredges moved to Michigan. By 1870, teenage William resided in Hancock with his parents and two younger sisters. Like his father, who found a post in a local sawmill, William worked as a laborer. By the time he married eighteen-year-old Mary O’Neill in 1879, however, he reported his occupation as merchant. Young William was moving up in the world: he had trained as a tinsmith and embarked in the hardware business. His trade prospered in a growing copper town, one that needed the construction supplies and tradesmen’s tools that Kerredge provided. By the mid-1890s, William and Mary Kerredge had moved into a comfortable, newly-built home in West Hancock; the new residence provided ample space for their son, Ray, daughters Phoebe, Pearl, and Emma, and Joseph Kerredge in his last years.

The 1894 Independence Day parade in Hancock. William Kerredge’s hardware store is seen at center.

It isn’t clear what drew Kerredge to the performing arts or when his interest began. As his hardware business took off, however, he began to look beyond the world of saws and nails to curtains and footlights. In 1901, the Polk city directory for Hancock listed him not only as proprietor of the hardware but also of St. Patrick’s Hall, a gathering place for various social groups in town and, in the words of Hancock historian John Haeussler, “arguably Hancock’s premier playhouse” at the century mark. Despite St. Patrick’s success in the arts world, its operator had bigger dreams. He envisioned something grander, something that would attract top-tier acts to the top of the state and provide a beautiful home for community productions. Perhaps the Calumet Theatre, which opened its doors in March 1900, inspired him. At any rate, the Kerredge Theatre progressed quickly from idea to reality. The brick playhouse began hosting productions in 1902 and established itself as a fixture in the community soon thereafter.

In its heyday, the Kerredge could host up to 1,500 theatregoers for a performance, about one-third of Hancock’s population in 1900, and William Kerredge did his best to fill each seat. An article in the Daily Mining Gazette recounted his particular skill in scoring desirable bookings, describing them as “of sterling order,” the type that “put the theater in the field of the most important playhouses in the Midwest.” Variety also characterized the typical Kerredge season, which opened in the last days of summer. Shakespearean dramas arrived in Hancock, as did French operas and stories inspired by the life of Alexander the Great. Comedies, especially musical comedies, proved particularly popular, although most of their titles–”Peggy from Paris,” “Southern Skies,” “David Harum”–are unknown to connoisseurs today. Other oeuvres, like Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” resonate through the decades.

The Kerredge in its early days, 1904.

These productions, both the ephemeral and the enduring, brought with them actors and musicians from around the globe. Like the economic opportunities of the Copper Country, the allure of the Kerredge was international. Chauncey Olcott, known for making the rounds of Midwestern theatres, performed in Hancock, as well. Enrico Caruso, the celebrated Italian tenor, appeared bathed in the footlights on one occasion. John Philip Sousa brought his ensemble to play his compositions in Hancock. Sarah Bernhardt trod the boards of the Kerredge, and, according to one rumor, even toured the Quincy Mine to experience life underground. Lillian Russell, whose style was as extravagant as her talent, apparently earned twelve overtures in a single performance at the Kerredge. Capitalizing on the quality of entertainers that the Kerredge was attracting, an enterprising mayor of Hancock, A.J. Scott, built the massive Scott Hotel next door, at the corner of Quincy and Reservation in 1906. The luminaries appearing at the Kerredge did not have far to go when they were ready to turn in for the night, and one wonders how many unsuspecting hotel guests ran into a Bernhardt or a Caruso on the way down the stairs in the morning.

Yet the Kerredge was not merely for big names and bright lights; it remained a community theatre in spite of its glamor. Students from Painesdale High School presented “The Dawn of a New Era,” an educational play with themes centered on international peace and women’s suffrage written by local educator Flora Jeffers, at the Kerredge in 1912. The production was just one of many amateur and school presentations to debut in Hancock. Long before the Rozsa opened on the Michigan Tech campus, its students found a welcome home for their dramatic expressions. By the 1920s, college productions of shows like “A Lucky Break” and “The Poor Nut,” described as “a comedy of modern youth,” became springtime staples at the Kerredge. The theatre adapted, as well, to the advent of moving pictures, both for entertainment and education. Fielding Yost, a renowned athletics director at the University of Michigan, projected films of the Wolverines’ football triumphs on the Kerredge movie scrim in 1923 as part of a lecture to Yooper high schoolers. As enticing top acts to the Copper Country became more difficult, the famous faces of America increasingly appeared on screen in Hancock rather than in flesh and blood; live productions at the Kerredge took on an increasingly local character alongside a growing slate of films.

The Michigan Tech band on stage at the Kerredge, 1940.

William Kerredge, who had guided his namesake theatre to realization and whose skill had helped it become a dominant force in upper Michigan’s entertainment, served as proprietor for some decades after its creation. He entrusted daily management tasks to his son, Ray, whose responsibility increased after William’s death from a stroke in 1927. Sadly, Ray’s own poor health forced him into retirement in middle age, and he died from heart troubles in 1938. The Kerredge outlived both men. Rallies, movies, and concerts attracted the people of the Copper Country down to their theatre for decades to come, creating memories that senior residents of Hancock cherish to this day.

The Kerredge Theatre after its final drama, 1959.

But all good things come to an end, even those we most enjoy. In the small hours of May 29, 1959, a fire of unknown origin sparked at the Kerredge Theatre. Rapidly, the flames gained speed, consuming everything in their path. Heartbroken former patrons of the Kerredge gathered on the sidewalk by the hundreds, watching the theatre’s walls and roof collapse into a smoldering ruin.

It was the last and most tragic show the Kerredge ever offered.


Michigan Tech Archives Reopening for Reference Appointments

Three men riding horses on a city street
We’re back in the saddle!

Following Michigan Tech’s resumption of on-site classes, the Michigan Tech Archives will be reopening for in-person research on a modified appointment-only basis. Appointments may be scheduled from 1pm to 5pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, subject to availability. As in the fall semester, appointment requests must be confirmed by an archives staff member a minimum of 24 hours in advance. Per university policy, patrons must wear a face covering for the entire duration of their appointments and complete a symptom tracking form (available at the Michigan Tech Flex Portal) before arriving on campus.

Appointments may be requested via email at copper@mtu.edu, by phone at (906) 487-2505, or through our appointment form.

We look forward to assisting you!


Flashback Friday: It’s Electric

Image of large wooden pavilion with sign reading "Electric Park"
The hub of entertainment at Electric Park.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. Much about life–the way Americans dress, the types of jobs available to them, their methods of travel, the ways they communicate–has changed since 1900, and yet so much remains the same. People have a fundamental desire to visit with old friends, meet new ones, let down their hair, and enjoy themselves. The Copper Country is no different, and, in its heyday, the opportunities for entertainment grew as numerous as the mines. In a prior Flashback Friday, this blog profiled the bands formed by mining companies and communities. Now the focus turns to a venue where these bands often played for eager listeners and excited dancers at the turn of the last century.

Nestled in the woods between the bustling copper metropolises of Hancock and Calumet sat Electric Park, a project of the Houghton County Street Railway Company (later the Houghton County Traction Company). In the early 20th century, rail lines crisscrossed the western Upper Peninsula, carrying new arrivals into the region and bearing products like copper ingots and timber to points beyond. The street railway’s electric cars filled a niche for local passenger traffic and established what railroad historians Wally Weart and Kevin Musser characterized as “the only true interurban line in the Upper Peninsula.” When the streetcar line opened in 1900, travelers could go only between Houghton and Boston Location; within a year, the route expanded to Calumet and subsequently added a branch line to Hubbell. A final expansion, completed in 1908, carried riders as far north as Mohawk, with stops all along the way.

Passengers normally rode interurban lines to journey from community to community, but businesses like the streetcar company saw a profitable opportunity in creating another reason to ride their trains. What if they could be the exclusive transportation to an attractive leisure destination, the sort of place where friends wanted to gather and have fun? As spring arrived in 1902, the company moved quickly to capitalize. It obtained access to a patch of land, a little north of Boston Location, dubbed “the Highlands” and hired a contractor to begin clearing brush from the property. The Copper Country Evening News described the plans for the park:

“The pavilion will be a structure of 100 feet by 50 feet and will seat in the neighborhood of 300. When the floor is cleared dancing will be indulged in by several hundred couple [sic]. Amusement each evening and on Sundays will be furnished and refreshments being served on the grounds, people will be able to stay and enjoy themselves several hours at a time.

The entertainments given will be of the best and will be free of charge, all that the railway company will make off the investment will be the revenue derived from the fares to and from the Highlands. The fares promise to be quite an item and the resort or park will prove to be a very popular place for certain classes in this section.”

Streetcar and people next to wooden station
A Houghton County Traction Company streetcar at Albion Station, one of its regularly-scheduled stops. A sign propped against the building advertises a band concert at Electric Park.

This strategy worked. Enjoying high-quality entertainment with friends and basking in the delight of a Copper Country summer for no more than the cost of a streetcar fare drew scores of residents to the park. In 1910, the Houghton County Traction Company recorded some 50,000 visits to the little grove during the warm weather season. By this time, the park had long since shed the Highlands moniker. After a few years of being called Anwebida–a name purported to mean “here may we rest” in Ojibwe–it became Electric Park, a title that required no explanation to those who didn’t speak the language. And the atmosphere there was as electric as the name.

Electric Park kept bustling throughout the summer seasons. The 50,000 visits in 1910, as in most years, covered a whole host of events, gatherings, and activities. Bands descended on the park from the start, with both the Calumet & Hecla and Quincy corporate ensembles playing afternoon concerts. A typical C&H program covered a vast artistic field, incorporating Verdi, patriotic marches, ragtime, and other genres so as to appeal to all tastes; if hired for a dance, the musicians served up an evening of waltzes and two-steps, the toe-tapping favorites of the time. Dances proved particularly popular at Electric Park and in some years were held three times a week. The original dance pavilion burned to the ground in 1906, but its popularity prompted an almost immediate reconstruction and an expansion by nearly 25 percent.

An advertisement for band concerts and free dancing at Electric Park
Ad for Electric Park that ran in the Calumet & Hecla semi-centennial edition of “The Keweenaw Miner.” The streetcar company’s wholesome entertainment–the kind that didn’t lead to hungover or drunk men skipping work–was appealing to efficiency-driven C&H, too.

This new pavilion was well-suited not only to the fashionable dances held at Electric Park but also to the other entertainments and groups that descended on the grove. A stage and dressing rooms, balconies framing the dance floor, large open-air porches, and game tables provided crowd-pleasing, well-equipped spaces. Fraternal organizations rented the Electric Park pavilion to host their own festivities. The UP Federated Italian Societies, for example, hosted a reunion and picnic there with a “program of speeches and sports,” a band concert, and a boccia ball tournament, promising “a day of fun and entertainment for everybody.” The Laurium chapter of the Knights of Pythias held dances at Electric Park; the Hancock and Calumet councils of the Knights of Columbus did the same. Elementary students celebrated the end of the year with a big to-do at the park. Nearby Lutheran and Methodist Sunday Schools took their students out to the grove for picnics and showcases of what they had learned. The Methodists in particular made a habit of bringing large events out to Electric Park, hosting an annual “chautauqua” (convention) of presentations, missionary visits, and music for members of the denomination there throughout the 1910s.

Whether they came to attend a Sunday School picnic, a company band concert, or a fraternal organization party, Electric Park kept its visitors happy. Children zipped down wooden slides and played merrily on unique “boat swings” that sometimes attracted adults, too; management had to post a sign on each reminding older visitors that “this swing is for children only.” Men and kids alike played baseball on a diamond surrounded by a thick stand of trees. As the sun faded, a massive “ELECTRIC PARK” sign, said to be the largest electric sign in the region, blinked on and cast a romantic aura on the grove. When guests of the park needed something to eat or drink, they could purchase snacks like popcorn and sarsaparilla–or visit the outdoor water pump for free refreshment. In the earliest days of the park, supposedly, those looking for adult beverages could find their poison also close at hand. Quickly, however, Electric Park abandoned any liquor sales and forbade patrons from bringing their own, hoping to preserve a true family atmosphere not available at most Copper Country entertainment venues.

Three children on a rocking wooden swing
Three children enjoying the popular boat swings at Electric Park.

Although Electric Park tallied tens of thousands of annual visits for many years after its inception, as first the Copper Country entered an economic decline and then the Great Depression arrived, its days were numbered. As a cascade of mines entered hibernation and people moved away to seek jobs in Detroit, Milwaukee, or Chicago, fewer and fewer passengers rode the Houghton County Traction Company’s streetcars. The company folded. All operations ceased on May 21, 1932. Orphaned by the collapse of its parent organization, Electric Park struggled on for a time. Concerts and dances became much more sporadic, although organizations still put on the occasional picnic, but the summers when the park dominated local entertainment became mere memories. World War II and the cost of maintenance proved the last straws. Electric Park’s pavilion was soon scrapped, sold, and reassembled as a potato barn. Only traces remain of its once-bustling streetcar station, picnic grounds, and dance hall, buried in the underbrush like so much Copper Country history.


Flashback Friday: Strike Up the Band

Living in the Upper Peninsula has always, to some degree, required Yoopers to know how to make their own fun. When the snow falls to the tune of two or three hundred inches annually, a person either learns to love winter or how to pack up and move. Likewise, the resident of a small town who longs for the attractions of a big city either contents himself with what he can do at home, or he does his best to bring the city home.

From the early days of industry in the Keweenaw Peninsula, its residents sought to do something of both, combining the entertainments they knew elsewhere with the feel of the region. Mining towns throughout the Copper Country, both large and small, devised their own ways of having fun, which often took the form of creating bands. Copper mines throughout Cornwall, the western region of England from which many early immigrants came, often supported the establishment of a brass band; the band both provided wholesome diversion for residents and promoted the mine. Musical groups began to form in the first few decades of copper mining in Michigan as companies and communities took root. Unsurprisingly, in composition and style, these ensembles reflected the musical traditions of the new arrivals. By 1873, men at Calumet & Hecla had organized into a traditional British brass band, a group dominated by cornets with supplementation by clarinets, horns, and a small percussion section. These days, a cornet might be unfamiliar to many audiences, but the instrument’s mellow tone and bell shape–an appearance something like a modern trumpet–were instantly recognizable to the Cornish people of the early Copper Country. As bands at Calumet and Central Mine, among other places, became more established and increasingly entertained at concerts, dances, and Fourth of July festivities, they contributed to a vibrant cultural life in an industrial world.

Band in front of wooden building
The Calumet & Hecla band at an Independence Day celebration, 1873.

Among the best-documented mining company and community bands of the region was one established by the Copper Range Company, a sizable competitor of C&H with its heart of operations at Painesdale. The band seems to have been formed in 1910, about a decade after the birth of Copper Range. By this point, the ethnic composition of the Keweenaw Peninsula had changed considerably; alongside the English, German, and Irish immigrants of forty years earlier were substantial numbers of new arrivals from Finland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Italy. The band membership, as recorded by its secretary E.W. Kruka, demonstrated the extent of Finnish settlement along the range: surnames like Ylijoki, Laukka, Hyrkas, and Waara dominated the list. In fact, only two men–Thomas Letcher and Helmut Steinhilb–out of the two dozen musicians did not have obvious Finnish heritage. Despite the change in background, however, the style of the band remained much in line with the traditional British brass form. One of Kruka’s first responsibilities in March 1910 was to place an order for cornets, horns, and trombones, as well as books of solo music for these instruments and drums. Band leader and conductor Charles Holpainen, unsurprisingly, took a prominent role among the cornet section. He, Kruka, and other officers of the band proceeded to lay in a large supply of music for the Copper Range men to learn, attempting to keep their repertoire contemporary, lively, and interesting to their audiences. Throughout the year, Kruka dispatched letter after letter on behalf of the band to suppliers around the Midwest, ordering popular waltzes like Strauss’s “Blue Danube,” rousing tunes with titles like “Swedish Guard March,” and arrangements designed to appeal to the national pride of audiences, such as “Selection of Finnish Melodies.”

Typed list of musical pieces
A program of music to be performed by the Copper Range Band at a Finnish temperance society hall in Painesdale, undated.

The Copper Range Band also sought to bring a touch of professionalism to their performances with the addition of uniforms. Earlier bands had commonly been photographed in good suits and hats, as in the case of the Central Mine ensemble. Men looked nicely-outfitted but not coordinated as a group, given the variations in suit colors and hat styles. For the company’s new band, Kruka placed an order with a tailoring house to equip each man with matching coats and caps. Holpainen’s apparel received extra attention, with “band” embroidered on the hat and “leader” along the coat’s shoulder straps. The uniforms were slow in arriving, even before the special order for Holpainen’s conductor’s gear, and Kruka wrote again to the business, greasing the skids a little with a hint that it would secure uniform orders for his fraternal organization if only the uniforms came through expeditiously. With any luck, they arrived on time for the performance.

Company bands and their members regularly enjoyed particular status in the community in exchange for their work. The leaders experienced this most of all. Calumet & Hecla’s band master, for example, earned $100 monthly, a handsome salary at the time; historian Larry Lankton succinctly described the job of the Quincy Excelsior Band’s director as “cushy.” But even for men who were part of the rank and file, being in the band brought along perks. In response to a letter from John McCarthy asking that “one of the Painesdale bands,” much in demand, come down to Winona for the community’s all-day Fourth of July celebration, Kruka wrote that members of the band “usually get $5 per man for a ‘Fourth of July’ service.” Since McCarthy had outlined a program that would require the musicians to arrive the day before and stay two nights, missing the next day’s work, Kruka drove a harder bargain. To compensate for the lost shifts, he requested an additional $2.50 per man, as well as for Winona to cover the roundtrip train fare. Naturally, the men would be riding the Copper Range Railroad to their destination.

A poor-quality image of the Copper Range Band in uniform, undated.

In their regular lives, the Copper Range men drilled into rock walls, hammered iron, and managed inventory. In their musical lives, they played for fraternal organizations, community concerts, and local dances; they provided accompaniment for rallies advocating for Prohibition, entertained groups of socialists, and serenaded conservatives. Music, they say, is universal, and the Copper Range Band illustrated it. Finnish men played German waltzes in British style to American audiences, bringing tastes from over the Atlantic to Michigan to serve a varied people in a remarkable place. What could be more universal than that?


Flashback Friday: Loyalty

Massive crowd of people surrounding a flag-draped stage
A glimpse of the crowd gathered to celebrate Calumet & Hecla’s semi-centennial.

In 1916, Calumet & Hecla celebrated its semicentennial in grand fashion. The company normally abhorred any stoppage in work not demanded by market conditions, making its decision to halt work for the July 15 festival particularly remarkable. That day, star-spangled banners fluttered on buildings and bandstands throughout Calumet, and workers–male and female alike–marched through the streets to the acclamation of spectators. Near the head of the parade walked Charles Alschbach. At Calumet’s “commons” (later Agassiz Park), he and his peers listened as Michigan Governor Woodbridge N. Ferris feted the success of Calumet & Hecla. They dined on lunches provided by the company–some 19,000 of them. Then, at two o’clock, C&H President Rodolphe Agassiz rose to salute the loyalty, efficiency, and service of the company’s longtime employees. Concluding his speech, he invited Alschbach and 168 of his peers to come forward so that he might present them with gold medals honoring 40 to 50 years of employment at C&H. Spectators who obtained copies of The Keweenaw Miner’s commemorative program could peer at the photographs provided of “Gold Medal Men” and see Alshbach among them. A mustachioed man with a receding hairline, he looked proud to stand before the camera in his dress suit. He was the epitome of a model employee.

Which makes his abrupt termination two years later even more remarkable. Remarkable, perhaps, but very much of its time.

Headshot reading "Charles Alschbach."
Charles Alschbach’s photograph as it appeared in the commemorative program.

Charles Alschbach was born in about 1860 in Eagle River. The 1870 census found him residing there as the second son in a family of seven children. His father, George, worked as a stone mason; his mother, Caroline, tended to the home. Although Charles’s older brother, Henry, and sister, Catherine, were both recorded as “at school,” Charles was not. Perhaps the nine-year-old’s first census offered a glimpse of his life soon to come.

In 1874, the Alschbach family moved from Keweenaw County down to Lake Linden. While the northern county had been a nexus of copper mining in the early days, the geography of the Copper Country had shifted since Charles’s birth. First the Hulbert Mining Company and then its two child organizations–the Calumet Mining Company and the Hecla Mining Company–began to work one of the richest copper deposits in the world, located in northern Houghton County. After original operator Edwin Hulbert blundered his way through the first years, the board of directors of the Calumet and Hecla companies ousted him in March 1867 and installed Alexander Agassiz, father of Rodolphe, as superintendent instead. The two companies, which quickly became profitable, merged in 1871 but counted their original, separate birthdates of 1866 as their shared founding year.

Successful mines reaping copper-bearing rock–and up to 15 percent of what came out of C&H’s early workings was copper, a remarkable sum–needed a place to mill it, separating the valuable metal from the poor rock and preparing it to be smelted into ingots. Ready access to water made the critical difference between making money and losing it: the copper needed to be washed and to be crushed under steam-powered hammers, and some early mines faltered for placing their mills in poor locations. C&H chose more carefully. Between 1868 and 1870, first the Hecla and then the Calumet mining companies built stamp mills on the shores of Torch Lake. Men flocked to work at the mills, and the town of Lake Linden grew up in their shadow.

View of industrial building with sloped roof
An early stamp mill for the Calumet & Hecla mining companies in Lake Linden, circa 1870.

Charles Alschbach and his family arrived during this early boom. Although Lake Linden already had a school, constructed with the eager support of its residents, his thoughts and priorities lay elsewhere. In 1875, at fourteen or fifteen years old, he walked into the C&H employment office and applied for a job.

Child labor had long been tightly bound up with copper mining. In Cornwall, where mining predated the birth of the industrial Copper Country by centuries, whole families regularly went to work at the local mine together. Children, daughters and sons alike, accompanied their fathers and sometimes their mothers to work from an early age. Eight- or nine-year-olds sweeping up the hoist house were not an uncommon sight; occasionally, even a child of four or five might be found helping to carry and stack small rocks. Adolescent girls learned to hammer ore into smaller chunks in preparation for additional milling. At twelve, boys frequently made the switch to working underground, gaining skills that they would eventually bring with them to Michigan. An 1839 report found that 7,000 children worked in the Cornish mines. While the population of underage boys working in their Copper Country counterparts probably never reached the same levels, photographs taken at the Quincy Mining Company in the late 19th century depict a number of small faces.

Group of boys and men standing and kneeling
Among the Quincy Mining Company’s employees photographed in the late 19th century were a number of young boys.

C&H in 1875 was no different, and Charles Alschbach did not become the youngest worker on the payroll when he accepted his new job at the stamp mill. He appears to have been a general laborer for at least the first few decades: asked in 1894 to describe the nature of his work, he wrote that he “work[ed] at all kind [sic] of jobs” in the company. About a year later, he settled in the mill’s machining department, where he built boilers, and began to earn $52 each month: not a bad wage for the time and place. And he needed the money, too, in light of his growing family responsibilities. Charles had married Anna Opal in 1884, and they welcomed daughters Theresa in 1891 and Irene in 1897.

By 1916, when Rodolphe Agassiz handed him a gold medal and shook his hand, Charles’s life was firmly bound up in the operations of C&H. His home sat on land leased from the company. He paid for it with an income that had steadily increased over the years: by 1913, he earned $78 per month. Through all the tumult of the 1913-1914 strike, Charles remained loyal to the company and walked to the stamp mill in the dead of winter, the heat of summer, and as leaves budded on springtime trees and fell, crimson and gold, from them in autumn. When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, pledging to support the Allied Powers in their fight against Germany and its partners, C&H also joined the fight. The Copper Country mines, wrote Larry Lankton in his seminal Cradle to Grave, reached “their highest peaks ever of production and profitability.” All hands went on deck to help, including Charles Alschbach.

Men in suits lined up to receive small boxes
Men receiving their service medals from Calumet & Hecla in 1916, the year before America entered World War I.

Historically, wars have tended to carry with them two prominent traits: heightened patriotism among the people and a profound need for money on the part of the government. To address the latter, taxes ticked upward nationally, and the federal government began to issue what it called Liberty Bonds, which allowed it to receive loans of money from private individuals on the promise of repayment with interest. The first Liberty Bonds or Liberty Loans, totaling $1.9 billion, rolled out shortly after the declaration of war in April 1917. Three subsequent issuances of bonds followed: $3.8 billion in October 1917, $4.1 billion in April 1918, and a final round of $6.9 billion in September 1918. The bonds sold well by calling upon patriotic fever sweeping the United States–and something else. No one was required to purchase a bond, at least not officially, but failure to do so led to askance looks from neighbors, suspicion from coworkers, and even intimidation from the most passionate supporters of the war effort. Newspaper articles warned Americans that failure to participate in the Liberty Loan scheme and provide funds for military supplies could cost the United States the war. And who could confront the possibility of being conquered by the Germans? Only those who must secretly resent American democracy and pine for the autocratic rule of the Kaiser.

Anti-German sentiment was not new to the United States, but it reached an apex during World War I. How could the people that Americans held responsible for unprecedented carnage in the trenches of Europe successfully integrate into their society? The German neighbor who had run a butcher shop had seemed innocuous before; now, he seemed like he could be a possible spy for the kaiser’s forces, who were themselves butchering the young men of France and the United Kingdom. Now, with American doughboys headed overseas, discomfort with all things German intensified. A town in Michigan that had, for decades, carried the name Berlin shed its moniker in favor of Marne, honoring a battle in which the Allied troops prevailed. Diners sat down not to enjoy sauerkraut or hamburgers but liberty cabbage and liberty steaks. Theodore Roosevelt had cautioned in 1915 that “there is no such thing as a hyphenated American who is a good American. The only man who is a good American is the man who is an American and nothing else.”

Newspaper with headline: "ARE YOU WITH OR AGAINST THE HUN?"
This Kansas newspaper illustrated the kind of patriotic rhetoric surrounding Liberty Bonds in World War I.

Immigrants and native-born Americans of German descent who hesitated to purchase Liberty Bonds–or who spoke German around the dinner table or stood on the corner reading a German-language newspaper as the war waged–seemed suspicious in their loyalties, as far as those who took Roosevelt’s admonition most to heart were concerned. Many German-Americans attempted to prove that they were truly American in Roosevelt’s sense of the term by enlisting in the service, volunteering with the Red Cross, proudly declaring their support of the American Expeditionary Forces, and, of course, participating in the Liberty Loan program whenever new bonds were issued.

Charles Alschbach was a first generation American. George and Caroline Alschbach both immigrated from the small states of Germany to the Copper Country. Although Charles spoke English as his native tongue and had never resided anywhere but the United States, he bore a German surname, and his family attended a German Lutheran church. Perhaps he flew an American flag in his window; perhaps he remained thoroughly ambivalent about the war and its aims. We have no record of his private thoughts. We have only an inference.

On September 25, 1918, Calumet & Hecla abruptly dismissed Charles Alschbach, Gold Medal Man, from his employment. Forty-three years of association with C&H ended that day. Alschbach never worked for a copper mine again. His cause for dismissal, the only blot noted on an impeccable record:

“Making disloyal remarks regarding the Liberty Loan.”

Portion of Charles Alschbach’s Calumet & Hecla employment record describing why he was dismissed from the company.

The last round of Liberty Bonds, the one totaling nearly $7 billion, was poised to be deployed within days of Alschbach’s dismissal. His comments on the matter may have been truly appalling to even an objective observer. On the other hand, they could have been innocuous remarks about how much money the government was spending, or expecting Americans to spend, that aroused deeper criticism because the son of German immigrants spoke them. Regardless, the word that C&H chose to describe Alschbach’s comments–disloyal–carried with it a heavy weight. It cast a pall on his citizenship, his care for his neighbors and friends, his ability to be a true American, his allegiances in the largest fight the country had joined since its birth in 1776. What must a man who had given more than four decades of his life to a single company, let alone resided in the same region since his birth, have thought when he was branded disloyal in any capacity?

The next few years saw dramatic changes in Charles Alschbach’s life. For emotional or financial reasons, or maybe to join his brother Christian, he and his family left Lake Linden. By 1920, they were settled on Waverly Avenue in Detroit, where Charles had found work in an auto factory, most likely Ford. Daughter Theresa became a teacher. The other Alschbach daughter, Irene, and her husband resided with Charles and Anna Alschbach, and the presence of a growing brood of children likely brought joy and comfort to their grandparents, especially when Irene died at a young age.

At 73, Alschbach retired from work. The next two years he spent in failing cardiac health, passing away on September 2, 1935. He was buried in Roseland Park Cemetery in Oakland County, a world away from the mining company that accused him of disloyalty after hailing him one of their Gold Medal Men.

The Library of Congress’s “Shadows of War” and Sara J. Keckeisen’s “Coming of the Night” informed this post.


Flashback Friday: A Coppertown for the Copper Country

Good times seem that they will never end.

When Calumet & Hecla was in its prime, the future seemed to promise unalloyed brilliance. The company was the richest in a district that produced 12 to 16 percent of the world’s copper between 1880 and 1910. The company “ruled its region,” historian Larry Lankton wrote, “with a haughty self-assuredness that the only way to mine for copper, or to run a mining community, was the C&H way.” In the late 1800s and early 1900s, C&H seemed vindicated. Although plenty of have-nots called the residential areas around its mines home, Calumet and Laurium also abounded with signs of prosperity. In 1900, the imposing Calumet Theatre, with its sandstone facade and a proscenium arch adorned with murals of the Greek muses, opened on Sixth Street. Pedestrians strolled along wooden sidewalks underneath a growing spider web of electrical wires. Shoppers could browse through a number of specialty shops, including photographers’ studios, multistory department stores like the Vertin Brothers, and jewelers. Multiple newspapers circulated in town. Presidential candidates campaigned personally in the area: Theodore Roosevelt stopped in Laurium to promote his 1912 third-party bid. Although no truth existed to later rumors that Calumet would be made the capital of Michigan, it was undoubtedly the capital of the Copper Country.

Image of wide stone store building
The Vertin Brothers store was just one example of the many mercantile opportunities in Calumet in its prime.

But no boom town lasts forever. Calumet’s star faded in the wake of the 1913-1914 strike, a post-World War I slump in the copper market, and later still with the onset of the Great Depression. In 1910, the population of Calumet Township was 32,845; by 1920, it had declined to 22,369, a decrease of more than 31 percent, as people sought jobs elsewhere. By 1970, the township had only about one-quarter of the population it had enjoyed at its peak. Even more notably, Calumet & Hecla had finally closed for good. Failure of employees and management to agree to terms on a new contract in August 1968 led to a strike that dragged into the spring of 1969. The company’s new owners, Universal Oil Products, ultimately elected to cease all mining operations. Although some hope remained of eventually dewatering the Centennial Mine, and some Calumet workers rode daily chartered buses down to Ontonagon County’s White Pine Mine, the era of mining had ended.

The profound changes wrought by mining and population growth remained, and so did the people who remembered and appreciated the Copper Country in its heyday. Local residents had long been passionate about history, forming societies and museums to keep their heritage alive even when the mines were still running. The Keweenaw Historical Society, under the leadership of John T. Reeder and John A. Doelle, began to collect archival material on the Keweenaw Peninsula in 1912. The Houghton County Historical Society, a successor organization, began in 1961; its counterpart in Ontonagon County dates to 1957. Yet appreciation for history as a means to keep the Copper Country alive reached greater heights after the mining period drew to a close.

One proposal perceiving history as a means of revitalization took a particularly grand, sweeping, and in some ways eyebrow-raising approach. Its creators dubbed the vision “Coppertown U.S.A.” In an April 3, 1973 presentation in Calumet, Robert Teska, a representative of the project through Barton-Aschman Associates, described Coppertown as “a plan to restore and expand the former Calumet & Hecla headquarters… into a historic mining, ethnic, and tourism complex.” The project’s main purpose would be “the creation of a historic center and service facility for Copper Country tourism, to be entertaining and educational and to be integrated into the social and economic fabric of the two communities of Calumet and Laurium.” Ideally, Teska explained, Coppertown would span “in excess of 300 acres overall” across the heart of the old C&H properties, with its center “ideally located at the historic crossroads of U.S. 41 and Red Jacket Road.”

View of church at a crossroads with a stone building behind
A view of Barton-Aschman’s ideal location of the Coppertown U.S.A center at Red Jacket Road and today’s US-41, once the home of the Calumet Congregational Church.

The Coppertown U.S.A. complex proved broad not only in scale but in scope. Teska laid out a plan for multiple “development units” surrounding the “theme center.” The heart of Coppertown would host parking for well over 1,000 vehicles. Mine Street, the road along which so many shafts had been dug, would become a pedestrian path along which tourists could stroll. Behind the former C&H library building–serving as administrative headquarters–Barton-Aschman Associates envisioned the old roundhouse transformed into an entertainment megaplex, in conjunction with a newly-constructed motel. There, visitors could dine, browse boutiques and art galleries, pick up drug store necessities, or take in a musical performance. While most of Coppertown had a tourist orientation, the roundhouse would be designed as a gathering place for locals, as well.

The theme center was just the start. A second development unit incorporated “several satellite activities” of diverse types. A museum village consisting of “10 to 15 authentic buildings moved to the site from [throughout] the Copper Country and restored to reflect a period in history” would sit adjacent to Mine Street. Teska’s presentation suggested that the village might consist of a general store, church, schoolhouse, blacksmith shop, and “several residences that would typify the homes of early miners and of various ethnic backgrounds.” Summer employees and school tour groups traveling from a distance would bunk down in a special dormitory built for their use. When they ventured out beyond the roundhouse and museum village, they would find a host of activities devoted to copper mining awaiting them.

A drawing of the expansive redevelopment and historic incorporation envisioned by Coppertown.

Recognizing the popularity of the Arcadian Mine in Ripley–and presaging the success of Quincy, Delaware, and Adventure–the Barton-Aschman proposal for Coppertown U.S.A extensively incorporated demonstrations of mining technology, techniques, and properties. “The highlight of the satellite activities would be the Osceola Mine,” explained Teska, “a modern facility that would be restored for use as a major attraction offering an underground tour of an actual copper mine.” Tourists visiting Osceola could hop aboard “a small historic mining train,” sure to delight children and adults alike. Later, back on Mine Street, they would find Coppertown’s exhibition center, “an entertaining and educational display featuring the history of copper mining, the technology used, old equipment, and demonstrations of actual mining and maintenance techniques.” From there, the visitors would stroll through another hall displaying new copper products. If they tired of studying copper mining itself, the Coppertown ethnic and cultural center would provide them the opportunity to learn more about the cultures of Keweenaw people, both immigrant and indigenous. “The center would be a place where ethnic crafts and food would be made and sold, Teska said, “where people of all ages would come to participate in authentic folk music and dancing, and where the joys of folklore would prevail. Employees would be dressed in costumes representing their native homelands.” Folk culture would spill out into the “festival plaza,” a decorated outdoor space that would be “a focal point of community as well as tourist activity.”

Crowning the entirety of Coppertown, “several hundred feet to the northwest” of the festival plaza, would be a statue of a miner standing some 70 to 80 feet tall. If Keweenaw Bay had its shrine to Bishop Baraga, then Calumet would have a monument to the industry that built it.

Schematic showing the layout of a tourist park
A drawing of the Coppertown U.S.A site plan showing the various structures to be included.

Of course, none of this–the renovation of Osceola, the construction of a new motel, the commissioning of a copper statue–would come cheap. Barton-Aschman estimated that, in addition to land, Coppertown U.S.A “will require… a considerable investment of approximately 12 million dollars.” In 2019, an equivalent investment would total over $70 million. To assuage anyone who balked at the high price tag, Teska promised that Coppertown would quickly pay for itself, bringing droves of visitors to the Keweenaw with money to spend. The statistics presented by the consulting firm were staggering: one million visitors per summer to the area by 1980, with as many as 850,000 people–both locals and tourists–stopping in at Coppertown. Each summer, the Barton-Aschman presentation said, Coppertown would lead to a gross income of over $5 million; winter tourism would be the icing on the cake. In addition, the complex stood poised to bolster local tax revenues, employ a populace that could no longer look to the mines, and unify Calumet and Laurium.

At the time that Barton-Aschman Associates presented the plan for Coppertown U.S.A, it must have seemed like a marvelous and realizable dream to its boosters. If the inspiration and funds of Henry Ford could bring Greenfield Village to life, why could the people and companies of the Keweenaw Peninsula not do the same? Supporters who signed on to the plan early on included Endicott Lovell, a former president of Calumet & Hecla, William Nicholls, vice president of the Copper Range Company, and Louis Koepel, who had charge of the Quincy Mining Company property in Hancock; joining them were prominent local contractor Herman Gundlach, multimillionaire philanthropist and Laurium native Percy Ross, and historian Arthur Thurner, among others. Although some local residents, despite fundamental agreement with developing tourist appeal in the region, expressed skepticism of the project, its Copper Country directors set up in the old Calumet & Hecla library building with great anticipation. Promotional literature brimming with optimism scurried through the post offices and into newspapers across the state, and a sign proclaiming Calumet the future home of Coppertown went up on the edge of town.

Yet the project’s grand scale proved to be in large part its undoing. Despite the support of millionaires and bank executives, the $12 million needed for that initial investment was difficult to raise. By 1975, although the dream remained alive and its board active, some reductions had already been made. A newspaper article describing the aim of Coppertown described the would-be iconic miner statue as standing some 35 to 40 feet, only about half of its original intended height. Plans for the motel, the roundhouse shopping complex, and hauling historic buildings from their homes throughout the Copper Country stalled. In 1979, the old Calumet & Hecla pattern shop opened as a museum and visitor center for the future project.

Interior view of industrial building
A historic interior of the Calumet & Hecla pattern shop, later the Coppertown U.S.A museum.

By 1980, however, local newspaper the Copper Island Sentinel wrote that Coppertown was highly unlikely to come to fruition as originally planned.

“According to the original plans, Coppertown was to be a complex of buildings, including a hotel, library, cultural center, 70 foot statue and plaza area that would accommodate 650,000 tourists a year. Those plans have yet to be totally abandoned, unlike the mines it was to hold in tribute. But the reality of the present is those future dreams rely on the 14 women of the Coppertown Auxiliary and the profit margin of a small boutique that supports the only operating attraction of the development–the Coppertown Museum.”

Despite the best efforts of the auxiliary women and those who staffed the pattern shop, the Coppertown U.S.A project went no further than that. However, a little over a decade after the Sentinel piece, a different effort to organize, preserve, and promote the Copper Country’s historic resources saw its hopes realized. Keweenaw National Historical Park was officially established on October 27, 1992. Although its approach to tourist facilities proved quite different than its predecessor project, the new park shared certain values with Coppertown: a passion for a special past, a devotion to revitalizing mining towns, and a desire to share the ethnic treasures of our community with the world at large. Today, the Coppertown U.S.A museum remains in operation as a long-term member of the Keweenaw Heritage Sites network of the national park. Long after the mines have faded, the heritage left behind is more vibrant than ever.


Flashback Friday: Charles Kauppi on the Bounding Waves

Man in front of boat
Charles Kauppi in front of his “Copper Queen,” circa 1940. From the Kauppi Family Collection.

Charles Kauppi belonged on the water.

He hailed from Kuivaniemi, a parish of Finland with a lengthy stretch of coastline on the Gulf of Bothnia. A river cut the parish in two, flowing past a small, rural settlement that bore the Kauppi name.

Perhaps his draw to the water was evident at an early age; perhaps it began when Kalle, as he was known then, looked across the ocean toward the United States. He and his older brother, Juho Aukusti, set sail for Houghton in the company of several friends. They departed in September 1902, when Kalle was twenty years old. In those days, the journey from Finland to America was a long one. A Finn headed to the Copper Country would first take a ship to England, then wait for a transatlantic liner. He might land in Boston or New York; he might instead go north to Montreal or Quebec City, then journey into Michigan through Sault Ste. Marie. Kalle and Juho’s ship, the Celtic, deposited them in New York Harbor on September 29, and the two set off for Michigan.

Steamship at dock
The “Celtic,” which carried Kalle and Juho to America on their first journey. Image via Wikipedia.

Many Finns came to the Copper Country in hopes of earning enough money to return home and buy a farm in Europe. For a variety of reasons–new comfort in the New World, more affordable land, the ardor of the journey–the number who actually made the trip proved far smaller than the group that hoped to do so. Kalle chose to file for American citizenship but had no qualms about crossing the Atlantic once again, even during difficult times of the year: February 1910 found him passing through Liverpool en route to Kuivaniemi for a visit. Six months later, he once again crossed the Atlantic, this time aboard the Virginian: the trip must have seemed almost routine by then. He landed in Quebec City, crossed the border as American citizen Charles Kauppi, and headed back to his new home in the Copper Country. He left the Baltic Sea of his childhood and the Atlantic Ocean of his youth behind, but an inland sea–Lake Superior–called to him.

When Charles Kauppi married Helena Lamberg, an early settler at Toivola and a fellow Finnish immigrant, on May 8, 1913, he gave his occupation as janitor. Increasingly, however, his work shifted away from mines and onto the waves. “On [a] Sunday morning” of unknown date, wrote Mac Frimodig in his Keweenaw Character, “while fishing with the Jaasko brothers at Grand Traverse, he ‘saw the sun come out of the lake’ and at that moment he knew his career in the mine was over.” By 1920, a census taker found the Kauppis–Charles, Helena, daughters Lyla, Leona, and soon Lilian, and son Willard–ensconced in “a log cabin with an unobstructed view of his beloved emerging sun” just north of the Keweenaw County village of Gay. Gay, with a Lake Superior shoreline reminiscent of Kuivaniemi’s gulf coast, provided a fisherman the ideal place to launch his craft and trawl the crystalline waters. As the location of the Mohawk Mining Company’s stamp mill, it also provided employment for Charles the mariner when winter settled over the lake, dimming his financial prospects.

Sign reading,
The ruins of the Mohawk Mining Company stamp mill, Kauppi’s winter employer.

The Mohawk Mill closed in 1932, casting a pall over Gay. By now, however, the Kauppi family’s interests had turned even further away from the fortunes of the copper mines. Despite the looming Great Depression, tourists found Isle Royale–that long, rugged, forested island near the Canadian border–increasingly attractive, and Charles Kauppi recognized an opportunity. Why not offer ferry service to island-bound voyagers using one of his own vessels, the Water Lily? The boat might be better suited to fishing than to passenger service, with its cramped quarters and dark interior, but the captain soon known to all as “Charlie” carved out advantages nonetheless. By sailing from Copper Harbor, much closer to Isle Royale than the competing Michigan port at Houghton, Kauppi would reduce the time that passengers were on the water. He also applied his natural sisu and tendency for risk-taking to his lake journeys, venturing out on days when few others would make the trip. More on that later.

The Water Lily and her captain quickly found a toehold in the ferry world. Charlie began his Copper Harbor-Isle Royale journeys in 1930, give or take a year depending on the source consulted. Despite a number of challenges brought on by the Depression–what Don Kilpela, intimately familiar with the Isle Royale ferry business, later called “a normal man’s nightmare” in Lake Superior Magazine–Kauppi persevered. The news arrived in March 1931 that Isle Royale would soon become a national park, a decision that boosted the island’s profile and brought more passengers to Copper Harbor. By the middle of the 1930s, Charlie had outgrown the Water Lily. He commissioned a 48-foot long replacement named the Copper Queen, a lovely craft that cut a fine figure on the water and would seat far more people than her predecessor.

Unfortunately for Charlie Kauppi, his new vessel arrived at a time of increasing government regulations surrounding scheduled passenger ferries. The bulkheads below deck on the Copper Queen were not watertight, one of the new parameters, and the government rejected Kauppi’s application for scheduled ferry service. Over the next few years, he continued to run his charters, charging $5 per person for a round trip, and in 1938 took delivery of the Isle Royale Queen, a vessel that met government requirements. Regularly-scheduled passenger service between Copper Harbor and Isle Royale began that year, launching over eighty years of ferries. In the early days, when Charlie Kauppi was at the helm, the ride could be a wild one.

Newspaper headline: "Isle Royale Boat Service Launched"
An article from the “Escanaba Daily Press” announcing Kauppi’s inaugural scheduled ferry.

Lake Superior is capricious; its moods change on a whim. Children raised on the lake quickly learn to respect it and to know when to stay on land. Charlie Kauppi knew his limits, as well. They simply happened to be far beyond what most people would accept. Don Kilpela, in a blog post about the history of the ferry service, recounted a “probably apocryphal” story about the time that Charlie did finally put his foot down–or try to do so. In 1943, following an overnight layover on the island, Kauppi awoke, appraised the storm rolling in, and decided that he would not go out. The waves were some 14 to 18 feet high, enough to overwhelm larger boats than Charlie’s. One big city passenger, upon hearing that his trip back to the mainland was postponed, refused to accept it. He began to argue with Kauppi, who held firm until the passenger said, “I didn’t know that Finns had a yellow streak down their back.”

No one called Charlie Kauppi a coward and got away with it. He relented and agreed to take the angry passenger back to Copper Harbor, along with a handful of others. After an hour of merciless buffeting by the wind and rolling over waves that make one seasick just to imagine, the big city man begged Charlie to go back. He apologized. He pleaded. None of it worked: Charlie was too stubborn now to relent. To quote Kilpela:

Finally, the man asked, “Are we going to make it?”

Charlie answered, “We go as far as we can.”

And if that story was, in fact, apocryphal, countless genuine incidents proved Kauppi’s determination and skill on the water. January 1940 saw one of the more dramatic ones. Louis Baranowski, a native of Calumet, had been stationed on Isle Royale as a radio operator for the National Park Service. Winter surrounded the island, which gained a new sense of isolation as the snow fell and the parade of passing ships tapered off. In the midst of this, Baranowski received word that his father had died. Families belong together in times of grief, and someone wondered if there could be a way to bring Baranowski home to Calumet. The logical choice–the only choice–was to ask Charlie Kauppi.

The day that Kauppi set out from Gay, still his home, on the mission of mercy, a nasty blizzard rolled across western Lake Superior. Wind screamed through open cracks in cabins; visibility diminished; thermometers hovered near zero. Lighthouses at Eagle Harbor and Copper Harbor were relit in hopes of helping Charlie on his way. The Isle Royale Queen, carrying Kauppi and his future son-in-law Emil Wiitala, made slow progress toward the tip of the peninsula. As waves nearing 20 to 30 feet broke over the Queen’s bow, they froze, encasing the boat in ice. Kauppi and Wiitala pressed on, hoping against hope that the weather might break. Rounding Keweenaw Point, they realized that to continue was suicide. Kauppi wrestled the vessel into port at Copper Harbor, conceding defeat for once in his life. The beacons along the coast went dark. If Charlie couldn’t make it, no one could.

A number of boats at wharfs
Several of the Kauppi boats, including the Water Lily and the Isle Royale Queen, in Gay. From the Kauppi Family Collection.

Charlie Kauppi ran the ferry for the rest of his days. The years between his acquisition of the Isle Royale Queen and his death proved to be eventful ones. After years of “extreme and repeated cruelty,” to quote the court documents, at the hands of his wife Helena, Charlie filed for divorce. His petition was granted on November 1, 1937. Ten years later, in his winter home of Grand Rapids, Charlie remarried. The new Linda Kauppi, a widow, shared her husband’s Finnish roots and Copper Country background. Charlie became a grandfather several times over, through his daughter Lyla and son Willard, and kept his love for the lake alive for as long as he drew breath.

In February 1954, Charlie Kauppi died at his Grand Rapids residence; he was 71 years old. Loved ones saw to it that a stone was erected in his honor at Hancock’s Lakeside Cemetery sometime later. Willard Kauppi sold his father’s boat and business to Ward Grosnick, who passed the helm to the Kilpela family upon his retirement in 1971. The Kilpelas operate the Isle Royale Queen IV to this day, keeping the sort of sisu and ingenuity that defined Charlie Kauppi a part of Keweenaw County tradition. Photographs from the Kauppi ferry service now reside in the Michigan Tech Archives as MS-898: Kauppi Family Collection.

Posts from Don Kilpela, Sr., on his Circumnavigating blog, as well as his “Lake Superior Magazine” piece (linked above) and Mac Frimodig’s book “Keweenaw Character” informed this post. 


Flashback Friday: A Tale of Two Lighthouses

Wavy lake under clouds
Lake Superior on a stormy day in 1912. Photograph by J.T. Reeder.

Like Robert Frost’s famous woods, the lake is lovely, dark, and deep.

Lake Superior claims a number of superlatives. By surface area, it is the largest freshwater lake in the world; by volume, it is the third among its peers. The deepest point, north of Munising, is among the lowest places above sea level in North America. Any swimmer knows that it is the coldest of the Great Lakes, and its most sincere fans faithfully swear that it is the most beautiful lake on Earth.

For all its charms, and in part because it is a lake among lakes, Lake Superior also poses a unique danger to the vessels that sail it. Merchant mariners realized this quickly as commerce on the lake grew. By 1844, just as the copper mining rush was set to begin, the John Jacob Astor had floundered at Copper Harbor. As century wore on–and as the boom in the Upper Peninsula progressed–it brought with it the creation of the Soo Locks, more ships on the lake, and a growing number of vessels beneath the waves. Late autumn storms, hidden shoals, rocky shores, capricious winds, and other hazards of the lake claimed an expanding list of victims.

Safe navigation of the mighty lake required guidance and guideposts. Mariners needed to know where the shoreline lay and where perils in the water might threaten their journey. Although industrial-scale shipping was new to Lake Superior, the solution was an ancient one. Lighthouses would steer sailors and their vessels away from disaster.

Lights began to wink on throughout the Upper Peninsula. As the prospective hub of early mining, Copper Harbor received one of the earliest lighthouses. Congress authorized its funding in 1847, and construction was complete by 1849. However, this first structure would not last long. A mere fifteen years later, an annual report submitted by the Lighthouse Board found that the Copper Harbor light needed “extensive repairs.” By the time the approved improvements wrapped up, the government had invested over $13,000 (more than $200,000 in today’s money) in creating a more enduring lighthouse around the original shell. Where once the light and the keeper’s dwelling had been separate structures, the renovation brought them into a single brick fortress. Research conducted by Fort Wilkins State Historic Park speculated at what had caused the initial deterioration–errors in design and location were unlikely, but shoddy building materials might have been to blame–but could not draw firm conclusions. No matter the cause, the 1866 renovation of the lighthouse cured what ailed it. The building that stands guard over Copper Harbor today is the very same one that ushered ships safely onward a century and a half earlier.

Lighthouse built in the schoolhouse style
The style of the Copper Harbor lighthouse as adopted in 1866.

Strictly speaking, a lightkeeper’s job was not an easy one. Each keeper took responsibility for ensuring that the beacon remained visible in spite of gale force winds, driving rain, and the blinding blizzards that sometimes arrived during Lake Superior shipping season. If a storm descended on Copper Harbor and iced over the lighthouse windows, it was the keeper who hastened up the tower and defrosted them. It was the keeper who fastidiously cleaned the powerful Fresnel lenses that directed light to vessels struggling against the rolling waves, the keeper who faithfully filled the lamps with oil. Yet the keeper assigned to the Copper Harbor lighthouse enjoyed certain blessings that eased many of the difficulties of tending the station. Whole families called the light home during the navigation season. While the man of the house might be the one who wore the Lighthouse Service uniform and assumed official authority for maintaining the lighthouse, his wife often shared in the keeper’s duties on an essentially equal basis. She poured the oil, polished the lens, and cleaned the windows; she gauged the weather and provided information for the lighthouse log. The couple’s children played around the lighthouse, their voices filling its modest rooms; they learned, as well, alongside their parents and occasionally chose to join the Lighthouse Service themselves. Indeed, Copper Harbor lightkeeper Charles Corgan and his wife Mary saw multiple sons take up the responsibility of tending Lake Superior lights. Henry, with his own family, spent more than thirty years keeping the Copper Harbor light, right up until its automation in 1919; James and his wife maintained the Gull Rock light, located east of Copper Harbor, before moving to Ontonagon.

Large lighthouse lens
The Fresnel lens that served as the Copper Harbor beacon light.

Yet while the lighthouse life, with all its challenges, had certain pleasures and perhaps romantic appeal in a place like Copper Harbor, other Lake Superior stations could not offer the same allure. Out in the middle of the lake–some 25 miles away from the Keweenaw Peninsula and over 40 miles from Marquette–sits Stannard Rock Lighthouse. Where Copper Harbor’s keepers could walk to a pleasant village for supplies and visits with neighbors, the crew of Stannard Rock had only what sundries arrived by boat and each other for company. Climbing to the top of his home, a man stationed at Stannard Rock looked in every direction and saw the blue carpet of Lake Superior. His quarters echoed with waves breaking around the station and with the voices of his three male coworkers. Families did not come to Stannard Rock: it was, in the parlance of Lighthouse Service men, a stag station. A photographer, capturing an aerial view of the station, gave it a more eloquent name: “cornerstone of loneliness.”

No lighthouse is placed without a purpose, and Stannard Rock’s is an important one: it marks a high, dangerous reef that navigator Charles Stannard documented in August 1835. Few mariners, quietly journeying down toward Detroit or north toward Duluth, would expect to encounter such a threat in the midst of the lake. Thus the Stannard Rock Lighthouse–after an arduous, decade-long process of testing materials, constructing parts of the light tower, and repairing damage incurred during each winter hiatus–came into being. On July 4, 1882, the lighthouse commenced operations.

Lighthouse in the middle of a lake
Stannard Rock Lighthouse, “the loneliest place in America”

That first year, recalled Lake Superior Magazine in a profile of the lighthouse, Stannard Rock taxed its crew: “The light was authorized three assistants, but six came and quickly went. After assessing the bleak surroundings, three quit the Lighthouse Service outright and a fourth made it a bare three weeks before quitting.” The Daily Mining Gazette, writing in April 1932 of the departure of keeper and assistants to Stannard Rock for the season, told the story of a challenging summer ahead. “For months, the four men [Wilbur Belonger, Louis Deroscher, Robert Bennetts, and an unnamed ‘new man from Flint’] will keep vigil on the lake, tend the light, receive signals on their short wave radio set and sound warnings in foggy weather for the benefit of mariners on Lake Superior.” To keep the station fed, and to fight the psychological effects of isolation, “each of the men will have one week off each month, at which time they will go to the mainland for mail and necessary supplies.” On an exceptionally clear day, the other crewmen working might look west and spy the Keweenaw Peninsula or the Huron Mountains on the horizon. Otherwise, their only reminders that a world existed beyond the lighthouse came later in the summer, when lighthouse-tending boats or fishermen ventured far out into Lake Superior. These first weeks of spring were too chancey a time for most sailors to risk the trip.

So the crew on duty polished the lens, filled the light, broadcast guidance, and manned their posts. They climbed the flights of stairs connecting all ten floors of the lighthouse–linking the cellar, pumps, sleeping quarters, eating space, and light–and played cards in their off-hours. Some men did well there: Lake Superior Magazine documented one keeper, Louis Wilks, who served for twenty years and passed upwards of three months “on the rock” without a mainland trip. His assistant, Elmer Sormunen of Chassell, also offered over two decades of service to Stannard Rock. Yet being so far away from community proved to be a greater cross than most men could happily bear. When the Coast Guard took over, according to a 2002 article by Donald Nelson in the Superior Signal, its administration found that the servicemen it assigned to Stannard Rock could generally endure but a single year there. Automation seemed the key to keeping the light illuminated and the shipping lane secure while preserving the well-being of the Coast Guard men.

Man playing solitaire
Louis Wilks, one of the long-serving men of Stannard Rock, playing solitaire.

The last year of manned operation was to be 1961. Tragedy marked that season, however. A gasoline explosion tore through Stannard Rock on June 18, killing thirty-five-year-old William Maxwell and forcing his three companions to flee outside to the deck. Propane and coal stored as fuel at the lighthouse created a massive, raging inferno. The men could not reach their radio, if it survived, and their mainland counterparts apparently failed to notice that the Stannard Rock light had gone out. A buoy tender, the Woodrush, making its biweekly run to the lighthouse found fire still burning and the survivors still clinging to the exterior two days later. Together, the lighthouse men and the crew of the Woodrush put out the flames. One victim of the blast needed hospital treatment; after ferrying him back to the mainland, the Coast Guard returned to Stannard Rock to light a lamp that would hold the station over for the remainder of the shipping season. Other than people investigating the accident and technicians who installed the automated system in 1962, no one would return to serve at Stannard Rock. The loneliest place in America grew lonelier still.

Where the light at Copper Harbor offered sociability and stability, Stannard Rock provided solitude and uncertainty. Living at the Copper Harbor lighthouse drew its young inhabitants into service; being stationed at Stannard Rock drove several keepers away. But this, it may be supposed, speaks to the nature of Lake Superior. The lake challenges. It entices with tranquil beauty and threatens with an unmatched fury. It calls to some and intimidates others. It is peaceful; it is mercurial. It’s home.


Flashback Friday: Fire on the Banks of the Ontonagon

View of scattered wooden buildings in the snow
An early view of Ontonagon from the Brockway Photograph Collection.

To the west of his lighthouse, James Corgan saw Lake Superior spreading before him like a deep blue sheet, roiled and rippling from a stiff, hot wind. The lake had moods that Corgan observed through changing seasons, watching ice creep up along the shore as winter approached and gazing out quietly over its glassy surface on a placid summer day. This afternoon in late August offered no peace, either on the water or ashore. When Corgan looked east from the lighthouse, toward Ontonagon, he saw a village being devoured by flame.

Ontonagon’s roots were diverse. The Ontonagon Boulder, a massive piece of float copper found in the area, helped to spark interest in Upper Peninsula mineral deposits and give birth to the Copper Country. In the 1840s and 1850s, a series of mines blossomed in the woods of the newly-established Ontonagon County. The Minesota Mine, forever cursed with an unintentionally misspelled name, became the most profitable of these early ventures. Countless others set out with hope in their copper prospects, ultimately to be repaid with disappointment. The village of Ontonagon, the seat of the county and well-placed on a harbor, benefited from the people and money that descended on the western Upper Peninsula, from their products that shipped out over the rolling waters of Lake Superior. A wooden lighthouse to safeguard vessels carrying copper out and bearing goods for mines and miners to Ontonagon arose on the lakeshore in 1853; a brick successor replaced it in 1866. For a time, until Houghton County’s mines began to eclipse their neighbors to the south, it seemed that Ontonagon County might be the mining heart of the Copper Country.

As mines like Quincy and Calumet & Hecla proved more prosperous, and as the mines of Ontonagon County encountered difficulties in turning a profit in the 1870s, a different industry emerged. Lumbering gained new prominence in the region, with the first sawmill opening in 1881, according to the Ontonagon County Historical Society (OCHS); a second mill, called Sisson Lilly, began operations in 1882. Both quickly found themselves eclipsed by a larger competitor: the Diamond Match Company. Diamond Match arrived in the Copper Country in 1884, seeking to capitalize on Ontonagon County’s extensive stands of white pine. By the mid-1890s, it had made quick work not only of much of the pine forests but of the other sawmills, forcing out of business or purchasing its regional peers. At its Ontonagon mill, workers produced as much as 100 million board feet annually, per OCHS, and the company, all told, provided work to almost a thousand local men. The town that began as a copper harbor became a pine port, thriving on Diamond Match’s products. Diamond’s slapdash forestry and storage of its timber, however, soon turned Ontonagon into a match itself.

The summer of 1896 began like most Upper Peninsula summers, vacillating between frost and heat. By late July, James Corgan’s faithful lighthouse logs noted a number of warm and breezy days. On August 2, his daily observations included the first signs of trouble: “dense smoke from forest fires.” The blazes out in the woods had not yet come near enough to the village to threaten Ontonagon itself, but Corgan’s log documented its steady march toward disaster. Smoke hung over the lighthouse on August 4 and overnight on August 10 and 15. A few cool and pleasant days offered a respite before August 22 marked the return of smoke. Corgan deemed August 24 “hazy and warm.” It would be the last peaceful day for Ontonagon for some time to come.

Man sitting with child on beach before lighthouse
James Corgan with one of his children in front of the Ontonagon light.

“Something awful has happened to Ontonagon,” wrote the Ontonagon Herald in its edition of August 29. “Where one week ago stood a prosperous village of 2,300 population nothing is left but blackened ruins.” Although nineteenth century newspapers had a penchant for the sensational, in this instance, the Herald did not exaggerate. Fire had smoldered, in the estimation of the paper, for weeks in the swamps along the Ontonagon River’s west banks. When the flames at various times had threatened the Diamond Match Company’s property and goods, the concern dispatched employees to fight them back. Mid-morning on August 25, seeing the fire creeping up on the western edge of Ontonagon, “the company had sent men over with hose to try and check its progress. The reports which came back to town were that it was not very serious.” But the stiff wind that James Corgan observed at the lighthouse whipped the fire into a frenzy. “Men who had families living on the West Side began to get alarmed for their safety, but went to work just the same when the mills started up at one o’clock.” They would not remain there long. The fire alarm racing through Ontonagon as the mills began their afternoon shift called the village firemen to battle the blaze and to realize almost immediately the futility of their fight. Like the crew of a sinking ship, they urged women and children to flee the area.

The homes and businesses of Ontonagon went up like the matches that Diamond produced. Its planing mill and sawmill were among the first casualties, followed by “the Bigelow house, a large four story frame structure.” This, per the Herald, convinced onlookers that they were in true danger. “Every person in the lower end of town who could get away [from] the flames went in the direction of Greenland and Rockland.” At first, some refugees tried to rescue a few treasured possessions or essential household goods. As they ran, blazing pieces of wood from burning buildings and trees rained down upon them. The smoke grew so thick that it blotted out the sun. To their horror, the people of Ontonagon saw houses further ahead of them on the evacuation route succumbing to flames. Hope for survival seemed to be vanishing as quickly as their town.

James Corgan could not abandon his post to flee with his neighbors. His vantage point at the lighthouse offered him a horrific panorama of the fire in Ontonagon. Shortly after one o’clock, he saw the Diamond sawmill–just a few hundred feet southeast–ablaze. Piles of lumber stored about the mill quickly joined it. Corgan had to act. The lighthouse was not only his workplace; it was his home. He had a new wife, Josephine, and several children from a previous marriage, at least one of whom still lived at the lighthouse. Harry Corgan, no more than fourteen years old, joined his father, Josephine, and the family’s hired girl to keep the ravenous flames at bay. The quartet doused the roofs of the lighthouse and its outbuildings with buckets of water to prevent them from going up in smoke. Although the Ontonagon lighthouse sat on the riverbank, “at times the heat was so intense,” said James Corgan, “that we could not obtain water from the river.” Scanty “drops of mocking rain” did nothing to abate the unfolding disaster. At five o’clock that morning, a vessel called the City of Straits had sailed into the harbor to take on a load of lumber, beckoned to safety by the lighthouse’s beam; that afternoon, the City of Straits and its cargo turned to cinders at the dock while the lightkeeper fought to keep his beacon safe. By the end of the day, the scorching sand had burned Corgan’s feet. He, Josephine, Harry, and the hired girl no doubt tasted smoke and for weeks dreamed of fighting an impossible inferno. But the lighthouse still stood on the banks of the Ontonagon River, its lens flashing far out onto Lake Superior as dusk fell.

Charred, smoking ruins
Ontonagon after the fire, as photographed by Adolph Isler.

At last, the fire exhausted itself, though the hot wind blew all night. Those who could sleep took shelter in farmhouses or bedded down with borrowed blankets in open fields. The next morning, the village of Ontonagon counted its losses. The Herald described a razing that seemed total: “the court house and jail, four churches, three hotels, a dozen stores, thirteen saloons, two newspapers, three school houses, the Diamond Match company’s plant, forty million feet of lumber, the large general store of this company [the Herald], the barge City of Straits, two iron bridges, Corgan’s opera house and many happy homes were erased from the face of the earth. It was indeed… woe sufficient to make the stoutest heart quail and bring tears to the eyes of the bravest men.” Among those men was James Corgan. “Went over town,” he wrote in his lighthouse log, “what a sight of devastation.” Remnants of the fire still smoldered throughout the village as residents carefully ventured out to see what yet stood. The Herald began to itemize the losses at residences and commercial enterprises, which ranged from household goods valued at several hundred dollars to Diamond Match property at nearly a million. The lumbering corporation was lucky to be insured for $500,000. Far too many others in Ontonagon found their names in the newspaper with the note “no ins” following it. They would have to rebuild from scratch.

Even more devastating than the destruction of the town was the human toll. Amazingly, only one person died in the blaze, a Mrs. Pirk whose age left her unable to flee in time. Although her family tried to help, the flames kept them from reaching her. Two days afterward, her body was found “about a block from her home… unrecognizable but for a small fragment of clothing attached to her body,” in the words of the newspaper. She was buried in a local cemetery. The September 5 edition of the Herald told of the emotional devastation faced by several parents who had lost their children just before the fire. Mr. and Mrs. James McDermitt’s infant daughter was being prepared for burial when the fire approached their home. Quickly, the grieving mother had her little girl’s body taken to the family parish, hoping the church would be spared. It was not, and the parents had no one to bury. Mrs. Leander Anderson, “a poor Finland woman,” walked the beach on the night of the blaze, watching the flames consume Ontonagon as she held her own child, who had died on August 24. When the fire subsided, she had nothing left but the clothes on her back and her child’s remains. The weight of such losses must have rested heavily on the McDermitts and Mrs. Anderson.

The Copper Country did what it does best in the face of disaster: it found its sisu and reached out helping hands to its people. A first tug, the Colten, chugged into Ontonagon harbor at 5pm on August 26, carrying relief supplies donated by Baraga County. People of Rockland took in countless evacuees; five families in Ontonagon whose residences still stood housed a collective 110 people. One milkman, Patrick Casey, who had faced heavy losses distributed his milk to those in town who needed it more. Julia Herbert, whose business at the Lake Superior House survived, “fed 250 people every meal furnishing them food out of her own supplies. She stood by the flour barrel baking for thirty-six hours till nature demanded her to rest,” the Herald wrote. “What a noble woman.” Donations of groceries, stoves, utensils, clothing, bedding, and building material poured in from towns and businesses across the Upper Peninsula, Lower Michigan, and the Great Lakes states. Relief committees paid rail fare for those who had families elsewhere and wished to join them, including Mrs. Anderson. Even the Diamond Match Company, which would ultimately choose not to rebuild and cast its workers into unemployment, provided funds to help ease the blow. And when a government representative sailed in on the steamer Amaranth in expectation of inspecting the charred ruins of the lighthouse, he saw it instead preparing to guide ships safely on their night’s journey.

Panorama of a town in a grassy valley
Rockland, which sheltered many fleeing from the Ontonagon fire.

Ontonagon survived. It takes more than fire, more than flood, more than financial devastation to keep Yoopers down. Whatever comes next, rest assured that the Upper Peninsula will rise from it, ready to fight another battle.

Want to learn more? In addition to the Ontonagon County Historical Society and the Ontonagon Herald, Volume 1. of “Ontonagon Lighthouse Journal” from Firesteel Publications and material from Lighthouse Friends helped to inform this post.