All posts by Emily Riippa

Flashback Friday: The Town’s Not for Burning

Image of town in ruins
Hancock in the aftermath of the great fire of 1869.

April 11, 1869 was a Sunday. Many residents of Hancock woke up and went about their regular routines in the early dawn hours: cooking breakfast, dressing for church, wishing for a little more sleep. Who could have suspected that normal life was about to take a long hiatus?

Others in the flourishing little village hadn’t gone to bed yet. They had spent the time from Saturday night into Sunday morning dancing at a saloon just a stone’s throw from St. Anne’s Catholic Church, on the north side of Hancock. As the rambunctious party broke up that morning, it seems that someone knocked over the stove whose glowing warmth had kept the dancers cozy through the long night. The burning fuel spread across the floor of the bar. “Without attempting to extinguish the flames which at once sprung up,” wrote the Portage Lake Mining Gazette in an article republished by the New York Times, “the party decamped and left the building to its fate.”

The loss of the saloon would have been tragedy enough for its proprietors. Unfortunately, a minor catastrophe quickly escalated into a major disaster. As with most newborn mining settlements, Hancock’s buildings had primarily been constructed from wood. Worse yet, the wind was blowing from the northwest, swiftly fanning the fire east and south into the heart of town. “In less than half an hour,” wrote the Gazette, “there were half a dozen buildings in flames” on the saloon’s side of the street, “and soon those on the other side caught from the intense heat, and burst out with unexampled fierceness.” In modern firefighting parlance, Hancock had flashed over, a particularly vivid and appropriate term for the rapid spread.

Hancock had prepared to fight a fire, but its people had not anticipated a blaze on this scale. The town had a modest water reserve (Portage Lake was frozen) and an even humbler municipal firefighting apparatus, underwhelming even by the technology of the time. Within half an hour, the water had run out without abating the flames that had already engulfed at least thirty-five structures. The fire continued to spread, forcing inhabitants to flee as it consumed building after building. “The air was hot, suffocating, and thick with blinding smoke–now settling down like a pall over the whole town,” explained the Gazette in an attempt to recreate the horror of the scene. When the winds did lift the smoke a bit, the frightened refugees glimpsed “broad sheets of flame from fifty to five hundred feet in length, and reaching, at times, almost the clouds.” No one whose home or business stood in the way of the blaze entertained any hope that the buildings would be saved. Instead, they banded together to try to rescue the contents. Store owners “tumbled their stocks pell-mell into the streets, and hundreds of willing hands conveyed them speedily, if not very tenderly, beyond the apparent danger.” As the fire’s path became even more ambitious, even the safe places where these goods had been taken had to be evacuated.

Town and structures in ruins
The smoldering remains of Hancock after the fire. Photograph looks north.

About six hours after they had broken out, the hungry flames found no fuel left for them to consume, and the roar of the blaze slowly died down to quiet smoldering. “Nearly all that remained of the once thrifty village of Hancock was an immense heap of embers, covered with a stifling cloud of smoke,” said the Gazette. Some modest buildings formed “a small fringe” along the northwest part of town, where the fire had started; two churches (St. Anne’s and the Methodist congregation) and two public halls that still stood among the ashes must have seemed towering by comparison. Among the estimated twelve acres scorched were some 130 houses and “every store in the town.” Rebuilding would be a massive process.

One cannot help but see parallels between the Hancock fire of 1869 and the flash flood of 2018 in the community’s responses to each. “The people seem to have accepted the situation, and have gone to work with a will,” the Gazette explained in 1869. Their words might as well have been written in 2018. Within a matter of days, Hancock residents and their neighbors had erected the beginnings of more than two dozen temporary structures where the burned ones had stood. Photographs taken of Tezcuco Street later in the year showed a maze of new buildings and framework lining each side of the road; piles of lumber in the middle of the route stood ready to finish the work. Although those who had lost homes and businesses no doubt suffered and continued to struggle, they also fixed their eyes on the path ahead and let their persistence carry them through. Neighbor helped neighbor; friend reached out to friend. Slowly, the normalcy that had existed in the early morning of April 11, 1869 returned.

Today, Hancock bears little resemblance to either the town that existed before the great fire nor the town that rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes in its immediate wake. Survivors of Hancock in its pre-1869 infancy remain, however. Along Hancock Street (the southbound portion of US-41 in town) sit the O’Neill-Dennis Funeral Home and a residence bearing a “CELTIC HOUSE” plaque. As the parsonage of the Congregational Church in Hancock and the residence of Dr. W.W. Perry, respectively, both endured the fire and testify to the endurance of the city. The municipal government also makes available the New York Times reprint of the chronicle of the blaze. These, along with archival materials and books available at the Michigan Tech Archives, tell the story of a town that won’t go down without a fight.  

Want to know more about the fire of 1869? John S. Haeussler’s 2014 book “Images of America: Hancock” provides the most complete collection of photographs showing the before and after, as well as detailed captions that helped to inform this blog post.


Flashback Friday: Flashback to the Tamarack


Image of Tamarack shaft-rockhouse

Tamarack No. 2 shaft buildings pictured in 1892.

An employee walking to work at the Tamarack mine in early October 1901 would have seen the same landscape he saw every day: smokestacks coughing fumes into the air, mighty logs waiting to be hewed into shaft timbers, tall industrial structures silhouetted against the autumn sky. Everything would have seemed normal to him, the prelude to another regular day. Yet the Tamarack was not an ordinary place, and joining the employee at work that day were several men about to do something especially unusual, something that would raise eyebrows for years to come.

The Calumet & Hecla Mining Company (C&H) had already proven the richness of the Calumet conglomerate lode when the Tamarack Mining Company was organized in 1882. Hamstringed by C&H’s property holdings, other mining investors desperately spent years seeking some way to tap into the lode and the profits. Time after time, they fell short. Then, finally, one had an epiphany. John Daniell was the superintendent of the competing Osceola Mine and a crafty mining engineer, and the plan he devised was entirely in keeping with his line of thinking. Daniell knew that copper lodes did not follow strictly vertical paths.

Isometric sketch of the Calumet Conglomerate lode
A sketch of the geography of the Calumet Conglomerate lode, 1931.

Rather, they ran under the earth’s surface at angles. C&H might own the land with the easiest–and most economical–access to the Calumet conglomerate lode, but their holdings couldn’t possibly cover the whole deposit, especially thousands of feet underground. With the cooperation of some notable investors, particularly Joseph W. Clark and A.S. Bigelow, Daniell and the Tamarack Mining Company drove five deep shafts at the very western reach of C&H property. Eventually, they hit copper–and paydirt. The Tamarack lands proved to be remarkably profitable, and the mine flourished.

Daniell’s strategy of plunging deep into the earth was also precisely what allowed the Tamarack to become a massive laboratory. In October 1901, scientists and engineers from the company and from a certain local mining school gathered to study magnetic attraction, gravitational forces, and the behavior of pendulums underground. The Tamarack mine shafts afforded them an unprecedented opportunity. How often, after all, did an experimenter have the chance to work with a plumb line over 4,200 feet long? Since the employees of the mine had already done the dirty, backbreaking work of excavating nearly a mile into the earth, the shafts could serve a dual purpose.

To keep the description succinct, in short the experimenters expected that two plumb lines suspended in a mine shaft would be nearer to each other at the bottom of the line than at the surface. The earth is convex (curved on the exterior), so the plumb lines would be drawn together as they descended toward the core, allowing a precise calculation of the angle the planet’s convexity caused convergence. If that line confused you, don’t worry; that’s as technical as today’s Flashback Friday gets. If that line left you wanting a better and more scientific explanation, head over to a post that Donald Simanek, an emeritus professor at Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania, wrote to analyze the physics and mathematics in greater depth.

Carefully, the engineers present at the Tamarack that October day selected and tested what the Daily Mining Gazette at the time described as “No. 24 piano wire” for their experiment. Once the wire met with everyone’s approval, “it was necessary, of course, that each wire have something attached to it to carry it down. It was not thought best, however, that common weights be used, as it was feared they would in some manner get caught in the timbering [of the mine] and ruin the whole experiment.”

Portrait of F.W. McNair
Fred Walter McNair, one of the men involved in the Tamarack experiment.

Instead, the men fashioned two “balloons… each ten feet long and built entirely of wood… they were two and one-half feet in diameter at the centre, tapering to a point at either end.” Balloons and piano wire descended together into the No. 2 shaft. When they reached the designated stopping point at the 29th level, the balloons were replaced with “50-pound cast iron bobs… then immersed in engine oil in order to kill all the vibration possible.” Now, data could be collected.

The wires had, thanks to the changes in weight as the bobs were replaced and the buoyancy of the engine oil, underground various fluctuations in length. The scientists found these normal, natural, and anticipated. Measuring the distance between the two bobs in the shaft proved more interesting. They hadn’t converged at all. On the contrary, the bobs of the two plumb lines sat 0.07 feet farther from each other than the tops of the lines to which they were attached.

What could have caused the strange result? No doubt, experimenters felt excited by this point. To the layperson, 0.07 feet of divergence might seem insignificant; to an engineer expecting the opposite outcome, it was an interesting problem. Later observers would propose a variety of potential solutions: variations in the density of the crust, buoyancy of the oil, geometric quirks, gravitational effects, or mere misinterpretation. Professor Simanek laid out all of them in turn in the aforementioned Lock Haven article, and those wanting to dig into the nitty gritty may enjoy his piece. Suffice to say, however, it took more than casual spitballing over a few cups of coffee to narrow down the cause.

More interesting, perhaps, to the casual Flashback Friday reader is the way in which the Tamarack mine found itself catapulted into conspiracy theories and weird science. After all, mused some, couldn’t the failure of the plumb bobs to converge mean that there was nothing attracting them in the first place? Perhaps the earth was actually hollow. Maybe, instead of being convex, it was actually concave, curving inward beneath the surface. Surely the Tamarack experiment had shown that more was afoot than met the eye.

Image of men in timbered mine shaft
Underground at Tamarack No. 5, circa 1915.

Of course, in Houghton County in the peak of the mining boom, there was always more going on underground than met the eye. Imagine the thousands of men roaming the shafts day in and day out, carrying tools and lights and conversing in dozens of languages, meeting those just trying to haul rock and those trying to calculate the convexity of the earth. Perhaps the crossroads of the world were not above it at all but instead a mile below its surface.

 


Flashback Friday: Strikes, Codes, and Knives

Image of well-dressed parade
Supporters of the Western Federation of Miners parade through Calumet in a show of solidarity, July 1913.

In July 1913, the Copper Country exploded. Frustration with pay, hours of work, and other grievances related to work in the mines had been fomenting for years, and the arrival of new technologies that threatened jobs–and the enrollment of many locals in the Western Federation of Miners–crystallized into a decision to strike. The powderkeg had been lit, and the communities of the Copper Country would forever bear the marks left as it burned.

Whether a person sympathized with the strikers or the companies, communication at this time was absolutely essential. During the Western Federation of Miners copper strike, which endured until April 1914, a bevy of letters and telegrams on the labor dispute flowed from office to office and mailbox to mailbox. Many of them were lost before they could be preserved in any archives, but several gems mercifully remain, demonstrating the erupting tensions of the strike and the ingenuity of their authors in conveying a message.

Image of letter cut from newspaper
A threatening letter sent anonymously to James MacNaughton, presumably by a striking miner or union member. From MS-002, Calumet and Hecla Mining Companies Collection.

It might be easy to assume that the old words-cut-from-a-newspaper letter is merely an old trope, something that appears in movies but never went beyond the silver screen. Perhaps it is the case of life imitating art–or vice versa. James MacNaughton, the general manager of Calumet & Hecla and arguably the most intractable man on the company side, received just such a letter in November. “Mr. MacNaughton,” the anonymous author warned, “your day has come.” Alluding to the manager’s influence over a vast workforce, the writer reminded him that “you are running 50,000 persons” but that even this vast power had its limitations. “But I only will run You. DYE [sic] you MUST, today, tomorrow or next year.” If the meaning of the message weren’t clear enough, a carefully-affixed image of a short-bladed knife would certainly make the point. “This is your death.”

Of course, MacNaughton and his compatriots had their own unique ways of communicating during the strike, as well. To our knowledge, none of the mine management group ended up sending union leaders images of knives, but plenty of biting commentary and plans to break the strike flew between the local offices of the Copper Country and company directors stationed in East Coast cities. Given the sensitivity of the information and the magnitude of what mine management believed to be at stake, they relied upon their very own code to ensure privacy. This secret language could be read easily by men like MacNaughton, who kept the master cipher, but would appear as gibberish to a person who intercepted the coded telegrams.

Image of two telegram sheets
A coded telegram sent to Calumet & Hecla General Manager James MacNaughton, along with a rough translation. From MS-002, Calumet and Hecla Mining Companies Collection.

 

 

In one such note, sent to MacNaughton while he was apparently in New York for the annual board of directors meeting, the general manager learned that “hundred come paying days balance… looking who conditions up suggest raging wire to parties and hundred fare county thirty men own cast at Potter.” To us–to almost everyone–it was as clear as mud. To MacNaughton, it was the beginning of an explanation that some 235 men had come to Houghton County on their own accord and paid their own fare for travel, not arriving as hired strikebreakers.

Next time you send a message, no matter how trivial, take a moment to consider how easily your words fly across a distance and, most likely, without fear of interception. And please, unless you’re a fictional character in a murder mystery, don’t send anyone threatening letters cut from newspapers!


Flashback Friday: Bishop Baraga, the Snowshoe Priest

A village and a county bear his name. One massive statue of him perches on a rocky cliff overlooking Keweenaw Bay near L’Anse; another, more modest in size, lifts a hand in benediction before the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Grand Rapids, near one of his early missions in the state. Both metaphorically and literally, Bishop Frederic Baraga looms large in Michigan, and nowhere is his influence more apparent than in the Upper Peninsula.

Painting of BaragaIrenaeus Frederic Baraga was born to a family of means in northwestern Slovenia in 1797. As a boy, he quickly mastered languages; as a young man, he flourished in his law studies at the University of Vienna. Yet a career as a lawyer did not satisfy Baraga, who felt called instead to enter the seminary and prepare for service as a priest. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1823 at the age of twenty-six. Initially in service to what is now the Archdiocese of Ljubljana, Baraga later elected to pursue missionary work abroad and departed for North America. His arrival on December 31, 1830 was the beginning of nearly four decades of dedication to the peoples of the Great Lakes region, both indigenous and transplanted.

Baraga’s talent for linguistics served him well in his new role. In addition to learning to communicate with the Ottawa nation for his earliest North American missions, he studied the Ojibwa language intensely and acquired a mastery of it, as exhibited in his later publication of a grammar and a dictionary. Missionary labors required not only mental acuity but physical fortitude: Baraga traveled frequently over long distances and in challenging weather, taking lengthy journeys by canoe and punishing voyages on snowshoes to reach remote villages–hence his “Snowshoe Priest” moniker. The development of the copper mining industry in the Keweenaw Peninsula meant that Baraga was called upon to serve an increasingly diverse community of Catholics, including not only the native peoples dear to his heart but Irish, German, and other immigrants who relied on his sacramental service.

It would be challenging in this space to do any justice to the years that Baraga devoted to providing pastoral care across the Upper Great Lakes, let alone his efforts to recruit priests from abroad to share in his labors. His work certainly did not go unnoticed in his time, however. In June 1852, Baraga received word that he was to be considered for elevation to bishop responsible for the Upper Peninsula. It seems, from transcriptions of his diary, that Baraga dreaded the possibility and found the long wait to hear whether he would be confirmed agonizing. In June 1853, he wrote, “Today it is already a year since I have heard it for the first time: but I am not further ahead than I was then. Stop!” When Baraga finally was told unequivocally that he would be appointed bishop in October 1853, he noted in his diary, “Alas, it has proven to be certain.” A heavy burden lay on Baraga’s shoulders from then on. Any notes that he made in his diary on the anniversary of his consecration as bishop betrayed his melancholy: “Today is the 3rd anniversary of my consecration,” he wrote in 1856. “A very sad day. I could almost say, ‘May gloom and deep shadow claim it for their own, clouds hang over it, eclipse swoop down on it.’” In 1858, Baraga observed “the fifth anniversary of my consecration. Sad… The past saddens me; the present torments me; the future frightens me.”

In spite of the grief that Baraga endured in his role as bishop, he resolved to serve as he had always served: devotedly and devoutly. During his time as the Catholic shepherd of the Upper Peninsula, the diocese established a number of parishes and built churches to serve the burgeoning Catholic population. In the Copper Country, these churches included the first St. Ignatius Loyola Church, dedicated by Baraga in 1859, and the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, built on land that Baraga had purchased in 1853 and 1854. Holy Redeemer remains in service to the Catholics of Keweenaw County on a seasonal basis to this day.

White church building in field
Holy Redeemer parish in Eagle Harbor, as captured in August 1916 by photographer J.T. Reeder.

With his new responsibilities also came the opportunity to create greater good for the causes about which Bishop Baraga was most passionate. In 1843, newly arrived in the Lake Superior region, he had established a mission on the west side of Keweenaw Bay. Baraga named the settlement Assinins in honor of the first Ojibwa man he baptized there, and here he wrote his seminal dictionary and grammar of the local language. As bishop, Assinins was plainly never far from Baraga’s mind. In 1860, he directed the construction of an orphanage and school there; the building underwent an expansion in 1866. Around this time, to ensure that the native peoples retained their ancestral property, Bishop Baraga deeded the land to Chief Assinins and the other Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa.

As long as his health permitted, the bishop also kept up the punishing pace of travel that had characterized his early missionary years. In 1860 alone, he journeyed from Sault Ste. Marie to the Copper Country, out to La Pointe and Superior, Wisconsin, back through Ontonagon, east to the Straits of Mackinac, and down to the area of Traverse City. From there, he made another loop, traveling back to Wisconsin and then taking an extended sojourn through towns like Houghton, Hancock, and Eagle River. He finally passed through Negaunee and Marquette before settling down for four months at Sault Ste. Marie. The next year, he began again. By this time, Baraga was already sixty-three years old.

Sadly, these days of wandering in service of the Catholic Church and her people came to a sudden halt in 1866. After making another punishing trip to Baltimore for a council meeting in October, Baraga suffered at least one stroke and a debilitating fall. For a time, it seemed that the bishop’s fate was to die far from his diocese; he did not seem strong enough for the return voyage. But anyone who knew Frederic Baraga knew that he was a man of determination: when he set his mind on a goal, he could not be swayed. In his infirmity, that aim became a return to the Upper Peninsula, to fulfill in whatever way he might his pastoral responsibilities, and to be near to the native peoples who had been dear to him for so long. Finally, a priest who had traveled with Baraga acquiesced, and with great difficulty the bishop made his final journey to Marquette. On January 19, 1868, he died in his home. In his last days, Baraga had given all the money he had to an Ojibwa Catholic school.

Man standing on giant snowshoe
One of the massive snowshoes for the Baraga statue in the sculptor’s workshop, 1971.

The Snowshoe Priest never knew Houghton as the site of a mining school or a prominent technological university; he did not know that one day he would be the subject of intense interest throughout the Upper Peninsula and, indeed, the world. Yet Michigan Tech gets to share in Baraga’s legacy. Among collections documenting various tributes to him in the local area–including newspaper articles on the installation of his statue at the foot of Keweenaw Bay in 1972–the Michigan Tech Archives also holds an 1853 letter written to Peter (Pierre) Crebassa, a resident of the L’Anse area, in Bishop Baraga’s own hand. Penned a matter of days before he received word of his confirmation as bishop, the letter is a relic of Baraga’s life and one of the oldest archival items held at the university. In the archives, as in life, Baraga is exemplary.

More information about the Peter Crebassa Collection (MS-034), of which the Baraga letter is a part, may be found in the collection finding aid (PDF)

The best collection of materials pertaining to the life of Frederic Baraga is held by the Baraga Educational Center, a museum and outreach point of the Bishop Baraga Association in Marquette.


Flashback Friday: War and Peace

Group at work on clearing land

Creating People’s Park in May 1970. St. Albert the Great University Parish is visible in the background.

Saying that life as a young adult in the 1960s and 1970s was challenging would be putting it mildly. While growing into adulthood has always had its difficulties, these decades saw more than their share: political unrest, assassinations, and the death and destruction of the Vietnam War, to name a few. Student activism–protests, sit-ins, strikes–marked college campuses, most notably at places like the University of California, Berkeley, and Kent State University. Michigan Tech’s name would rarely, if ever, come up in a conversation about famously political colleges, but students here were still engaged, involved, and prepared to speak up for their convictions. Frustration about the loss of life in Vietnam and in student protests on other campuses boiled over at Michigan Tech in the spring of 1970, leading to uncommon days in Houghton.

On the evening of May 6, the Michigan Technological University student council convened to discuss and adopt a special resolution. With the deaths and injuries of thirteen protesters at Kent State University two days earlier, as well as President Richard Nixon’s announcement that the Vietnam War would expand to Cambodia, fresh on their minds, the council members voted 10-6 in favor of a four-day strike from classes. A Daily Mining Gazette article published the next morning quoted the resolution as born of “grief and sympathy for the tragic slayings at Kent State University” and setting “May 7, 8, 11, and 12 as a campus-wide boycott of classes in order to protest the National Guard action at that and other universities and the escalation of the war in Southeast Asia without Congressional consent.” About 500 students in support of the resolution gathered at a rally the next morning, many bearing black mourning armbands and asking for campus flags to be set to half-staff for the duration of the boycott. Michigan Tech administrators agreed to lower the flags in tribute to the four killed at Kent State but felt that classes should be held as usual. Professors, while encouraging their pupils to come to class, nevertheless applauded their commitment to democratic, peaceful principles of protest and encouraged the students to write to their senators. Father William McGee, pastor of St. Albert the Great near campus, took it one step further by warning his young congregation to think carefully about whether to offer their scientific and engineering talents in support of a military-industrial complex.

Students and administrative staff in conversation

Students take a break from working on People’s Park to meet with President Ray Smith, left, and Vice President Ed Koepel in 1970.

To some students, the boycott and lowering of flags did not seem to be enough in the face of so much turmoil in the world. Those gestures, while poignant, would pass, and life would go back to what it was. Instead, they sought to cultivate a lasting good and to express their grief in a constructive fashion. Some traveled to Lansing to meet with Governor William G. Milliken and lobby him for change. Closer to home, part of this expression came in the form of People’s Park, a concept previously proposed and promoted by Fr. McGee. Knowing the desires of students for a meaningful outlet and their concerns for the environment, the priest helped to organize an outdoor work bee on May 9 to clear a parcel of land near his parish in honor of the Kent State dead. By one estimate, over a thousand students participated that Saturday. A group of 300 ROTC cadets, Tech president Ray Smith, and other administrators joined them the following Tuesday. Their dedicated efforts even attracted the attention of Russell Hellman, the state representative for the 110th Michigan district, who read an article about the park’s construction into the record of the State House of Representatives.

Although it had already been inaugurated by a candlelight procession and burning of protest memorabilia in the spring, on October 15, 1970, People’s Park received an official dedication. A Daily Mining Gazette article at the time described the 1.3-acre park as featuring “a creek with bridge and reflecting pond, picnic tables, a stone walking path, large firepit, and plenty of free parking.” Writing for the Michigan Tech Lode, one Husky said that “it is hoped that all those hundreds who labored to create the Park last spring as well as any Freshmen who share the outrage and anguish over what has and continues to happen in the South East Asian War will attend.” Guests who gathered at People’s Park that evening witnessed the unveiling of a permanent commemorative plaque by Fr. McGee and “folk style entertainments” at a “free outdoor coffee house.”

Priest in front of large boat

Fr. William McGee, a staunch advocate of People’s Park, in front of the Ranger III. Photograph courtesy of St. Albert the Great University Parish and Fr. Ben Hasse.

These days, People’s Park is no longer a gathering place for Tech students or the local community. By 1982, campus alternative paper The Student Ego noted that the park had fallen into noticeable disrepair. Industrial equipment hauled from a local copper mine as decoration had begun to decay. Fr. McGee, the champion of People’s Park, had left Houghton years before and focused his attention elsewhere. In his absence and with little support from the student body–which drew the vocal ire of a 1970 boycott participant in the aforementioned Ego article–the protest memorial faded away, reclaimed by the elements. Later, to paraphase Joni Mitchell, they paved People’s Park and put up a parking lot, which now serves students during the week and St. Albert the Great parishioners on weekends.


Flashback Friday: “…When the waves turn the minutes to hours…”

Thanks to singer Gordon Lightfoot and his smash hit single “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” it’s a rare Michigander indeed who doesn’t know that Lake Superior “never gives up her dead when the gales of November come early.” The Fitz is the most recent lost freighter and undoubtedly the most famous, but it is far from the only large ship to be wrecked on the vast, powerful lake. As the Copper Country braces for the arrival of this year’s gales of November, let us take a look back at just a few of the other vessels that Superior has claimed.

The most adventurous of Great Lakes divers will recognize the name Kamloops. The steamship, a package freighter, was bound from Hamilton, Ontario, to the Thunder Bay region in late 1927. Among the cargo was special machinery imported for a Canadian papermaking company and a substantial amount of food, including rolls of Lifesavers candies. When the Kamloops entered Lake Superior from the Soo Locks on December 3, it paused to wait out a wintry squall. Unfortunately, this wise decision to avoid one storm placed the Kamloops directly in the path of another as it neared Isle Royale three days later. It seems that the ship either capsized under the burden of waves and ice or, blinded by the falling snow, sailed unknowingly onto the reefs surrounding the island. Searchers did not locate any sign of the Kamloops nor its crew of 22 men and women until the following spring, when the bodies of nine people were discovered on the nearby shore. They had donned lifebelts and fought their way to land in a lifeboat, only to perish while waiting for rescue. Fifty years after the sinking, in the late summer of 1977, divers finally found the hull of the Kamloops itself, lying on its side in two hundred feet of water just off Isle Royale.

Map of Isle Royale shipwrecks

Map from a Daily Mining Gazette article showing the locations of notable shipwrecks near Isle Royale. The site of the Kamloops is noted in the north central part of the map.

Isle Royale was the site of another notable wreck a little over forty years before the Kamloops went down. The Algoma, launched in 1883, was a steamship operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway and described by one observer a century later as “modern and capable even by today’s standards.” The steamer had electric lights throughout, a remarkable feature in the 1880s, and its hull was equipped with watertight compartments advertised as a sure way to prevent sinking. If this sounds faintly like a certain 1912 shipwreck in the Atlantic Ocean, it should. What felled the Algoma was not an iceberg, however, but a natural feature on Lake Superior. On November 5, 1885, the ship departed Owen Sound, Ontario, in Lake Huron, en route to the north shore of Superior. Driving winds and freezing rain from one of the lake’s famous storms pummeled the Algoma as it neared Isle Royale. Miscalculating his ship’s proximity to the island due to low visibility and limited navigational aids, Captain John Moore unwittingly ordered the vessel be sailed over craggy rocks that obliterated its rudder and sent it into a vicious roll, scattering lifeboats uselessly into the lake. Vicious waves continued to break off pieces of the Algoma, which remained hung up on the rocks that had doomed it, throughout the night. Eventually, the eleven survivors managed to launch the last remaining lifeboat and a number of crude rafts, which carried them to relative safety on Isle Royale’s Rock Harbor. At least thirty-seven other souls aboard the  ship were lost.

The SS Algoma was no stranger to rough seas on Lake Superior. The year before it sank, the ship was photographed arriving at its destination with a heavy coat of ice, courtesy of waves breaking over its railings.

The close of World War I brought one of the most unusual and mysterious Superior sinkings. In late 1916, the thick of the war, the French navy had ordered a large number of minesweeping vessels to clear their ports of explosives left by the Germans. The ships were to be built near Thunder Bay, Ontario, and sailed across the sea under French command after a formal commissioning. Two of these minesweepers, the Cerisoles and the Inkerman, were completed in September and October 1918, respectively. When sister ship Sevastopol was launched in late November–after the war had ended–the three began their journey toward France. The course their commanders plotted would take them past, yes, Isle Royale, around the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, down along the south shore of the lake, and finally downbound through the other lakes. Unfortunately, the weather, always capricious on Lake Superior, had soured by the time the minesweepers passed Isle Royale and headed for the Keweenaw. According to an article written by amateur historian Richard Rupley, winds reached gale force, wet snow fell in sheets, and “waves mounted into dark mountains of crushing water,” forcing all hands into a battle with the elements. No one has ever determined precisely what happened that dark November night, but when the Sevastopol drew up along the leeward side of the Keweenaw, it did so alone.

Some delay in reporting the disappearance of the Cerisoles and Inkerman undoubtedly added to the mystery, but the lack of obvious debris or victims in the water made the investigation even more challenging. Weeks of searching uncovered only a few possible pieces of flotsam and sketchy reports of potential sightings or distress calls. Even investigations several decades after the sinking, conducted with the best of modern technology, could not locate the final resting place of the minesweepers nor of the seventy-eight men on board. Just in time for the centennial of the loss, however, a team of researchers is preparing to try again. Perhaps this time will be the charm. 

The Navarin, a sister minesweeping ship to the Inkerman and Cerisoles. Both lost vessels would have been essentially identical in appearance to this one.

Will the gales of November come early this year, especially around Isle Royale? Some would say that we had our first taste in October, but the forecast for the time being seems to call for smoother sailing. Let us hope that this shipping season on the Great Lakes passes uneventfully, bringing everyone on the waters safely home.


An All-Star Flashback Friday: John Scott at Michigan Tech

Two hockey players on the ice

John Scott (Huskies #20) in action on the ice, 2004

At 7:37 tonight, the puck will drop in the opening game of the 2018-2019 season for the Michigan Tech Hockey Huskies. A team of veterans–fresh off the second consecutive WCHA Men’s championship–and eager freshmen will take the ice in brilliant Tech black, gold, and white, hoping to defend their title for yet another year.

Many famous figures in the world of hockey have worn the Michigan Tech jersey over the years. Tony Esposito, now part of the Hockey Hall of Fame, played goalie at Tech and helped to propel the team to an NCAA Championship in 1965. Mel Person, one-time Huskies head coach and now leader of the University of Michigan men’s hockey program, suited up as a forward between 1977 and 1981. Randy McKay, an alumnus later who later served as an assistant coach at Tech, put his name on the Stanley Cup twice as a part of the New Jersey Devils.

Lately, however, conversation about well-known Hockey Huskies has centered around a name that has surprised many outside Michigan Tech circles. John Scott, who started at Tech in 2002 and received his mechanical engineering degree in 2010, rose to a new degree of national prominence in January 2016 through the most remarkable NHL All-Star Game in recent memory. As a professional hockey player, Scott had gained a reputation as an enforcer, a player who was unafraid to deliver hits, start fights to motivate his team, physically punish opponents who endangered a victory, or protect star players from enforcers on the other team. Forwards participating in the All-Star exhibition match were expected to be drawn from the NHL’s most remarkable players in terms of goal scoring and playmaking–traits for which Scott, with five NHL goals to his name, was not known. Taking advantage of the rule that allowed fans to vote for All-Star team members, viewers colluded to prank the NHL by casting votes en masse for Scott. Scott was initially reticent to the fan campaign but ultimately decided to take the place awarded him following a sudden trade, assignment to a minor league affiliate, and unwelcome remarks from an NHL official concerning the effects of playing in the game on Scott’s children. Over the weekend of competition, Scott scored two goals and was honored as the event’s Most Valuable Player.

Anyone who followed the NHL in 2015-2016 had to have heard the John Scott All-Star story, but few have taken a walk back through the Michigan Tech Archives to discover the John Scott Husky story. Scott’s first year on the hockey team went without much reporting by either campus or community newspapers, thanks in part to a shoulder injury that sidelined him for several games. As the rookie became a veteran, however, his dedication to his teammates, his physical talent on the ice, and his cheeky quips off it garnered him press attention. Journalists took one awed look at the 6-foot-7 Canadian then playing defense and chose a slew of colorful adjectives to describe him. “Hulking” turned out to be their favorite.

John Scott with teammates

Scott proved a valuable addition to the Huskies blue line. By his own admission in his autobiography A Guy Like Me: Fighting to Make the Cut (co-written with Brian Cazeneuve), he joined a team that was struggling to put up wins, especially in the first two years. From day one, wrote a local reporter, Scott was a “tower of strength” on the team. In his absence following that freshman-year shoulder injury, “the Husky defense looked dazed and confused.” In 2005, the Tech coach was quoted as saying that Scott was “our best penalty killer” and that his no-holds-barred playing took “a tremendous load off of the rest of the defensive core.” Although “offense [was] not a big part of his game” and defense was his primary focus, when he scored, observers noted, “it counts.” His first goal as a college player broke a tie against the talented University of Minnesota Golden Gophers. Other articles over the years recorded key moments when Scott knotted up a game with a “greasy goal” against a big rival or a highlight-reel wrist shot received from a teammate’s no-look pass. As the end of his college career approached, it was clear that Scott’s presence on the ice made a world of difference for his fellow Huskies.

And, yes, there were fights. The local papers loved it when John Scott dropped the gloves: it gave them a chance to trot out even more vivid descriptions than the adjectives they used for his height. After a game versus the University of Alaska Anchorage where Scott and Seawolves forward Justin Johnson took a few good shots at each other, one reporter boasted that Scott’s “stomping” on Johnson made the UAA player realize that “he picked the wrong Husky to mess with.” In the last few minutes of a 2004 match-up, University of North Dakota’s Ryan Hale “made the mistake of challenging hulking MTU defenseman John Scott.” With tangible satisfaction, the paper wrote that Hale “came away having landing [sic] maybe one punch and his face completely mauled by Scott.” 

Appropriately enough, it was at another UND-MTU game in Scott’s senior year that a lucky reporter captured this classic quip, the one that might have best summed up his reputation: “I wish there was fighting in this league. I’d love to go out there… and pound on ‘em, but I can’t do it.”

John Scott, for your grit, your lip, and your heart, both on the ice and off–we’re proud to claim you as a part of Husky history.


Flashback Friday: When Storms and Miners Strike

National Guardsmen standing in the snow

National Guardsmen assigned to strike duty in Calumet found themselves in the midst of a freak snowstorm.

We’re no stranger to snow here in the Copper Country, but getting a taste of winter in September is unusual even for us. The bizarre weather and the tumult of the Western Federation of Miners copper strike combined to make September 1913 noteworthy for Houghton County.

On September 19, what the Calumet News described as “a freakish barometric disturbance” formed over Winnipeg and began to drift eastward. As it reached the Midwest on September 20, the storm apparently stalled, pummeling the Keweenaw Peninsula for nearly forty-eight hours. The weather bureau recorded winds of almost forty miles per hour, a number more typical of November weather than balmy September. Rain and sleet fell in sheets. The precipitation and high winds downed telephone lines and cut off service to some 600 phones, mostly in Calumet and Laurium.

Most notably, however, the storm blanketed the Copper Country with nearly three inches of snow. National Guardsmen called to Calumet to enforce order during the strike peeked out from their tents to find their neighbors’ shelters collapsed and coated in ice. A photographer captured five images of the storm’s aftermath in the camp on September 21, showing men with hands shoved into military-issued coat pockets, surveying the damage, squinting against the howling wind, and perhaps questioning their decision to join the National Guard. The images have since become part of the Brockway Photograph Collection (MS-019) at the Michigan Tech Archives.

Collapsed tents in the snow

Tents in the National Guard encampment fared poorly in the wintry gale.

It was a scene that could only have happened in 1913. At no other time in the Copper Country history could the weather and the course of labor relations have conspired to put these men and their camp in the midst of a September snowstorm.

Luckily, the forecast for Houghton County doesn’t include any snow for the foreseeable future. We will simply have to wait and watch to find out when those first flakes may fall. Anyone care to take a guess?


Collection Spotlight: Central Mine School Records

Photograph of shuttered Central Mine School

The second school built at Central Mine. Photograph taken by J.T. Reeder in July 1921, after the school building had ceased to serve students.

I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for Central Mine, the kind of soft spot that leads a person to wander the ghost town’s hillside on weekends and affix an “I <3 Central” decal to a car. It was that affection and the ongoing pursuit of my family history that led me to investigate a thin folder at the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections: MS-787, Central School Records.

The title of the collection is, perhaps, slightly misleading. This worn, weathered volume does not contain attendance statistics, names of teachers, or exam grades. Rather, it consists wholly of annual censuses taken, presumably, by the township school board of school-age children in the Central Mine settlement between 1877 and 1890. By this first year, students had already been attending classes in Central for two decades. What, one might wonder, was the sudden urgency in enumerating all of the children in the village? The timing suggests a certain conclusion. Simply put, Central Mine was successful–too successful. The population of the town soared in response, and the small schoolhouse on the edge of the settlement had been overwhelmed. By 1877, both it and the overflow classrooms in the Central Mine Methodist Episcopal Church were strained to their limits. The townspeople realized their obvious need for a new school, and knowing how many students it must serve was a critical part of construction. The expanded building, shown at the head of this blog post, opened for classes in 1878.

How can a survey conducted to gauge the student population at Central assist you in your research? Genealogists may consider it especially valuable. Consider that, while many mining families put down deep roots, others migrated from place to place within the Copper Country, following the fortunes of the mines from Clifton to Central to Calumet. You may find that your relatives drifted to Central for a year or two before moving on to a different location, where they were recorded in federal censuses. The school census particularly proves its worth in those years between 1880 and 1890. As any genealogist quickly learns, the 1890 federal census is essentially lost, forcing researchers to compensate with other records. Along with Michigan state census forms for Keweenaw County completed in 1884 and 1894, this Central Mine collection can help to bridge the gap.

In my case, I’ll always be grateful to this collection for giving me a few insights into my family tree that I never anticipated. I had two ancestors–a mother and a daughter–whom I believed to have arrived from England in about 1887, since the mother was married that year to a man with deep roots at Central Mine. I expected to find the daughter residing with her mother and new stepfamily in the 1887 school census, but she wasn’t included in their household listing. Had she stayed in England while her mother went on ahead? That would change my research in some interesting ways. I browsed through the other pages and finally found her with a family whose name I didn’t recognize. Further investigation showed that the mother of the family was the last elusive sibling in the mother’s extended clan, a woman who had seemingly dropped off the face of the earth. It turned out that she had merely moved to the ends of it instead, settling in Central with her husband and children. This was the one and only year that my ancestor lived with this long-lost aunt, who soon left Michigan, and I never would have made the connection between the two of them without the school census. This is just one of several instances where the Central Mine school census made the critical difference in my genealogical research, and it may do the same for you.

Want to check out MS-787: Central School Records for yourself and see what insights it can offer? We at the Michigan Tech Archives would be happy to help you. Please feel free to stop by during our open hours (Monday-Friday, 10am-5pm), to e-mail us at copper@mtu.edu, or to call us at (906) 487-2505.


Flashback Friday: Something About a Pasty

Woman preparing pasties

Preparing a batch of mouth-watering pasties. Undated photograph from the Harold Putnam Collection (MS-050).

A good old Cornish song proclaims, “There’s something about a pasty that is fine, fine, fine!” We Yoopers and friends know the truth of those words. The delicious dish nourishes the body and warms the spirit with its blend of meat, potatoes, and rutabaga, all nestled inside a flaky crust.

How did a meal synonymous with Cornwall become a staple of the Upper Peninsula? Cornwall’s long history of copper and tin mining led the rest of Great Britain to remark wryly, “Wherever you find a hole in the ground, you’ll find a Cornishman at the bottom of it.” Life in the mines of England often meant low wages and back-breaking labor, but it also cultivated a skill and knowledge of the work that made the Cornish miners a gold standard. As Michigan’s copper mines were first being opened for industry, their founders looked to Cornwall for able laborers, and the people of Cornwall, whose mines were tapering off, looked to Michigan for a new hope. Twenty Cornishmen, according to one scholarly history of the pasty, were already at work in the Copper Country by 1844. With them came their favorite workday meal, which was subsequently adopted en masse by colleagues of all backgrounds.

Text of pasty recipe

One of many variations on the pasty recipe held at the Michigan Tech Archives. This one was provided by the ladies of the Calumet United Methodist Church.

We don’t know for certain who invented this tasty pocket of joy, which has seen considerable changes over the years, but we do understand why it was so appealing to the men who worked in the mines and the women who prepared their dinners each day. The pasty’s hearty fillings can be prepared in a large batch and energize a person for a day of hard work; the meal can be held in the hand and eaten without utensils; and it’s easy, relatively speaking, for a miner to reheat a pasty over his candle far underground. Nowadays, you’ll see pasties around the Copper Country lunch table, sold at community fundraisers, at picnics by the shores of Lake Superior, or on parade at Calumet’s Pasty Fest, held this Saturday, August 18.

While we can all agree that pasties are scrumptious, debate rages about other aspects of pasty culture. Do carrots belong in a pasty? Should the potatoes be cubed or sliced? Can a pasty mascot appropriately be named Toivo? Most importantly, how can a person justify gravy when everyone knows that real pasties are eaten with ketchup?

Family joyfully eating pasties

Alfred Nicholls and his family show the joy of pasties at the Central Mine Reunion, undated.