All posts by Emily Riippa

A Murder in Dollar Bay, Part One

Image of buildings at the Dollar Bay docks
A view of industrial operations at Dollar Bay, J.T. Reeder.

Writers and other storytellers have envisioned murders for profit, murders committed in a fit of passion, murders resulting from some deep-seated flaw of character. Then there are those murders so strange that even twisted minds could not have imagined them. This is one of those crimes.

Imagine the Copper Country in 1938. The mining industry was no longer thriving and vibrant in the way it had been at the turn of the century. Plummeting copper prices after World War I led companies to suspend operations at some of their shafts and curtail their workforce, a problem exacerbated by the Great Depression. As many would-be workers left to find jobs elsewhere, the population of Houghton County declined from a little over 71,000 people in 1920 to 47,631 in 1940. In this environment, envision now a man named Wilfred Pichette. Born in Dollar Bay in 1899, he spent almost all of his life in Michigan. As a younger man, Pichette had followed in the footsteps of thousands of his Houghton County peers and sought employment at Calumet & Hecla, where he was assigned to the stamp mill of its Isle Royale Copper Company branch. In 1924, Pichette married seventeen-year-old Laura Bourassa (or Brassaw), also a Dollar Bay native and the second major part of the story. The two set up housekeeping in their hometown, remaining close to Laura’s parents, and soon had a son, whom they also named Wilfred. While the copper industry remained capricious, life in the Pichette house must have seemed normal and promising for a time.

Newspaper image of Wilfred Pichette
Wilfred Pichette, 1938

It wasn’t long, however, until the Pichette family began a downward spiral, the product of chance, tragedy, and, in part, their own choices. Calamity claimed little Wilfred, Jr., first. In February 1930, he was hit by a car and rushed to St. Joseph Hospital in Hancock, where he soon succumbed to his injuries. As the Depression brought a deeper downturn in the copper market, Calumet & Hecla laid off numerous employees, including Wilfred, Sr. Although he later found a Works Progress Administration (WPA) job, the period of unemployment no doubt shook the Pichettes. In 1931, they had another child, a daughter named Norma Betty; blessedly, she remained healthy and safe. Sadly, their second daughter, Winifred, died in 1935 at the University of Michigan Hospital. Complications from meningitis took her life just five months after her birth.

Whether these challenges pushed Wilfred and Laura Pichette to the brink or whether unstable personalities and a troubled marriage already existed cannot be said with certainty. But the descent into tragedy only accelerated when, in April 1938, Laura left Dollar Bay. She and a man who had rented a room from her, Russell Cassidy, traveled to Newberry together. There, they found a home and began living “as husband and wife,” in the euphemistic words of subsequent court documents.

In his wife’s absence, Wilfred proved to be entirely unprepared to take care of the Dollar Bay house and his little daughter. At the urging of his exasperated mother-in-law, he sought a housekeeper, eventually hiring a young woman from Hancock named Marian Doyle to move into the Pichette home. Wilfred knew what Laura and Russell were doing in Newberry and may have decided that turnabout was fair play. In short order, housekeeper and employer began their own affair, and Marian soon informed Wilfred that she was pregnant.

Image of Laura Pichette
Laura Pichette, 1938

An out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the 1930s would have been difficult enough for all involved, but what began as a crisis in the Pichette household rapidly unraveled into catastrophe and crime that went far beyond those four walls. In October, Laura Pichette abruptly returned to Dollar Bay from Newberry. Her relationship with Russell Cassidy had come to a sudden end. The atmosphere in the house immediately grew awkward, ominous, foreboding as the estranged Pichettes contended with each other and with the presence of the housekeeper. Laura came home on a Wednesday. By Saturday, Marian Doyle was dead.

No one outside the house knew what had happened until Mary Marcotte, Laura’s mother, walked to the nearby Pichette house on Sunday, October 23. Mary would later testify that Laura, Wilfred, and their little girl all met her at the door. Laura blurted, “We killed Marian Doyle.” Terrified into excitement, little Norma Betty repeated Laura’s words, her child’s voice telling a story that none ever should. Mary screamed and ran for home, with Wilfred hot on her heels. He urged his mother-in-law to go to the second floor of his house and see the evidence for herself. When she resisted, he retreated. Soon, someone telephoned the sheriff’s office with news of the murder. Dollar Bay’s idyllic autumn morning had been shattered.

Deputies Ernest “Ike” Klingbeil and Matt Verbanac arrived on the scene shortly after noon and knocked at the back door. Wilfred Pichette answered it and, after frankly and intensely confessing to the killing, marched the two deputies up the stairs to Marian’s bedroom. The scene was gruesome to behold. “The body was cold,” Klingbeil said at the trial. “Her eyes were black and blue. There was blood spread all over her face, hands.” Klingbeil and Verbanac also noted blood on the bed and on the wall. By this time, Wilfred Pichette had fallen silent. He would make no further statements to the deputies as long as they stayed at the house.

After they had taken in Marian’s grisly remains and the bloodshed in the bedroom, Klingbeil and Verbanac investigated the remainder of the house. Verbanac testified that they found drops of blood leading down the stairs and all the way into the kitchen. Splattered on the wall, chair, cellar door, and floor in the otherwise clean kitchen was even more blood, and the deputies discovered matching stains on a heavy flat iron. A stove poker showed signs of having been hastily washed. With Marian’s body, Wilfred’s frank admission at the door, and the apparent murder weapons at hand, Klingbeil and Verbanac knew immediately what had to be done. They bundled the Pichettes into their squad car and headed for the county jail in Houghton.

Image of Marian Doyle
Marian Doyle, undated

On the journey to the jail, husband and wife denied any knowledge of Marian’s death and proclaimed their innocence. Everything had been just fine in the Dollar Bay house the night before. With Norma Betty tucked in bed, the adults had sat up listening to the radio and “having a good time” before retiring. When Wilfred and Laura rose the next morning, they found Marian’s battered, bloody corpse, just the way the deputies had seen it. Someone else must have killed her while they slept and fled the house.

The policemen kept driving.

Prosecuting Attorney Frank Condon, one of his assistants, and a stenographer were called to the jail shortly thereafter; County Coroner Dr. Addison Aldrich was dispatched to examine the body. Under the keen questioning of the deputies and lawyers, the Pichettes’ claims of ignorance eroded. Wilfred began by saying again that he knew nothing. Eventually, as the lawyers pressed him, he conceded that he owned the stove poker and flat iron that had been used to beat Marian to death. The prosecutors pounced. How many times had Wilfred struck Marian with the flat iron? Several times, he admitted grimly. The stenographer’s pen scratched across the page.

Laura Pichette was easier to crack. She stated outright and with little coaxing that she and her husband had killed Marian Doyle together. Wilfred had taken up the flat iron and begun the brutal beating; later, Laura seized the stove poker and joined him, striking the housekeeper ten times. She insisted that she had done so only at his request. The fact remained, however, that both Wilfred and Laura had admitted that they “did strike, beat, bruise, wound and ill-treat the said Marian Doyle in and about the head, neck, and body,” leading to her death.

The police and the prosecutors now had two confessed murderers in their custody, murderers who would soon be brought before the court to plead their case. Marian Doyle’s body lay under examination by the coroner, who had the thankless task of determining which of her numerous injuries had been the fatal one. The local newspaper would not be long in picking up on the story, especially when Wilfred and Laura’s stated reasons for killing Marian Doyle were made public.

She was a witch, they said. She had been “full of devils,” and her death had cleansed the house of “evil spirits.”

The death of Marian Doyle–what the papers called the Witch Murder, the Spirit Slaying–became a circus that drew crowds to wait in the street outside the courthouse and shone a spotlight on quiet Dollar Bay. The story grew only more sensational as witnesses came to the court and as the accused appeared before the judge to make their statements. What happened next seemed to have been taken straight from a soap opera or crime drama, but it was all entirely true.

Next week’s sequel to this Flashback Friday will address the trial and aftermath of the crime. Sensationalism, tragedy, and mystery lie ahead. Be sure to come back and learn how the story ends.

 


Flashback Friday: Thank You, Michigan Tech Nurses

 

Image of nursing students from promotional brochure
Michigan Tech nursing students shown in action for a brochure advertising the program.

Michigan Tech has long been recognized for the excellence of its programs across the board. From biochemistry to forestry to mining, it’s hard to find a field where Huskies haven’t opened up new opportunities and excelled as Crazy Smart professionals.

Many Tech students, however, don’t wait until after they graduate to start blazing trails. Between 1973 and 1982, a group of students–the majority of them women–paved the way for a new brand of nursing education in the Copper Country and laid the groundwork for several top-notch programs in health sciences and medical technology that serve Huskies today. Those who have majored in kinesiology, biomedical engineering, medical laboratory science, and other health and pre-health programs owe a debt of gratitude to the nurses of Michigan Tech.

Image of St. Joseph Hospital buildings
The St. Joseph Hospital campus, circa 1952. The tall building at the center left replaced the one at the far right as the main hospital in about 1951.

From the early 1900s on, nursing education in the Copper Country had generally taken place in hospital settings. St. Joseph’s Hospital (later Portage View/UP Health System Portage) in Hancock established its own school of nursing in 1920 and trained 700 nurses over the course of fifty years. Teachers came from the hospital’s staff, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. The Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s marked the beginning of difficult times for many religious orders, however, and in the years that followed the Sisters of St. Joseph began to turn the operation of the hospital over to the local community. As part of the transition, the nursing school would be shuttered; the class of 1974 would be the last to graduate.

The western Upper Peninsula still desired a place to educate its nurses close to home, though, and Michigan Tech stepped up to take the place of St. Joseph’s. It was a logical decision: the hospital’s nursing school had begun to hold some non-clinical classes on the Tech campus in 1965 and to enroll its students in university science courses. By 1972, a St. Joseph’s nursing student could receive a certain amount of financial aid from Tech, reside in its dormitories, and earn 31 hours of credit at the university over the course of a twenty-month diploma program. Michigan Tech proposed to construct an associate degree program in the School of Technology that would conform to university standards and meet state requirements for nursing education. The program was formally announced in August 1973, and students enrolled in pre-nursing science courses in the fall quarter. Nursing classes began the following spring, and the first students graduated with Michigan Tech nursing degrees in June 1975.

Image of nursing profile in alumni publication
The nursing program was profiled for an alumni publication in the winter of 1976. “Typical of Tech,” wrote the article’s author, “it’s rigorous and demanding.”

What were the experiences of these students like? Most enrollees were women, mirroring the demographics of other American nursing programs at the time; an article written in 1976 noted that 114 of the current 120 students were female. They were an elite group: the program had almost immediately attracted enough interest to form a waiting list, and only those who could meet Michigan Tech’s stringent admissions requirements were accepted. The nursing degree imposed an additional condition that reflected the unique demands of nursing: good physical and stable emotional health. Instructors were highly experienced nurses who emphasized strong relationships with their students, creating an effective learning environment. More than 80 percent of students enrolled in those first years graduated; the national average for nursing programs at that time was 70 percent.

The high graduation rate, however, should not be understood as a sign that the program was easy. Courses and clinical work pushed and challenged aspiring nurses. In their first two quarters at Tech, nursing students studied human biology, microbiology, psychology, and sociology, as well as English composition and political science. Nursing coursework, which began in the third quarter, addressed such topics as the health impacts of acute stress, caring for those with long-term illnesses, and providing care to populations with varied needs and health considerations.

Clinical experience and field trips, so vital to any nurse in training, naturally played a significant part in a Michigan Tech education, as well. Nursing students ventured both into the local community and further afield for their practical experience. Calumet Public Hospital in Laurium hosted students for clinicals, as did Portage View Hospital and Houghton County Medical Care, a long-term facility, in Hancock. At this time, the storied Newberry State Hospital–renamed the Newberry Regional Psychiatric Hospital in 1977–was still in operation, and students made the trek across the peninsula to see how medical staff there cared for individuals facing mental health challenges. A second field trip took them to Bay Cliff Health Camp near Marquette, where children with physical disabilities could have fun and receive therapy.

Image of uniformed nursing graduates.
Class photograph for the 1976 nursing graduates of Michigan Technological University.

As at the nursing school at St. Joseph’s, and as it had been hoped, students graduating from Michigan Tech’s nursing program often chose to serve the local community. In 1980, about half of all Tech nursing alums remained in the Upper Peninsula, and approximately one-third worked in the western region. Many returned to the sites of their clinicals to find a job: that same year, nurses educated by either Tech’s program or its predecessor at St. Joseph’s constituted 90 percent of the nursing staff at Houghton County Medical Care, 60 percent at Portage View Hospital, and 57 percent at Calumet Public Hospital. At Baraga County Memorial Hospital in L’Anse, 58 percent of the staff claimed Tech or St. Joseph’s as alma mater.

While the nursing program at Michigan Tech ended with the class of 1982, its influences continue. Graduates, who number a little over 300 in total, continue to faithfully care for patients in hospitals across Michigan and throughout the country, earning professional accolades and successfully pursuing further education in their chosen field. Meanwhile, majors allowing Huskies to contribute to the ever-changing field of health professions continue to flourish: biological sciences, kinesiology, bioinformatics, and other programs remain popular, groundbreaking choices on campus today.


Flashback Friday: Snow Melt, Go Smelt

Group of people with nets
A group of happy smelt dippers near Chassell on April 19, 1958.

Spring in the Copper Country means that–finally!–the snow begins to melt, the songbirds return, and the smelt begin to run. When we talk about smelting at the Michigan Tech Archives, usually we’re referring to the process of turning milled copper into ingots under high heat. Spring brings a different meaning, one that’s more fun and more than a little fishy.

If you’ve lived around the Copper Country, odds are you’ve encountered a smelt or two, in the wild or on your plate. For the uninitiated, a smelt is a small fish about six to eight inches in length, though smelt elsewhere have been known to grow to more than two feet. The story goes that smelt were introduced into the St. Marys River downstate on four different occasions–unsuccessfully–as feed for sport salmon before someone stocked the inland Crystal Lake with them in 1912. It’s hard to find a small lake in Michigan that won’t connect with a Great Lake eventually. The smelt learned this as they traversed the waterways that led them to Lake Michigan, where they were first detected in 1923. By 1925, they had traveled to Lake Huron and by 1929 to Lake Ontario. They wouldn’t make it to Lake Erie until 1932. In between, in 1930, smelt showed up in Lake Superior. 

For a time, the smelt population in the Lake Superior region remained fairly small. Though the first sport salmon struggled, other fish like lake trout found the smelt to be a tasty snack. As Sea Grant Minnesota explains, though, when invasive sea lampreys arrived in the Great Lakes, they went after the fish that had kept the smelt at bay. In classic predator-prey form, the number of smelt soared. Meanwhile, the burgeoning population of smelt contributed to the problem by feeding on the larvae of cisco, or lake herring, which were also food for the lake trout. As long as the trout remained at bay, the smelt could frolic freely in Lake Superior and the streams that fed her. 

People waiting in line at lunch stand
Enterprising Chassell residents raised money for the Panthers sports teams by selling coffee, hot dogs, and sweets to the smelt dippers.

These predator-prey-invasive species dynamics helped to create the phenomenon of smelting, or smelt dipping, in the Upper Peninsula. With the warming temperatures of spring, as Fred Hartshorn explained in his piece for the publication Copper Country Anthem, “the jelly in the egg sack of female smelt starts to break up, telling her she should start up stream to spawn.” This movement, known colloquially as running, occurs when the water hits about 38 degrees Fahrenheit, generally in April. Locals eager to take advantage of the running smelt have descended on streams with hand nets for decades and especially since the population spiked in the middle of the last century, making a fishing trip virtually guaranteed to be successful. For many years, it wasn’t uncommon to see smelting parties of hundreds of fishermen descending on places like Chassell’s Pike River, armed with nets and ready to catch buckets full of the little fish to sell or eat.

Nowadays, the population of smelt is not nearly what it was in the heyday of smelt running, but people still flock to the streams in hopes of coming away with a bucket of the good stuff. According to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, smelt season goes through May 31, so grab your net and your fishing license, and head on out while the weather is fine!


Flashback Friday: The Sands of Mine

Image of dredge spraying water
A Calumet & Hecla dredge in action on Torch Lake

The Copper Country has its icons: Lake Superior, the Quincy No. 2 shaft-rockhouse, the Portage Lake Lift Bridge, to name a few. Those with a passion for industrial heritage or a penchant for exploring might also point to a landmark on Torch Lake. On the shoreline of the mill town of Mason along M-26, a rusted and decaying hulk looms out of the water. This industrial dinosaur, out of commission for decades and now known simply as “the dredge,” once cut an impressive figure as it and others like it trawled the lake in search of red metal.

Early in the heavy industrial period of the Copper Country, Torch Lake developed as a central location

Image of mills along Torch Lake
Map of Calumet & Hecla smelting and mill works. Notice the immense spread of stamp sand created near the Hecla Mill (right).

for company stamp mills. Copper, of course, does not come out of the ground already processed and molded into shining ingots; it is largely piecemeal, lodged in larger chunks of poor rock from which it must be removed. With steam-powered machines fueled by the abundant waters of Torch Lake, stamp mills crushed that rock into small pieces and sorted the usable copper from it. The sizable pieces of poor rock could be preserved for use in construction of roads or buildings. In the years before about 1910, however, the smallest fragments (tailings) offered little value to companies like Quincy and Calumet & Hecla. For the sake of convenience and cost, they dumped this waste material virtually wholesale into the adjacent lake.

The mining companies, however, kept an eye on and indeed played an important role in the development of innovative technologies that could improve their efficiency and maximize their profits. In the dawn of the twentieth century, however, new processes and devices offered the Copper Country’s bigger players a chance to turn their trash into cash. In March 1913, C&H chief metallurgist C. Harry Benedict received a patent for a procedure that would use ammonia solutions to “leach,” or drain, native copper from the rock containing it. We’ll skip the technical details for now, but interested readers might enjoy a description published in the professional Mining Journal in 1915. The sophisticated and yet logical system suddenly opened up possibilities for what historian Larry Lankton estimated as 152 acres of C&H tailings dumped in Torch Lake. Rather than waste, they were brimming with copper ready to be reclaimed.  

Before the copper could be leached from the rock with Benedict’s ammonia process, it had to come out of the lake. Here’s where the dredge sailed into the picture. Other mining districts, including parts of California, had just begun to adopt these large, multi-story vessels to scoop up river rock in search of gold, and C&H quickly got on board. A report in the Mining and Scientific Press described the proposed operations of the company’s new dredge:

“This old tailing, after passing through the usual pipe-line supported on pontoons, will discharge at a point on the shore of the lake near the regrinding plant, where a second set of suction pumps will pick it up and raise it to a set of classifying and dewatering tanks… the main dredge has a capacity much greater than the rest of the plant… and a portion of the sand pumped will be diverted to fill the excavation [of the lake] made during the winter.”

Image of dredge inner workings
Inside a Calumet & Hecla dredge

The dredge that arrived to begin the reclamation process in about 1915 was the handiwork of South Milwaukee’s Bucyrus-Erie Company, and, according to one Daily Mining Gazette article, weighed some 1150 tons. A second dredge, also with a hull and machine by Bucyrus, arrived in 1924; the company appears to have owned a third only briefly. Until the 1950s, the dredges did exactly what C&H had hoped, scooping up over 50 million tons of Torch Lake tailings that produced 423 million pounds of copper. Men from the mill towns of Hubbell, Lake Linden, and other settlements in particular found employment in the C&H reclamation division, which pioneer Benedict–in a remark that may seem somewhat self-aggrandizing–credited as preventing the complete collapse of the Copper Country when prices for the mineral fell in the wake of World War I.

Dredge submerged in Torch Lake
The sinking of a Quincy dredge

The Quincy Mining Company also got into the reclamation game, but their dredge purchases came much later. Buck Construction in Superior built the house of their first dredge; Bucyrus provided the hull and machinery. Quincy Dredge #1 began its work in about 1943 and sank unceremoniously into the lake on January 15, 1956. It remains there, hidden under the gently lapping waters, to this day. This sinking, however, did not put Quincy out of the reclamation business. Shortly before, C&H had sold its original dredge to the competition. According to the Gazette, Quincy operated this grand old vessel until 1967, when its work was over, and it collapsed, exhausted, on the stamp sand beach.

Thus ended the era of copper reclamation on Torch Lake, and so began the slow decay of an icon. Today, it bears the rust and rot marks of time and the scars left by visitors. In spite of its infirmities, the dredge offers a fascinating testament to the ingenuity and scientific advance of the copper mines and the industrial heyday of the Keweenaw Peninsula.


Flashback Friday: Young at Heart

Elderly woman with birthday cake
Mamie Nelson of Hancock celebrating her 123rd birthday.

On February 3, 1948, Mamie Nelson celebrated her 123rd birthday. For the occasion, she donned a black dress that matched the fashions of an older era and made the journey from her residence at the Houghton County Infirmary down to a photographer’s studio. There, no doubt with great care, she settled into a chair before a painted arbor backdrop and fixed her rheumy gaze upon the camera. One eyelid no longer seemed to open; the other did so after a valiant struggle, revealing a blind eye. She mustered the best smile that age allowed her and made sure her close-cropped white hair had been tucked neatly behind her ears. On a carved stand next to her, someone placed a birthday cake, elegantly scalloped with white frosting for the big day. With the click of a shutter, Mamie Nelson’s birthday entered history. Locally, at least.

If it seems unlikely that a person could live more than 120 years and remain so unknown to the world, it should. Mamie might have celebrated the 123rd anniversary of her birth, but that didn’t mean that she had actually reached such an age. Somewhere along the line, it appears that Mamie started to age more than one year at a time. So, who was this woman who claimed to be a supercentenarian? What was her story?

According to an obituary published in the Daily Mining Gazette–summarizing information that Mamie had offered in a number of interviews–the aged Mrs. Nelson was born in Ireland in 1825. At that time, the writer noted, “James Monroe, fifth president of the United States, was completing the last year of the second term of his administration… the king of the British realm at that time was George IV, son of the king who lost the American colonies.” Mamie described an impressive and interesting childhood. She attested that she had seen Queen Victoria in person on at least one occasion. This was the least of the wonderful sights, however. “Her father was the master of a sailing vessel engaged in trade between England, China, Japan and India,” the Gazette said in her obituary, “and as a girl Mrs. Nelson made many voyages with her father to the land of the Far East.” In total, she would claim a total of 32 transatlantic voyages. The circumstances that had brought this supposed globe trotter across the Atlantic one last time went unexplained.

At some point after her arrival in the United States, according to Hidden Gems and Towering Tales: A Hancock, Michigan Anthology, Mamie said that she resided in Illinois; she moved to the Copper Country in 1863. She described vivid memories of Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration in 1861 and his tragic assassination in 1865; she told of the horrors of the great Hancock fire of 1869 and the loss of the Lake Linden home that she shared with her husband, Carl, to a similar blaze in 1887. Later, the Nelsons operated a pasty bakery out of a residence in Hancock. 

Canoe passing by Lake Linden
Lake Linden in 1898, around the time Mamie and her husband Carl resided there.

As best as we can tell, these tales mix strict truth with colorful exaggeration or misunderstanding. Archival evidence about Mamie is scanty at best and often contradictory. She never deviated in declaring her Irish birth; this may have been a point of pride for her. She was listed in the 1910 federal census at 303 Quincy Street in Hancock, providing her age as 80 and her year of immigration as 1831. By 1920, she had aged to 94, with an immigration year of 1826. These appear to be the earliest instances of Mamie professing an exceptional age. In contrast, when the census taker came in 1900, he found Mamie (listed as Mary) and Carl Nellson [sic] living in Torch Lake Township near Lake Linden. In those days, Mamie gave her year of birth as a more modest 1855 and her year of arrival in the United States as 1856. This would have made her some 93 years old in 1948–a venerable number, to be sure, but not a record-breaking one.

If Mamie was indeed born in 1855, her true age did not preclude her incredible stories from being true. She would have been six when Lincoln was inaugurated and ten when he died; if she lived in Hancock, she would have experienced the great fire at fourteen years old. Such tremendous events as these stick in the minds of even small children and certainly in those of teenagers. Ask someone who was young when Pearl Harbor was bombed, Kennedy was assassinated, or 9/11 occurred about those times, and the memories come back as clearly as yesterday.

And perhaps Mamie’s father really was a ship’s captain who voyaged around the world, taking his daughter with him. Crossing the Atlantic nearly three dozen times was no less a feat if the journey started in the United States than if it started in Ireland. Maybe she truly did see Japan and India, and the wonders of these worlds inspired in her a new appreciation for her tight-knit Keweenaw communities. On the other hand, maybe these stories grew from a colorful and vivid imagination, the result of Mamie’s daydreams as she rolled out pasty crust and chopped potatoes. 

We may never know how Mamie Nelson spent her early days, how old she truly was, or what led her to believe or claim that she was 123 years old. One declaration may be made with certainty, however: whether the tales she told came from reality or from inside her head, this Copper Country woman lived an exceptionally interesting life.


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.