Category Archives: About the Archives

This category is used for posts that talk more about the people, services, and operation of the archives as a department.

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.


Michigan Tech Archives Seeking Graduate Intern for Summer 2019

The Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections, a department within the J. Robert Van Pelt and John and Ruanne Opie Library at Michigan Technological University, is currently seeking applicants for the Friends of the Michigan Tech Library Graduate Archives Internship for summer 2019. The archives provides a high level of service to scholars, students and a wide range of walk-in visitors and global patrons through virtual reference. Summer services are fast-paced and we see an increase in visitors, especially through our role as part of the Keweenaw Heritage Site network, a partnership with the Keweenaw National Historical Park. Areas of emphasis include manuscripts, maps, print and digital images which document the Keweenaw Peninsula, Michigan’s Western Upper Peninsula (U.P.) and university history. The intern selected will receive experience in both public service and collections handling. The intern will assist in day-to-day reference activities, including greeting and assisting researchers, retrieving and shelving collections, and assisting university and community patrons with use of materials and equipment. The intern will also gain experience in organizing, describing, and processing archival collections.

Preference will be given to applicants currently enrolled in or recent graduates of (within six months) a graduate archival studies program, but consideration may be given for equivalent education and experience. The following skills are required:

  • Knowledge of contemporary archival practices, policies and procedures, including arrangement and description, and familiarity with DACS, MARC, LCSH, Dublin Core, and MPLP.
  • Demonstrated analytical and research skills.
  • Ability to work independently and exercise initiative, discretion, and judgment.
  • Ability to work collegially and effectively in a team-based environment.

This is a 35 hour per week, part-time summer position intended to span seven weeks. The preferred start date is July 1. There are no benefits included with this position and the successful candidate will be expected to cover travel expenses to Houghton, Michigan. The intern will be compensated for actual work performed in the form of a stipend up to $5,000, to be paid out bi-weekly throughout the duration of employment. Offers of employment are contingent upon and not considered finalized until the required background check has been performed and the results received and assessed. Housing options in the Copper Country include independently requesting a single occupancy dorm room and included meal plan (depending on availability) or making off-campus housing arrangements. In addition to a great working environment you will enjoy exquisite scenery, moderate temperatures, and outdoor activities near the shores of Lake Superior!

To learn more about us, please visit our website: http://www.mtu.edu/library/archives/

Applications are due by April 19, 2019. Direct any questions, or submit your cover letter and resume to:

Lindsay Hiltunen, University Archivist
Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections
Van Pelt and Opie Library
1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, MI 49931
copper@mtu.edu
(906) 487-2505

Michigan Technological University is an Equal Opportunity Educational Institution/Equal Opportunity Employer, which includes providing equal opportunity for protected veterans and individuals with disabilities.


Flashback Friday: The Great Tony ‘O’

Tony Esposito with the NCAA Trophy
Tony Esposito with the NCAA Trophy, March 1965.

The National Hockey League (NHL) Stanley Cup Playoffs are just around the corner, so for Flashback Friday it seems appropriate to fondly remember one of the most recognizable NHL faces connected to Michigan Tech hockey; Tony Esposito! This photograph appeared in the Daily Mining Gazette on Monday, March 22, 1965. The image depicts Tony holding the NCAA hockey championship trophy. Esposito tended goal for the Huskies that season and held Boston College to only two goals in the 8-2 championship final.

Tony Esposito with 1965 trophy.
Tony Esposito celebrates in 1965.

Esposito has some pretty impressive stats from his Michigan Tech days, some which have stood the test of time:

  • Three year letter winner
  • Three time All-America first team selection
  • Three time All-WCHA first team selection
  • Named first team NCAA All-Tournament Team choice in 1965
  • Currently second in goals against average (2.55)
  • Currently third in career saved percentage (.912)

Esposito’s post-Michigan Tech career included a legendary 17-year run in the NHL. His debut was with the Montreal Canadiens during the 1968-1969 season against the Oakland Seals, a relief for starting goalie Rogie Vachon. But more interesting was Tony’s first NHL start, which was a match against the Boston Bruins on December 5, 1968. Tony’s older brother Phil, an intimidating center and seasoned NHL ice man, was a leading threat on the Bruins. Oddly enough, Phil recalls the night being one of apprehension:

“I think I was more nervous than Tony that night. In fact, it was probably the most frightful game of my entire hockey career. I had been a pro since 1962 and was then in my sixth season in the NHL. I was an established player getting ready to shoot pucks at my own brother, who had been in the league only one week.” – Phil Esposito, excerpted from The Brothers Esposito

The game ended in a 2-2 tie. Phil scored both goals for Boston, which Tony recalls as being “lucky shots” which he “should have gotten glove on,” but at least he was able to hold his brother to only the two goals. It is important to mention, Tony made an impressive 33 saves in his first NHL start.

The Brothers Esposito
The Brother Esposito by Phil and Tony Esposito. This book is available in the Michigan Tech Archives.

Not since their street hockey days back in Sault Ste. Marie, Canada had the brothers found themselves on opposing teams. To say the least, it was a historic moment, and one that adds the necessary dose of drama that makes for good hockey stories and sets the foundation for legend-status. Both brothers have been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and have been named on the 100 Greatest NHL Players’ in history list.

Tony’s run with the Habs lasted for only one season and he would go on to join the Chicago Blackhawks off waivers for the 1969-1970 season. He put up a phenomenal season, recording record-breaking shutouts and winning a lot of league accolades, including the Calder Memorial Trophy and the Vezina Trophy. This is the year that earned him the nickname Tony ‘O’ for his shutout skills. Esposito remained with Chicago the duration of his on-ice career, making it to the Big Show several times. However, the Stanley Cup alluded him. But clearly, not all legends get to hoist the Cup.

Every now and then, there is a good Tony ‘O’ story that comes across us in the archives. To us, he will always special, and yes, always a Husky!


Flashback Friday: Unexpected Change: Fire at the Metallurgy Building

The Metallurgy Building on fire, March 15, 1923.

For this week’s Flashback Friday we’re remembering how quickly change can happen overnight, sometimes when you least expect it.

 The early 20th century Michigan Tech campus looked vastly different than it does today, not only in terms of the courses and degrees it offers, but its physical landscape. Many of the earliest buildings on campus are gone, lost to changes in the needs of the university or unexpectedly by disaster. Today marks the 96 anniversary of the fire that destroyed one such building.
Metallurgical building at the Michigan College of Mines.

On this date (March 15) in 1923 fire blazed through the metallurgy building at the Michigan College of Mines. According to a report in The Michigan College of Mines Alumnus from that year, students who arrived first on scene were credited with saving much of the valuable equipment inside the building. First responders reported that the fire appeared to be contained on the second floor of the building, but “minutes later the fire broke out over the whole building.” The Houghton and Hancock fire departments arrived on scene, but by then the fire had spread “into the walls and ventilation ways.”

It was clear that the building was going to be a total loss ($250,000) and not just in terms of the classroom and office space. Students lost personal possessions, records and data for experiments were destroyed, and one particular professor lost a decades worth of research notes. In its wake, classes were moved to the Chemistry Building (which had incidentally burned in 1920) and the department was forced to conduct work “with make-shift apparatus.”

Metallurgy building after the fire, 1923.

However, by September 1923, the Alumnus reported that plans for rebuilding the metallurgy building were underway and by January 1925 the publication was asking alumni to weigh in on a name for the new structure. The new metallurgy building opened for students, faculty, and staff later that year and christened McNair Hall, the college’s former president who died tragically in an accident in 1924. While this building bears the same name as a current resident hall at Michigan Tech, these were two distinct buildings.

McNair Hall. This building replaced the Metallurgy Building.
Regardless of which building it has occupied, since the establishment of the Michigan Mining School in 1885, metallurgy in one shape or form has been integral to this campus. It has evolved from mineral dressing to metallurgy, to metallurgical engineering, to metallurgical and materials engineering, before finally becoming the Department of Materials Science and Engineering in 2000.
Building disasters and failures like the one at the metallurgy building show how change can happen in a blink of an eye. Luckily no one was harmed and rebuilding happened in its wake. It’s a reminder that our landscapes can change quickly, that they aren’t always able to be thoughtfully planned, but even with unexpected change this campus and community continues to grow and evolve.
If you would like to know more about the metallurgy building fire, visit the Michigan Tech Archives during our regular research hours, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. or contact us directly by phone at (906) 487-2505 or email at copper@mtu.edu

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: There’s No Getting Around Winter in the Copper Country

Got snow? It certainly has been a snowy month here in the Copper Country and it looks like we’re in for another round this weekend. While some folks might be griping about all the white stuff, in the Copper Country we make the most of it, which is why we’re featuring this February 1976 photo from the Daily Mining Gazette for this week’s Flashback Friday.
Sometimes there truly is no getting around winter in this area, so what do you do? Just what Calumet native Joseph Meneguzzo, Jr. did at his home at 2042 Calumet Avenue–you go through it! Joseph’s neighbor, Julie Rauch, pictured here, shows off the impressive 15-foot tunnel the ingenious youngster made from the front steps to the road. While the tunnel seems to have been ideal for toddlers, not adults, it certainly shows the tenacity and creativity of most Copper Country youths.
If you’re looking for inspiration for what to do with all that snow in your front yard, look no further!

Archives Travel Grant Program 2019 – Call for Applicants

A photo of the photographer J. T. Reeder at his desk in the Calumet & Hecla offices, date unknown.

The Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections, a department within the J. Robert Van Pelt and John and Ruanne Opie Library, is currently accepting applications for its annual Travel Grant Program, which brings scholars and researchers to Michigan Technological University to work with the archives’ collections. Financial support for the Travel Grant Program is provided by the Friends of the Michigan Tech Library, a support organization for the Van Pelt and Opie Library. Grants are awarded for up to $750 to defray the costs of travel to visit and conduct research in Houghton, Michigan. In addition, graduate students applying to the program may request up to an additional $200 to help defray any duplication costs incurred during a qualified research trip.

The Michigan Tech Archives houses a wide variety of historical print, graphic and manuscript resources related to the Copper Country and Michigan Technological University. Subject coverage is vast, some of which includes university and campus life, regional towns and cities, local industries and businesses, social organizations, events and personalities of the Copper Country and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Primary topical research areas include the western Upper Peninsula, industrial history, particularly copper mining and its ancillary industries, social history, community development along the Keweenaw Peninsula, transportation and the environment. Finding aids for some of the collections can be found here: http://www.mtu.edu/library/archives/collections/.

To apply for funding through the Travel Grant Program please visit the program website: http://www.mtu.edu/library/archives/programs-and-services/travel-grants/

Applications are due on March 29, 2019. Award recipients will be notified by late April or early May. The successful candidate must complete their travel by December 6, 2019. Electronic submission of applications is required.

For further information, please contact:
Lindsay Hiltunen, University Archivist
Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections
J. Robert Van Pelt and John and Ruanne Opie Library
1400 Townsend Drive
Houghton, MI 49931
Phone: (906) 487-3209
E-mail: copper@mtu.edu


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: Winter Carnival Then and Now

Today’s Flashback Friday celebrates all things Winter Carnival with this image from on this day in 2001. Students work diligently to finalize their statue just as our campus community saw a few nights ago during the 2019 all-nighter.

Winter Carnival is a time-honored tradition here at Michigan Tech, with its beginning taking place back in 1922 when the Student Organization presented a one-night show called the “Ice Carnival.” The show consisted of acts, whimsical displays and performances put on in the traditional circus style, with students in an assortment of costumes. The show was held in the old Amphidrome ice rink, so of course the carnival also included ice skating events, including speed and figure skating contests. The circus theme continued for the next two years and, behold, the tradition was born.

The carnival progressed and made changes as the years went on, with the addition of a Carnival Queen competition and the parade in 1928. There is film footage of the 1928 carnival available on YouTube.

A glimpse back at Winter Carnival Queen Candidates.

After 1929, there was a lapse of a few years, but in 1934 the Blue Key Fraternity took over the sponsorship of the festivities and put one on that year. The Winter Carnival of ‘34 looked more like the carnival of today, with a two-game hockey series, a parade, skiing, skating, and snowshoe races, and a dance. The focal point of carnival was the parade, with Greek organization, campus societies, and other student organizations developing elaborate floats.

1936 was the debut of the snow statues, which were built by students and student organizations, as well as local school children. As information on the building methods was passed on from year to year, the statues became bigger and more elaborate, with fine detail work and inclusion of ice art.

Decades, and nearly 100 years later, Winter Carnival continues to be a most treasured time of year for Michigan Tech. This year’s theme is “Years of Innovation STEM from this Snowy Situation.” For more information about activities, contest results, and more, please check out the official Winter Carnival website

A glimpse back at the Winter Carnival Beard Competition.

The Michigan Tech Archives will be open for Second Saturday during Winter Carnival from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, February 9. Take a break from statue gazing and stop in to see some memorabilia and photographs from Winter Carnivals gone by. For more information, please call the archives at (906) 487-2505 or e-mail copper@mtu.edu.