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.
This category is used for posts that talk more about the people, services, and operation of the archives as a department.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2019 will be observed on Monday, January 21. This year, Michigan Tech is celebrating 30 years of the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Banquet and MLK Week under the theme of “Living Fearlessly.” Today’s Flashback Friday honors Michigan Tech’s tradition of celebrating MLK in creative and inclusive ways.
The tradition of formally recognizing Dr. King was started by campus leaders in the late 1980s and has taken many forms over the years. The banquet and reading of speeches have been important components since the early years of the celebration, but there have also been art installations, discussion groups, campus and community marches, and other enriching outreach and service activities throughout the history of Tech’s MLK celebrations.
Staring on Sunday, January 20, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, along with campus and community partners, will kick-off an entire week of activities planned to honor King’s legacy and remember his activism and leadership. Programming begins with a community-wide gathering and panel discussion at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church called “Let’s Talk About Race.” On Monday, during the official observance of MLK Day, Michigan Tech students will visit local elementary schools to read from selected works highlighting the life, leadership, and lessons of the civil rights leader. The annual banquet will be held Monday night.
In an effort to join the celebrations, the Van Pelt and Opie Library will be hosting a small display of books and images related to Civil Rights and Black History on the first floor of the library. In addition, the Michigan Tech Archives will post a call for participants for phase two of the Black Voices in the Copper Country – My Michigan Tech Experience Oral History Project. The oral history project is part of an ongoing effort to support diversity in the department’s collection development strategy.
A full schedule of events is included below:
Sunday, January 20, 2019
“Let’s Talk About Race,” in the Copper Country– A Community-Wide Gathering and Panel Discussion
Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, 4:00 pm
1100 College Avenue, Houghton, MI
Monday, January 21, 2019
MLK Reading Day
Houghton, Hancock, and Dollar Bay Elementary Schools, 9am-3pm
30th Annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Banquet
Memorial Union Building (MUB) Ballroom, 5:30pm
Keynote Speaker- Donzell Dixson, Michigan Tech ALumni
Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Fearlessly Facing Fear Panel Discussion
Memorial Union Building (MUB) Alumni Lounge, 6-8pm
Presented by Speak It Tour featuring: Donzell Dixson, Elijah Kondeh, and Donte Curtis
Wednesday, January 23, 2019
NSBE Host’s “What Do You Know about Dr. King?” discussion
Fisher 138 @ 6 pm
For more information about MLK Week celebrations at Michigan Tech, please contact the Center for Diversity and Inclusion at (906) 487-2920. For more information about the Black Voices project or the Archives, please call (906) 487-2505 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s been a wild and wacky snow season so far in the Copper Country. We’re beginning to think that Heikki Lunta can’t seem to make up his mind this year. We’ve seen plenty of rain, snow, and wintry mixes out there, which is why we’re taking a moment during our Flashback Friday this week to give a little shout out to all of those who keep the roads and sidewalks clear and safe each winter.
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.
Irenaeus 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.
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.
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.
Joseph Bosch, founder of the Bosch Brewing Company, had always yearned to enter the brewing industry. He had learned much from his father, a brewer in his native country of Germany, who had brought the family to Lake Linden, Michigan in 1867. A desire for more knowledge and experience led the young Bosch to Cleveland, Fort Wayne and finally Milwaukee, where he worked for the Schlitz brewery. He returned to Lake Linden in 1874, erected a small wooden building and began brewing operations as the Torch Lake Brewery, Joseph Bosch & Company. Bosch operated the brewery on his own for the first two years, but in 1876 admitted several men on a partnership basis. The company continued as a partnership until around 1894, when the reorganized firm issued stock under its new name, the Bosch Brewing Company. The company continued in operation for nearly a century, closing the last of its facilities in 1973.
In the early years of brewing in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, little if any beer was sold in bottles. Bosch saw the potential of this packaging, however, and the company began bottling on a small scale before 1880. By 1883, the original wooden building in Lake Linden had been enlarged and the company was producing 4,000 barrels of beer annually, one quarter of which was bottled. The brewery was completely destroyed in a great fire that swept through Lake Linden in 1887, but the demand for its product fired quick construction of new facilities. By the turn of the century the Bosch Brewing Company had brewing facilities in Lake Linden and Houghton, as well as branches and storehouses in Calumet/Laurium, Hancock, Eagle Harbor and Ishpeming. Having survived the difficult years of prohibition, the company finally closed the Lake Linden facility in favor of the better-situated facilities in Houghton.
Stressing the relationship of its product and the community, the Bosch Brewing Company featured many local themes in its advertising. Promotional phrases such as the “Refreshing as the Sportman’s Paradise” kept the small brewery close to the hearts of Copper Country natives and visitors from farther afield. The company found itself increasingly unable to compete locally with the larger breweries of Milwaukee and St. Louis, however, and the last keg of beer was ceremoniously loaded onto a wagon for delivery to a local tavern on Friday, September 28, 1973.
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 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.”
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.