Category: 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 – Thanksgiving Week

In honor of the upcoming holiday season, Flashback Friday reminds us that not all meals are traditional. This image, of Sigma Rho students cooking lunch underground at Copper Falls Mine in the 1950s, shows us that we can still smile and be safe as we share a meal. While safely gathering may have a new meaning today, in this context safety measures are indicated by the mining helmets and lanterns! The staff of the Michigan Tech Archives wishes you a happy, healthy Thanksgiving holiday, whether you are zooming in for turkey dinner, gathering outside for a holiday picnic, or having a small, safe gathering with loved ones or a solo chef date.

Also, please note that we will be unavailable for remote research services next week to give our staff a much-needed break. We’ll be back to answering your remote inquiries on November 30. Thanks for understanding and happy turkey day!


Flashback Friday: Loyalty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Making disloyal remarks regarding the Liberty Loan.”

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday – Ghoulish Gourds

Entries into a campus pumpkin carving contest.

Perhaps there is no surer sign of Halloween than pumpkins carved with ghostly and grinning faces, lit up with candles and perched on porches and in darkened windows. People have been making jack-o’-lanterns during the late fall season for centuries. Seasonal vegetables like large turnips and potatoes were used in the early lanterns where the practice originated in Ireland and later taken up in Scotland and England (where beets were used.) Celtic rituals, tricks and warding off evil, and deals with the devil all played a part in the origins of the iconic Halloween symbol. For instance, the name jack-o’-lantern comes from an old Irish folktale about someone named Stingy Jack and European immigrants brought the tradition to America, where pumpkins were plentiful. The tradition has been a part of Halloween in the United States since the 1800s, but the use and meaning of the carved gourds has changed over time. 

Today’s Flashback Friday takes a peek at some of the prize-winning carvings created by Michigan Tech students. Looking back to the 1980s and 1990s, it was common for students to have carving contests as part of their Halloween festivities in dorms and at off-campus housing. Some student organizations hosted similar events. These ghoulish examples are courtesy of the Michigan Technological University Photograph Collection. Perhaps you know the creator of one of these monstrous masterpieces! Happy Halloween!


Flashback Friday: A Coppertown for the Copper Country

Good times seem that they will never end.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday – Campioni’s

Campioni’s Market on the corner of Michigan Street and Minnesota Street in Hancock, Michigan

The date of this photograph is unknown, but it was donated to the archives on this date in 1985. Flashback Friday takes us back to the days of the neighborhood market. This building is a reminder of the era before Big Box Stores and warehouse size supermarkets.

This building was the original Campioni’s Market in West Hancock. Established by Guido and Mabel Campioni in the late 1920’s, it was a go-to for Hancock residents for all sorts of dry goods, meats, and sundries. The market stayed in the family for several decades, later run by Joseph and Margaret Campioni. After Joseph and Margaret passed away, their son Bill, and later his sister, Mary Anne Crooks took over operations.

This particular image shows the end of the Campioni era, as Crooks sold the building to the Keweenaw Co-op when she was preparing to leave to grocery business. The image shows the hallmark G. Campioni sign on top of the building, but there is also a side-shingle indicating the Keweenaw Co-op.

Some clues in dating the photograph can be found on the Keweenaw Co-op website. Their history section states, after starting in 1973 as a pre-order bulk-buying club, the co-op first operated out of the back room of Funkey’s Karma Cafe in downtown Houghton. After quick growth, the co-op soon moved to a small retail space in Hancock, and, after two more moves, settled in its current location in 1986. It seems a circa 1980 date, give or take a few years, is a fair guess in dating this great community photo.

The official opening of Funkey’s Karma Cafe, August 1973.


#AskAnArchivist Day 2020

On October 7, archivists around the country will take to Twitter to respond to questions tweeted with the hashtag #AskAnArchivist. Staff of the Michigan Tech Archives encourage everyone to take this opportunity to engage with us via Twitter or Facebook to ask questions about the archival profession, collections at Michigan Tech and local history generally. 

Questions will vary widely, from the silly (What is the strangest thing in your collection?) to the practical (How can I preserve my family photographs?) 

Please tweet us @mtuarchives or follow the Michigan Tech Archives on Facebook and be sure to use the hashtag #AskAnArchivist. We hope you will join the conversation!

#AskAnArchivist Day is celebrated every October during American Archives Month.

American Archives Month Banner from the Society of American Archivists

Flashback Friday: Charles Kauppi on the Bounding Waves

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

Charles Kauppi belonged on the water.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday: A Tale of Two Lighthouses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday: The Times They Are a-Changin’

It’s hard to believe, but we’ve reached that time of the year when Michigan Tech excitedly welcomes new and returning students to campus. Another academic year is about to commence as students arrive on campus this weekend. Crazy, right?!

As with the rest of campus, the Michigan Tech Archives will welcome our own student library assistants back to the department very soon. We’re really looking forward to having our amazing student employees back on campus, summer always feels a bit strange for staff without them here. 

That said, this fall is going to feel a little different for us as one of our long-term student library assistants won’t be returning this year. Becky Daniels began working in the Michigan Tech Archives her freshman year in 2016 and just this past spring graduated from Michigan Tech leaving the Archives after four wonderful years. 

Due to the abrupt changes on campus in response to the COVID-19 pandemic crisis, our staff unfortunately did not get to give Becky a proper farewell and thanks for her years with us. So, for this week’s Flashback Friday, we’re honoring the amazing contributions Becky has made to the Michigan Tech Archives by devoting our flashback to her. Before she departed, we asked Becky to write up a little piece about her time with us and final thoughts as she embarked on her new journey.

My first day in the archives feels like a lifetime ago, though, in reality, it was just under 4 years ago. When little freshman me applied for the position, she never knew it would become my second home on campus or that it would be so hard to say goodbye now that I am graduating. I can still remember the first few times I ventured back into the stacks to try to find something and found myself utterly lost or having to fetch Allison or Emily to help me do something for the fifth time that week. It felt like I would never really get the hang of it, but, somehow, I still found myself looking forward to coming back for my next shift. To be honest, I still wander into the stacks to put something back or retrieve a box and find myself at a loss on where I was going and have to pester Emily and Allison all of the time- it just feels like a part of the job now! 

The position in the archives really pushed me to become a better, more rounded person. Very few projects I worked on required me to utilize my skills in calculus or physics- instead, they required patience, care, and attention to detail. Being an engineer is not the most helpful trait when you are on your fourth or fifth name on microfilm and you can’t find it anywhere on the slightly blurry newspaper pages or when Allison and Emily give you a “present”- an entire box of envelopes to be stamped. Instead, I had to learn to appreciate the quirky details on those pages and enjoy the time spent at the desk next to my friends with that ink pad and stamp in hand. I learned that even the most monotonous sounding projects had a bright side- from learning more about the local history to finding funny stories- that I may have taken for granted without these years in the archives. 

I don’t mean to make it sound like my time in the archives was all long, tedious projects. To be honest, while there were one or two that I was more excited to be done with than not, I was more than happy to do them. I had never really enjoyed learning about history in a traditional classroom, but I loved having the opportunity to interact with and explore history in a way that not a lot of people do.  On top of that, I gained incredible friendships with the people who worked down there with me. I always looked forward to coming in for a shift and getting to tell Allison and Emily what craziness had ensued in my life since the last shift. I can’t thank them enough for their support and love these past few years. Meeting new people was also a huge perk of the job- from patrons to the people who work with and around me. There are so many patrons that visit the archives with a story to tell or share their joy of finding something meaningful with us and it always makes the days exciting.

Some of my favorite projects from my time in the archives were the death inquests and the memorabilia collection. There were so many stories or cool objects we found while working on these. With these projects, too, I was given a lot of freedom to work at my own pace, make discoveries, and ask questions. I know I am extremely lucky for the opportunity to have the freedom I did to work and, ultimately, grow. 

From here, I am moving to Kalamazoo, MI to start a full-time position as an engineer at Stryker. While I am excited to be starting the next chapter of my life, I will definitely miss the archives and, most importantly, the people there. Luckily, I know this isn’t goodbye forever and I will be back from time-to-time to visit the archives and the people I am lucky enough to call friends. Thank you Allison, Emily, and the rest of the staff down in the archives. I don’t think my Michigan Tech experience would have been as meaningful or fun without you all.  ~ Becky Daniels

Becky, we can’t begin to thank you for your dedication and commitment to your work here at the Michigan Tech Archives; we know that your work with us will have a lasting impact on the countless researchers that will pass through our doors in the future for which we will always be grateful. Congratulations on your academic success at Michigan Tech and on behalf of the entire department we congratulate you both on the beginning of your new chapter at Stryker and your marriage tomorrow! Congratulations, Becky!


Flashback Friday: Fire on the Banks of the Ontonagon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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