Copper Range Railroad Exhibit – Call for Traveling Exhibit Hosts

Last October the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections launched its latest traveling exhibit, “Becoming the Pride of the Upper Peninsula: A Glimpse at the Early Years of the Copper Range Railroad.” Now that the summer tourist season is upon us, the exhibit is ready to travel to regional heritage sites for display.  

A hunting party gathers at the Copper Range depot in this undated photograph.

The exhibit contains six panels that document the early years of the Copper Range Railroad, from the early founding of the railroad until its initial expansion beyond the main line. The last panel provides a glimpse beyond the formative years, including the impact of the decline of mining in the area, the school train runs, and the dissolution of the company.

The exhibit is available to be loaned to partner host sites on a monthly basis from June 2019 – June 2020. The Michigan Tech Archives will assist with delivery/pick-up options for the panels and will also provide booklets and postcards for each host site. Site hosts are asked to formally launch the exhibit by having an opening reception or some special program surrounding the exhibit.

If you are interested in hosting the exhibit at your museum, library, or school please contact university archivist, Lindsay Hiltunen, at (906) 487-3209 or at copper@mtu.edu.

This exhibit was made possible in part by the Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission Heritage Grant Program. All research was conducted in the Michigan Technological University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections.

The Copper Range Railroad exhibit on display at its initial launch in October 2018.

Flashback Friday: Rolling Into Commencement Weekend

Soichiro Honda
Soichiro Honda and Michael Comstock pose on the Honda CB 350 Four that was given away at the May 1974 commencement ceremony.

Commencement weekend is upon us once again! To honor all the hard work of those graduating this spring, our Flashback Friday looks back to the honest words shared during a very special commencement. It was May 18, 1974 and President Raymond L. Smith, the Board of Control, students, faculty, and guests were very pleased to welcome Soichiro Honda, Founder of the Honda Motor Company, as the commencement speaker and recipient of an Honorary Doctorate in Engineering. It was fitting that this most special commencement, to that point the largest one held at Michigan Technological University, should have a surprise or two.

First, Honda’s address to the 736 graduates was presented in Japanese with accompanying translation. Yet, the biggest surprise, much to the delight of the graduates, was when President Smith closed out the ceremony by rolling out a brand new super-deluxe Honda CB 350 Four. He then announced that Mrs. Honda, who had accompanied her husband from Tokyo, would present the motorcycle to one of the graduates. Our Flashback Friday photo depicts Honda and the lucky winner, Michael Comstock, an honors graduate who received his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. Talk about starting your next chapter on the right foot, or wheel rather!

To help inspire and wish well all those who are graduating this weekend, the translation of Soichiro Honda’s commencement address is shared in full below. Best of luck Huskies! Onward and upward!

Mrs. Soichiro Honda
Mrs. Honda as she selects the winner of the motorcycle during the 1974 commencement at Michigan Tech.


Simple Rules for Life Cycling by Soichiro Honda
It was 15 years ago that my company first brought motorcycles into the United States. In this country at that time, motorcycles were ridden by only a limited group of people, notably those who were labeled “black jackets,” and who were not well received by society. I was told by many people that trying to sell motorcycles in the United States would be ridiculous and a waste of time and effort.

But, I knew from my own experience of youth what young people are attracted to. Furthermore, I was convinced that if we brought in new, original motorcycles that would shatter the past image, we would be able to popularize them. My basic thinking was not that we wanted to make motorcycles by imitating other people because the market was there, but rather we would create the market with original products.

Obviously, we faced many hardships, but we were on the right path. Today, our motorcycles are popular among peoples of all ages and all walks of life in well over 100 countries throughout the world, and they are there to stay. In the United States, the YMCA’s throughout the country are conducting a major program, using our mini bikes, to combat juvenile delinquency. The federal government has given its positive support, and this program has been most successful.

If we had done nothing but imitate others 15 years ago, there would not have been the motorcycle popularity there is today. I take pride in saying that our originality and creativity were factors behind today’s success.

The third point that I wish to emphasize is that the solution to any problem should be sought at its very root. As an example, I would like to touch on the air pollution problem. Pollution of the air through automotive exhaust emissions has become an increasingly serious problem not only in the United States but throughout the world. In 1970, under the leadership of Senator Edmund S. Muskie, the Clean Air Act was amended, requiring a drastic reduction of unwanted emissions from automobiles. Later, a similar law was enacted in Japan.

In order to meet the standards of this legislation, we tackled the problem of how to clean exhaust gases within the engine itself. This is because we thought that a basic solution could be achieved only if the exhaust gases were clean as they came out of the engine.

We endeavored to change the combustion process itself, and successfully developed what we call the compound vortex controlled combustion, or CVCC, engine system. It has been established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that this system can meet the stringent emission standards originally set forth in the Clean Air Act without the use of such aftertreatment devices as catalytic converters. This, I believe, is a success which could not have been achieved without a philosophy of seeking the solution to a problem at its very root.

Lastly, I would like to speak on harmony among men. In today’s modern civilization, where science and technology are making rapid progress in every field, we often observe a tendency to think that the machine has priority over humanity, or that science is omnipotent. I think, however, that such thinking is not only very dangerous but fundamentally wrong.

No matter how much progress and development is made in science and technology or social structure, it must not be forgotten that it is men who operate them. And this cannot be done by just one person alone. It takes the heart-to-heart unity of purpose of many people if they are to become “masters” who effectively operate machines and social structures, and thus contribute to mankind. It is with this thought in mind that I tell young employees of my company: “Don’t be used by the machine; use the machine.”

It has been an honor to have this opportunity of speaking to you on some of the things that are always in my mind. Nothing would give me greater pleasure and satisfaction than if they might be of some use and value to you in the future.

In closing, I would like to say how pleased I am to have had the opportunity of making friends with Dr. Smith, members of the Board of Control and the faculty. Furthermore, my wife and I are very happy to have been able to meet with and talk with many beautiful and kind ladies.


Flashback Friday: Deep Roots: Unearthing the History of the Forestry Department at Michigan Tech

Happy Arbor Day, Copper Country! We’re observing today’s holiday with a Flashback Friday post commemorating the Michigan Tech Forestry Department.
Michigan Tech’s Forestry Department has deep roots on campus. Under the leadership of President Grover C. Dillman, then president of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, the Forestry Department was initiated in 1936 with a two-year degree program led by U. J. Noblet and R. B. Miller and housed in Hubbell Hall. In addition its general curriculum, the department also offered students a Forestry Club. By 1942, the department moved to the nearby Hubbell School and five years later the Institute of Wood Research was created. In the 1967 the department had expanded enough to require new facilities and in that year the U. J. Noblet Forestry and Wood Products Building was opened. That year also saw the beginning of the University’s first graduate program in forestry.
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s the department saw major growth in terms of student numbers and changes in technology and course curriculum. Forestry enrollment climbed to 151 new students in 1970 with female enrollment reaching 25 percent by 1975. Microcomputers replaced the department’s calculator lab in 1984 and in 1986 the department opened its first PhD program. Curriculum had now expanded to include wood and fiber utilization, land surveying, and other majors and certificates including ecology, environmental science, and wildlife ecology and management.
With all this change comes additional facility needs. In 1999 the university broke ground on a new building expansion project (pictured here) that would become home to Hesterberg and Horner Halls in 2000. Today, the Forestry Department thrives on the Michigan Tech campus. Students at the undergraduate, graduate, and PhD levels have excellent curricula to choose from and amazing facilities to learn and study in.
Celebrate Arbor Day at Michigan Tech today by attending the University’s student-led Tree Campus USA initiative event. Meet at the Husky Statue from 12:00 to 12:30 p.m. for an opening ceremony followed by a student-led campus tree walk and tree planting from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. with a reception to follow at the U. J. Noblet Forestry Building Atrium. During the reception, be sure to check out the informational tables from community and student organizations that support environmental sustainability and ecology or attend one of the tours of the U.S. Forest Service’s underground research facility, the Rhizotron.
Want to know more about the Forestry Department at Michigan Tech? Visit the Michigan Tech Archives during our regular research hours, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. to learn more.
Happy Arbor Day from the Michigan Tech Archives!

Flashback Friday: Snow Melt, Go Smelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday: Ice Out, Shanties In!

Happy Flashback Friday, Copper Country. This week we’re paying tribute to that age-old rite of spring when U.P. anglers switch from ice fishing to open water fishing.

Pictured here in L’Anse in 1977, ice shanties accumulate along the Upper Peninsula waterfront after being taken off the water for the season. Many anglers are sad to have to finally throw in the towel on ice fishing season, but there’s always the promise of another big catch in the streams and open water of the coming months.
The article that accompanied this photograph from the Daily Mining Gazette noted that “at least a few brave ice fishermen still had their shacks out on the big lake when this picture was taken” and we’re not surprised. Stay safe anglers and enjoy the change of fishing seasons!
The Michigan Tech Archives has plenty more photos like this waiting to be discovered. Interested in seeing more? Hop onto our Copper Country Historical Images database at cchi.mtu.edu and browse through just a fraction of our photograph collection.

Flashback Friday: The Sands of Mine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of dredge inner workings
Inside a Calumet & Hecla dredge

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

Dredge submerged in Torch Lake
The sinking of a Quincy dredge

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

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


Michigan Tech Archives Seeking Graduate Intern for Summer 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday: The Great Tony ‘O’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Flashback Friday: Unexpected Change: Fire at the Metallurgy Building

The Metallurgy Building on fire, March 15, 1923.

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

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

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

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

Metallurgy building after the fire, 1923.

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

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

Flashback Friday: Young at Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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