Historical Photos – Early Great Lakes Ships

Historical Ships of the upper Great Lakes

Pictures courtesy of the Mikel Classen Collection of Historical Pictures

This is an early passenger steamer named “City of Traverse.” This view of the ship shows only ne lock and the river rapids can be seen beyond the ship.

Many old historical ship pictures were taken at the Soo Locks. The close-up vantage point for the bulky photo equipment made it a choice spot for ship photography in the early years.

Whalebacks in the Soo Locks with tugs.

Over the years there have been many kinds of ships that have sailed the Great Lakes. All of them served a valued purpose in their day, though some had some uniquely strange looks. Of course many of these at some point would wind up at the bottom of the lakes, casualties of unexpected storms.

This is a couple of schooners going through the Soo Locks.

From Sailing ships to coal fired steamers, a fascination remains of all of these different types of ships. To this day visitors flock to the Soo Locks for a glimpse of the great ships that still sail the lakes.

This early freighter is called the Zenith City. It would sink not long after this picture.

This is not a by-gone era but one that has evolved through the years. The lake ships of all kinds serve as vital a purpose now as they did in the past.

This picture is of an early wood fired side-wheeler. photos of these are few and far between.

While watching the ships of today, it is also fun to think about the ships of the past, smaller and more susceptible, battling the violent elements of the Great Lakes for their very survival. Some succeeded, many didn’t, ending in tragedy and a watery grave. Requiem for sailors of a different time and men with courage beyond most.

Whitefish Point, More Than A Lighthouse

Whitefish Point Fishing Village

Writing and photography by Mikel B. Classen

The old buildings at the Whitefish Point Harbor are remains of an era gone by and a village that once was.

Whitefish Point in Chippewa County, Michigan, is known for a lot of things, not the least of which is the shipwrecks like the Edmund Fitzgerald that made the point famous. The lighthouse, which was one of the first on Lake Superior, houses the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum (For more on that, check out my book Points North). Whitefish Point also is the eastern boundary of the legendary Shipwreck Coast. All else seems to have gotten lost.

This is one of the old homesteads from Whitefish Point. One of the few remaining buildings.

Whitefish Point is actually one of the very early fishing villages on Lake Superior. As early as 1840, a small trading post and fish packing operation was set up by Peter Barbeau of Sault Ste. Marie. Barbeau had a general store where he would outfit hardy souls to establish posts along the shoreline on Lake Superior. They traded for furs and barrels of salted whitefish. Barbeau would then ship them out to places like Chicago and the east coast.  Barbeau’s trading posts went as far as Minnesota. Whitefish Point was one he paid close attention to.

This old fishing boat sits next to the harbor another relic of the point’s past.

When the lighthouse was established in 1849, fishing here was going hard and heavy. Tons of barrel packed salted fish were being sent to the Sault every year from Whitefish Point. It was a very profitable enterprise. Occassionally the fish wouldn’t be packed right and the fish would spoil leaving Barbeau to smooth out relations and make amends.

This old band saw blade and belt are in the woods near Whitefish Point.

Though many have Whitefish Point’s beginnings at 1879, documents at the Sault plainly show that there was lots of activity here long before 1879, including some logging enterprises. Whitefish Point was used as a resupply point for the logging companies. There was a small population of approx. 60 people. There was a school and hotel. Also a general store and a post office was established. The population grew to 200.

The former Whitefish Point post office as it is today. It its earlier days it had a different front on the building.

One of the local commodities was cranberries. They grow wild in the region and eventually were cultivated. There were more than a dozen growers registered at Whitefish Point. There was a daily stagecoach that ran from there, south to Eckerman. It was a thriving community by all standards.  But as time went on, it all faded.

Th Whitefish Point Lighthouse brings thousands of visitors to Whitefish Point and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum which is housed in the lighthouse buildings.

Because of the Whitefish Point lighthouse and the life saving station, the village’s decline was a slow one. Fishing dwindled to one commercial fishery, Brown’s, which still is in operation. Most of the small town’s remains have disappeared but much of the property associated with the village is in private hands and still occupied as residential. But if one looks carefully, on the east side of Whitefish Point Road, between the harbor and the former post office, hiding in the trees, a few of the remaining relics of Whitefish Point can be seen.

An old fishing boat has seen better days as it sits being buried by the sands of Superior.

A turn into the Whitefish Point Harbor can be very rewarding. The harbor is shared by the State of Michigan and Brown’s Fisheries. There is a fence that divides the public land from the private. Brown’s Fisheries has old boats and buildings that date back to the early days of Whitefish Point and some of it can be seen from the parking lot of the Harbor.  A couple of old fishing boats are beached on the shore and old storage barns are there too.  It is a snapshot of not only Whitefish Point’s past but commercial fishing on the Great Lakes in general.

For a vision of the past, take a walk out towards the breakwall on the marina walkway. Go out as far as the last dock and turn around and look back. With the old fishing boats and storage buildings, the old dock, an image of the village of Whitefish Point appears, or a small part of it anyway.

The view of Brown’s Fisheries from the marina walkway showing what Whitefish Point would have looked like as a fishing village.

When visiting the lighthouse, it is good to note what was around it. A trip into the shipwreck museum leaves one with the idea that Whitefish Point is all about death and tragedy. It is so much more. It was a tiny place that provided food and lumber for the country in the harshest of conditions. It took people with tenacity and guts to face Lake Superior at its worst and create one of the earliest settlements. The village of Whitefish Point should be remembered alongside of its legendary lighthouse. It has its place in history too.

Searching For Wilwin

Locating a ghost town, Wilwin

By Mikel B. Classen – Photos by Mikel B. Classen

I was armed with two antique maps and a full tank of gas. How was I to fail? I felt confident as I drove down H-40 which runs through Chippewa and Mackinac counties.  It’s a back route that’s between U.S.-2 and M-28. Formerly, it was a railroad route which had a string of towns along its way. Most of them now are gone or shadows of what they once were. The railroad still runs along the highway. The place I was looking for was Wilwin.

The old railroad building that stands at the corner of Wilwin Road. Part of the loading platform is still seen.

About five miles west of Trout Lake are a couple of old buildings marking the entrance to Wilwin Road. The old buildings are the first things to attest to the fact that Wilwin was once there.  A railroad siding once ran where Wilwin Road is now bringing lumber to the main railroad trunk from the sawmills of Wilwin.

This old storage building is another of the relics at the corner of Wilwin Road.

I turned up Wilwin Road. The maps were showing the town’s location a couple of miles and then left for a mile or so. Seemed simple enough. I drove passing a couple of houses. The trees started getting thicker and the road began to wind through the woods. I love doing these kinds of drives, but it was beginning to seem like I had gone too far. I should have come across something by now, a clearing or old remnants, but the trail went on and there was no evidence of anything resembling a town site. Now the road was turning to soft sand.

I looked at the road ahead and concluded that I had gone too far and had completely missed the location or maybe a side road that I’d missed. I wasn’t sure, but I knew if I went further, getting stuck was likely. I turned around. Backtracking, I found a turn  missed. I started down that road. not far in I came across a burned patch of ground and a small log with smoke coming out of it. (More on that here.) After dousing it with water I went further down the trail and there it was, the site of Wilwin!

The entrance to the Wilwin Lodge, fenced. A large portion of the towns former location is now a Graymont Quarry.

I turned my truck around at the entrance to the Wilwin Lodge, now apparently owned by Graymont, a Canadian cement company. To the south of the road was a large area where the town had one stood. There was nothing left. The old townsite had been cleaned up leaving next to no trace of Wilwin. I expect part of the old town is now Graymont property which is fenced in.

A small portion of Wilwin’s town site is visible along the trail near the gate.

The history of Wilwin is that of a logging town. Its history wasn’t long, but it was fast and furious. The beginning was around 1914 and was founded by a man named Frank Chesborough. The name Wilwin is a contraction of his two sons names William and Elwin. They raised a large sawmill and platted out a community. They bought a train and laid track intersecting with the main line. They built a boarding house along with a store. Single story homes were built to house the sawmill employees. A boardwalk connected it all. The town thrived, they were even selling the bark from the mill to a leather company.

The only signs left that part of a town was even here are the places where the ground is disrupted.

A huge lodge was built. It was reputed to be two storys with a balcony that stretched the length of the building, and full of leaded glass windows that contained nearly 2000 panes. It had a huge kitchen and a living room with fireplaces at both ends. Built by the Chesboroughs it was reputed to be the height of luxury at the time.

Then, in 1921, it was all over. Just seven years had gone by. The price of lumber fell and the costs at the Wilwin mill were too high. As quickly as it had begun, Wilwin was through. The houses were salvaged and removed. Some of them are still homes in Trout Lake and nearby Ozark. All of them and the boarding house were completely removed. The machinery for the sawmill was resold to a company in Dollar Bay in the Keweenaw. The mill itself was burned and then the debris removed. The lodge, as far as I know, still stands somewhere behind the fence put up by Graymont.

The black and white in this picture makes it easier to pick out the outline of where a building once stood.

It was time to head home. I had almost got lost and stuck, put out a potential forest fire and found what I was looking for. I was pleased with that. My day had been successful and eventful. That is always a good day.

 

 

 

Historical Photos – Camping out in the U.P. 1880s style

Camping the hard way – 1880’s

Historical Photos from Mikel B. Classen Collection

This is a picture of some men camping out at a place that is still popular for camping to this day, Chapel Beach. Chapel Rock in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore can be seen in the background.

Going camping back in the late 1800s was a lot different than it is today. There was no Coleman Company, no L.L. Bean, no ergonomic backpacks. And hiking shoes, not a chance. The equipment was heavy and bulky while the wilderness was formidable. The wooden equipment chest in the picture above attests to that.

This group camp was taken north of Marquette at Partridge Island.

The hunting camp shown above was a major project to set up showing that group camping has always been popular. There are both men and women pictured here representing several couples on this particular foray into the woods. It doesn’t appear they are moving on anytime soon.

Individual tent setup along a stream. This was the simple basic way to go. With the stream in the background this looks like a fishing trip.

Even in the early days, the U.P. was recognized for its value as a recreation  paradise and fishing and hunting became the staple of the region. People of note began particpating in the sport like Henry Ford and William Coleman. Innovations followed and equipment made specifically for the purpose of portable camping became available. These early campers were the pioneers of an entire industry that today is worth billions.

This is an unidentified camp near Lake Superior. The woodstove pipe coming out of the tent flap is classic.

One thing that is still true, an adventure into the woods is like no other. The wilderness calls many of us and in response we are rewarded with experiences of a lifetime.  Whether it is a lake, a stream, a mountain or the deep woods, these places fill a place in our souls that can be filled no other way.

Fire on the Trail

Stopping a forest fire before it happens.

The burned ground surrounding the smoldering log.

I want to write about something I saw yesterday while driving through the woods near Trout Lake, here in the U.P. I was driving a backroad, surprise, surprise, looking for an old ghost town called Wilwin (more on that here). As I was driving the old two-track road, I could smell smoke. The wind was blowing hard, about 30-35 mph, and it was difficult to be sure where it was from. As I drove on I came across a stretch of burned ground and a small log that was smoking. Something had started the dry leaves on fire and burned a section of ground. The leaves were no longer burning, but a small log had some coals in it that was being fanned by the wind.

Smoke can be seen coming from the log as the high wind fanned the coals inside.

The log seemed to be the real threat as none of the burned leaf material in the surrounding area was showing signs of fire. Inside my truck I usually carry a gallon jug of water in case I get stuck somewhere and need to ride things out waiting for Search and Rescue. Right now it seemed fortuitous that I had it.  As can be seen above, the smoke was coming from the underside of the log. I flipped it over and it was cupped from a hollow, and full of coals. I dumped the gallon of water over it making sure to hit everything that as glowing. It steamed up and I let it set for a few minutes. I still saw a little plume of steam/smoke and decided it needed a little more. On my way out of the Sault, I had stopped and picked up a large iced tea which was still sitting on my console. It was abut 2/3  full and still had some ice left. I poured that over the last hot spot and spread the ice out so it would melt where the fire had been. There was nothing after that. After a wait, I got back in the truck and moved on in search of the ghost town.

This is the scorched roadside that had started to take off. The smoldering log wasn’t willing to give up the fight.

Fortunately this fire was small and I was able to deal with it, but it very easily could have been worse. We need to be mindful of how volatile the underbrush can be and how easily fires can start. Though I couldn’t find what initially started this, I suspect it was something someone was smoking. With the high winds we frequently have, this is a recipe for disaster and tragedy. Carelessness is rarely forgiven in the wilderness.

Moral of story: Always carry water in your vehicle (Iced tea doesn’t hurt either).  You never know when you’ll need it.

Historical Pictures – Mackinac National Park 1875-1895

When Mackinac Island was a National Park

by Mikel B. Classen. Photos from the Mikel Classen Historical Pictures Collection

Mackinac Island view from the fort during the National Park era.

Every year Mackinac Island is inundated with tourists. The island in St. Ignace Bay has always been a focus of attention. After being the hub of the fur trade, the island saw a decline as fortunes dissapated in the early 1800s.  Being on the shipping path of the Great Lakes kept it alive and cruise ships began hitting destinations throughout the lakes and one was Mackinac Island. People started coming just to see it. The natural beauty, the history, it all beaconed visitors to the region.

This is an engraving that shows a very early Mackinac Island.

Not long after the Civil War, a U.S. Senator from Mackinac Island, Thomas Ferry, realized how much potential Mackinac Island had and introduced a bill in 1874 to designate the island as a National Park! It passed. In 1875, Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law and Mackinac Island became the nation’s second National Park after Yellowstone.

What Mackinac Island is truly known for, relaxing and enjoying a day.

One of the interesting things about the bill is that it designated the fort an active facility, so, the Federal government retained the fort with full funding in case it was needed for war.  Active duty military at the time would run drills on the fort grounds. Mackinac Island was now a bonafide destination for travellers. In 1895 the fort was decommissioned and the Federal Government was going to pull out. Then, Michigan Governor, John T. Rich, petitioned the Feds to turn over the fort and park to the State of Michigan which they did, making Mackinac Island our first Michigan State Park which is what it is now.

Another “View of the National Park” from the road looking back towards the fort.

All of the photos used in this come from a series called “Views of the National Park.” They came in both cabinet cards and stereoviews. These are examples of the few I was able to find over the years. The engraving came from a History of Mackinac Island published by the National Park. They merchandised the place quite a bit for the time.

This is the view of Mission Point during the National Park era. It still looks the same.

Historical Pictures – The First Soo Locks – The State Lock

The Soo Locks – The Early Years – 1855 – 1888

Pictures are from the Mikel Classen Historical Pictures Collection except portaging picture from sign.

The State Lock after construction in 1855. It shows how the Native Village was isolated along the St. Mary’s River.

The Soo Locks began in 1855. They were dug so that ships would no longer have to either shoot the St. Mary’s River Rapids, of have the ship portaged through the town of Sault Ste. Marie rolled on logs down what is now Portage Avenue.

This is taken from an interpretive sign down on Water Street in Sault Ste. Marie. This is the only picture I’ve found that depicts the ship portaging through the city.

The St. Mary’s Rapids, sometimes called Falls because there was a drop of 21 feet from the Lake Superior level to Lake Huron river level, was the greatest obstacle to shipping in the upper Great Lakes.

This was taken in 1854 as the State Lock is nearing completion. I believe this to be the earliest picture of the Soo Locks being dug.

The digging of the Locks was an ardous task. There was an attempt in 1839 to build a canal, but it failed miserably and the project was given up.  In 1852, another attempt was made, this time sanctioned by the Federal Government and fully funded. Charles T. Harvey was chosen to head the project and he began work with around 400 men . Eventually it would increase to 1700, doubling the population of the Sault. A pump system had to be set up to keep the bottom dry enough to keep working.  The route took them through the local Native burial ground! Not an auspicious start for the canal. It was completed in two years. It was a mammoth project.

The gates of the old State Lock. The windlass which opens and closes the gates can be seen in the foreground.

The building of the State Lock was an achievement of engineering that still functions in essentially the same way it did when it was originally built. Though no longer controlled by a hand cranked windlass, the system of rising and lowering the water remains the same. The brilliance and the perseverance of the construction cannot be overstated. Battling water, disease, (cholera outbreak) and weather, the men had to work at sunrise to sunset no matter the weather and when cholera hit, many died where they stood.   The completed lock opened in 1855. Suddenly, all of the construction workers and those employed to portage ships through town, were now unemployed creating a local depression. Out of work men were everywhere.

This is taken from an old Stereoview card from 1856. The three mast schooner is locking up on its way to brave Lake Superior.

In 1881, an additional new lock was built named the Weitzel. Traffic was increasing and a new lock was imperative. The State lock would be rebuilt in 1896 as the 1st Poe Lock.

For more information on the Soo Locks check out the Soo Locks Visitor Center: https://www.saultstemarie.com/member-detail/soo-locks-visitor-center/

Historical Photos – Whalebacks – Extinct Ships of the Great Lakes

Images are from my personal historical photos collection

Whalebacks were used to haul cargo across the Great Lakes.

Whaleback ships were a unique design that was adopted to ship ore across the Great Lakes and particularly Lake Superior.  Their shape was designed to lessen the impact of turbulent surf. When fully loaded they looked more like a submarine than a surface ship. They were used mostly as a tow barge, schooners had mostly been used before this.

Whalebacks at the Soo Locks towing each other a common practice in ore shipping.

Whalebacks were fairly common throughout the early 20th century. 44 of them were built between 1887 and 1898. Most of them were built in Duluth, MN or Superior, WI as freighters for the iron range. None of them are left except one that is a museum ship in Superior, WI, the SS Meteor. (here is a link to the Whaleback Museum: https://superiorpublicmuseums.org/ss-meteor/)

Whalebacks taking on ore in Escanaba.

When loaded whalebacks were hard to see and were often run into by ships that couldn’t see them. Their hatches tended to leak and bend during stress which made them a hazard. The Whaleback is the forefather to the modern ore freighter that we commonly see now, like the neanderthal to the modern man.

Whaleback in the Soo Locks. A heavily loaded one can be seen behind it.

Historical Photographs – A trip through Pictured Rocks – 1892

A boat trip into Pictured Rocks in 1892

Grand Portal facing west. Before there was a boat tour, a small craft was the only way to view them up close.

It seems that Pictured Rocks has always been an attraction throughout recorded history. The magnificent rock formations drew comment and admiration from the earliest explorers. People ventured into them braving Lake Superior for a just a look. Recently I found a few old stereoview pictures that were privately made. Many photographers at the time created stereoview prints for commercial reproduction. Those are most of what are found today. Occassionally, the more wealthy travellers would get personal stereoviews done as a vacation record. In other words early vacation photos.

Grand Portal facing east. This is a companion photo to the one above, both taken inside the Portal.

All of these pictures came dated 1892. Unfortunately I do not have the names of who these originally belonged to. Looking at the picture it can be seen that they had an exceptionally calm day for their sight-seeing. Unusual water for Lake Superior.

Chapel Rock and River, 1892. This is one of the major destinations of early sight-seers. It sill is to this day.

In the early days travellers would set out from William’s Landing on Grand Island for their Pictured Rocks expeditions. Often these were multi-day affairs with traditional campsites at Chapel Beach. There are campsites still there for modern-day hikers. Now it only takes a couple of hours to see the rocks. Back in 1892 it was much more of an adventure and took serious committment to arrive at the legendary Pictured Rocks.

Spray Falls in Pictured Rocks, 1892. This picture could be taken today. Very little has changed with Spray Falls over the years.

Lake Superior Tales – 2020 Upper Peninsula Notable Book – Now on audiobook!

Lake Superior Tales Audiobook

At last it’s here, the audiobook version of Lake Superior Tales. Read brilliantly by Rory Young, he captures the essence of these adventure stories. Hearing these tales adds another dimension to the short stories I created surrounding the unique history of Upper Michigan and the Great Lakes.

Here there are stories of pirates and lost treasure, humor and satire, and a look into the life that once was a part of the Lake Superior frontier. As a Michigan historian I’ve researched most aspects of Michigan History and that research has led me into many directions. I’m mostly known for my non-fiction. Sometimes that research inspires something fictional and a story is born. That is what makes up the pages of Lake Superior Tales, stories inspired by my wanderings and research.

For instance, “Cave of Gold,” the last story in the book, was written in a cabin in the Porcupine Mountains. It was raining and I was surrounded by a lot of mud. Hiking was out. So, I started thinking about hiking, the story starts out with a guy hiking in the woods in the 1800s. Then I thought, what if there was a dead man leaning against a tree? After that it wrote itself. Eventually the rain stopped and I went about hiking but the story was written.

My favorite story of the collection is called the “Wreck of the Marie Jenny.” ( an excert can be heard below). I had written a story called “Bullets Shine Silver in the Moonlight,” (Also in Lake Superior Tales) which focuses around a story about a pile of hidden gold  bars from an old shipwreck called the Marie Jenny. I began wondering, how did the shipwreck get there in the first place? I was in the Keweenaw Peninsula in Calumet having a beer at Shutey’s Bar. There were two old guys talking and one was a ship’s captain. He kept saying over and over, “I gotta confess to ya,” and that was how the story was born.

 

Lake Superior Tales is very close to my heart and to hear it this way as an audiobook is a real treat for me. I hope everyone will enjoy it. Take a trip with me through my collection of short stories, Lake Superior Tales.

To get the audiobook go here: Lake Superior Tales

 

Reviews of Lake Superior Tales:

“It’s clear that Mikel B. Classen knows and loves the Lake Superior area of Michigan and brings it to life in a delightful way. If you want frequent laughs, unusual characters who jump off the page, and the fruit of a highly creative mind, you’ve got to read this little book.” (Bob Rich, author, Looking Through Water)

“Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is a unique place in this world, and Mikel’s lovely little book, “Tales,” makes that clear. Mikel has long been recognized as a leading proponent of all the wonderful attributes of the Upper Peninsula, and currently he serves as the Managing Editor of the UP Reader. So, seeing him tackle this project does not surprise me. But what I did find exciting is the electricity he captures on every page, and the energy he uses to express it. My father was a lumberjack, moonshiner and “gunslinger” in the UP a century ago,” (Michael Carrier from Modern History Press)