Historical Houghton’s Ambassador Restaurant – Houghton – Michigan

The outside of the Ambassador, like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, quiet and unassuming on the outside, but step through the door and a different and unexpected world is revealed.

Houghton, Michigan in the Keweenaw Peninsula is easily one of the truly  historical cities in Michigan if not the midwest. Just driving down the streets takes one back 130 years. If it wasn’t for the cars, there wouldn’t be much difference. Many of the buildings are over a century old and still stand, used for businesses to this day.

Inside, many of the old buildings, the interiors have been modernized, but one is a marvelous step back into time. The Ambassador Restaurant is worth going to, simply to see the inside. It is colorful and antique while providing wonderful views. It is a place where the old town still lingers.

When walking into the Ambassador the colored lights and murals give a sense of wonder when coming through the door.

Built in 1898, the brick building is one block east of the Houghton Lift Bridge. From the outside, it almost seems like just any other place, but when you open the door, you step into a showcase of stained glass, murals, and woodwork. The back wall is lined with windows that provide expansive views of the Portage Canal, the Houghton Lift Bridge, and the city of Hancock, topped by the Quincy Mine hoist protruding into the skyline.

The back wall of the Ambassador is mostly window. The Houghton Lift Bridge can be seen through the window and the Jail Guard panel of the 3rd mural can be seen.

Though stained glass decorates the Ambassador throughout, it is the murals that adorn the walls and ceiling that capture the attention. The murals were originally painted as large oils on canvas and were commissioned by Joseph Bosch owner of the Bosch Breweries which were located in Houghton and Lake Linden. They were painted by a Mr. Rohrbeck and hung in the Bosch Brewery for several years. Eventually they came down and were hung in a bar that was east of the Ambassador called the Giltedge Bar.  Prohibition struck and the murals were taken down and stored away. The Ambassador was a known speakeasy during Prohibition called Hole in the Wall.

This is the first mural which appears above the bar. The gnomes are brewing their beer.

When prohibition was repealed, saloons reopened or at least brought cocktails out of the closet, and began remodeling and redecorating  the bars around town where the murals were rediscovered. Their next home was the Ambassador where they are now. The date of this is unsure, but it is believed it was in the 40s during a remodel.

This is the second mural that is across from the bar. The party is rolling and the drinking is heavy. Below it some of the stained glass windows are visible.

If looked at in the proper order, they tell a story. The first depicts gnomes brewing beer. They are stirring it up in a large cauldron like a witches brew. The second mural has the gnomes drinking the beer and partying hardy. The third shows them the morning after, hungover and spent, wiped out by their night drinking. A guard is outside so their drunk has ended with the lot of them locked up. This last mural has three separate panels and covers most of the west wall  in the dining room. The artwork is superb and it is done with an obvious sense of humor.

This is the third mural which adorns the dining room wall. It is actually three panels, but it is so big i could only fit the middle one into a picture. The jailer panel can be seen in another picture.

The Ambassador is a restaurant that has also won some accolades. Back in the 60’s they developed their own pizza recipe and has since won a place in Pizza Magazine’s Pizza Hall of Fame. Personally, I never knew there was such a thing. But hey, who am I to argue, the food is excellent and not overpriced.

The bar back wall, the Portage Canal can be seen through the windows as well as more of the stained glass above them.

Never been here? That needs to be fixed. Any trip to the Houghton area and Copper Country, should include a stop here. It is a taste of “old” U.P. that is so much more than just a meal. I stop here and have a beer just to look at the place. It never gets old.

There’s even a poem about the Ambassador:

COME FILL A BUMPER

On or about nineteen hundred and two, Mr. Rohrbeck was given a job to do.
With brushes in hand and gnomes in his head, he created the masterpiece on the wall above.
First home for the paintings was the old Giltedge Bar, east of here, but not too far.
Streets were of dirt, sidewalks of wood, hitching posts for horses, business was good.
Beer for a nickel, whiskey for a dime, sandwiches a quarter any old time.
Prohibition was next, and became the law, the Ambassador, a speakeasy, called “Hole in the Wall”
Paintings were rolled and stored away, for twelve long years in the dust they lay.
At last came nineteen thirty-three, the law was repealed and Bacchus was free.
Saloons and taverns opened their doors, folks danced, sang, and drank spirits once more.
The old bar was hauled out of its storage place, and the paintings were hung on the walls they now grace.
The artist, long gone, would be proud if he knew, that folks still enjoy them as much as they do.

 

Poem above taken from the Ambassador’s website. For more information about the Ambassador Restaurant, go to their website at https://theambassadorhoughton.com/

This mural is a small one near the door at the entrance to the restaurant.

Vintage Motorcycle Photos from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

An early motorcyclist cruises through Manistique. I love the early biker clothing and the bike looks like an Indian.

I don’t have many of these, unfortunately. It is a very rare thing when I come across early vintage pictures of motorcycles here in the Upper Peninsula. As a biker, I personally enjoy early pictures like these and consider them a treasure when I find them. I currently have two which are quite fun. I thought I’d post them so everyone can get a smile.

The top picture was taken in Manistique and I believe the motorcycle is an Indian. I can’t positively identify it, so if someone can confirm this, I would appreciate it. This was taken as a postcard which has no date.

In the second picture there is a young girl wishing she could go for a spin on a vintage Harley Davidson. The name on the tank is clearly visible. This is from an album of vintage photos from Ishpeming. This little gem is a favorite of mine. We have all had that look on our faces the moment we sat on a motorcycle.

 

An Ishpeming girl tries an early Harley on for size. Looks like a pretty good fit. I’ll always wonder if she ever got to take it out.

I thought these would be fun since summer is upon us and the time of year to enjoy our motorcycles is now. Ride safely and be careful out there.

My book Points North reviewed by Midwest Book Review

I received a note that pointed me to a review of my book Points North. It was from the Midwest Book Review and written by Carolyn Wilhelm. I really thought it was nice so I wanted to share it here.

Oh, this book helped me reminisce about the days when I could do primitive camping, hear loons, see wildlife, go canoeing, and enjoy the outdoors with relative privacy. It covers history, fishing, boating, hiking, walking, camping, with detailed location information in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.). How many camping spots, a few or many? Tents only, or are recreational vehicles allowed? Are canoes or motorboats allowed? Is the fishing good? Is the park or camping area away from roads and noise? Where should a family go for a good day trip? What animals are usually seen around the campsites? Is it a good location for photographers? Where do the seniors stay? Are there accessible trails for those who need them? Where can people who want a grueling climb and a sense of accomplishment find a spot for that type of exercise?

Details like this are usually only known by locals. This illustrated travel guide lets us in on these secrets not usually shared to have the best vacation possible for a single day or longer. Classen must have spent many years experiencing all the U.P. offers and kindly shares this off the beaten path information.

Carolyn Wilhelm, Reviewer
Wise Owl Factory LLC
https://www.thewiseowlfactory.com

Points North is an award winning book; Best Independent Publication 2020 – Historical Society of Michigan, U.P. Notable Book – Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association; that details 40 different destinations across all areas of the U.P. To purchase Points North, click here.

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.

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/

Rails and Rivers – Tahquamenon Falls Train and Riverboat Tours

Tahquamenon Falls Train and Riverboat Tours – Alias “Toonerville Trolley and Tom Sawyer Riverboat Ride

Photos by Mikel B. Classen. Historical pictures courtesy of the Mikel Classen Historical Pictures Collection.

The Toonerville Trolley waiting at the dock for the Riverboat Hiawatha.

As long as I can remember, the Toonerville Trolley and the Tahquamenon Falls Riverboat Tours has been at Soo Junction 15 miles east of Newberry. There is a reason for that. The business is much older than I am. Since 1927, there has been a train and riverboat tour running from Soo Junction to the picturesque Tahquamenon Falls. This perennial U.P. attraction is nearly 100 years old!

Sailing on the Tahquamenon River is full of wonderful views of the river and the thick wilderness that surrounds it.

The train and riverboat tour has been a staple of tourists and locals over these many years and is continuing into the future. As a kid and an adult, I have enjoyed every minute of this excursion. The staying power of this method of getting to the Tahquamenon Falls, proves that I am not the only one.

One of the views of Tahquamenon Falls from the Riverboat Tours destination.

First, the Toonerville Trolley, a short track train that takes a rider through the Tahquamenon wilderness to the famed river. It is a  1/2 hour ride back to the Tahquamenon River and the waiting steamboat. The train ride is leisurely and fun. As the cars are pulled through the woods, there is a very good chance of seeing a bear. They throw food off the back of the train bringing them in, though both times I’ve taken the train in last few years, I haven’t seen one. I know many who have.

Early days of Toonerville Trolley around 1940. It looks much the same today.

This little train started as a spur around the turn of the century and was used for hauling lumber from the Tahquamenon River which was a major thoroughfare for logging. There was a sawmill set up on the shore in the spot where the train meets the riverboat. The mill ran until about 1925 when it was permanently shut down. A man by the name of Joe Beach, who was a conservation officer, used to run daily river patrols of the Tahquamenon River from Newberry. It was a 14 hour trip to the Falls and back. Since the only way to access the Falls was by river, the State Park that most use today didn’t exist, Beach was often asked to take people with him so they could see this wonder of nature. An idea was born. He would start a tour business, but he would need to shorten the time on the water.

The train in the early 1960’s

He remembered the short line at Soo Junction and was able to lease the line which was not being used any more. He created a contraption that would run the rails out of an old Ford Model T. It ran the rails back into old sawmill location where now a small boat was waiting to take passengers to the Falls. As business flourished and the number of passengers increased, they decided to install a narrow gauge railroad which were quite common for logging and mining. In 1933, they laid the narrow tracks inside the wide tracks and the Toonerville Trolley was born. The name Toonerville trolley came from a popular cartoon strip called Toonerville Folks, many of the passengers referred to it as a Toonerville Trolley and the name stuck.

The Riverboat “Tahquamenon.” This was the flagship of the Tahquamenon River Tours – 1940

Riding the riverboat is an awesome experience. Not only does it take you to the falls and a view you can’t get from Tahquamenon Falls State Park, but the ride is pleasant and comfortable. The trip is narrated by the Captain pointing out not only points of historical interest, but tales from the past wild days of the Tahquamenon and even points out any wildlife that is being encountered by the boat. The Tahquamenon River abounds with wildlife, especially water birds.

The Paul Bunyan, the smaller of the two ships, the pair would pass on the river running two tours in a day.

The riverboat ride continues a tradition that began with Joe Beach, but continues on in the same tradition. At first, the riverboat was only a barge and a tug, but they could take nearly 100 passengers. In 1937, they had a large boat built that would be dubbed the Tahquamenon. It had a capacity of 400 people and included a dance floor and a jukebox. The trip had been shortened by 5 hours and was still a 9 hour trip. In 1940 another boat, the Paul Bunyan, was built and could carry 200 passengers. They were able to run two tours a day with as many as 700 people. It was quite an operation and it ran that way until 1963. The ships were wearing thin, literally, their hulls had worn out. It was time for something new and it came in the form of the Hiawatha. A newer faster ship that could cut the trip to 6 ½ hours. The Hiawatha is still running today.

The Riverboat Hiawatha, the ship that is currently in use on the Tahquamenon River.

It is a comfortable and fun ship. My ride up and down the Tahquamenon was enjoyable. On board there is bathrooms and refreshments. A small grill provides food and munchies for a reasonable price along with beer and wine coolers. The cheeseburgers off this grill are great. (You can bring a pack lunch with you if you want, but why, when the food is great.) There are times I think about taking this just for that reason, but there is so much more. When you arrive at the riverboat dock at Tahquamenon Falls, there is a 5/8 mile hike to where the falls are. (It is NOT handicap accessible.) It is through the woods, up and down a couple of stairwells and you are at the falls. You are on the opposite side of the river from the State Park so the view is very different. You stand there next to the roaring falls feeling the mist and hearing the wild rushing of the water. It is easy to understand why Tahquamenon is called the Niagara Falls of the U.P.

The 5/8 mile hiking trail back to Tahquamenon Falls. Incredible scenery walking this and the woods smell is overwhelming.

This is a worthwhile adventure for the entire family. Currently you can just take the train trip and take advantage of the picnic area on the banks of the Tahquamenon River and then ride the train back. Personally I like to do the whole thing, the train and the riverboat, but since the boat trip is 21 miles and takes 6 ½ hours, it should be considered an all day affair. The train ride is 35 minutes one way. The prices are reasonable and this is the only way, other than personal craft, to see the Tahquamenon River upstream from the falls.

The hike back to the Falls is worth it. This is the view of Tahquamenon Falls as seen on the tour.

There is a reason this trip has lasted this many years, the Tahquamenon is a beautiful river and most of this trip has the appearance of Tahquamenon 100 years ago. It is easy to imagine the Native Americans paddling the river before logging took place. It was a main travel route for them.  Taking this boat on an upriver cruise is a tradition that has spanned generations, a tradition that is still carried on. I highly recommend this most wonderful of U.P. attractions.

The docking site at Tahquamenon Falls. The Hiawatha waits after the walk to the Falls. I was grateful they served cold beer, the perfect after hike refreshment.

For more information on the Tahquamenon Falls Train and Boat Tours click here: https://www.trainandboattours.com/

One of the many exmples of wildlife on the Tahquamenon River. I shot this from the deck of the Hiawatha Riverboat.

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.

Lake Superior Transit Company – Luxury Cruises Lost To Time

The Lake Superior Transit Company – Luxury Cruising the Great Lakes

S.S. India. One of the cruise ships of the Lake Superior Transit Company, one of several.

These are a couple of old pictures I received for my historical pictures collection. Unfortunately, I have been able to find out very little about this company or these ships. In 1878, they were already in heavy operation across all of the Great Lakes as this lineup of ships from a travel brochure shows. “Lake Superior Transit Company Line of Steamers: India, China, Winslow, Atlantic, Idaho, Nyack, St. Louis, Arctic, Pacific, Japan. (those are ship names, not destinations.) From the Ports of Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Detroit, Port Huron, Sault St. Marie, Marquette, Houghton & Hancock (Portage Lake), Duluth.” They were part of a fleet of luxury cruise liners for “high society.” They sailed from the late 1800’s through to the early 1900’s. They consisted of fine dining, formal staff, and exquisite drinks. The picture below illustrates one of the luxury dining rooms on board of one of their ships. A passenger could sail from Detroit to Duluth for $25 or $40 round trip. The fare was good for three months for round trip. This was the way to see the Great Lakes in the height of fashion.

Lake Superior Transit Company Postcard from one of the ships.