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When prohibition was repealed, saloons reopened or at least brought cocktails out of the closet, and began remodeling and redecorating the bars around town where the murals were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.
In my collection of old photos, I occasionally come across portrait style pictures, Unfortunately many of these are unidentified and we don’t know who these individuals are. Maybe somewhere along the way, someone may know who these individuals are. The first picture was a lucky one because we have part of the name for these three ladies. The back of the photo says “These ladies probably were Lypsinmaas.” of all of the pictures on this page, it is the only one that has some form of identification.
What this does do, is give us a look into the faces that walked the streets of Red Jacket / Calumet in the 1880s and 90s. Walking along the streets one could easily encounter any one of these folks going about their daily business. The second picture is completely unknown though by looking at their faces, it appears that they are related. My guess would be brothers but it is impossible to be sure. It does illustrate the importance of labeling photographs of families. We don’t normally think of ourselves as historical but as time moves on all things become historical by their representations of days and people gone by.
The next picture, which is a typical Red Jacket couple, seem to be economically reasonably well off. If nothing else we know they are probably wearing their “Sunday best.” Most of the locals worked in the copper mines where the companies paid low wages and worked long endless days of hard labor. The early days of living on the Keweenaw were hard and cold, yet Red Jacket / Calumet thrived with art and culture. A dozen nationalities converged on the region all in pursuit of wealth from the copper deposits. Cornish, Irish, Italians, Finns, Swedes, and Slavs, all became the backbone of the copper community of the Keweenaw.
Like many communities, there were those that put on uniforms. Our fourth picture shows an unknown soldier from Red Jacket / Calumet. (For those that are unaware, Red Jacket is the original name of the town of Calumet. Calumet was the original name of Laurium. In the 1920s, they moved the name of Calumet to Red Jacket and Calumet became Laurium.) Not being an expert of the military, I’m not sure what this uniform is from. I believe he has a bayonet holder on his belt. It is his English style bobby hat he has next to him that has me guessing. It would be really great to put a name to this guy. Actually it would be really great to put a name to any of these pictures.
As I stated earlier, these are all people that one would have met on the streets during daily life. This last picture shows a pair of unknown women that still seem to have an old world connection. The embroidery on the dress of the woman on the right seems Scandinavian or Slavic. It is hard to tell if they are related. These pictures are around 150 years old. They depict the faces of those that came to one of the harshest places on Earth to establish their places in the American Dream. These are the pioneers of the Upper Peninsula. These are the faces of the U.P.’s past.
Pictures courtesy of the Mikel B. Classen Collection of Historical Pictures
This image is of miners washing the tailings from copper mining ore as it was brought out of the mine.
A while back I acquired an old magazine from 1860 that had a few drawings of the early days of mining in the Upper Peninsula. These were printed when the copper boom was rising giving us in this century, some of the earliest images of the beginning of this era of our history.
Mining in the early days was intensely dangerous, even more so than today. The rock was blasted with dynamite and the miners only had a single candle to see what they were doing. The guy holding the chisel has to have a lot of trust in his co-workers.
The danger of those days can’t be understated. There was poor lighting and high explosives were used on a regular basis. The threat of cave-ins and flooding were constant. Accidents abounded.
Getting ore out to where it could be shipped wasn’t easy. This shows Lake Linden in the distance as viewed from one of the mines. The entire track can be seen and it shows the extremes of getting the ore out. I’ve seen this as a photograph as well.
Getting the ore out of the Upper Peninsula wilderness was no easy task. The picture above shows not only that aspect, but the process of getting it to shipping. The track runs down the incline to a plant below. The copper ore was then smelted into large ingots (copper bricks) and then shipped south through the Great Lakes. Millions of tons were mined, smelted and then shipped during the copper boom, much of it like the picture above.
This is an early copper mine hoist. This is long before the immense steel hoists dominated the peninsula.
In the early days, wood was the only building material available to build the necessary structures for mining. It wasn’t until steel and equipment could be shipped into Lake Superior that the steel hoists came into prominence. This is just a small bit of our mining history.
Sunset over Lac La Belle after a long evening of paddling. The air is still, the water is glass.
Lac La Belle/ Bete Grise – Keweenaw County – Michigan
A Point North
By Mikel B. Classen
The Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan is a rough and rugged place. It is full of ghost towns, abandoned mines, lighthouses, waterfalls, and remarkable beauty. The discovery of copper there, turned it into a thriving region that made millionaires and then paupers of the same men. Communities were carved out of the Lake Superior wilderness and then died as quickly as they rose. Like many places in Copper Country, Lac La Belle rose as a community during the days of the copper rush.
But, long before the copper rush, the mineral had been mined and sought after. For thousands of years the natives had mined the soft metal, pulling it from the ground with their bare hands and then pounding it into ornaments and weapons. This early “copper culture” mined millions of tons throughout the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale. Near Lac La Belle, one of the largest archaeological finds of “copper culture” artifacts was discovered. Like those that came later, the copper of the Keweenaw was a commodity for the natives that gave them wealth and stature.
Lac, La Belle Marina. It is a public access for Lac La Belle and Lake Superior for the area.
Lac La Belle was dubbed “beautiful lake” by the early French trappers and lies south east of Copper Harbor on the Keweenaw Bay side of the peninsula. It is as far north as one can go on the east side of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The name “beautiful lake” still fits. Lac La Belle was probably long ago a part of Lake Superior because it sits so close the Beta Grise bay shoreline. It is overlooked by Mount Bohemia, one of the tallest of the Keweenaw mountains. Today the mountain supports a ski resort but over a century ago it supported much more.
A very grey Bete Grise bay on a very grey Lake Superior Day.
Bete Grise means “Grey Beast” and was supposedly given because of sightings of a strange unidentifiable grey creature that roamed the area. Another explanation for the name is that the Natives burned the blueberry bogs and the smoke hung over the lake and looked like a grey beast. My personal feelings are that it was given the name because on some days, Lake Superior can take on a dark grey look that can be frightening. I suspect that the “beast” is Lake Superior. Another legend of Bete Grise is that the sand at the beach here, “sings.” It is from a legend of a Native woman that lost her husband to Lake Superior and the noise from the sand is her calling to him. It is a kind of squeaking sound that the sand makes when you hit it hard with your hands or feet. I have noticed this phenomena along other parts of Lake Superior including Grand Sable Dunes and always thought it was pretty cool that you could make the sand squeak.
Lac La Belle is located on the east or “lee” side of the Keweenaw Peninsula. The west side, which includes Copper Harbor and Eagle Harbor, could see rough weather on a regular basis. It made it hard to ship copper from these ports due to Lake Superior’s unpredictability. Lac La Belle was connected to Lake Superior and Bete Grise bay by the Siby River, which no longer exists. A canal was dug and what used to be the river is now the Mendota Canal. It was an ideal port for shipping the riches of the Keweenaw.
Loading copper in the Keweenaw. This gives some idea of the amount that was being removed from the Peninsula. Though this wasn’t taken in Lac La Belle, it IS from Copper Country and Illustrates what Lac La Belle looked like at the time.
As early as the 1860’s Lac La Belle was looked at as an alternative harbor by the Mendota Mining Company which was mining copper and silver a few miles to the north. When it was dug, the lake became a hub of activity as a railroad was built connecting the area to mining throughout the Keweenaw. A smelting and stamp mill was built at the base of Mt. Bohemia and Lac La Belle soon filled with ships waiting to pick up loads of copper and lumber. Traffic was heavy enough that by 1870 a lighthouse had been established at the Canal mouth on Lake Superior marking the entrance to the harbor of refuge. The Mendota/ Bete Grise Lighthouse, it’s known by both names, still stands today. By the 1880s the region was thriving.
This is how the Mendota Lighthouse and and canal looked in its heyday. It still stands today with with a very different view.
Though mines were working in the surrounding hills, Lac La Belle was quietly being discovered for another reason. Fishing. The lake was teeming with perch, bass, pike, and walleye. Around the turn of the century, sportsmen became regular visitors to the area and as the mines played out and slowly died, Lac La Belle transformed. It became a place for sportsmen and tourists. Resorts grew up at the base of Mount Bohemia along the lake shore. It remains so today.
The tiny hidden community of Lac La Belle, is located in one of the most picturesque places in the Keweenaw peninsula. Nestled in the valleys of Mt. Bohemia and Mt. Houghton, the lake reaches towards Lake Superior. A channel allows the lake to flow out past the iconic Mendota Lighthouse located at Bete Grise harbor. Because there is no campground at Lac La Belle, few of the countless visitors to Copper Harbor venture down to this windswept point and see the eastern shore of the Keweenaw and of Lake Superior.
Outdoor Recreation Level: Expert. This pulled into the Gas pump at the Bear Belly Inn at Lac La Belle. I was impressed.
The small resorts surrounding the lake, some over a century old, are amazing places to stay. With private cabins and boat rentals, these places can provide a vacation that is comfortable and pleasant. I’ve found from experience, staying in these small resorts can be much less expensive than staying in a motel and in some cases less than a campground. Their comforts, most of them are fully functional cabins with baths, showers and dinettes, are those of a small home.
This is the cabin I stayin while in Lac La Belle. It’s a great place to come back to after a long day.
Haven Falls runs through the heart of the small community and is surrounded by a small but beautiful park. This little stop should be a part of any trip to the Keweenaw Peninsula. If nothing else, a picnic next to a waterfall and a lake is something you don’t get everywhere.
Haven Falls has a nice little park surrounding it that is an ideal place for a picnic.
Many of the resorts rent kayaks and boats. Lac La Belle is an incredible place to paddle. With both Mt. Bohemia and Mt. Houghton overlooking the lake, it is a sight only found in the Keweenaw. Through the canal and past the Mendota Lighthouse into Lake Superior is a memorable paddle. (Caution: the convergence into Lake Superior can be treacherous.) When I paddled it, there was little breeze and a calm sunny day. It was idyllic. I found myself periodically just floating, taking it all in.
Paddling Lac La Belle with Mt. Bohemia in the background.
When I got back into shore, I went to the Bear Belly Inn, next to where I was staying and had a cheeseburger and a beer. While I was in the area, I ate here a lot. An excellent place to eat and relax, it also sports a store and has gas. You can rent a boat or kayak here.
This is the interior to the Bear Belly Inn. Great food and beer here, especially their egg rolls.
The old railroad grades of the mining days are now ATV trails that crisscross through the peninsula taking riders into the depths of the Keweenaw wilderness through ghost towns and old mining ruins.
Instead of mining, Mt. Bohemia now supports a ski hill, resort, and an excellent restaurant. There is also a public beach along the Lake Superior shoreline. A drive to the end of the road, there is only one, will take you to the canal and face to face with the Mendota lighthouse on the other side.
The Mendota / Bete Grise Lighthouse as it appears today. Nearly enshrouded by pines it is now private property.
Lac La Belle has always been a favorite place of mine in the Keweenaw. The drive on the eastern shore of the Keweenaw, known as the Gay/Lac La Belle Road, is rarely traveled and reveals some of the nicest Lake Superior scenery of any drive. This tiny hidden place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is one of the overlooked gems of Lake Superior.