Little Lake Lost or What Happens When the Dam Breaks

Discovering a ghost lake in Mackinac County, Michigan.

Writing and photos by Mikel B. Classen

I hit the road today, with no particular destination. That means I’m really susceptable to signs pointing to nearly anywhere. It happened in Mackinac County. The sign said “Brook Trout Pond Landing.” I really do stick my nose into just about anything, so I headed down the two-track the sign indicated.

This is my first view, that made me go “What Brook Trout Pond?”

I drove about a quarter mile and there was a cul-de-sac that was still a bit mucky from the early season. I could see a small stream running, so I treked down the hill to the water, expecting to see a trout pond of some size. Off to my right there was a large opening in the woods.

The valley of the lost trout pond, it must have been more like a lake.

Across the way is a vast plain of what once was a lake. Apparently, whoever made the sign was using the term “pond” loosely. It fascinated me to think that all of this, not long ago, was under water. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that somewhere out there a dam broke. Likely the entire expanse was at one time created by beavers damming up the small stream that now wound through the former lake bed.

At one time, keeping its head above water, this rise would have been an island in the lake.

As I looked across the still boggy lake bottom to the far side, I saw a small hill with live trees on it. It had been an island at one time.  The ghost lake had been vast and would have been great to paddle. I could see lunch on the island. With a brook trout population spread out across this large a tract, this would have been teeming with waterfowl.

This is the spring that fed the now ghost lake. It flows as it always has.

I turned around and headed back. I followed the creek up stream for a few yards and came to a small pocket of water. I looked around to see where the stream went and quickly realized I was at the beginning, the source of what had been everything around here, a wonderful fresh water spring. I looked back at the stream winding through the brown of the dry lake bottom, running clear and cold. If the probable beavers get to work on the dam break, maybe in a couple of years, this could all be back to what it was. That is how nature works after all.

The forest surrounding the ghost lake is thick and lush, but the ground is boggy and hard to walk through.

 

Garnet Lake – Garnet Ghost Town – A Paddle to the Past

Garnet Lake Campground – Finding a Lost Past in Mackinac County

A Point North

Sunset over Garnet Lake on my first night. It was a fantastic evening. I saw it as a good omen.

I came here on a whim. I didn’t know what to expect. The sign, “Garnet Lake State Forest Campground” had an arrow pointing down a sideroad. Those are the kinds of things that arouse my curiosity when I am cruising the U.P. I had never heard of the place which added more incentive.  What I found was a little known secret place revealed.

It was remote yet there were a few residences I passed on the way in. When I drove into the campground, there was only one other camper. I spotted a shoreline site which drew me in. Surrounded by pines and hardwoods, the campsite was comfortable and spacious.

The campsite at Garnet Lake as twilight sets in and the beginning of a glorious sunset.

What I saw before me was a beautiful little lake. Flat and serene, cattails along the edges, it was the quiet place I had been looking for. I pitched my tent near the shore and unloaded my kayak. The small lake was an ideal place to paddle. That would be tomorrow’s fun. In the meantime I set up my camera on a tripod. I was on the east end of the lake and had an ideal view of the upcoming sunset. Already the sky was beginning to tint. It was the beginning of what would be a spectacular sunset.

Morning mist on Garnet Lake rises and moves to the quiet breeze.

The campground here is nice, but basically primitive. Though you can camp here with camper or trailer, there are no hookups, so it needs to be self sufficient and functional off-grid. The entire time I was here, there were only two other campers.

When I arrived, I knew nothing about Garnet Lake and the immediately surrounding area. I thought it was just a remote campground, but I was about to find out exactly how wrong I was.

Kayaking Garnet Lake is not only fun but chances of seeing some wildlife is good. This is a beaver lodge I paddled past.

It all began with my Kayak. It was a beautiful day and I couldn’t wait to get out on the water. There was a light breeze which kept the bugs away on the water. I began to paddle and the water was very clear and the bottom could be seen easily. I paddled near the reeds where I had seen flashes of red moving through them. They were dragonflies, thousands of them, bright red and flying everywhere. They moved so quickly it was nearly impossible to get a picture of them. It made me wonder if these were the reason for the name “Garnet” lake.

The garnets of Garnet Lake. These red dragonflys flit and fly everywhere around the water.

I paddled out towards the deeper part of the lake. I kept looking at the bottom. It was so clear that everything was visible. As I paddled towards the west end, I started seeing trees on the bottom, large trees. Then I saw they’d been cut. The trees were saw logs. Garnet Lake had been at one time a sawmill pond. There could be no other conclusion. That meant that this had been a stream at one time and had been dammed to hold logs for a mill. I paddled to where it looked like there might be a stream outlet. I found it, but it was brushy, grown over and small, so I couldn’t take the kayak further. It was just too much of a mess, so I turned around and headed back to camp, but now I was really thinking about what my paddle on the lake had revealed.

Somewhere down that creek should be the ruins of an old sawmill, maybe even more, like a ghost town or logging camp. Being a historian, the more I thought about this more intrigued I became. It was time to take a hike.

The ruins of the old sawmill at Garnet ghost town.

I grabbed my camera, some water and snacks and headed around the lake. The first thing I came to was the railroad which was still being used, though I hadn’t seen or heard a train since my arrival. The tracks shined with little rust. I turned west towards where I knew the sawmill creek exited the lake. It wasn’t long before I saw how right I was. First was the ruins of the old mill, then the remains of the old town of Garnet, Michigan. I realized the railroad was paralleling a black-top highway which I hadn’t realized was there either. It was H-40 which runs between US-2 and M-28. Garnet is between Rexton another ghost town and Engadine. To get to the lake I had taken a backroad from US-2 and had completely missed Garnet, the ghost town. There were remnants of the old town still standing while a few of the houses were still occupied, though Garnet today has little resemblance to Garnet of the past.

Old homestead near the sawmill. This is another remnant of the days of the ghost town.

Originally called “Welch,” The town of Garnet at one time had around 500 residents. There was a sawmill which produced mostly shingles. A general store and hotel was there along with a harness maker. There was a saloon, a boarding house, school, and a doctor. They even had their own Justice of the Peace.

This is a historical photo pf the old post office of Garnet.

1897 is the first year Garnet appears on a census showing 500 residents. The population would decline beginning in 1910. In 1915 there was only 150 people left. By World War II, there were just a few houses and a sawmill operating there now making handles for axes, shovels and hammers. The sawmill operated until at least the late 1970’s but now is a crumbling ruin.

Hubie’s Place, not sure what that was, but it sounds like it was a good time.

The layout of the town is still visible and a couple of the old original buildings can be seen, some empty, a few still being lived in. As I walked, I was pleased with myself for having deduced the old town had been here from the clues from my paddling. If I had come in from the north, M-28, I would have seen the remains of the town first and knew it was there from the beginning. But I hadn’t and I felt I had solved a mystery, added an extra layer to my stay at Garnet Lake.

The crossing at the railroad and H-40 where the heart of Garnet was. A couple of homes still occupied can be seen.

Back at my campsite I was treated to another nice sunset. I would have to leave in the morning, but it had been an adventure of discovery. I would go back now and learn more about the little place named Garnet.

This is an old deserted mansion at the ghost town of Garnet.

The Rise and Fall of Lac La Belle, the Hidden Gem of Copper Country

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.

For more information on Lac La Belle and the opportunities it offers go here: https://www.keweenaw.info/keweenaw-peninsula/lac-la-belle/

The evening sunset colors the sky around Mt. Bohemia which watches over the lake below.

How Christmas, Michigan Got Its Name

It’s always Christmas in Christmas. A true tale of the U.P.

The old Christmas sign. It was removed a couple of years ago.

            Christmas belongs to the Upper Peninsula. It’s all ours. Not the holiday.. the town… Christmas, Michigan. It’s been ours for eighty years and it always will be. Christmas (the town) is where Christmas (the holiday) is on display  all year ’round and all the trappings of the season are never all taken down, because, in Christmas (the town), Christmas (the holiday), brings visitors there all year to investigate the place that is named for the most celebrated holiday in the world.

            If one were setting out to name a town after this particular holiday, there is no better location for it. Christmas looks the part… not only from a man-made aspect, but from a geographical standpoint as well.

            Upon entering Christmas, especially during the winter, it looks like a vision of the North Pole. Christmas is three miles west of Munising in the middle of a snow belt. Since it is also on the Lake Superior shoreline, winter weather conditions can get very severe. Although it isn’t really the North Pole, it certainly could be an outpost.

            In the center of town there are reproductions of Santa and Mrs. Claus with a large north pole post beside them. Businesses reflect the spirit of the communities name and follow along with the theme- such as Mrs.. Klaus’ cabins and Foggy’s Bar that features the “Reindeer Room”.

            Christmas is a quiet place but there is still plenty to do. There is a Cross-country ski trail and snowmobile trail for winter activities as well as two nightspots and a casino. There are several motels and resorts that offer cabins for visitors. In the warmer seasons, there is everything to do that can be found in a lakeshore town including a nice park and Bay Furnace campgrounds. A newer business is the Paddler’s Village, a camping/ yurt experience on Lake Superior for paddler’s. Tourism is a staple income for the area and Christmas is no exception. It is an excellent destination point with a novel theme.

            Before Christmas was Christmas, it was known as the Bay Furnace and designated the town of Onota. Beginning in 1869, there were immense furnace structures along the shore of Lake Superior where they would smelt iron from the Ishpeming iron range. There was a1400 foot dock for the ships to moor to as the came and went with the smelted iron. Over 50 kilns would be in operation at Bay Furnace’s peak. Thousands of tons of Pig iron were smelted in these furnaces.

Bay Furnace today restored in the Bay Furnace campground

            In 1870 the town received a post office, designated “Onota.” The town would see a population of 500 by the time it peaked in 1877. It was during that summer, when a dry spell made the surrounding woods volatile. A fire began that burned for several days and at one point it swept down on Onota destroying it and all of the kilns. It was the end of Onota, or so it seemed, the name was moved 15 miles to the west to Onota township. Bay Furnace remained all but forgotten. The Bay Furnace company had been going bankrupt before the fire and the demise of the Bay Furnace operations seems to be a blessing in disquise.

               Christmas (the town) came into being a little over eighty years ago in 1939 when a local individual decided to start a Christmas product oriented factory and call it “Christmas Industries.” Julius Thorson, a retired state conservation officer, bought the land and had the property registered under his business name of Christmas at the Alger County Records Office. The section always appeared in the plat books under the name of “Christmas” so the area simply retained the name.

            The industry was short lived and burned down the next year and was never rebuilt, but the name stayed on the plat maps. From there the name stuck with the small community. Thorson had originally planned to establish an elaborate tourist complex on the land he had purchased, but the factory was the only part of the plan that materialized.

            At the same time, a beaver farmer named Walter Giedrojc had a profitable farming venture going on. During prohibition, he augmented his furry occupation by bootlegging bathtub booze on the side, selling it out of the back door of his home. When prohibition ended, he went legitimate and converted his home into a tavern and named it “Beaver Park.” the building still functions as a tavern (and restaurant) now known as Foggy’s.

            Development of Christmas (the town) as a resort area was brought about by a John Borbot and his sister Evelyn when they dismantled a nightclub in Dollarville in 1939 and reconstructed it at Christmas (the town). and called it the Knotty Klub. It was officially the first business in town and was followed by motels, gift shops, two grocery stores, restaurant, and another bar.

            For tourists, the town of Christmas became another destination point just down the road from Pictured Rocks. The Christmas (the holiday) name and theme has drawn people to it time and time again, to enjoy the ambiance the little town offered that reminded visitors that every day could be Christmas (the holiday). The idea has worked well throughout the past 80 years, although it had its ups and downs.                                      

In July of 1966, Christmas (the town) received a postal substation which officially designated it as a town. When the substation opened on July 8, there was a rush from stamp collectors from all over the world to get first-day cancellations on stamps from Christmas. That November, when the postal service issued its five-cent Christmas (the holiday) stamp, there was a big ceremony with local politicians attending and an official dedication of the post office was held. The Christmas (the holiday) stamp with the Christmas (the town) cancellation was quite a collectors item.

            When it was determined that Christmas would actually become a town, a controversy arose over who had actually named the area. Was it actually Julius Thorson, or was it George Mitchell, the man who was also behind Christmas Industries? George Mitchell was involved with Thorson in the ill-fated project. His actual role in the business has been obscured by time, but it has been determined that he was either the money behind the project or the man Thorson hired to run it. Different accounts state different opinions.

            When the Christmas stamp was issued with the first Christmas cancellation, Mitchell, who was a stamp collector and dealer in Homestead, Florida, perpetuated the rumor by claiming, in Florida, that he had named the town “Christmas.” He told his story to one of the Florida newspapers and word filtered north of his claims. It started a debate between local Alger county individuals and historians over who actually registered the name to the Christmas plat.

            Finally, in a letter sent by Mitchell, he conceded that the name had been registered by Thorson and the controversy died down. To this day, though, the first stamp issued in Christmas is quite a collectors item and the publicity that Mitchell received and his dealership surely didn’t hurt his sales in Florida.

            Getting a letter or card cancelled in the town of Christmas at this time of year has become a big tradition and every year, thousands of people receive mail containing one of these stamps. Even local businesses offer personalized letters from Santa with, of course, the now famous Christmas seal of authenticity

            The people who live in Christmas (the town) celebrate the holiday Christmas, just like anyone else-with their family and friends, but the holiday is never far from their thoughts. It is a tradition that is capitalized on all year, and that isn’t at all bad. Many people try to keep the spirit of Christmas alive all year long and the people of Christmas certainly have a head start.

            With their statues, businesses, street names (like Santa Claus Lane etc.), and their sense of fun, it’s always Christmas in Christmas and it’s right here in the U.P. It is a small charismatic little place that, even if you don’t stop, leaves you with a smile and some thoughts about this special holiday, no matter what time of year you visit or pass through there. In Christmas the town, it’s Christmas the holiday, all year long.

Christmas, Michigan Lighthouse.