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.

Historical Photos – U.P. Fishing

Historical Fishing Pictures from the Upper Peninsula’s Past

Pictures from the Mikel Classen Historical Pictures Collection

Native Americans fishing the St. Mary’s River near Sault Ste. Marie.

Fishing has always been a part of basic human survival. Plain and simple, fish are great to eat. Around the world people use fish as a major source of their diet, but, the squirmy things are an awful lot of fun to catch. Fishing here in the U.P., like many places, is ingrained into the culture and as fishing moved from a necessity to a sport, it became even more so.

Fishermen line the Soo Locks as a ship locks through.

Fishing is one of those things that has never changed over the years. You can add all the technology you want to it, but when it comes down to basics, it’s still a stick, a string, and a worm.

When the smelt ran, everybody came out. Dip your net in and it was full of fish.

Of course there are different kinds of fishing, as the picture above illustrates. Smelt dipping was a spring rite of passage for many here in north country.  The rivers would be lined with campfires, waiting for the smelt to run. When they finally did, the streams would be full.

Brook Trout fishing on a beaver pond on the backwaters of the Hurricane River. This guy is pretty dapper for being back here.

I’ve always been a fan of Brook Trout fishing. If you are doing it right, it is incredible excersize, but I have to admit that there is nothing as good as pan fried fresh caught Brook Trout.

Fishing the rapids at the St. Mary’s River has been a long tradition. These two are having a great time.

Fishing is a connection to our past. It is something we have in common with our ancestors going back to prehistoric times. It strikes a chord within us that gives a feeling of peace and when the day has success we feel excited and elated. Our fishing experiences stay with us forever. What can be better than that?

Sometimes you just need a helping hand.

Historical Photographs – Au Train Lake 1889 – Alger County Michigan – Upper Peninsula

Weekly historical photographs – Au Train Lake – U.P. camping in 1889

Camp setup at Autrain Lake 1889.

I recently purchased a small lot of old U.P. photos from the Marquette area. In it were these cabinet cards.  Unlike most old photos I find, these were labeled and dated. The caption on the back reads: “The Palmer Camp, Au Train Lake, Michigan 1889.” I found a second picture which also read the same as above. I have now reunited them since they belong together. This last picture shows that very little has changed at Au Train Lake in 130 years. Still a destination for fun on the water, this same scene can be seen still today in Au Train reenacted by dozens of visitors every year.

Women playing in the water – Au Train Lake 1889