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.

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.

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)

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.