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 – Camping out in the U.P. 1880s style

Camping the hard way – 1880’s

Historical Photos from Mikel B. Classen Collection

This is a picture of some men camping out at a place that is still popular for camping to this day, Chapel Beach. Chapel Rock in Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore can be seen in the background.

Going camping back in the late 1800s was a lot different than it is today. There was no Coleman Company, no L.L. Bean, no ergonomic backpacks. And hiking shoes, not a chance. The equipment was heavy and bulky while the wilderness was formidable. The wooden equipment chest in the picture above attests to that.

This group camp was taken north of Marquette at Partridge Island.

The hunting camp shown above was a major project to set up showing that group camping has always been popular. There are both men and women pictured here representing several couples on this particular foray into the woods. It doesn’t appear they are moving on anytime soon.

Individual tent setup along a stream. This was the simple basic way to go. With the stream in the background this looks like a fishing trip.

Even in the early days, the U.P. was recognized for its value as a recreation  paradise and fishing and hunting became the staple of the region. People of note began particpating in the sport like Henry Ford and William Coleman. Innovations followed and equipment made specifically for the purpose of portable camping became available. These early campers were the pioneers of an entire industry that today is worth billions.

This is an unidentified camp near Lake Superior. The woodstove pipe coming out of the tent flap is classic.

One thing that is still true, an adventure into the woods is like no other. The wilderness calls many of us and in response we are rewarded with experiences of a lifetime.  Whether it is a lake, a stream, a mountain or the deep woods, these places fill a place in our souls that can be filled no other way.

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.

Historical Photographs – A trip through Pictured Rocks – 1892

A boat trip into Pictured Rocks in 1892

Grand Portal facing west. Before there was a boat tour, a small craft was the only way to view them up close.

It seems that Pictured Rocks has always been an attraction throughout recorded history. The magnificent rock formations drew comment and admiration from the earliest explorers. People ventured into them braving Lake Superior for a just a look. Recently I found a few old stereoview pictures that were privately made. Many photographers at the time created stereoview prints for commercial reproduction. Those are most of what are found today. Occassionally, the more wealthy travellers would get personal stereoviews done as a vacation record. In other words early vacation photos.

Grand Portal facing east. This is a companion photo to the one above, both taken inside the Portal.

All of these pictures came dated 1892. Unfortunately I do not have the names of who these originally belonged to. Looking at the picture it can be seen that they had an exceptionally calm day for their sight-seeing. Unusual water for Lake Superior.

Chapel Rock and River, 1892. This is one of the major destinations of early sight-seers. It sill is to this day.

In the early days travellers would set out from William’s Landing on Grand Island for their Pictured Rocks expeditions. Often these were multi-day affairs with traditional campsites at Chapel Beach. There are campsites still there for modern-day hikers. Now it only takes a couple of hours to see the rocks. Back in 1892 it was much more of an adventure and took serious committment to arrive at the legendary Pictured Rocks.

Spray Falls in Pictured Rocks, 1892. This picture could be taken today. Very little has changed with Spray Falls over the years.

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)

Journey on the Tahquamenon River

Journey on the Tahquamenon River – An adventure in Paradise we can all share

A Point North

Paradise, Michigan is mostly known for being the home of Tahquamenon Falls and the gateway to Whitefish Point and the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum.  Most visitors check these two major attractions out and then head off to other parts of the U.P. The one thing that is overlooked is the mighty Tahquamenon River itself.

The Tahquamenon cuts through the woods and rock defining the Paradise region. Millions of gallons of water pass along its shores and it was used extensively for logging during the lumber boom. Now it is ideal for a days adventure on the water.

At the mouth of the Tahquamenon River there is a state park that is mostly overlooked. Nestled on the banks of the Tahquamenon, this campground has excellent access to the river. Located 3 miles south of Paradise, this place can be the base to an adventure you will never forget.

The marina and dock at the Tahquamenon River Mouth Campground. Lake Superior can be seen on the horizon.

There is approximately 11 miles of river between the lower Tahquamenon Falls and the mouth of the river at Lake Superior. There are campgrounds at both ends of this stretch, besides the Tahquamenon Mouth campground, there is the Lower Falls Campground. The river is all big and wide water and the Public Access Marina at the mouth can accomodate small to medium craft with motors. My personal preference is paddling but I will admit when I did it, I was not alone and we had a small motor on a canoe for going upstream against the current.

Morning on the Tahquamenon River. It doesn’t get more perfect than this.

Around the mouth of the river, the river is wide and moves slow. There is large regions of wetlands and marshes. Wildlife abounds here and opportunities for photographers are frequent all year. There is also great fishing through here though anywhere on the river is good for that sport.

I shot a picture of this merganzer as it swam past our canoe.

The trip upstream can take some time against the current.  Which is why I suggest having a campsite at both parks. The other option is that there is a paddlers launch at the Lower Falls Campground. This only works for kayaks and canoes. There is no launch here for larger craft. But from here you will be paddling with the current. Drop in here, paddle to the mouth and your waiting campsite in just a few hours.

Lower Tahquamenon Falls – North Fall – The lower falls are split by a small island and fall in two separate falls

It must be noted that when near the falls the water is turbulent and can be unpredictable. This can also be said if you choose to launch from here, be aware the water is swift and deep.

Lower Tahquamenon Falls – South Fall – Though these falls don’t have the size of the famous Upper Falls, they have their own unique beauty.

Though both of these campgrounds are public along with many acres along the river,  but, there are many places along the river that is private and should be respected. I truly enjoyed my trip up and down the river. Many parts of the river have the look and feel of the deep primordial wilderness that once dominated the Upper Peninsula. It is easy to picture the Natives and the Voyageurs paddling the river when the lands were still undisturbed. There was a small trading post and settlement at the mouth of the river long ago. The Native Americans used the Tahquamenon as a main route for trading and travel. They portaged the falls.

Fishing the Tahquamenon offshore from the Mouth Campground

The Tahquamenon River is a nice low key adventure that most ages can enjoy.  It should be mentioned that there are rental cabins at the Tahquamenon Mouth Campground and at the Lower Falls. I’ve rented these cabins and they are nice, worth every penny after a long day on the river.  For more information on the area: http://www.paradisemichigan.org/

Eagle soaring over the Tahquamenon River.

 

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.

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.