This will be a presentation of some of the fascinating stories contained with my newest book “True Tales – The Forgotten History of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.” The talk will include pirates, thieves, misadventures and crime in the early days of the U.P.
I have just finished the rough version of my new book. It is off to the publisher awaiting publication. Whew! It always feels like a long haul when you finish a book. Though I feel all of my books are worth a read, this one is special. If you are a fan of this website, then this book is for you.
In this book the romance is gone. It tries to show many of the true hardships and facets of trying to settle a frontier that was sandwiched between three Great Lakes. There are stories from across the Peninsula from first hand accounts to revelations from the news of the time. As always there are heroes and villains. There are feats of great good and dirty deeds of the worst kind. There are adventures of the most extraordinary men as they struggle for the riches of the U.P. well before gold was discovered in California. There are accomplishments of those that braved the wrath of the Great Lakes in leaking ships and frozen waters. The intensity of storms killed thousands on land and lakes. Over 200 died in one season just between Marquette and Whitefish Point. Often the Edmund Fitzgerald is memorialized, but few remember the hundreds of wrecks before it. You will find some here.
These pages are populated by Native Americans, miners, loggers and mariners that consisted of Germans, Italians, Finns, Swedes, French and English. People came from everywhere looking for their personal promised land. Some to raise families, some to avoid the law or to start a new life. Some to get rich no matter what it took. The Upper Peninsula frontier called to all.
This book is the first installment in what will be a larger work that chronicles the rare and forgotten stories that make the history of the U.P. what it is. Through research and investigation I hope to bring back many of the tales that time and historians forgot.
The U.P. of today was created by individuals that rose up to meet challenges that broke lesser folks. Their mental and physical stamina was that of finely honed athletes accomplishing feats unheard of in the modern world. They hacked homes out of a dense wilderness and raised families with danger at every turn. Many of these feats have gone unsung throughout history and through this book many come to light.
It is my hope that the stories contained within this book not only celebrates the struggles of the individuals that first braved this formidable and raw land , but honestly portrays their efforts to overcome the incredible obstacles that stood in the way of the beloved peninsula we now know. It was once a very different place.
Stopping a forest fire before it happens.
I want to write about something I saw yesterday while driving through the woods near Trout Lake, here in the U.P. I was driving a backroad, surprise, surprise, looking for an old ghost town called Wilwin (more on that here). As I was driving the old two-track road, I could smell smoke. The wind was blowing hard, about 30-35 mph, and it was difficult to be sure where it was from. As I drove on I came across a stretch of burned ground and a small log that was smoking. Something had started the dry leaves on fire and burned a section of ground. The leaves were no longer burning, but a small log had some coals in it that was being fanned by the wind.
The log seemed to be the real threat as none of the burned leaf material in the surrounding area was showing signs of fire. Inside my truck I usually carry a gallon jug of water in case I get stuck somewhere and need to ride things out waiting for Search and Rescue. Right now it seemed fortuitous that I had it. As can be seen above, the smoke was coming from the underside of the log. I flipped it over and it was cupped from a hollow, and full of coals. I dumped the gallon of water over it making sure to hit everything that as glowing. It steamed up and I let it set for a few minutes. I still saw a little plume of steam/smoke and decided it needed a little more. On my way out of the Sault, I had stopped and picked up a large iced tea which was still sitting on my console. It was abut 2/3 full and still had some ice left. I poured that over the last hot spot and spread the ice out so it would melt where the fire had been. There was nothing after that. After a wait, I got back in the truck and moved on in search of the ghost town.
Fortunately this fire was small and I was able to deal with it, but it very easily could have been worse. We need to be mindful of how volatile the underbrush can be and how easily fires can start. Though I couldn’t find what initially started this, I suspect it was something someone was smoking. With the high winds we frequently have, this is a recipe for disaster and tragedy. Carelessness is rarely forgiven in the wilderness.
Moral of story: Always carry water in your vehicle (Iced tea doesn’t hurt either). You never know when you’ll need it.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Weekly historical photographs – Au Train Lake – U.P. camping in 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/
It’s always Christmas in Christmas. A true tale of the U.P.
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.
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.