Digging Deep

The Michigan Iron Ore Museum dovetailed nicely with our previous local museum visits throughout the UP. The themes of life in the UP and Marquette were all intertwined. Shipping across the Great Lakes, the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald and the increasingly huge freighters carrying taconite iron ore pellets, the great ore docks which still dominate the Marquette harbor, and the discovery by Burt of iron ore in the UP and the struggle to settle this harsh, but breathtaking wilderness and tame it—these themes all converged in the story this museum had to tell.

This museum was created and is run by the DNR as an ode to the iron resources which dominated the economy of the UP for a century from the mid-1800’s to after WWII. There is still some mining going on today, but only two mines remain active.

The museum features exhibits on the now familiar story of William A. Burt and Douglass Houghton’s discovery of the huge mountain of iron just west of Marquette on the shores of Teal Lake. This was the backbreaking four-day trek through woods so dense they had to leave their horses and pack their supplies on their backs as they slogged their way on foot. Suddenly their compasses went haywire and Burt enjoined his men to look around…what they found charted the course of history for the region.

 

We got to see Burt’s Solar Compass, invented to compensate for the iron ore’s magnetic field disrupting their ability to survey and which proved to be the most accurate surveying tool.

We learned about the Landlookers. These were men who were tasked with backpacking out in search of new iron ore deposits. Struggling through the dense brush and fighting the mosquitoes and black flies so thick they literally could and did drive men insane, the landlookers wrapped their faces in bandanas and flailed with handsfulls of brush to switch the voracious insects away.

 

The museum also gave a stark accounting of the hardships of mining the iron ore. Six days a week, twelve hours a day, the men hauled ore. At first it was all surface mining and the equipment was primitive and the work absolutely backbreaking.

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Later, as the easily reached iron ore gave out, pit mining brought its own set of dangers and hardships. One of my favorite photos was of a miner enjoying his mid-day pastie.

 

 

 

The building of the first locks at Sault Ste Marie to allow iron ore and cargo to be ferried through the dangerous, but beautiful rapids.

And once the locks existed, they needed to build bigger locks which could accommodate larger and larger freighters carrying ever greater cargoes to the insatiable iron ore smelters way down state.

They dug deeper and deeper into the earth to continue to mine the iron ore.

It was a compelling history of the economic imperative to exploit these rich resources and the toll it took on thousands of men over decades to do the backbreaking work which made extraction possible. The miners, the sailors, the men who built the locks and worked the docks, the landlookers who scouted new ore deposits, and the merchants who supplied the goods and food necessary to fuel so much activity–they all had a role to play in this terribly dramatic story.

The museum finished up with a mock mining tunnel. My short walk through the dark and grimy tunnel made me ever so glad not to have been a miner!

 

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Building a New World

Jim was fascinated by a building in town with a bright and shiny cupola. This proved to be the Marquette Regional History Center. This was yet another sweet, well-curated museum laying out the natural and human history of the area on a chronological timeline. The museum may have been “sweet,” but it laid bare the inescapable fact that life in this resource rich land was very tough. It was a harsh land which fought being tamed and exploited.

First up was the natural life of the area with a fine display of beaver life. Beavers were abundant in the UP. They did not mind the 15 feet of snow in the winter and reveled in the marshy tundra. They may indeed have been the first inhabitants. It was fascinating to learn that some hutches have been inhabited by generations of beavers over hundreds of years!

Not to be shortchanged was the area’s dominant feature, Lake Superior. The largest of the great lakes it is also the largest body of freshwater on earth and at points it is more than 1,000 feet in depth. The lake rules the land. The lake effect determines the weather in all seasons. It is the primary conduit for moving iron ore, timber and all the goods needed by those living on its shores, but it does not make it easy. The same breezes which can make the summers cool whip up enormous storms and generate upwards of 146 inches of annual snowfall.

We encountered our friend, William A. Burt, once again with dioramas detailing his surveying forays across northern Michigan and the UP. This was not an easy life. He spent decades battling the wilderness. Indeed, when he made the huge and history-altering discovery of a mountain of iron ore just down the road from where we were staying near Teal Lake and what would become Negaunee, Beginning in Marquette, they had been forced to abandon their horses and spend four days without rations cutting their way through the unforgiving wilderness to reach that iron mountain. Iron ore drove his invention of the solar compass as their magnetic compasses were useless once they found the iron ore.

The living habits of the local Ojibwe were also illustrated and contrasted with the homes of the early white settlers. It is notable that the museum gave equal time and focus to the indigenous people who had been living in this demanding wilderness for thousands of years. Their wigwams were well adapted to the climate. In the winter they stayed warm and cozy with interior fires. In the summer the Ojibwe changed out the walls of their wigwams to allow for air circulation. The first white settlers were hard-pressed to bring civilization to this tough region. Creature comforts were shipped in at great expense and treasured as bulwarks against the harsh environment. Of course, the indigenous Ojibwe and the white settlers would not live in peaceful harmony. As elsewhere, the Ojibwe were pushed out of their lands as the white settlers asserted dominance.

Despite the physical challenges, the potential for wealth and commerce drove development. The second half of the nineteenth century was an all consuming drive to tame the land and extract its riches. Marquette developed as a major port. Constant inventions and improvements expanded the shipping of iron ore. Freighters became gargantuan in size and as the iron ore transited to southern Michigan for processing, ships returned bringing needed goods to the growing city.

One of my favorite parts of the museum was covered both in the permanent exhibit and in a special exhibit of recently executed examples of the indigenous and imported local crafts. The influence of both Finnish and German immigrants was apparent in exhibits of paper cutting and needlework. Beading and embroidery with moose hair and quills were indigenous. The dress below with the red bodice was actually made recently and combines beading techniques of the Ojibwe with embroidery stitches brought to the area by Finnish settlers.

As rich as this area was in natural resources, they were not to be had for the taking.  Bringing civilization to this land and extracting the invaluable natural resources was a harsh and demanding enterprise. This museum succeeded in capturing the compelling struggle and ultimate triumph of man asserting control over and taming this most challenging of environments.

 

Day Two in Paradise

We wanted to give Dakota an opportunity to rest up a bit after yesterday’s hike. Even though he didn’t seem over-stressed by the hike, one month post-surgery, he needed to come back slowly.

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The solution was a delightful day exploring the eastern peninsula of the UP in a graceful loop from Paradise to Whitefish Point, back south and then east to Sault Ste Marie and back to the park.

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We were really excited to visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The Shipwreck Museum is co-located with the Whitefish Point Lighthouse Tower. The later is the oldest operating lighthouse on Lake Superior. The shipwreck museum does a fantastic job of documenting the fury of Lake Superior, which really should be classified as a sea, and the thousands of wrecks resting at the bottom of its depths.

Happily, the collection of buildings comprising the complex are all dog-friendly. While we strolled the exhibits in the museum, Dakota lounged in my arms. Of course, the star of the museum is the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, but there were plenty of other breathtaking wrecks to discover. You can bet Gordon Lightfoot’s song runs throughout the exhibits and was an earworm for me as well.

The exhibits were really well curated and gave an unwavering portrait both of the importance of the shipping pathway around Whitefish Point and the tremendous dangers presented. Lake Superior is unforgiving and only the essential economics of shipping cargo, mostly iron ore, around that treacherous point could overcome any trepidation sailors might have felt.

Thousands of wrecks lie below the surface of Lake Superior and this was a theme we would encounter throughout our travels through the UP.

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After the museum, we wandered over to another building to watch the 15-minute movie, The Mystery of the Edmund Fitzgerald, chronicling both the story of its sinking as well as the effort to raise its bell. This was no mean feat as the Edmund Fitzgerald had come to rest over 500 feet below the surface of the water. The original bell is on display at the shipwreck museum and was replaced in situ with a duplicate bell featuring the names of all who perished on that terrible night.

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Equally compelling was the awesomely restored Lighthouse Keepers Quarters. Life tending a lighthouse was not easy. In addition to keeping the enormous lights in good working order, fueled with trimmed wicks, lighthouse keepers lived in semi-isolation. They needed to grow their own food and be very self-sufficient. This looked to be a comparatively comfortable living quarters, but one could easily imagine how difficult life could be in the winter as the lake threw storm after storm against its coasts. With fifteen feet of snow the norm, this was a tough life in the UP.

We opted not to climb the tower, but walked out onto the deck by the beach. The beach was inviting and off the coast we could see an enormous freighter off the shore. That freighter would accompany us all day as we made our way towards Sault Ste Marie and the Soo Locks.

We had gotten to the museum right when it opened which was a good thing. By the time we left, the parking lot was packed. We retraced our path down past Paradise and took a left on to the 33-mile scenic Curley Lewis Memorial Highway.

The highway ran along the coast of Lake Superior sometimes close by and at other times separated from the water by trees and houses. On the left were woods with more remote cabins often grouped in small settlements. Partway along the drive we found the Point Iroquois Lighthouse Tower. At 155 years old, this is one of the oldest lighthouses on Lake Superior.

Dakota remained in the car as we toured the grounds. One exhibit featured the lighthouse keeper’s quarters as it was in the 1950’s. Pretty grim actually.

We did climb the tower to enjoy the view and there was that freighter again inexorably heading to the locks in Ste Sault Marie.

Tummies were rumbling as we reached Brimley and passed a driveway leading to a gravel parking lot and signed “Pickles.” Dimly, I remembered the school teacher from Newberry telling some fellow passengers about a little known gem of a restaurant on the scenic highway to Sault Ste Marie.

We pulled in and Pickles was indeed quite a hidden gem. We sat on the deck overlooking Lake Superior and had marvelous meals. I enjoyed beautifully spiced White Fish tacos and Jim had a fried Lake Perch basket.

After seeing so many beautiful miles of coastline, lighthouses and other curiosities, Sault Ste Marie was an abrupt change of pace. The land around the city was flat and unattractive. That isn’t totally fair, it was clearly agricultural and, therefore, very different from what we had previously seen in the UP. The town was pretty unattractive as well crammed with tourist trap shops and sidewalks packed with tourists.

We made our way to the famous Soo Locks. We stood at the gates to the park and inspected the crowds watching the locks. We were un-enthused and the park was not dog-friendly and that was as far as we wanted to take it.

We drove around Sault Ste Marie a bit just to confirm our first impressions and then headed back out of town south on I-75 and then M-28 back to Paradise. It was clear that this far eastern outpost of the UP was agricultural flat land and we were ready to immerse ourselves in the forests further west. We arrived back at our Airstream tired, but having had a really excellent tour of this part of the UP. We had done our tourist bit and tomorrow we had great plans to kayak the Tahquamenon River.