THE UPPER PENINSULA OF MICHIGAN
Surrounded on three sides by Lakes Superior, Michigan and Huron, the Michigan’s Upper Peninsula begins with low rolling hills to the east that rise to form “Midwest mountains” inland. It is a land of waterfalls, inland lakes, long stretches of sandy beaches and sandstone cliffs along those three great lakes. The U. P., as locals refer to it, is greater in size than all of southern New England combined. It has Michigan’s largest wilderness area and largest state park, and of the state’s 152 significant waterfalls, all but two of them are on the peninsula. There are 200-foot cliffs, beaches, dunes, 4,300 inland lakes, and 12,000 miles of trout streams. But the winters are long with the average snowfall about 200” a winter. Yoopers (as the local residents refer to themselves) joke about having “10 months of winter and two months of poor sledding.”
In January of 1837 when the state of Michigan was admitted as a state of the Union, Michigan was considered the losing party. The land in the Upper Peninsula was described in a federal report as a “sterile region on the shores of Lake Superior destined by soil and climate to remain forever a wilderness.” This belief would soon change when rich mineral deposits, primarily copper and iron, were discovered in the 1840s. The Upper Peninsula‘s mines produced more mineral wealth than the California Gold Rush, especially after shipping was improved by the opening of the Soo Locks in 1855 and docks in Marquette in 1859. Moreover, there were the hardwoods, and lumbering soon became the next big enterprise.
Perhaps seen as a land apart, it is a remote area in a place not easily reached and certainly not generally traveled through. Its biggest selling point is the land itself, the beauty of a rugged landscape. With its hardwood forests stretching to the horizon and bordered by deep blue waters, its beauty is pristine and untarnished. The fall season here is outstanding. The U.P. can hold its own when compared to other more well-known destinations at this time of the year. There was never a doubt that we would come to this place, it was merely a question of when. And then everything fell together, making this the year we would come.
IN COPPER COUNTRY
Our first stop once arriving in the UP was on the Keweenaw (Key’-wau-nauw) Peninsula, also known as Copper Country. It is a 100-mile-long crook of land that curves into Lake Superior, and is the northernmost point of Michigan. Formed by volcanic eruptions, the rocky spine of the peninsula is now mostly forested. Basalt outcrops lead down to meet Lake Superior’s shoreline.
Those ancient eruptions brought copper to the surface — the world’s largest masses of pure copper. Shallow mining pits date back at least 3,000 years to the Old Copper Indians, credited as the first people to work with metals in the Western Hemisphere. More recently, for hundreds of years Native Americans mined these surface deposits and worked the copper into prized ornaments and tools. These prehistoric products of Keweenaw copper have been found as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, in what was to become the states of Alabama and Mississippi.
By the mid-1800s, American investors from the East Coast and Lower Michigan started companies to mine the metal, the demand for which began to soar as indoor plumbing and electricity grew in importance. Although many of the major investors never lived in the area, the homes of a few wealthy mining executives remain as a testament to their profits.
Such is the opulent, antebellum-style, 45-room, 13,000 square foot mansion that was built in 1908 for copper mine owner Thomas Hoatson Jr. After he struck it rich with a copper mine in Bisbee, Arizona, he came to the Keweenaw to continue his business.
At the time this remote region was well beyond any other American settlements. To supply the mines, export the copper, and feed the miners required lengthy and often treacherous Great Lakes boat shipments. The federal government, undoubtedly “encouraged” by the mining investors, initiated two major projects to promote shipping. It created the Soo Locks, completed in 1855, and soon started building lighthouses at critical locations for maritime safety.
But the demand for copper was so great that by the 1870s this wild, snowy region was settled and billions of pounds of pure copper formed into hefty ingots were being shipped out on huge oreboat freighters. It was dangerous and unpleasant work for those who toiled long shifts down dark shafts. In copper’s heyday, men sank vertical shafts 2 miles deep and bored two thousand miles of horizontal tunnels to produce 95% of the nation’s copper. That depth spelled the eventual doom of Keweenaw mining. The last copper mine closed in the 1980s. Huge deposits of copper remain here, but for decades it has been much cheaper to strip mine the ore, first in Montana and Arizona, now in places like Chile, Australia, and Peru. Standing now as relics to the past, most of the mines are deteriorating where they were built. One of the more prominent mines is now part of the Keweenaw National Historical Park, which of course we decided to tour.
A tram conveyed us down the precipitous cliff to reach the eighth level of one particular mine. Then we were transported deep inside the mine to see the actual environment the miners worked in. It was a constant 43 degrees, damp and windy in there. Not the most comfortable of working conditions. Men back then worked by candlelight, which they were expected to provide. And if the flame went out, they were left in total, absolute darkness. The option would be to wait until the next shift arrived, or somehow work their way back through the tunnel, a very hazardous choice.
Many of the shaft houses that covered the opening to the shafts still stand in the area, in various degrees of decay. Being part of the museum, this particular one is still in working condition. The men were transported down the shaft at a 54 degree angle 30 at a time in large ore cars to their respective levels. Stamp mills, smelters and foundries soon sprung up along Portage Lake to prepare the copper for shipping. Many of the old ruins can be seen along the waterfront.
The mines employed tens of thousands of European immigrants, mining specialists from Cornwall and Ireland. After the Cornish came the Irish, Germans, and Scots, then various Scandinavians including the earlier wave of Finns, followed by Italians, Slovenia, Hungarians, Croatians, and more Finns after 1900. In 1870 the percentage of foreign-born Houghton County residents — 70% — was third-highest in the entire U.S. Each of the different ethnic groups brought many of their customs with them, giving the western UP much of its distinctive character. The pasty (pronounced “pass-tee”), a kind of meat turnover originally brought to the region by Cornish miners, is popular among locals and tourists alike. Pasty varieties include chicken, venison, pork, hamburger, vegetarian and pizza. Finnish immigrants have also contributed to the region’s food varieties. We had breakfast at Suomi, a Finnish restaurant, where Chris ordered the Finnish pancakes (more like an egg custard) and Melinda had the Finnish French toast. Both were delicious. “When in Rome” . . . of course, we had to try the pasties . . . we found it to be a close relation to the pot pie.
When copper production declined, however, so did the copper-dependent economic structure of the Keweenaw. In 1992 the federal government, recognizing the Keweenaw’s historic importance and responding to local lobbying, established the Keweenaw National Historic Park, modeled in part after the urban industrial park organized around the textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts. The KNHP has used some of its budget to leverage strategic improvements to help preserve the historic towns and strengthen their economies by attracting visitors.
We are always happy when campgrounds we have chosen sight unseen turn out to be rewarding. Such was the case with McLain State Park. Located on the shores of Lake Superior, it had two miles of sand beach from which to watch sunsets as well as having neatly manicured sites. We were fortunate to have one of those sites directly facing the water. We were able to view all the different looks and moods of the big lake right from our campfire ring.
The village of Copper Harbor is located at the very tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula. It is home to just a handful of hardy souls. It began as a mining settlement in the 1840s. The discovery of huge pure copper deposits in 1843 produced the need for a government land office. In 1844, the first contingent of U.S. Army troops arrived to begin construction of Fort Wilkins to maintain law and order in the settlement of mineral prospectors. Some of the early miners stayed on to settle the area and became the ancestors of many of the current townfolk and shop owners.
The road happened to be Highway 41 . . . the very same road that runs through 8 states, from Florida through Indiana (specifically Terre Haute) and on to this tiny burg. At the road’s end, we found the sign commemorating the route. Having special significance to us, of course we stopped for a photo op.
Whitefish is big in all of the U.P., as we were beginning to discover. How much whitefish can there be in one lake . . . even one this big? Whitefish boiled, fried or smoked, pickled or sushied. “Fresh whitefish” is commonly heralded along any road we might be driving. Through research we had done, Peterson’s Fish Market was a local favorite we had discovered. Located just across the road from the Mining Museum, how could we pass it up?
We soon realized that the perfect way to end a day up here in the UP is to take a lakeside stroll. Their sunsets have a myriad of different looks and it never gets monotonous. Could there be a better way to wrap up a day? In a place decidedly different than Indiana.
From the remote land of Michigan’s U.P. where bears are still in abundance
(and it just happens to be hunting season!)
Airstream Travelers, Chris and Melinda