After a few days, we left Copper Country and made our way east . . . into Iron Country. What mountains Michigan can claim lay here . . . vestiges of mountains once far higher than the Rockies. Two-billion-year-old cliffs are now softly-rounded mounds, densely forested, interlaced with streams and lakes. The Huron Mountain Range lies mostly north and slightly west of the town of Marquette, which is located on a protected curve of Lake Superior’s shoreline. While other regions of the U.P. have similarly exceptional features, within Marquette one finds the highest concentration of outstanding architecture, good restaurants, interesting shops, and the largest population. It is a city of about 20,000.
Although the buildings are old, they were constructed with style, mostly from the native red stone. Marquette is revitalized and its pride is evident in the restoration of its buildings.
Iron created the initial wealth that makes this region stand apart economically from the rest of the U.P. Marquette County is by far the Upper Peninsula’s wealthiest. Its population of over 67,000 far outnumbers any of the other 14 U.P. counties. In the 1850s and 1860s, towns sprang up around iron mines—some 200—along the 45-mile-long Marquette Range of iron ore deposits. Through the 1870s, the Marquette Range was the richest known source of iron in the world. With its Lake Superior harbor, Marquette became the ore’s shipping port and the region’s financial and commercial center. Iron, timber, and banking formed many great fortunes. That wealth is reflected in the city’s eye-catching architecture, its many handsome downtown buildings, its striking 19th-century mansions, and the modern homes perched on bluffs high above Lake Superior.
From 1850 to 1880 Marquette Range miners extracted a million tons a year of the highest-quality iron ore in the world. As the centers of U.P. iron mining moved west, energetic, politically savvy boosters got Marquette two important additional economic linchpins: the Upper Peninsula’s first state prison and its normal school for teacher training, which evolved into today’s 9,000+-student Northern Michigan University.
After World War II, Marquette Range’s underground mines started closing because of the high cost of mining ore. They were replaced by huge open-pit mines using new techniques to extract small percentages of low-grade ore from vast masses of rock. One of the largest of these open pits is located just west of town.
Entering town from the west, we circumvented the downtown district to arrive at our campground. Owned by the city, the Tourist Park was located within the city limits, adjacent to NMU campus. The forested setting offered a pleasant contrast to the city outside the gates. We had the best of both worlds.
After establishing camp, we decided to head into town for an initial exploration. With bike trails leading out from the park, Chris chose to bike it while Melinda covered more ground in the truck. We arranged to meet up at one of Marquette’s prominent landmarks.
Marquette’s shoreline makes a wide sweep along Lake Superior, and its fiery-red lighthouse helps vessels get safe passage into the lower harbor. Some people see comparisons here to the Oregon coast, with the beaches’ rocky cliffs, and blue waters that can brew ocean-type storms at certain times of the year.
Attention to the natural attributes of water and lakefront were obviously primary considerations in planning the park and marina located a couple blocks from Marquette’s city center. Well-designed condos blend into the natural setting overlook the harbor and park.
Two outstanding features of Marquette’s downtown are its City Hall and St. Peter Cathedral. Situated on high ground and constructed from the locally quarried red sandstone, the City Hall exudes the look of stability and stature.
In designing this splendid church, Marquette Catholics and their bishop wanted to make a strong architectural statement to counterbalance the unusually large and elegant Episcopal Church, the church of Marquette’s Protestant elite. Building the twin-towered Romanesque cathedral took ten years before completion in 1890. It and the nearby courthouse, conspicuously sited on a hill surveying the town, form a memorable southern skyline.
Presque Isle Park is another source of pride for the city. It is a rocky, wooded, and very picturesque peninsula that curves out into the lake just north of the town and forms a natural harbor for the location of the docks that service the giant ore boats. Cloaked in the dark green of pines, the red rocks at water’s edge form a jagged shoreline. It was here that Melinda found a good spot to capture the last of the sun’s rays hitting the wave-washed rocks.
A bike trail led north out of Marquette from the campground, following the lakeshore and leading into a remote, little-populated region. Known as the North Tour, the trail was actually a paved county road, which went past picturesque settings. The village of Big Bay, little more than a handful of buildings, lay 25 miles away. Sounding like the perfect length for an afternoon biking excursion, Chris headed out. Melinda would photograph her way along the same route in the truck, arranging to rendezvous up at Big Bay.
It was a delightful afternoon for her. The little-used road wove through hardwood forests and curved between the low mounds of the Huron Mountains. A pull-off gave access to a short trail through an old-growth forest to a sphagnum bog and observation platform. The afternoon light enhanced the changing colors of the fall foliage.
Another highlight was the trail that led down to a remote sandy beach. Following the water’s edge her walk culminated at a cluster of rocky ledges protruding into lake waters as blue as any tropical sea. With the combination of water, beach, rock outcroppings and thick forest, it was the quintessence of a Superior Peninsula.
Chris’ adventure was of a different sort. The road he biked began smooth enough. With little traffic, he settled back and began to put the miles behind. Until he hit the road construction zone. Rough passage for one on a bike. A single lane over rough pavement lasted for several miles. Once through the zone, he barely had time to enjoy the return of smooth pavement before coming upon the second construction area. Some more arduous miles to get through. Back again on good pavement, he still hadn’t seen the last of it yet. Two more construction zones lay ahead before arriving at Big Bay.
The lady running the General Store was so impressed by his accomplishment in reaching Big Bay under those circumstances that she asked if she could take his picture. She provided the sticker he’s holding whose message seemed appropriate: “I’d turn back if I were you!”
Our stay in Marquette was short-lived. We headed out soon after sunrise the following morning. More places yet to see, more landscapes to photograph and better biking routes hopefully ahead. In the time we had, we felt that we had come to get a sense of the history of Marquette and the land surrounding it. It was another memorable experience.