From the summit of 1,327-foot Marquette Mountain in northern Michigan, the view offers a pleasing mix of industrial brawn and natural beauty. Dense pine forests descend to the red sandstone churches and office buildings of Marquette, the largest town (pop. 20,714) in the Upper Peninsula, or UP. In Marquette’s harbor on Lake Superior, the world’s largest body of fresh water, a massive elevated ore dock disgorges thousands of tons of iron pellets into the hold of a 1,000-foot-long ship. Closer to my lofty perch, a bald eagle plunges toward unseen prey in the lake’s blue waters.
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For more than a century, the UP has been the summer playground of Midwesterners. From the early 1900s on, captains of industry and commerce—including Henry Ford and Louis G. Kaufman—converged here. The industrialists erected lavish lakeside “cabins” that rivaled the Adirondack “camps” of the Eastern Seaboard elite. By the American automobile’s mid-20th-century heyday, Detroit assembly-line workers were flocking here as well.
With Lake Superior to the north, Lake Michigan to the south and Lake Huron to the east, the UP covers 16,542 square miles, or about 28 percent of Michigan’s landmass. (Since 1957, the two peninsulas, Upper and Lower, have been connected by the five-mile-long Mackinac suspension bridge.) Yet only about 3 percent of the state’s population—some 317,000 residents—live amid the UP’s woodlands, waterfalls and icy trout streams. Ernest Hemingway, who fished in the UP as a boy and young man, paid homage to the region in a 1925 Nick Adams short story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” set there. “He stepped into the stream,” the novelist wrote. “His trousers clung tight to his legs. His shoes felt the gravel. The water was a rising cold shock.”
“Yoopers,” as local residents call themselves, scoff at warm-weather visitors; as much as 160 inches of snow falls annually in parts of the UP. Even in July and August, when daylight stretches past 10 p.m., Lake Superior breezes keep average temperatures below 80 degrees. By nightfall, lakeside restaurants are packed with patrons tucking into grilled whitefish and pasties (pronounced PASS-tees)—turnovers stuffed with beef, potato and onion, a regional specialty introduced more than 150 years ago by British miners from Cornwall.
I confined my nine-day journey to a scenic stretch along Lake Superior, between the heavily transited ship locks in Sault Ste. Marie (pronounced SOO Saint Ma-REE, pop. 16,542) on the east and the lonely crescent beaches of the Keweenaw Peninsula, 263 miles to the west. Looming on the horizon at nearly every turn was Lake Superior, considered an inland sea despite its fresh water—so big it holds more water than the other four Great Lakes combined. The Ojibwa tribe called it “Gichigami,” meaning “big water,” and it was memorialized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha”: “By the shores of Gitche Gumee / By the shining Big-Sea-Water...”
French Explorers came to the Upper Peninsula in the 1600s for pelts, particularly beaver; they used Huron and Odawa Indians as go-betweens with trappers from other tribes. “The fur trade led Native Americans to give up their traditional way of life and plug into the global economy,” says historian Russ Magnaghi of Northern Michigan University in Marquette. The tribes also revealed locations of copper and iron deposits. By the 1840s, metal ore revenues surpassed those from fur, attracting miners from Germany, Ireland, Britain, Poland, Italy, Sweden, Norway and Finland.
At first, ore moved by boat on Lake Superior to Sault Ste. Marie, then was unloaded and carried overland by horse-drawn wagons past the St. Mary’s River rapids, a distance of some 1.5 miles. Then the ore was once again loaded onto waiting ships—a “staggeringly slow and inefficient” process, says Northern Michigan University historian Frederick Stonehouse.
But in 1853, construction began on locks to allow the ships direct passage between Superior and Huron. Sault Ste. Marie’s Soo Locks opened on schedule in 1855. “The lakes themselves became a vital highway for the Union Army in the Civil War,” says Stonehouse. In the year before the locks opened, fewer than 1,500 tons of ore were shipped; a decade later, the annual total had increased to 236,000 tons. After the war, the ore was shipped to the iron mills of Ohio and Pennsylvania. “The economic impact of Soo Locks was felt throughout the Middle West and across the nation,” says Pat Labadie, a historian at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary on the shores of Lake Huron at Alpena, Michigan. Today, nearly 80 million tons of cargo pass through the Soo Locks each year, making it the third busiest man-made waterway after the Panama and Suez canals.
Even the mightiest feats of engineering, however, are no match for the sudden storms that lash Lake Superior. The Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, a 75-mile drive northwest from Sault Ste. Marie, documents the final 1975 voyage of the doomed ore carrier the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, in its day the largest and fastest vessel on the lake.
On November 9, the 729-foot ship and its 29-man crew departed from the port of Superior, Wisconsin. Fully loaded with 29,000 tons of taconite iron-ore pellets, the Fitzgerald headed in calm seas for the Great Lakes Steel Company near Detroit. Some 28 hours later, the worst storm in more than three decades—waves 30 feet high and wind gusts close to 100 miles per hour—swept over Lake Superior. The Whitefish Point lighthouse was out as the vessel approached.