The Wonderful Wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Immortalized by Longfellow, the Midwest’s preferred vacation spot offers unspoiled forests, waterfalls and coastal villages

Northern Michigan's rocky coast, shown here is a Presque Isle cove, has long beckoned as a summer playground. The picturesque region, wrote American naturalist Edwin Way Teale, is "a land of wonderful wilderness." (Scott S. Warren)
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With a twinge of guilt, I return to my comfortable lodgings, the Laurium Manor Inn, a restored Victorian mansion that once belonged to mine owner Thomas H. Hoatson Jr. From my balcony I can see small-town Americana. Girls play hopscotch on the sidewalk. Young men hunch over the open hood of a Chevy Camaro, scrub the tires and wax the exterior. A songbird chorus rises from the stately oaks, hemlocks and maples shading large houses, many dating back more than a century. David and Julie Sprenger graduated from the UP’s Michigan Tech, in the town of Houghton. They abandoned careers in Silicon Valley in 1991 to transform this once-derelict mansion into an upscale bed-and-breakfast in tiny Laurium (pop. 2,126), about ten miles northeast of the Quincy mine. “We gave ourselves two years to get it up and running—and then we just couldn’t stop,” says Julie. Work on the stained glass, reupholstered furniture, carpentry, original plumbing and lighting fixtures has stretched out for 20 years. “And we still aren’t through,” she says.

Some 100 miles to the east, the town of Marquette offers a remarkable inventory of historical architecture, linked to another 19th-century mining boom—in iron ore. The single most striking structure is the now abandoned Lower Harbor Ore Dock, jutting 969 feet into Lake Superior from downtown Marquette. The Presque Isle Harbor Dock, at the town’s northern end, remains in operation. Here, loads of iron pellets are transferred from ore trains to cargo vessels.

From about 1870, iron-mining wealth funded many handsome buildings built of locally quarried red sandstone. Landmarks include the neo-Gothic First United Methodist Church (1873), with square buttressed towers and two asymmetrical spires; the Beaux-Arts-style Peter White Public Library (1904), constructed of white Bedford (Indiana) limestone; and the former First National Bank and Trust Company headquarters (1927), built by Louis G. Kaufman.

The Marquette County Courthouse, built in 1904, is where many of the scenes in the 1959 courthouse cliffhanger, Anatomy of a Murder, were filmed. The movie, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara, was adapted from the 1958 novel of the same title by Robert Traver, the pseudonym of John Voelker, who was the defense attorney in the rape and vengeance murder case on which the book was based. “After watching an endless succession of courtroom melodramas that have more or less transgressed the bounds of human reason and the rules of advocacy,” wrote New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther, “it is cheering and fascinating to see one that hews magnificently to a line of dramatic but reasonable behavior and proper procedure in a court.”

On my final day in the upper peninsula, I drive 58 miles from Marquette to the village of Alberta, built in the 1930s by Henry Ford, who conceived of a utopian community for his workers. In 1935, he founded such a settlement, centered around a lumber mill, at the southern end of the Keweenaw Peninsula. There the men worked in a mill that supplied lumber for components for Detroit car bodies; Alberta’s women grew fruits and vegetables on two-acre plots. The community included a dozen households, two schools and a reservoir that supplied water to the mill and offered recreation for residents.

Ford claimed he had been motivated to create Alberta—named after the daughter of one of his executives—by nostalgic memories of his own village childhood. But some are skeptical. The Depression years were a time of ideological struggle, with Fascism and Communism sweeping Europe and increasing tensions between management and labor in the United States. “Ford didn’t like unions, and saw the Alberta experiment as an alternative to keep them at bay a bit longer,” says Kari Price, who oversees the museum established at Alberta after the Ford Motor Company transferred the village to nearby Michigan Tech in 1954. Today Alberta is the location of the university’s forestry research center, and its original dozen Cape Cod-style cottages are rented to vacationers and a handful of permanent residents.

The Alberta experiment lasted only 16 years. Demand for automobile lumber ended in 1951 when Ford stopped producing “woody” station wagons, which featured slats of polished wood on the doors. And farming at Alberta turned out to be impractical: the soil was rocky, sandy and acidic; the growing season was short (90 days at best)—and the deer were voracious.

Ford’s failure, however, was not without its compensations. He envisioned establishing villages throughout the Upper Peninsula, and likely anticipated increased logging to supply the mills in future settlements. Instead, the region’s sprawling wilderness has remained intact. In the late 1950s, when the celebrated American naturalist and writer Edwin Way Teale crisscrossed the Upper Peninsula—as part of an odyssey he would recount in Journey Into Summer (1960)—he was awed by the region’s untrammeled beauty. The UP, he declared, could fairly be described as a “land of wonderful wilderness,” where “sand and pebbles and driftwood” dot the lakeshores, mayflies can be seen “rising and drifting like thistledown,” and forest glens are “filled with the hum of bees and the pink of milkweed flower clusters.” Teale wrote that he and his wife, Nellie, were reluctant even to glance at their map while driving for fear of missing a sight, whether small or spectacular: “Everywhere we felt far away from cities and twentieth-century civilization.” More than a half-century later, that assessment holds true. If you need to look at a map, it’s probably best to pull over.

Jonathan Kandell lives in New York City. Photographer Scott S. Warren travels the world on assignment.


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