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Published: June 29th 2018
Keweenaw National Historical Park, Calumet, Michigan
We completed our survey of this park yesterday by driving back down the thirty miles or so to Calumet, Michigan. We took a slightly different path this time, taking 26 over to Eagle Harbor instead of 41. Instead of going down the center of the peninsula, we skirted the northwestern shoreline. It was a cool drive because the fog covered Lake Superior, but ended right at the shoreline. So there was plenty of sun on the highway, but fifty feet into the lake was completely fog covered. Not sure I’ve seen such a distinct fog boundary like that before. And the fog was still there when we returned in the late afternoon.
Eagle Harbor was an interesting port town too. It has a lighthouse which is available for tour, as well as a cute harbor area with a sandy beach. (Once again, though, people don’t spend much time in the frigid waters).
On arriving in Calumet, we returned to the visitor center first, wanting to see the two floors of exhibits they have. I was very impressed. They have managed a substantial collection of artifacts describing
just about every facet of the town from its inceptions to the end of the copper mining.
The mine here was known as the Calumet and Hecla Copper mine, or C & H for short. It was a company town, but one that operated a bit differently than others. The head of the company was one Alexander Agassiz, son of the naturalist, Louis Agassiz. And, in fact, the younger one really wanted to be a naturalist like his father. Finding that the life of exploring nature, at the time, required independent wealth, he headed to Michigan, from Switzerland, to earn money so he could retire and pursue his ‘natural’ inclinations. He was a capable manager and, up until the final days of the company, managed to return a profit most of the time. He rabidly opposed unions and was deeply involved in the 1913 strike which, largely, turned on his decision to implement one-man pneumatic drills which significantly shrunk labor requirements.
He believed that a happy and healthy workforce was a more productive workforce and, therefore, believed that the company should build rental housing, provide schools for children, churches for families, and healthcare for
everyone (sounds more like a socialist than a capitalist, doesn’t he.). One thing he didn’t believe in, however, was running a ‘company store’. (In many company towns, the company store ends up charging such monopoly prices that the company manages nearly total control over the money they pay their workers. The result is often great profits for the company, at great expense for the workers.)
Since Agassiz did not believe in providing for everything the worker might need, he left room for, and encouraged other entrepreneurs, to come into town and develop their own businesses. The result was a pretty healthy mix of corporate control of the main business of the town (mining copper), a free floor of basic services (like education, health services, and plenty of opportunity for religious development), and a mix of local businesses providing things like groceries, construction, and services.
The town boomed. Red Jacket, as it was initially called, and the surrounding communities, eventually expanded to more than 40,000 people. One little tidbit I read said that the population density in downtown Red Jacket approached the current density of Manhattan - even if just a couple of blocks. Exhibits
in the visitor center provide interesting details of the regular operations of the town’s institutions. For example, although most people took advantage of the free medical system provided by the company, the company would not provide all services and the result was the town had several independent doctors operating their own clinics. The company would not treat venereal diseases, as one instance. (Apparently trying to control people’s behavior by restricting medical services has a long history in this country.)
Other exhibits trace the importance of the copper that came from this area in electrifying the country. Copper wire, and the power it carries, might very well be one of the markers of our civilization.
We took our tour guide booklets and drove a couple blocks into town, looking for a lunch spot. We found one in the Michigan Hotel which was designed, initially, not just as a hotel, but as a brewery. It still serves that latter function and we enjoyed some Red Jacket Brown Ale with our brats and terrific home-made potato chips. Eating lunch in a landmark building while looking at snowshoes on the ceiling is a great experience. Much of the
dining area has been semi-restored to look like it did a hundred years ago. (Some of it probably hasn’t been touched in a century either.)
It was late, the temperatures had climbed into the 80s, and we were still tired recovering from Isle Royale. So I admit that we didn’t complete the tour around the community. Instead of walking the many stops outlined in the booklet, we drove them. And after an abbreviated version of the tour, we drove back to the campground.
We didn’t do everything I would have wanted to do in Calumet. For example, they have a fire museum dedicated to the history of fire fighting. Apparently some of the equipment in there is vintage stuff in great shape. And there are centers of culture like the old opera house which not only served up opera for wealthy investors, but served as a meeting hall for workers. And the number of churches in this area, each supporting a variation on an ethnic community, is amazing. They are also interesting architecture. There is much to do in this park - don’t miss it.
We are leaving Michigan
today, headed west for a stay in northern Wisconsin. I’m also still working on editing pictures and composing my thoughts for our weekend on Isle Royale. We are more than two-thirds through this trip, but there are still weeks left to go. We had a great time in Michigan, but have two more states to visit. Our trip goes on!
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