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4/2/2013 9:07:00 PM
Natural resources shaped Upper Peninsula's population and past
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
A fish shop fronts the massive old ore dock on frozen Lake Superior in downtown Marquette.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Ed Langlois
A fish shop fronts the massive old ore dock on frozen Lake Superior in downtown Marquette.
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Bishop Sample speaks to middle schoolers during a 2011 conference in Marquette.

Russell Magnaghi


Michigan's Upper Peninsula is surrounded by three Great Lakes — Superior, Huron and Michigan — and the state of Wisconsin. For years it was isolated from the rest of the state by the Straits of Mackinac.

The first inhabitants of the area were the Anishinabe people who lived off the harsh land. When the French arrived in the 17th century, the Native Americans and Europeans began to interact around the fur trade, which made the region a rich economic resource for the French and later the English. The French left in 1763 by the terms of the Treaty of Paris and were replaced by the English.

John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Co. on Mackinac Island. With the decline of the fur trade in the 1830s the Company turned to the fishing industry with the Native Americans as active participants.

In the mid-1840s copper was discovered on the Keweenaw Peninsula and iron ore in the central Upper Peninsula inland west of Marquette. This began "copper fever," which attracted thousands of American and immigrant workers to the economic opportunities of this mining frontier. The California Gold Rush might be more famous, but Michigan ultimately produced more mineral wealth.

Iron and copper brought the first great population boom to the region. The first immigrants to enter the Upper Peninsula were Cornish with centuries of mining knowledge, followed by the Germans and Irish fleeing famine and political unrest, and French Canadians. In the late 19th century arriving immigrants were from Italy, Finland, Scandinavia, Poland, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wales and Scotland and even from the Isle of Man and China. These people brought with them their ethnic traditions and foods and some brought their strong Catholic faith.

The “Golden Age” of the Upper Peninsula was between 1880 and 1913. Economic opportunity attracted hundreds and then thousands of people. During the summer season, Great Lakes ore ships sailed round the clock to get the ore to industrial centers.

Today this tradition continues. Jobs could be found in the expanding timber industry where the rich white pine forests were quickly cut and then the hard woods were taken. Commercial fishing brought prosperity to many towns along the lakes. The Roaring Twenties was in many ways the last gasp of the copper industry and the forests were rapidly being depleted.

The Great Depression brought the "Golden Era" to an end. There was little demand for copper and iron and the mining industry closed down and was unable to pay local taxes. Unemployment rose.

By the 1950s conditions looked bleak. Mines were closing throughout the Peninsula. Then a new enriched iron ore called taconite, developed by the Cleveland Cliffs Mining Co., revitalized the mines in the Marquette Iron Range.

Tourism became a new industry for many communities. Heavy snowfall has allowed skiing to develop as a major industry in some communities.

Today the Upper Peninsula is home to the Isle Royale National Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Keweenaw National Historic Park, Father Marquette National Memorial, and numerous state parks.

— The writer is from Northern Michigan University Center for Upper Peninsula Studies




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