The distinguished gentleman was standing a few yards south of what remains the largest mine hoist ever built, the steam-powered hoist at the shuttered Quincy Mine. The hoist, designed to carry rocks and men, is, to swipe a label from Esquire, a dubious achievement--events made it quickly obsolete--but that unfulfilled hope nuzzles at the heart of what makes the Keweenaw Peninsula fascinating.
Allan Johnson, a retired mining-engineering professor at Michigan Tech, just a few shafts down the road in Houghton, knows this territory."The first miners that came here, the experts, were the Cornishmen," he said. "And then a lot of other nationalities came--Finns, Germans, Croatians, Italians.
"During the great potato famine, there were a lot of Irish that came here. The Cornish and the Irish never got along too well. They fought from the beginning ..."
The Keweenaw Peninsula is gorgeous, especially in leaf-peeping season, which is why we stopped by in late September a year ago. Lots of maples, oaks, white birch and aspen among the pines, and that makes for dazzling stuff once the weather cools a little.
But what differentiates the Keweenaw from, say, Door County (aside from the lack of fish boils and two-seater Jacuzzis) is that this was never just a place for summer cottages and resorts and gentle farms.
Before seasonal visitors began making their claims, this was Copper Country. Dreams happened in this place: Some died here, some moved on, some adjusted to lessened expectations.
Copper. Native Americans discovered it, soldiers happened onto it centuries later, entrepreneurs financed searching for it, miners--predating California's metallic migration--rushed to it, labor unrest accompanied it and then, after a hundred-plus years, the digging just wasn't worth it anymore.
So, scattered among the summer-fall places, we have ghost towns and camera-ready ruins of copper installations, and grand architectural remnants that suggest prosperity once happened in the Keweenaw.
Today it is many things, though, frankly, prosperous isn't one of them. When climatic conditions are friendly, the Keweenaw is a place to hike and bike, to hunt in season, and, it being flanked by Lake Superior, to sail and kayak. Fishing is good, in the big lake and the smaller ones inland. Just meandering its winding, hilly backroads--some paved, some not--by motorcar is a pleasure.
Of course, there's also this: In winter the Keweenaw Peninsula is annually buried beneath about 250 inches of snow.
"That's misleading," notes Johnson. "Some people think the snow actually gets that deep."
It doesn't. Just a few feet, tops, at a time, and that's heavenly for cross-country skiers and snowmobilists. But the big snows, well-plowed and well-managed as they are, have helped limit development in the Keweenaw.
So it has its isolation: It's not really close to anything--even when you figure out where it actually is, which isn't easy.
Look at your road atlas. (You have one, right?) The sprawling reality of Michigan's Upper Peninsula means the entire U.P. can't fit on the same page as the rest of Michigan. The Keweenaw, then, is typically a disconnected inset stuck onto a piece of Ontario.
So here, for everybody, is a word-picture: The Upper Peninsula of Michigan, which kind of floats in Lake Michigan and Lake Superior over Lower Michigan and Upper Wisconsin, is shaped like a decomposing westbound shark.
The Keweenaw is the decomposing dorsal fin jutting into Lake Superior.
Its port of entry, Houghton, is 400-plus miles from Chicago. Chicagoans, using the fastest route, zip past Green Bay and still have four more hours of driving to do. It's more than 500 miles from Detroit--which is actually closer to Washington than it is to Michigan Tech.
And there are curious things about the Keweenaw Peninsula. For one, it's an island, not a peninsula. Canals that extended Portage Lake into a waterway to save time for shippers cut the dorsal from the rest of the fish; the only umbilical is a lift bridge.
For another, it is the beginning (or the end) of U.S. Highway 41, which ends (or begins) 1,990 miles away in Miami.
For another, the locally popular claim that Horace Greeley was talking about the Keweenaw when he urged eastern young men to "go west" and share in the copper boom is evidently wishful promotionalism. One scholar found Greeley's first suggestion that young men "go to the Great West" was published in 1837--seven years before the discovery of copper here. (Greeley later bought into Keweenaw's Delaware Mine, which, the business being labor-intensive, might have influenced follow-up urgings.)
For yet another, in an area that's intensely proud of its residual Finnishness (Hancock, across the bridge from Houghton, is home to Finlandia University and lots of Finnish flags), there are as many surviving Finnish restaurants as there are synagogues: one. The restaurant, the Suomi in downtown Houghton, is an everyday cafe with two token Finnish breakfast entrees. That's it.
Explained a waitress in an Italian restaurant in Hancock: "I don't eat Finnish, and I'm Finn. And my mother was a good cook." Added another local, a Norwegian: "It's too bland. The only seasoning they use is ketchup."
As for the lonely synagogue, here's one more curiosity: Opened in Hancock in 1912, it is Temple Jacob--named not for the patriarch, the common practice, but for a local storekeeper named ... Jacob.
Back to the natural beauty, which remains the primary reason anyone would consider driving 7 1/2 hours to get to this frontier: It's certainly here to be enjoyed.
Everyone who knows the Keweenaw has a favorite drive. Here are a few:
U.S. 41 from the Portage Lake Lift Bridge to Copper Harbor. Just added last fall to the list of National Scenic Byways by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the designation, to be sure, is linked to the picturesque scraps of the copper industry accessible from the highway; those scattered sites (mines, museums, buildings) that comprise Keweenaw National Historic Park. But the last 10 miles or so of the 50-mile route either wind through a tree tunnel (mostly hardwoods, colors ablaze if you time it right) or along water (Lake Medora or Superior) (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text). Cars slow out of respect for what nature has given us.
Michigan Highway 26, from Copper Harbor to Eagle Harbor. This one glides about 14 miles along the edge of Lake Superior, with some short stretches where forest and private homes cut off the view and access. It's crazy to compare the rocky shoreline of the Mother Lake to California's Big Sur, but there are hints here, and there will be places where you will want to get out of the car, get close to the water and enjoy the moment. With luck, the only sounds will be the quiet ripple of water and the call of a loon.
Brockway Mountain Drive. The 10-mile-long high road above Michigan 26, and not at all what anyone would expect of a Midwest drive, this truly is a mountain road with stunning views of the valley below. Catch this in color season and you'll think you're on Cape Breton in Nova Scotia--mountainsides full of puffs of reds and oranges.
The Covered Road. A little tricky to find, narrow and unpaved, the entry (there is a sign) is off the Canal Road in Houghton. For almost its entire 3-mile length, you drive beneath a canopy of impossibly tall maples. I missed the peak color, but I can imagine--and something else: This must be pure magic after a fresh snow ...
There are diversions.
There is Calumet, much of the town on the National Register. Like so much of the Keweenaw, it has struggled economically (its lifeblood, the Calumet & Hecla Mine, last of the area's major copper operations, closed in 1968), and its architecturally significant core is pocked with empty storefronts. But there's something interesting happening in Calumet--yes, dreams continue in the Keweenaw--and it's happening in an 1889 red sandstone building that once housed the Vertin Bros. Department Store.
The main floor is galleries. The upper floors are artists' studios. What they are creating is not rural/homespun junk.
"One of our nicest compliments," says Abbey Green, who creates in stained glass, "is, `You can't find a gallery like this in the city.' Well, you can--but they're surprised because it's here."
The century-old Calumet Theatre, a grand and lovingly maintained reminder of the boom times, regularly hosts plays and concerts. (During my visit, the community players presented the musical "Pajama Game," which was--well, it was enthusiastic.)
The world's largest steam hoist may have been something of a boondoggle (it only ran from 1920-1931), but it's still in the old No. 2 Hoist House, and a visit is part of the Quincy Mine Tour. Yes, they take you down there--but on a tram, not the hoist.
There's a second mine tour, of the Delaware Mine, literally a mom & pop operation. Tom and Lani Poynter are the pop & mom who bought the site in 1977 (it had been closed for 90 years), added a few bits of stuff (llamas, miniature trains) and answer questions.
"People think the life was very hard, and it was," Tom Poynter said as he stroked his pet skunk, Oreo. "A few cents an hour doesn't seem like much, but it was enough to bring them from everywhere, and they made a living wage and had a better house."
Up past Copper Harbor is Ft. Wilkins State Park. The fort, in operation from 1844-46 and again briefly after the Civil War, is as much a tribute to the art of restoration as it is a museum of its time.
And there are pasties, the meat pies introduced by the Cornish miners (or, more accurately, their wives) and now an integral part of Upper Peninsula culture.
"It was basically a poor man's dish," said Eric Frimodig, owner of Toni's Country Kitchen in Laurium, who makes them the way his mother did in Copper Harbor. "When the other miners came over, they all seemed to adopt the pasties."
Made, here, with rutabaga.
"In Wisconsin, most places have carrots in them," he said. "That's all right. It gives them a little sweeter flavor. I just prefer the rutabaga."
And more things: lighthouses (don't miss Eagle Harbor's), waterfalls ("More than any other place in Michigan," says Johnson.), beaches. The Keweenaw is the jump-off point for Isle Royale National Park ferries, but if you're among those who needs to get lost to find themselves, there's wilderness right here.
What's missing: water parks (indoor or outdoor), go-karts, mini-golf, luxury resorts and spas, restaurants with goats grazing on the roof and, north of the lift bridge, very few franchise anythings.
Instead, there's a sense of history, of dreams, and if you time it right in this land of copper, gold--and reds and rusts and ochers set against water than can be astonishingly blue.
It's a lode.
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IF YOU GO
Drive north on Interstate Highway 94 to I-43 at Milwaukee, continue north on I-43, then ease onto U.S. Highway 41/141 past Green Bay; stay on U.S. 141 into Michigan's Upper Peninsula, reconnect with U.S. 41 near Covington and continue into the Keweenaw. It's about 415 miles to Houghton; figure 7 1/2 to 8 hours, much of it pleasant. Copper Harbor is another 50 miles north of Houghton.
Alternative: It's possible to fly into Hancock (Houghton's sister city--they're effectively side by side); or into Marquette, where you can rent a car and drive the 90 miles to Houghton.
Expect steaks and chops, Lake Superior whitefish, walleye, burgers and pizza, and you won't be disappointed. Pilgrim River Steakhouse (906-482-8595), just south of Michigan Tech in Houghton, is a step above the norm. In downtown Hancock, try the homemade ravioli at Gino's (906-482-3020). If you like history with your meal, find the village of Lake Linden, then discover the Lindell Chocolate Shoppe (906-296-8083), open early for breakfast (plus lunch and dinner) and better than a place on the National Register of Historic Places has to be.
For the inevitable pasty, you won't do better than Toni's Country Kitchen (906-337-0611) in Laurium or, in downtown Houghton, the Suomi Home Bakery and Restaurant (906-482-3220). There are options in Copper Harbor, but by clear consensus the best in town (and on the peninsula): Harbor Haus--fine dining, plus familiar German specials, right on the water (906-289-4502; there also are B&B rooms).
The main concentrations of lodgings are in Houghton/Hancock and Copper Harbor near the peninsula's tip. The franchises (two Best Westerns, a Ramada, Super 8, Holiday Inn Express, others), along with some independents, are in Houghton/Hancock. Expect to pay about $55-$95/night (subject to change). The Copper Harbor lodgings are almost all mom & pop operations, modest and well-maintained and generally less expensive; expect to pay about $50-$85 (subject to change), mostly toward the lower end. A little spiffier near Copper Harbor, for a price, is Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, born in the 1930s as a WPA project and a short drive (or bike ride) from town, with motel rooms, cabins and a golf course (906.289.4403; www.atthelodge.com). Similar category but right in town, the Mariner North has motel rooms and a tight cluster of housekeeping cabins (906.289.4637; www.manorth.com).
Between Houghton/Hancock and Copper Harbor are scattered lodgings, most of them seasonal (open roughly Memorial Day into October, some reopening for snowmobile season), ranging from rustic motels to cabins to restaurants with a couple of rooms upstairs. Use the Web sites below, call ahead and ask specific questions to avoid disappointment.
TIMING THE COLOR
Peak leaf season everywhere varies from year to year and depends mainly on local weather factors. In the Keweenaw, that's further confused by the warming effect of the surrounding Lake Superior waters and by inland variations in elevation--which makes the whole place a succession of microclimates. In general, leaf color on the peninsula comes a couple of weeks later than it does south of Baraga in the U.P.; and the changes come still later right along the coastline. In general, there will be color somewhere in the Keweenaw from the last week in September through the first two weeks of October.
Two excellent sources for stuff on the Keweenaw: The Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce (906-482-6817; www.keweenaw.org) and the Keweenaw Convention and Visitors Bureau (906-337-4579; www.keweenaw.info). For Copper Harbor specifics, check the Copper Harbor Improvement Association Web site, www.copperharbor.org.
--Alan SolomonCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times