Exploring Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, History and Food

We are going to introduce you to some small towns in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that you have probably never heard of unlessyou have a kid in college at Northern Michigan University, are an avid skier aspiring to be inducted into the U.S. National Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum, or interested in copper and iron ore mining history.  Come to find out these little towns provided a lot for us to do and are jammed packed with events in the summer time. In fact, we had trouble getting campsite reservations because of the popularity of these areas.


The weekend we chose to come to this area coincided with the Blueberry Festival, the Italian Festival, and the summers’ big arts and crafts fair.  I’m a lover of blueberries and Betsy is always game for a good hometown festival so we packed up Spirit and headed to downtown Marquette to the 17th Annual Blueberry Festival.  It started at 10 a.m. and we got there at 10:01 because we didn’t want to miss anything. The festival takes place in downtown where city streets shun cars so pedestrians are free to stroll along enjoying blueberry lemonade, blueberry pizza, blueberry beer and perusing the local artisans crafts and outdoor stores with amazingly good sales.  We don’t shop much because our house is full and space is limited but when it comes to deals on good outdoor wear, watch out credit card. 


Ishpeming is a little Michigan town that we had never heard of before but turns out to be the birthplace of organized skiing in America and home to the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame and Museum.  Here is a place where you are introduced to America’s best skiers and snowboarders in a 15,000 square-foot building that contains exhibits, a library, films, and a comprehensive history of organized skiing.  The 400+ person honor roll at this place includes the sports greats like Picabo Street, Johnny Mosely, and Phil Mahre. 


The towns of Ishpeming (and neighboring Negaunee) developed as a result of mining in the Marquette Iron Range which holds vast deposits of iron ore that has been mined continuously from 1847.  So it’s appropriate that the Michigan Iron Industry Museum be located in this area.  The museum highlights more than 125 years of mining history in Michigan and tells the story of the men who worked in the cold damp depths through interactive exhibits, entertaining films and educational displays.  And, it’s FREE (donations appreciated)! 


The importance of iron ore in this area can still be seen today in downtown Marquette after all this mining industry in the Marquette Range has been continuously in operation since 1847.  Evidence of the iron ore industry still plays out along the downtown water front where the ore docks (shown below) stand ready to fill the 1,000–foot long Great Lakes freighters.  To learn more about the rich mining history in this area we headed north up the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Keweenaw Peninsula

The Keweenaw Peninsula is alive with mining history mostly due to local residents who feared loosing their heritage.  In the 1970’s, as residents watched the demolition of historic structures in these long-established mining towns they felt an unease about what was taking place and formed a grass roots effort to petition congress and establish a National Historical Park.  In 1992, congress granted that wish and established the Keweenaw National Historical Park to preserve and interpret sites, structures, and stories related to copper mining on the peninsula.  In and around the National Park are over a dozen independently operated Keweenaw Heritage Sites that work in partnership to expand the realm of historic preservation and interpretation.

In the midst of trees and water of the Keweenaw a shiny surface grabbed the attention of early Native Americans 7,000 years ago and so copper mining began.  The copper was so pure, Native Americans used it straight out of the ground and crafted it into beads, tools, and ornaments.  Douglass Houghton, the Michigan state geologist, was sent to the area to map the reserves.  He discovered what turned out to be the largest deposit of pure elemental copper in the world.  Where the Native Americans revered the copper and took only what they needed, the white men saw a resource to exploit.  By the 1870’s the mining operations caught international attention and thousands of immigrants flooded the area – bringing with them their mining skills, culture, and food that is still evident in the area today in restaurants, festivals, and community events.  By far, the copper rush in Michigan was more profitable than the gold rush in California.  So why the need for copper?  Copper was used in making munitions, as a sheathing on wooden-hulled ships, for decorative building features and as a component in making bronze and brass alloys.  Later copper became important for making electrical wiring and water piping and now an important component in computer chips.20170724_180757

We parked the RV at Houghton RV Park and were lucky to get a spot in this small but great park. (More on that in a future RV Park Review.)  The campground was in a convenient location to exploring the peninsula and within walking distance to downtown Houghton.  Plus we had a water view out our front window and a great patio that was a wooden deck overhanging Portage Lake which made for a nice place to sit and watch the sunsets. 

A visit to the Keweenaw would not be complete without a tour deep into a mine.  We chose the Quincy Mine which is affiliated with the national park and takes you down the midwest’s only cog-rail tram where you enter the dark and damp environment of a copper mine.  The deepest point in the mine was 9,260 feet below the surface earning the title of the world’s longest mine shaft.  We had a wonderful guide who was extremely knowledgeable about the mine’s history and operation which made for a fascinating two-hour tour.  The most significant advancement in mining came when the pneumatic drill was introduced.   This revolutionary machine meant that companies could significantly increase in production, employ less skilled workers, and reduce the number of employees.  After visiting the depths of the mine we moved to the massive hoist house located above ground.   The Quincy Mine had the largest steam-powered hoist ever built and was capable of hauling 10 tons of iron ore up from the shaft depths at 36 miles per hour.  Thus making this a far more efficient mine than others. 


Continuing on up the peninsula you come to the town of Calumet where the once thriving mining town is now practically a museum in itself.  In its heyday Calumet was the center of copper mining in the United States with a population that swelled to 95,000 people.  Here you will find the National Park Service’s visitor center – a two story interactive museum housed in an amazing old building with so much historical character still in tact and highlighted.  Within the Calumet Historical District are some half dozen other museums and historical sites to explore.  We wandered down to the Calumet Theater which is one of many opulent buildings built to serve the growing community.  In its heyday, the theater was one of the most elegant theaters in the midwest.  In a time when gas lights were the norm, the theater had electric.  Box seats, a sculpted curved balcony and gallery and Louis 14th style arch set this venue apart from others and added to the opulence of the town.  Today the Calumet Theater is open for self-guided and guided tours and still operates as a public venue offering musical, theatrical, and community events. 


At the very northern tip of the Keweenaw is an outdoorsy little town called Copper Harbor whose slogan is “where the road ends and adventure begins.”  While summer activities here were in full swing it was clear this was a year-round active time (but we weren’t staying around to see what winter activities looked like!).  The town is where coastal charm, outdoor spirit, and historical reflection co-mingle.  We stopped at the Fort Wilkins Historic State Park for a look around and found ourselves busy for a couple of hours.  The U.S. Army built the fort in 1844 to “keep the peace” in Michigan’s copper country and now serves as a living museum demonstrating how army life in the UP was in the mid 19th century.  Many of the buildings (12 of which are original) are restored to period time and have interesting exhibits and beautiful grounds.  There is also a campground on the property, lake for fishing or boating, lighthouse for gazing at, beach for swimming, picnic areas, and hiking trails.   


What happened to Michigan’s copper industry?  The production peaked in 1916 at 267 million pounds but declined severely after WWI when copper deposits were depleted and mine profitability waned.  A year-long labor unrest also hurt the industry and saw the rise of strip mining for copper in other areas.  The Quincy Mine nicknamed “Old Reliable” finally closed in 1945 and today there are no mines in operation. 

Before we left the UP there were some foods we had been repeatedly told were “must-eats” by Michiganders.  One was the highly touted whitefish caught from the cold waters of Lake Superior and the other was the hearty dish consumed by miners called pasties.  One of our tour guides at the Quincy Mine told us the best whitefish was right across the street at Peterson’s Fish Market and Restaurant.  It got great reviews online and pictures showed it had a fun divey decor and outside seating perfect for enjoying the sunny day.  Verdict on the fish: Sorry Michiganders, you can keep your whitefish we still prefer New England-style beer battered cod.  At least we tried!  Pasties we did like and have continued to wander into pastie restaurants across the UP and even left Michigan with some in our freezer.  For more on pasties check out our blog on Eating and Drinking Our Way Through Michigan.


We spent a good two months exploring the UP of Michigan.  In just a short time one realizes that mining is why this area was settled.  Waterfront skylines are dominated by massive ore docks ready to fill freighters, historical museums reflect on the mining boom with memorabilia, and the scars from mining on the landscape are still visible.  Today, the UP attracts those seeking outdoor adventure.  Outdoor enthusiasts will find this area a playground with an impressive amount of land in public ownership managed by state and federal agencies and there are plenty of acres to zip through the woods in an off-road-vehicle, hundreds of lakes to paddle, and miles of trails to roam. 

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