History’s Gem of the Month: The Story of Grand Marais, Part 3

 April/May 2010

Continued from March 2010, Part 2

Commercial fishing had by now reached its peak. In 1904, a record catch of 12,000 pounds of fish was brought in by the “William E.” of the Buckeye Fish Company. The supply of fish seemed inexhaustible.

The blueberry industry was important as a source of revenue for many people of Grand Marais. Families by the dozens camped on the pine plains near the town where the blueberries grew abundantly. Good prices were paid for the fruit; the main purchasing agent was the local railroad.

Between the years of 1894 and 1910 Grand Marais prospered as much as could be expected of a thriving lumber town. The population of the city reached three thousand. Homes and business places were painted and enlarged, sidewalks on the main streets which had been made of lumber were torn up and replaced with walks of cement, and trees were planted along the streets by civic-minded organizations and individuals … in a few short years this was all changed!

All was tranquil when, on May 20, 1910, out of the blue the death knell of Grand Marais was sounded. It came in the form of a posted notice to the effect that the Alger-Smith Company was about to definitely suspend all logging, sawmill, and railway operations. The reason given that the cut of pine had been completed, so the company was transferring its operations to northern Minnesota. Efforts were made to compel operation of the railway in order to preserve the town and remaining industries – all to no avail. The notice of suspension was given six months in advance. During that time the thriving community became nearly a ghost town. The cook, Curtis, and Miller Company was also forced to close because there was no way to transport timber from their mill to outside markets as railroad transportation would soon be not available. Many people moved to Duluth, Detroit, and the West Coast.

The fishing industry by this time became so unprofitable that this industry, or what was left of it, could not save the town.

Nearly all business houses closed doors, although the large Schneider and Hill stores stayed to serve the remaining population. The Grand Marais Herald, which had been published since 1894, closed its printing plant and moved its machinery to Munising on the last train out of town. The value of property hit a low mark – some large homes selling for as little as $500, other smaller houses were sold for as little as $50. Many people left with just what could be packed in a suitcase, left their homes and business places, and never returned. Grand Marais was nearly a ghost town for a few years following 1910, but slowly, very slowly, people returned to find some means of livelihood.

Soon after the railroad was removed in 1910, a road was built on the former railroad grade, from Seney to Haverstock’s Corner, and the following year was extended to the town. However, the township found itself unable to maintain and keep open the road during the winter months, so a collection was taken up and William Leighton, who was supervisor at the time, was sent to Lansing to ask the State to place the newly built road under its care. The State Commission consented, and in 1916 the road became Michigan Highway 77. The road was then improved, widened, and surfaced with gravel. [Note: research by museum staff at the state archive indicated that M77 was actually authorized in 1919, nine years after the railroad closed.]

It was then that motoring tourists discovered Grand Marais. The two-story “Pickle Barrel” house, an exact replica of a pickle barrel on a house-sized scale, was built for Mr. and Mrs. William Donahey of Chicago by Reid, Murcock, and Company in 1926. This was one of the first major attractions as it was widely publicized by the latter. Mr. Donahey, creator of the famous “Teenie Weenies,” was presented with this unique barrel house exactly as he had drawn the house for the Teenie Weenies in an illustration for that company at an earlier date.

Tourists found Woodland Park an ideal spot in which to camp. This beautiful tract of land had been presented to the town by the Gamble Estate to be used as a public park only, and could not be sold or used for any other purpose. The land was, as it is at the present time, covered with beautiful hardwoods and pine.

Perhaps the biggest attraction was the Grand Sable Dunes, highest in Michigan. The early French explorers were so attracted by these dunes that they placed them on their maps as “le Grand Saubles” (the Great Sands) as early as 1688. The settling of Longfellow’s famous poem “Hiawatha,” was supposedly on these dunes.

Grand Sable Lake proved very popular with the summer visitors. The lake was called, in the notes of an early surveyor, “the Diamond of the desert.” In recent years, a number of attractive summer cottages and tourist cabins have been built on the shores of the lake, which has afforded good fishing of perch, pike, and bass. [NOTE: Soon after the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore was created by federal legislation in 1966, the houses and cabins on Sable Lake were removed.}

Not only did the tourist industry help to revive the village, but the commercial fishing was becoming profitable once again, and a number of tugs began to fish out of the harbor. By the 1930s fishing was again at its peak. Smith Brothers, Sellmen Fisheries, and the Endress and Masse Fish Company conducted fishing operations at this time. This latter company was the only business firm, other than Ostrander’s Drug Store, from the original concerns in Grand Marais. Other smaller tugs began fishing out of the harbor during this decade as well.

The cutting of timer was resumed, giving employment to a number of people. In 1927 a large modern brick school was constructed at a cost of $125,000. The building is one of the finest and best equipped in Michigan for a village of this size.

As Grand Marais is the first harbor west of the Soo Locks, it was rather important during World War Two. Soldiers were stationed near the village at Camp Fox, and the number of Coast Guards was increased at the United States Coast Guard Station.

After the war, Grand Marais prospered as did many small towns. In the period between 1945 and 1951, nearly thirty new homes and cottages were built within the village. In addition to this, new business places opened doors. The 1950 census gave Grand Marais a population of over six hundred. The town can now boast of its largest population since 1910.

The sport trolling industry has proved to be an important factor in attracting visitors to the village, as hundreds of people go trolling here each year. The sport trolling craft numbered sixteen in 1950.

Our large modern United States-Canadian airport and weather station has proved beneficial to the village in that it provides a number of people with permanent jobs, and it also affords a means of air transportation. This means is taken advantage of by many sport trollers throughout the summer season.

Rebuilding of the east pier is surely an asset to the village. The east pier was rebuilt with concrete and steel, and the west pier was repaired with rock and timbers, and a cost of $181,000 and $38,000 respectively. The use of nearly one-half million dollars has been okayed under the Rivers and Harbors bill, for the rebuilding and extending of the west pier although the funds have not as yet been appropriated.

Grand Marais is proud of its new, modern water system which has been recently laid at a cost of $125,000.

The recent raise of township taxes has made possible many improvements in the village and township. With the use of this tax money (approximately $8,000 annually) much will and has been accomplished in the way of improving Woodland Park, the village street lighting system, walks, and streets.

The future of Grand Marais appears to be rather promising, and one thing is certain – the village will never again be numbered as one of Michigan’s ghost towns.

I wish to thank the following people for their contributions.

  • Levi Meilleur
  • Mrs. Ray Meldrum
  • Arthur D. Wood (Munising)
  • Ray Barney
  • Henry Petitpren
  • John Masse
  • Miss Isabe McCell
  • Charles Mattson
  • Charles Newberg
  • Frank Lee
  • Mrs. Alfreda Mulligan
  • Vernon Maurer
  • Mrs. Joseph DesJardine
  • Louis Dowell
  • John Seymour
  • Axel Newberg
  • Mrs. John Peterson
  • Axel Niemi
  • Mr. Roy C. Hill

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