I was looking through the museum archive to look for something to post in this update’s History’s Gem of the Month when I came across a copy of a master’s thesis written in 1995 by Jim Williams for a class at Western Michigan University. The curator of the Michigan Maritime Museum gave me a copy of the thesis when the museum also gifted me with the Shark. The thesis is several pages long, so I’ll include the first part in this web page update, and continue it with the next.
Shark: A Lake Superior Fish Tug
By Jim Williams
The Lake Superior fish tug, Shark, stands out as an artifact from a nearly extinct culture. Not many years ago, one saw fishing boats in nearly all communities that lay along the Great Lakes’ shores. Depletion of the fish stocks, economic pressures, and other factors combined to all but erase commercial fishing as a way of life on the lakes. Large companies dominate the little commercial fishing that remains on the lakes. That has not always been the case.
Otto Niemi planned and built the Shark so that he might earn a living fishing Lake Superior. He and his four sons labored winter and summer for nearly two years to create just the right boat for their needs. The Niemi family knew every nail, every splinter of wood in her. They, men and boat, became intimately connected. The boat’s story intertwines with the human story, giving the boat immeasurable value to the study of human history.
|Length Overall||33 feet|
|Number of Ribs||96|
|Hull Material||White Oak|
|Main Engine||1919 Fordson 4 Cylinder|
|Back-Up Engine||Model T|
|Capacity||11 gross tons – 7 net tons|
Setting The Stage
The forces of nature began to shape the Great Lakes at the beginning of the Pleistocene Era, about a million years ago. General cooling of the planet resulting in increased snowfall and short, cool summers gave rise to great masses of ice that covered much of North America. Two-mile-thick glaciers pushed slowly southward from Hudson’s Bay, reshaping landforms as they went. Over time, the glaciers began to alternately advance and retreat. Geologists call the last great glacial period the Wisconsin Stage.
The Wisconsin glaciers reached as far south as Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. One theory holds that as the glaciers inched their way over Michigan, they followed paths of least resistance presented by ancient river courses. The glaciers scoured out the relatively soft river bottom soils, widening and deepening the channels into basins. Warming of earth’s climate halted the glaciers’ southward movement short of the Ohio River, starting a grand retreat that gave rise to the most complex succession of fresh water lakes known to geologists.
Many pauses and occasional small advances marked the glacial retreats that took place over thousands of years. The receding glaciers left behind landforms composed of glacially tilled soil that sometimes acted as barriers to the runoff of melt water. With nowhere to run, melt water ponded in the glacier-created basins, resulting in the formation of the first lakes in the Great Lakes region, some 18,000 years ago.
An immense lake system lay in the retreating glacier’s wake. As the glacier began to retreat past the Lake Superior basin, about 8,500 years ago, its melt water formed what geologists call Lake Duluth. It took about 2,500 more years for the glacier to move northward past the Great Lakes region. The earth’s crust, relieved of the unimaginable weight of a continent-sized sheet of ice, began a process geologists call “crustal rebound.” Simply put, the earth’s crust started to bounce back to its pre-glacier elevations. Crustal rebound continues today in the Lake Superior region, where the landforms increase in elevation at the rate of about six inches per century.
In the post-glacial period, the Nipissing Great Lake formed in response to changing land elevations that shifted drainage patterns. Geologists note this era as the largest of all the Great Lakes stages. Lake Nipissing itself, occupying the Lake Superior basin and beyond, began to diminish about 3,000 years ago. The lake discharged its water through just one outlet: the St. Mary’s River. When the water surface dropped to the level of the sandstone sill in the St. Mary’s River, Lake Superior was born.
Lake Superior Country
No fresh water lake on earth exceeds Lake Superior in size. It measures 350 miles east to west and 160 miles north to south. The lake has a total surface area of 31,820 square miles. Superior’s cold blue waters reach a maximum depth of 1,290 feet. In all, Lake Superior drains an area of nearly 81,000 square miles.
The rugged Lake Superior shoreline shows its ancient Lake Nipissing origins. Bedrock that bore the grinding passage of glaciers stands exposed. Massive boulders left behind by the glacier’s retreat dot the landscape. Swamps and bogs fill vast low areas scoured out by glaciers. Remarkable geologic formations line the lake’s perimeter. The coast of Lake Superior contains the strongest and most spectacular shore features in the entire region, according to some geologists. The lake’s shoreline acts as a stage setting for the lake itself.
Looking out over Lake Superior makes one think of an ocean, except no salt tang hangs in the air. That a body of fresh water of such vastness exists seems incomprehensible. Superior’s mercurial temperament, however, may be its most prominent characteristic. The lake has a legendary ability to change moods almost instantly; from serene to unbelievably violent, without warning. Even people who don’t know the lake treat it with respect, if not awe.
Men and the Lake
France began sending expeditions to the New World in the late sixteenth century. French missionaries pushed into the Great Lakes region by the early seventeenth century, looking for a route to the Far East, while converting Indians to Christianity. Driven by a sense of adventure, the Frenchmen also wanted to exploit the riches of the new land for their mother country.
French eagerness to explore the New World placed young Etienne Brule in the position of becoming the first white man to set eyes on Lake Superior. Historians believe that Brule explored as far as Sault Ste. Marie in 1618 or 1619. In 1621 or 1622, Brule and a companion paddled a canoe up the St. Mary’s River and into Lake Superior, giving them the distinction of being the first European boaters on the big lake.
Brule’s discovery of Lac Superieur, as the French named it, helped open the way for French explorations to the west. Explorers and missionaries followed the Indians’ lead in using the lakes as primary transportation routes. The French learned to make birch-bark canoes from the Indians, adopting it as their vessel of choice for wilderness travel. Throughout the seventeenth century the French used canoes to crisscross the lakes, exploring, trading, trapping, and doing their missionary work. The canoe stands as forerunner to a vast array of watercraft to see service on the Great Lakes since settlement began. Likewise, those early French explores foreshadowed a multitude of immigrants of diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural background who came to the upper Great Lakes seeking their fortunes.
When Finlander, Otto Niemi, decided to emigrate to the United States, he followed an established trail. Finish settlers helped establish a settlement called New Sweden at the mouth of the Delaware River. Between the settlement’s beginning in 1638 and the time the Dutch conquered it in 1655, about five hundred Finns landed there. New Sweden did not result in significant Finnish immigration to the New World, however. Instead, most Finns who settled in this country in the ensuing centuries came from the ranks of seaman who found the land to their liking. Finnish immigration to this country began in earnest during the middle 1860s.
Immigration statistics reveal the extent of Finnish immigration. U.S. immigration records show 1,942 Finnish arrivals in this country between 1871 and 1883. Between 1883 and 1920, the peak years of Finnish immigration, the total number exceeded a quarter million. The 1900 federal census contend 62,641 Finns living in this country, 47h percent of them in just two states: Minnesota and Michigan. The number of Finns in Michigan totaled 18,910 inn 1900. Ten years later, the census showed a total of 55,548 Finns living in Michigan, more than 31,000 who claimed Finland as their birth place. By 1920, some 149,824 U.S. residents made that claim.
Finnish immigrants landed in all parts of the United States. They followed the pattern of most ethnic groups, gravitating to settlements composed of their country men and women. As a people of the upper latitudes, the vast majority of Finns have continued to reside in the northern states, where thee stony soil, the long winters and abundant snowfall, the myriads of lakes dotting the landscape, and the blanket of evergreens so strongly resemble the homeland. Some Finnish immigrants tried to start settlements in the south after the turn of the century, but those efforts failed, soon falling before the unceasing onslaughts of mosquitoes and grasshoppers and the oppressive heat.
A tangled skein of factors lay behind the Finns’ desire to leave their homeland for a new life in the United States. They moved because of economic concerns, burgeoning population, food shortages, and political uncertainties. Without question, emigration from Finland was essentially the departure of the landless from rural areas.
The Czarist Russian regime that governed Finland during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created a grim atmosphere which heightened the appeal of emigration. Compulsory service in the Russian Army, along with curtailment of freedoms propelled many Finns from their homeland in the years surrounding the turn of the century.
Some people left Finland simply to make their fortune or to seek adventure. Some left because relatives already in America wrote glowingly of life in their adopted home. Otto Niemi falls into the latter category.
Coming to the Country
According to Alfred Niemi, his father had distant cousins living in America who wrote home about the opportunities available here. The tales of life in America caused Otto to contract with an immigration agent known as Wooden Leg Mattson for passage to America. Mattson arranged for Otto’s passage to a place called Grand Marais, Michigan, in exchange for a fifty dollar fee that Niemi promised to pay back in installments. Alfred remembers that with Otto’s meager earnings, it took ten years to pay back Mattson’s fee.
Otto landed in Grand Marais, on Lake Superior’s south shore, in 1905. He took a job in a saw mill there. The saw mill’s owners shut it down five years later, when the White Pine stands played out, leaving Niemi without a regular job. Otto then spent several years earning a living by trapping and small scale farming. By this time he had a small family starting, so he decided to try fishing as possibly more lucrative.
Otto started his life as a fisherman using nets that he stretched out from the lake shore near Grand Marais. This method did not work well, according to Alfred Niemi. Otto’s short stature, just 5 foot 1 inch, combined with the often turbulent and always ice-cold lake water worked against his success. This method also limited Niemi to fishing shallow water, another factor working against him; trout and whitefish only frequent the shallows during certain seasons, and for limited times. Otto improved his prospects as a fisherman by acquiring his first boat: a short, heavy skiff powered by oars.
No good information survives about Otto’s first fishing boat, other than what Otto’s sons recall. Confusion exists over whether Niemi bought the skiff or built it. Previous accounts relate that he built it, but both Robert Grunst, who did extensive research on Otto Niemi, and Niemi’s sons say now that he possibly purchased the boat, after all.
In any event, Otto began earning a living by fishing from the skiff. The boat had several obvious drawbacks. It had a limited capacity for either fishing gear or fish. It had a limited ability to withstand heavy weather on the lake. It limited Otto’s fishing grounds to those he could reach by rowing. The skiff served an important purpose for Otto Niemi, in spite of its limitations: it proved to Otto that the fishing business would support his growing family.
Otto felt ready for a bigger, more efficient boat by 1917. That year he bought the twenty-three foot sailboat Swan. The new boat increased Niemi’s range out of Grand Marais. He and a partner, Charlie Mattson, took the Swan as far as fifteen miles west of Grand Marais to fish the Grand Sable Banks. The patch of thirty-fathom water off Au Sable Point became, over the years, Otto Niemi’s favorite fishing grounds.
As Otto and his partner lifted their nets off Au Sable Point a hard south wind sprang up. In no time the lake turned violent and the fisherman pointed the Swan southeast for home. Driving the Swan close-hauled into the teeth of the gale, Otto rounded the breakwater and made the harbor in three tacks. Captain Truedell, who commanded the Coast Guard Station and had a nearly-legendary reputation for seamanship, met Otto on the pier to pay him a compliment. It seems that Truedell watched the whole episode play out with his lifeboat at the ready, expecting to have to rescue the Swan’s crew, or at best, tow them into harbor. Alfred recalls this episode with unabashed pride in his father.
Niemi eventually added a single cylinder Sears and Roebuck engine to the Swan. The engine increased the boat’s speed and made her less vulnerable to vagaries of wind. By 1922, Otto felt the need for a bigger boat, so he set out to build one himself.
The current opinion holds that Niemi’s third fishing boat represents his first attempt at boat building. With the Swan, Niemi had an open boat, forcing him to work while completely exposed to the elements. Otto intended to rectify this with his new boat, which he called the Elk. Niemi planned the Elk as a thirty-three foot tug which, but for eight feet at the bow and six feet at the stern, would be housed over.
Otto built the Elk with no plans other than in his mind. His plan called for the boat to have a fantail stern, a design that he thought would take a following sea better. He also planned her to have a flared bow that would deflect sea and spray.
Otto searched the woods and beaches for timbers with natural crooks that he could use to shape the Elk’s curved timbers. Alfred remembers that much of the material for the Elk came from drift logs hauled from the beach. Otto and his helper sawed the logs into 2 ½ inch square boards that became the Elk’s frames and planking.
Otto equipped the Elk with a 1919 Fordson Tractor engine and a Pentwater net lifter. These modern improvements promised to make his work easier and more efficient. Otto launched the Elk in the spring of 1923. He fished the boat for seventeen years, putting her in the water every spring and hauling her out every fall. Wooden boat era fishermen say that fifteen to eighteen good years was all you could hope to get out of the best wooden hull. In 1939, with the Elk beginning to show the effects of years of wear and tear, Otto began building a new boat. He called his new boat the Shark.