History Gem – 1995 Grand Rapids Press Article about the Fish Tug, Shark

Background Information

Four years after the Niemies retired the Shark, she was sold to a fisherman in Cheboygan who was determined to catch sturgeon in Lake Huron. After two years with no success, he sold the tug to a pleasure boater in southwestern Michigan. Its ownership was transferred a couple of more times before it was used at least once more for commercial fishing in Lake Michigan.

After purchasing the museum, I decided to head down to southeastern Michigan to interview Arvi Niemi. During our conversation, he said that he thought the Shark was on display somewhere in South Haven. I drove another hour south and while doing some shopping, I asked the cashier if she knew of somewhere in South Haven that an old fish tug might be on display. She said: “You mean a boat?” She directed me to the Michigan Maritime Museum. When I introduced myself to the museum curator, Ken Pott, and showed him some pictures of the Niemies and their fish tugs, he got very excited and invited me to the museum library wherein he relayed his story.

Mr. Pott explained that in 1994 an article was published in the Inland Seas Journal about the Niemies and the three fish tugs they had built. Inspired by the article, he convinced the museum’s board to acquire and renovate an old fish tug. A couple of weeks later, as he was driving outside of South Haven he spotted an old fish tug next to a corn field. He stopped and asked the farmer about the tug. The farmer replied: “I don’t know much about her, but I think she was built in the Upper Peninsula. I only bought her so I could take out the Fordson motor, put that motor in my tractor — and now my tractor works just fine!”  After conducting some research, Mr. Pott discovered that this was indeed the same tug described in the recently published article. The farmer gave the tug to the museum. However, the museum never renovated her as it was decided instead to renovate a larger fish tug.

When I explained to Mr. Pott about reopening the Gitche Gumee Museum, the agreed to donate her so that the Shark could come home.  During the time that the Maritime Museum owned the Shark, a student from Western Michigan University studied her.  It was determined that the Shark was the last hand-made fish tug left intact in the Great Lakes Region.  A professional boat hauler was hired, who charged by the quarter mile for an 800-mile round trip.  We turned many heads as we traveled up the highway and over the Mackinaw Bridge on the long road home to Grand Marais.

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Unfortunately, a couple of years ago the Shark’s condition deteriorated.  I contacted several historical groups hoping to get some help in paying for a complete renovation.  I had already put thousands of dollars into the tug over more than a decade.  I could not find any funding and was left with no choice but to have the tug hauled away.

The article below appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on February 12, 1995.

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Maritime Museum Accepts Historic Fishing Tug

By Kristin Hay

A 33-foot boat built by a Finnish family that fished the waters of Lake Superior80 years ago has been donated to the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven.

The fishing tug, named “Shark,” was built, owned and operated by the Niemi family I Grand Marais, said Kenneth Pott, curator of the Michigan Maritime Museum.

“We are excited to acquire such a rare and well-preserved example of an early folk tradition of commercial fishing in Michigan,” Pott said.  “We are thankful that this boat survived the years and trials of its career and was donated to us.”

Along with the boat, the museum learned of the vessel’s colorful history from Axel Niemi of Ontonagon.  Niemi is the youngest of the four sons who worked in the family fishing business.

He said the Niemi family’s patriarch, Otto Niemi emigrated to Grand Marais in 1905 from Finland at the age of 21, landing a job working in the sawmills.  The mills shipped pine timbers to England while the pine forests lasted.

But after the mills closed in 1910, Otto Niemi built a rowboat, purchased a sailboat and later built two other larger boats, one of which was the Shark.

Niemi said it took the family about a year (1939 to 1940) to construct the Shark.  They fished the waters of Lake Superior [with the Shark] from 1941 to 1953.

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Pott called the boat “extremely well documented.”  All four sons are still living and are willing to share their stories about fishing on the Shark.

Many fishing tugs similar to the Shark were lost in storms that blow up frequently on Lake Superior, said Niemi, who recalled one memorable spring storm during which he watched his father battle 12-foot waves.

“My dad and my brother-in-law got caught in the storm,” Niemi said.  “The waves tossed the boat around like a surfboard.  A big swell twice the height of the boat picked it up and pushed the tug beyond the east side of the entrance of the pier.

“Each time the boat would disappear below the swells, you’d think the boat was gone.  My dad learned a lot about sailing on a hundred-ton stoop in Finland, so he was a good sailor.  He dove into the swells and kept coming through the trough of the sea,” Niemi remembered. 

Another boat out in the same storm wasn’t as lucky.  Two out of three fishermen aboard drowned when their boat filled with water, he said.

There were other storms, some worse, Niemi said, but they always managed to escape in time.  Whenever a storm started brewing, they’d pull up their nets and head for shore, he said.

The Niemi family fished for lake trout until 1953, when they hauled up their nets for the last time because the sea lamprey had killed off the trout. “The lamprey are still there and you can’t get rid of them,” Niemi said.  “Some fishermen believe they came in on the side of ore carriers that came through the St. Lawrence Seaway.”

After 1953, the Niemi family sold the shark to a buyer in Cheboygan, and it eventually wound up in St. Joseph.  Pott said it’s believed it may have been owned for a time by Michigan Indian fishermen.

Robert Trowbridge, a South Haven resident with maritime interests, acquired the tug and recently donated it to the museum, Pott said.

The boat will become part of an exhibit on traditions of commercial fishing in Michigan, Pott said.

Two other intermediate sized boats planned for the exhibit are the Mackinaw, a 19-foot sailing craft used in the early years of commercial fishing, and the Evelyn S., a sturdy, 50-foot wooden fishing tug which formed the backbone of commercial fishing fleets on the Great Lakes from the 1940s into the 1960s.

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Unfortunately, the Maritime Museum later acquired a different fish tug and renovated it instead of the Shark.  So the Shark sat on a dock until I came along in 1993.  Once the Shark was in place in the yard west of the museum, thousands of dollars were spent to fill in the gaps between the hull’s boards, do what we could to preserve the aged wood, build a cover over the hole cut on top of the Shark by the farmer who extracted the engine, and re-paint the tug.  A local youth group received a grant that included funds for community service projects.  The kids voted to help with the Shark’s renovation.  I wish she was still sitting outside the museum, but at least we were able to preserve the historic fish tug for more than twenty extra years.

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