Driving Michigan’s Upper Peninsula
Published: April 2009
By David A. Keeps
Finding the last vestiges of Americana in <strong>Michigan</strong>’s gorgeous <strong>Upper Peninsula</strong>.
Sprawled out like a running squirrel—its hindquarters linked to Minnesota and Wisconsin, its head reaching eastward into Ontario, Canada—Michigan’s Upper Peninsula was the forested hunting ground of Hiawatha and the Ojibwa tribe. In the early 20th century, iron and copper barons, lumber tycoons, and shipping and auto magnates (including Henry Ford) fished the Great Lakes for salmon and stalked silver-birch woods for white-tailed deer. Great fortunes were torn from the earth, prosperity came and went, but the rugged natural charms of the region still seduce outdoorsmen. The remaining cities—Marquette, Negaunee, Calumet, to name a few—are former boomtowns that went bust long before the era of office parks and outsourcing arrived. These places now resonate with a quirky, nearly forgotten history. Like Alaska, Appalachia, and Amish country, the U.P. is an out-of-the-way, out-of-the-past American preserve.
As a child of suburban Detroit, I experienced the U.P. in Partridge Family fashion, aboard an old yellow school bus on summer-camp excursions. My recollections are sensory: the smell of army surplus stores and woods carpeted with pine needles, the taste of locally made fudge and the meat pies called pasties, the bracing feel of chilly Lake Superior and the mist from a waterfall.
Last summer, I revisited the U.P. as a history buff and cultural anthropologist, behind the wheel of a Dodge Magnum. I set a course through the region with two fellow Michigan natives and antiques hounds: Joe, a photographer, and Katy, an art curator. Situated on the south shore of Lake Superior, midway between the eastern and western edges of the peninsula, Munising was the first stop on the way to our ultimate destination: Copper Harbor, the northernmost point of the U.P.
Munising is the departure point for boat tours along the Pictured Rocks, a 15-mile stretch of sandstone cliffs and caverns on the shore of Lake Superior. The Pictured Rocks’ names derived from the erosion that sculpted the cliffs into profiles, including Indian Head, and architectural formations, such as Miners Castle. Their beauty is discovered up close in the abstract striations of leaching mineral deposits that paint the rocks like a Morris Louis canvas, in rusts, greens, and ocher.
From Munising, Route 28 led us westward along the shoreline to Au Train, a sandy stretch with picket fencing, wild beach grass, and surprisingly temperate water. A few miles off the main road sits Red Barn Antiques, where tables are filled with agate, hematite, and crystalline formations of rosy metal covered in verdigris—a preview of Copper Country’s geological treasures. I also found a stash of hand-painted Munising bowls—local wooden ones that date back to the first half of the 20th century.
Just west of Au Train, we spied a folk-art construction that sprang from the dedicated labor of an inspired individual. Much like the Upper Peninsula itself, which exists on the remnants of a storied past, Lakenenland is a roadside sculpture park that makes use of industrial scrap in the form of whimsical, large-scale monuments. Tom Lakenen, a 45-year-old welder who purchased the 37 1/2-acre tract, created a path for cars, and has since installed some 65 works. “I have nine 150-page notebooks filled with messages from people around the world,” he says. “I’m hoping one day that Bill Gates will drive through.”
Lakenenland is a sweet but sobering experience, a bit of artistic alchemy in a place stripped of its resources. “There’s poverty here,” one shopkeeper tells me, “but there’s pride.” It is not one of those parts of the Midwest where hotels provide 24-hour room service and Frette linens. But there’s value: lodges, cabins, and motels have fireplaces, mounted deer heads, and a nonironic use of knotty pine, and are yours for a pittance in the U.P.
The six-floor Landmark Inn, overlooking Lake Superior in Marquette, is a lovely exception. Built in the grand hotel style of the 1930’s, it weathered years of neglect—a symbol of the region’s economic highs and lows—but was renovated in 1997. The storied inn, with stained-glass windows and antiques-filled rooms, has played host to visitors as varied as Amelia Earhart and Maya Angelou.
With a population upwards of 20,000, Marquette is a veritable U.P. metropolis. After exploring downtown, with its turn-of-the-century architecture and a Deco-era movie house, we followed Route 28 to Negaunee. There, in the basement of the Old Bank Building Antiques Mall, we found Modernist Munising wood tables amid hunting gear, taxidermy, and antique typewriters.
A 60-mile west-to-north dogleg took us past the black stone ledges of Canyon Falls to the Shrine of the Snowshoe Priest, overlooking L’Anse Bay and the Keweenaw Peninsula. Tepees mark the turnoff to the hilltop monument: a 35-foot-tall brass sculpture of Bishop Frederic Baraga, a 19th-century Slovenian priest who established missions throughout Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. The peripatetic priest is carrying the tools of his trade: a cross in his right hand and a pair of snowshoes in his left.
At the bottom of the hill in Baraga, traffic started to gather in front of Drive-In, one of those classic burger joints you don’t see much of these days, where a teenage waitress clips a tray to your car window. Several hot dogs, curly fries, root beer floats, and frozen custards later, we drove along the Portage River into Houghton and Hancock, twin towns that mark the beginning of the Keweenaw Peninsula.
In Hancock, we prowled the grounds of the Quincy Mine—overgrown with weeds—which is now a museum filled with relics from the boiler house of the world’s largest steam hoist. Hancock has a ghost-town feel, and the only consolation we found came from Amy J’s Pasty, a bakery that makes traditional Finnish ground-meat-and-potato pies, based on the Cornish pasty, and nissua, sweet bread made with cardamom.
Quaint hand-carved signs mark the streets that led us to the Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn. Bill Frabotta, a former portrait photographer from Detroit, calls himself “the lighthouse keeper,” and regaled us with the history of the place, the largest and last manned lighthouse on the Great Lakes. Frabotta then hustled us off to Fitzgerald’s in nearby Eagle River for a dinner of pecan-crusted walleye with Michigan dried-cherry butter.
At its northern end, the Keweenaw is a string of harbor villages and mining towns circumscribed by Route 26 and U.S. 41, two country roads that form lazy loops around the mountains and shoreline of the peninsula. We stopped just up the road from the lighthouse on Route 26 at the Jampot, a Ukrainian bakery in a cozy cottage run by bearded monks from the Holy Transfiguration Skete monastery. Choosing among the vast variety of exotic seasonal jams—such as native thimbleberry and chokecherry—the heavenly cookies, and the liquor-soaked, cheesecloth-wrapped fruit and pound cakes was a $150 task.
From the highway, Calumet rises up seemingly out of nowhere, an Andrew Wyeth landscape of buildings with nearly vertical pitched roofs and church spires. Once the home of copper tycoons, the town has splendid examples of Finnish-influenced turn-of-the-century architecture as well as a former opera house that now hosts country music and oldies shows. Walking down the weathered streets, where parking meters cost a dime an hour and are installed on the sides of buildings so they won’t be buried in winter snow, it was hard to imagine how wild and woolly this town might once have been when it was infused with freshly minted moguls and a polyglot mix of immigrants a century ago.
But everywhere we looked, there are ghosts of the region’s past. At a German bistro called the Harbor Haus, where waitresses in dirndls serve schnitzels and grilled Lake Superior trout and whitefish, a 1,720-pound specimen of native copper is planted in the ground, ushering diners toward the lake-view restaurant’s copper-clad doors. In a gravel parking lot outside a shuttered gem and mineral shop, Katy and Joe collected gunmetal-gray stones with flecks of glittery hematite that sparkled in the sun.
Driving north toward Copper Harbor, the terminus of U.S. 41, nature overwhelmed us. As the car wound and twisted through an asphalt roller coaster, towering old-growth evergreens gave the air a heady alpine scent. Up ahead, the road appeared to be a black ribbon, unfurling into a canopy of forest green: the Tunnel of Trees. Once we emerged we found one last scenic byway, Brockway Mountain Drive, which leads to a summit of 735 feet with endless views of the jagged cliffs above Lake Superior. Standing there, watching the sun set on the great lake beyond, it was easy to see how much—and how little—the world below us had changed. Looking out from on high, we could not recognize the remnants of progress and industry; we saw only treetops and rocky hillsides, rooftops and sailboats—a majestic landscape that, for hundreds of years, has given visitors like us a sense of wonder and promise.
David A. Keeps is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.
Where to Stay
For an exhaustive listing of inns, B&B’s, cabins, and vacation rental properties in the area, visit ExploringtheNorth.com.
Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn Eight Victorian-furnished rooms in a converted lighthouse on the shore of Lake Superior.