Region: Keweenaw Peninsula
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The mystique of being the Michigan's northernmost community belongs to this little resort near the Keweenaw Peninsula's tip. Love of nature is the common bond that knits together area businesspeople, visitors, and summer residents. Natural and historic attractions and walking trails are so close together, that it's entirely possible to spend a few pleasant days here just walking or bicycling, without ever getting into an automobile.
|The U.P.'s northern-most town is also one of its oldest, the staging point during the beginning of the Keweenaw's copper boom.|
Now that the state of Michigan has acquired most of the land east of Copper Harbor at the Keweenaw Peninsula's tip with the help of the Nature Conservancy, Copper Harbor's future seems secured as a jumping-off place for backcountry adventures.
|The Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, built in the 1930s, is a U.P. institution. The scenic complex includes 34 log cabins, a golf course, and tennis courts.|
Copper Harbor is where copper fever first began in the 1843. It has always been a strategic location because it has the best harbor on the Keweenaw's long north shore. Early on it had been a fur-trading outpost. Lake Superior's first lighthouse was built here in 1849 to mark the harbor entrance, years before the Soo Locks enabled ships to reach the other Great Lakes. Despite numerous efforts to strike it rich, no mines around Copper Harbor became nearly as productive as those a little ways west, at Cliffs and Delaware.
When the first prospectors came to the Keweenaw, it was a life-or-death matter that provisioning ships would arrive before the long winter set in, cutting off settlements from the rest of the world. This environment was challenging not only for its remoteness, but because the topsoil was too thin for farming. Food had to be shipped in for humans and farm animals alike.
|In remote Copper Harbor, the local general store is a much-appreciated source for a vast variety of food and necessities.|
Copper didn't come into great demand until it was needed for electrical wiring and plumbing later in the century. In the 1840s and 1850s it was mainly used to make cooking pans and ship sheathing. Still, when copper of a purity never before seen was found here, prospectors swarmed into the little harbor town.
The federal government was so concerned about maintaining law and order in this wilderness area that it built Fort Wilkins (1844) and garrisoned it with U.S. Army soldiers. However, prospectors soon found more copper farther down the peninsula.
By the mid-1870s Copper Harbor was in decline. By the 1880s it numbered just half a dozen families. Fishing was Copper Harbor's mainstay until the tourist era matured with the advent of automobile tourism in 1930s. The state park at Fort Wilkins was one of Michigan's first, opened in 1923. Generations of hardworking Keweenaw people have savored summer breaks going out to "the harbor," eating out, picnicking, hiking, and boating.
Keweenaw tourism got a huge shot in the arm from Ocha Potter, the visionary head of the Keweenaw Road Commission. As superintendent of Ahmeek Mine, he was familiar with the working men's plight during the Great Depression. He planned many countywide WPA projects, from roadside parks and bridges to the spectacular log Keweenaw Mountain Lodge, cabins, and golf course. These created a lasting legacy enjoyed by all, and employed the hundreds of native sons, laid off from area mines and downstate factory jobs, who came back home to Keweenaw County to live off the land.
Each summer many of the widely scattered descendants of longtime fishermen, tourism old-timers, guest house proprietors, and summer residents come back to "the harbor" from jobs as teachers and grantwriters and accountants to run fish shops, motels, and gift stores, captain boats, and rent kayaks and mountain bikes.
By December the year-round population has dropped to about 80, mostly retirees. The school population in the one-room elementary schoolhouse swings between a dozen or more down to three or two. This year it's two. Winter business from snowmobilers enables a number of businesses to stay open year-round: Zik's Bar and Mariner North, Laughing Loon gifts and crafts, several motels, and the invaluable Gas Lite General Store. It stocks a limited variety of just about any really necessary thing: basic groceries, hardware, some clothing, alarm clocks, sewing kits, and much, much more.
It's a challenge maintaining a functioning community at the end of the road, 45 minutes from the nearest real supermarket and services in Calumet. (Copper Harbor is literally the end of U.S. 41, which begins in Key West.) Its isolation and history make for an unusual kind of community. People cooperate to provide basic services. When the gas station closed in 2004, A Superior Diver's Center stepped in to fill the void with their gas pump, despite some inconvenience. (Now its retail shop is known as Seventh Street Station.)
Businesses here tend to cooperate rather than compete head-to-head. The tourism organization's name suggests a higher purpose: the Copper Harbor Improvement Association. It has spearheaded many projects, including the town park and plush picnic pavilion across from The Pines and the harbor overlook at the end of Third Street.
Copper Harbor also attracts people drawn by the opportunity to live in a spectacular and thus far unspoiled natural area. Some transplants become powerful forces in preserving the area's natural character. Others create problems, directly or more often indirectly, as undeveloped land owned by Lake Superior Land (which bought copper company holdings) is sold off and developed. A new generation of very large second homes is being built by cash-rich people who made out in the 1980s and 1990s. Few local younger people can now buy "camps," long a reward of life in the Keweenaw.
Community resources were galvinized in 2003 when a developer bought Hunter's Point, the cherished rocky spit of land that forms the harbor, as part of a subdivision on property previously owned by an early resort. Hunter's Point had long been the easy place for everyone in town to experience nature on Lake Superior's shore and see birds. Dick Powers, then township supervisor, proactively worked with the developer, then supervised an information and fundraising campaign. Summer visitors to Copper Harbor could hardly make a purchase without getting a short spiel about Hunter's Point and a contribution envelope bearing a map and pithy plea for help. Meeting the $200,000 goal would enable the township to buy Hunter's Point through getting 3:1 matching funds from the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund (earned from revenues for gas wells).
Contributions came in at all levels from all kinds of people from casual tourists on up: $50,000 and $10,000 from anonymous people, money from a Baraga rummage sale, local bake sales, and teenager Jen Staiger's 100 hours spent in a chair in front of her parents' resort, The Pines. The unusual breadth of support for Hunter's Point led the Trust Fund to relax its requirements a bit.
Many Keweenaw people have worked hard to acquire more public land. They scored a huge victory recently, when the state bought a vast amount of roadless, undeveloped land at the Keweenaw's tip, east of Copper Harbor. How to use that land is being settled by committees comprised of many interests and user groups, from naturalists, paddlers, and mountain bikers to snowmobilers and off-road vehicle groups.
The influence of one nature-loving transplant is sorely missed. Jim Rooks died in spring of 2005. Copper Harbor won't seem the same without him, but in countless small ways he will live on for many years. Jim's boyish enthusiasm and appreciation of the natural world and life in general remained a defining character trait when he was 70 and not well. Many people relied on his long perspective on wildlife and ecology in the area and across the U.P. In his role as partner in his wife Laurel's Laughing Loon gift and crafts shop and guide for his Bear Track Tours eco-tourism company, he was a memorable part of many, many people's vacations. Long ago Jim had been park manager at Fort Wilkins State Park. He was the driving force behind saving the Estivant Pines and the chief U.P. representative of the Michigan Nature Association. Until his death he served as an active committee member on the task force for planning future recreational development of the new state land at the Keweenaw's tip. A birding enthusiast, Jim would often drop everything to spot a noteworthy bird migrating through.
Other, younger "keepers of the place" are around, fortunately — they're to be thanked and not to be taken for granted — learning, growing, teaching, and taking their places in the procession of generations that is so evident just beneath the surface of summer life in Copper Harbor.
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