Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula

 
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ESCANABA

Region: Escanaba, Menominee & the Green Bay Shore

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Sprawling Escanaba not only has a large central city and an outstanding park with marina and lighthouse, but it has one of the Upper Peninsula's better-balanced, less cyclical economies.
Escanaba
One of the glories of Escanaba is its 120-acre Ludington Park, a lumber magnate's gift to the city in 1863. It has 5 miles of paths and a wonderful children's playground.

The population of Escanaba proper is 12,616, making it the U.P.'s third-largest city. What locals would consider "greater Escanaba" is around 23,000, not counting Gladstone (about 5,000), which very much has its own identity. By downstate standards these populations seem quite small, but in the U.P. they are large.

Unlike U.P. communities based on timber and mining, Escanaba proper is bigger now than it was in 1900, when it had 9,000 residents. The metro area is a major retailing center with shipping, some tourism, and nearby fishing and farming. Local people also enjoy a varied and rather substantial homegrown cultural life centered on the Bonifas Arts Center and local galleries. The recent problems of the paper industry make the local economy less secure. With a current workforce of 1,050, the huge NewPage paper manufacturer, formerly Mead, is far and away the area's major employer and the most important driver of the area economy. In early 2012, the NewPage Corporation, headquartered in Miamisburg, Ohio, remains in Chapter 11, but the Escanaba mill's prospects appear favorable.

Escanaba sign
Sign on an old building in Escanaba.

Delta County's relatively low wages and quality of life boost several sizable machine shops who do contract work for national firms such as Caterpillar and Cummins. Engineered Machine Products, west of town on 28th Street became the country's top manufacturer of diesel engine cooling pumps in just a few years. Its headquarters/plant employs about 400 and looks like a campus building. Its handsome R&D facility and launch lab employs 60. Another company makes and sells gourmet custard machines internationally.

The place name "Escanaba" comes from the Ojibwe term "land of the red buck." It refers to a famous hunting ground north of Escanaba that was crossed by a heavily traveled deer trail. The area attracted Native Americans from hundreds of miles away because of its abundance of deer, which is related to warmer weather and less snow. Many hunters paddled up the Escanaba River to hunt.

Escanaba boats II
A big Coast Guard cutter in dry dock in Escanaba harbor getting repairs.

The area, including Menominee County, remains a prime place for U. P. deer-hunting. Film star/playwright Jeff Daniels set his hunting-camp comic play and film, Escanaba in da Moonlight, in a fictional place outside Escanaba. Reaction varies wildly, depending on a person's taste for low humor and sensitivity to stereotyping. A museum director, historian, and Escanaba native laughed and laughed. His wife hated it. So did a 20-something bartender, who felt "it made us look bad." But a local theater group staged its prequel, Escanaba in Love. In any case, this isn't an area where the "da" dialect is widespread.

Despite the sprawl along U.S. 2/U.S. 41 toward Gladstone, there is surprisingly varied beauty close at hand. The Ludington Park lakeshore just south of downtown is a most pleasant place to stroll. The little-developed stretch of M-35 south to Menominee is a pretty drive. Five parks have picnic areas and beaches with views across to the Door Peninsula. For boaters, fishermen, canoeists, hunters, and artists, the Escanaba area is an attractive, inexpensive place to live. See upartmap.com for a map of U.P. artists. Quite a few are in Escanaba.

Escanaba owes its relative prosperity to its climate, atypically mild for the Upper Peninsula, and for its excellent shipping location.
The city got its start as an iron and lumber port during the Civil War. Union armsmakers, railroads, and shipbuilders needed speedy delivery of iron from the iron town of Negaunee on the Marquette Range. In 1862, when the Civil War was in its second year, Escanaba was laid out—with unusually wide streets—as an iron and lumber port. Ore carriers used Escanaba's natural deep-water harbor, with more ice-free days than the Marquette harbor.

Escanaba's founding in 1862 was in conjunction with building a railroad line from Escanaba to the mines in Negaunee, even though Escanaba had no other rail connections. To ship timber and iron, and a great, gravity-fed ore dock was constructed on the deep-water north shore of town. Most of the Little Bay de Noc is 50 to 70 feet deep, great for large vessels. Railroad construction at Escanaba lasted from 1863 to 1865. "Men poured in" to build the rail line, the ore dock, and new town's streets and harbor facilities, says Escanaba historian Charles Lindquist.
The railroad and ore dock were the work of Chicago railroad visionary William B. Ogden. A skilled promoter and planner, one of Chicago's go-getters, he had been the city's first mayor in 1833. He became a well-known figure on the Marquette Range. In 1891, Iron Cliffs merged with Cleveland Iron, forming Cleveland Cliffs Iron (now Cliffs Natural Resources), the oldest and most powerful company in the Upper Peninsula. Cleveland Cliffs built many of Escanaba's ten or so ore docks (not all active at the same time).

Columbia
Dick Lund
The 1000-foot-long Columbia Star loads 64,000 tons of taconite pellets at Escanaba on Oct. 16, 2001.

In the 1870s and 1880s Escanaba's port got an extra boost when the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad connected it to the newly opened iron mines of the Menominee Range in Norway, Iron Mountain, and Iron River. In the 1870s the House of Ludington hotel near the lighthouse became a destination for tourists who arrived on steamships.

The substantial homes and impressive public buildings and churches along First Avenue South, next to the city's main street, Ludington, show Escanaba's growing affluence in the 1880s and 1890s. The Presbyterian church, Bethany Lutheran Church, and new (1939) St. Joseph Catholic Church remain, along with the former Carnegie Library and the red sandstone old city hall at 121 South 11th St. Both have been restored as private residences and offices. They are not open to the public.

Around 1910, a magazine called Clover-Land enthusiastically promoted Upper Peninsula agricultural possibilities. This led to a county fair here that became the UPPER PENINSULA STATE FAIR—now Michigan's only state fair. It attracts over 100,000 visitors a year in mid-August. Attendance is growing now that the Michigan State Fair in Detroit (the nation's oldest) was closed as a cost-cutting measure in 2010. It used to be that Michigan was the only state to have two state fairs, a result of Michigan's peculiar geography. (Michigan had been awarded much of the Upper Peninsula in the 1836 border dispute known as the Toledo War.) 


Ludington Park fishing
Ludington Park offers convenient family fishing right in town.

Today enormous quantities of iron ore continue to be shipped from Escanaba's harbor—about half the Upper Peninsula's production of iron from the Tilden and Empire mines near Ishpeming. Its big ore-shipping facility, more modern than Marquette's, is on the north shore about at the end of 17th Ave. Huge 2,200-foot-long, high-speed conveyors are used to load taconite (iron combined with clay to make efficiently shipped marble-size pellets). They take pellets up into the ship rather than dropping the pellets noisily into chutes that pour them into the ore carrier's hold, like in Marquette. Iron bound for northern Indiana steel mills is moved by rail to Escanaba. The stockpile of iron taconite pellets, some 45 feet high, stretches perhaps a mile along the north shore, from 5th Avenue to 10th or 11th Avenue. This local landmark lies just south of the quarter-mile-long ore docks jutting out into the bay. (See the place called Wells.)

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