A lithograph by Currier and Ives titled "Chicago in Flames." Scene from the fire of 1871.

Gurdon Hubbard and The Great Chicago Fire

A picture of Gurdon Hubbard.

Gurdon Hubbard.

A picture of 'The Lilacs', the cottage Hubbard built in Hubbard's Annex to the National Park.

Hubbard’s cottage, “The Lilacs.”

  Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard first came to Mackinac Island in 1818 as a clerk for the American Fur Company. In the same year, his work took him to Chicago where he eventually settled and became one of the city’s most influential citizens. Hubbard’s business interests included opening the first meat packing plant in Chicago as well as being an insurance underwriter, land speculator and steamship company owner. He helped organize the Chicago Board of Trade, served as representative in the Illinois General Assembly in 1832-33 and was director of the Chicago Branch of the State Bank of Illinois. In 1855, Hubbard purchased eighty acres on the southern bluff of Mackinac Island and built a cottage called “The Lilacs” around 1870.

  On Sunday October 8, 1871, Hubbard and his wife Mary Ann attended morning services at the Reformed Episcopal Church in Chicago. Afterward, they had dinner with Hubbard’s cousins, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Hebard of Iowa, at the new Palmer House hotel. They returned home after attending evening services at Grace Methodist church and prepared for bed. As Mary Ann finished combing her hair, she looked out a window and noticed a large fire burning toward the southwest. The previous evening there had been a large fire in a wood planing mill on the city’s west side and she thought perhaps it had rekindled. She watched for several minutes and finally awoke Gurdon who quickly became concerned.

A lithograph by Currier and Ives titled "Chicago in Flames." Scene from the fire of 1871.

Lithograph by Currier and Ives titled Chicago in Flames. Scene from the Chicago Fire of 1871.

  Gurdon dressed and prepared to take his family west of the city to his son’s home. Upon inspecting the route, Hubbard realized the fire was moving northeast and had jumped the river. When he returned to his home on LaSalle Street, he found the Hebards, who had left the Palmer House shortly before it was consumed. Several other family members, friends and neighbors were also there, hoping that the Hubbard’s brick house would protect them from the fire. Hubbard instructed several of the men to tear up the carpets, wet them in the cistern and spread them on the roof.  Mary Ann and the maids provided food and beverage while the fire continued to move across the city.

A picture of the intersection of Madison and State Streets in Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.

Madison and State Streets in Chicago after the fire.

  By Monday morning, the fire was only a few blocks away and nothing that Gurdon Hubbard could do would save his home. He and Mary Ann packed as much as they could and joined thousands of other Chicagoans as they fled the flames. Gurdon lost his fortune in the fire and was near bankruptcy due to investments in several of the insurance companies for which he was underwriter. Hubbard made the decision to pay off all the insurance losses for which he was directly responsible. Hubbard continued ownership of his cottage and property on Mackinac Island and it was suggested by a business associate that he sell some of the land to recoup some of his losses.

  In 1882, Hubbard borrowed money from wealthy Chicago friends and had his land on Mackinac Island surveyed and platted. The island had become the second national park in 1875 and property was in demand for constructing summer cottages. Hubbard’s idea was to build a fashionable resort hotel and cottage community. The land was platted for 132 building lots which he named “Hubbard’s Annex to the Mackinac National Park.” Hubbard promoted the lots throughout the Midwest and although the hotel was not built, he successfully developed a cottage community on the island that still thrives today. The sale of the lots helped Hubbard rebuild his fortune, most of which went to his family, as he passed away in 1884.

A picture of Gurdon Hubbard and his wife, Mary.

Gurdon Hubbard and his wife, Mary Ann.

A map of Hubbard's Annex to the National Park

Plat of “Hubbard’s Annex to the National Park.”

  On your next visit to Mackinac Island take a ride out on Annex Road and discover Hubbard’s Annex. The best source for Mackinac Island history, including the historic cottages and neighborhoods on Mackinac Island, is Fort Mackinac. The fort is open through October 24. Information on tickets can be found at mackinacparks.com. 

 

Autumn Berries of the North Woods

“On the 20th of September [1835] the snow fell one inch, with quite a severe frost. The bushes were still loaded with whortleberries.”   – Benjamin O. Williams

In late September 1835, Lieutenant Benjamin Poole was completing an arduous months-long survey for the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers. His crew’s mission was to survey a proposed military road from Saginaw to Mackinac, with a terminus at Dousman’s Saw Mill (now Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park).

Lowbush Blueberry

Poole’s survey crew was guided by brothers Benjamin O. and Alpheus F. Williams on a route “through a trackless wilderness nearly two hundred miles in extent, about which nothing was known, but that it presented obstacles of an unusually formidable character.” In short, the crew encountered long stretches of cedar swamps, shaking bogs, and alder thickets, ran out of provisions, and nearly starved. In his official report, written at Detroit on September 30, 1835, Poole admitted, “The assistants were frequently employed for days, and even weeks, in creeping through thickets and windfalls, where walking was quite out of the question.”

Much of what isn’t included in the official report was later recalled by B.O. Williams in a vivid account read before the Michigan Pioneer Society in February 1878. He wrote, “The density of some portions of the spruce, fir, and cedar lands exceeded any tropical forest I have ever seen…” His account follows their crew as they trek through the wilderness in moccasined feet, enduring swarms of gnats and mosquitoes, suffering illness and injury, and were saved from near starvation after stumbling upon “whortleberries [bilberries or blueberries] in great abundance.” Thankfully, shaking bogs and cedar swamps are excellent places to find many species of wild berries. Yet too much of a good thing caused a different digestive dilemma, as Williams noted, “eating whortleberries had affected some of the men unfavorably.”

As flowering plants bear fruit in early autumn, many species of wild berries ripen, each containing seeds to perpetuate a new generation of plants. While some berries are edible by people, others are inedible or even toxic to humans. Instead, most are best enjoyed with a photograph and left to the birds, squirrels, and other creatures of the north woods as they prepare to migrate south or endure the long, cold months of winter. The berries that follow were all photographed along the trails at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park.

Common Chokecherry

Bluebead Lily

Western Poison Ivy

Starry False Solomon’s Seal

Hawthorn

Staghorn Sumac

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Riverbank Grape

Wild Rose

Common False Solomon’s Seal

Canada Mayflower

White Baneberry (Doll’s Eyes)

Chief Wawatam 110th Launching Anniversary

Frank Kirby

  Due to increased railroad traffic across the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Transportation Company decided in 1910 that a new ferry needed to be built. The company had two ferries at the time, the St. Ignace, built in 1888, and the revolutionary Sainte Marie, completed in 1893. These vessels had been designed by noted Great Lakes naval architect Frank Kirby and he was asked to plan the new ship. The keel was laid on June 1, 1911 at the Toledo Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio as hull number 119. The ship was christened Chief Wawatam after an Ojibway Indian who befriended British fur trader Alexander Henry in the 1760s.

Captain Louis Boynton

  At 9:10 a.m. on August 26, 1911, the Chief Wawatam was side launched with no ceremony or traditional breaking of champagne on her bow. Charles Calder, part owner of the shipyard, recorded that it was a clear day and the launching proceeded with “not a scratch on her hull.” The ship was 338 feet long, 62 feet wide and had a draft of 20.7 feet. Built with a steel hull, she would be the largest and most powerful railroad ferry to serve the straits. She could carry 28 to 32 railroad cars depending on their size. The hull was taken to a fit-out dock where work was completed. The ship set sail for the straits on October 16, 1911 with Commodore Louis Boynton in command.

   The Chief was constructed with many unique features including three engines, two in the stern for propulsion and one in the bow for ice breaking. The bow propellor first appeared on the St. Ignace after Boynton successfully used two vessels tied bow to bow to break ice. The ship was one of the first to have electricity for lighting although lanterns continued to be carried as backup. In order to protect the open bow, the anchor was placed on the stern. Thus, the vessel could anchor stern-to during a storm preventing water from entering through the sea gate. For many years, the ship bore the words “U.S. Mail” on her bow as she carried letters and packages between the two peninsulas.

  The Chief Wawatam operated at the Straits of Mackinac until August of 1984 when the railroad pier in St. Ignace collapsed. The ship remained tied to the dock until 1988 when the State of Michigan, which owned the vessel, sold it to Purvis Marine Limited of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Prior to her departure, numerous objects, paper material and other items were selected and removed by Mackinac State Historic Parks staff. The plan was for the state park to store the collection until a transportation museum in St. Ignace could be built. Funding for the museum fell through and the state park continues to be the home for the collection. Objects including the ship’s steering wheel and engine room telegraph are on display in the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse.

Where’s the Rum? Liquor and Soldiers at Michilimackinac

  A common question we hear at Michilimackinac concerns liquor being dispensed to soldiers. Pirate movies and other popular culture seem to suggest that every soldier in the 18th century received a regular issue of rum. The truth is a bit more complicated- liquor was issued and available to British soldiers at Michilimackinac, but only in specific circumstances.

  In many places where British troops were stationed, liquor was at least supposed to be issued to soldiers on a regular basis. When the Mutiny Act, which governed a variety of army administrative functions, was extended to cover the American colonies in 1765, it required every soldier to receive a daily allotment of beer, cider, or rum. These articles were to be provided by the government of whichever colony was quartering the soldiers. However, due to highly technical legal differences enshrined in British law, only soldiers quartered in private inns were allowed beer or rum. In British Canada, including Michilimackinac, soldiers were usually quartered in purpose-built barracks owned by the Crown, and as such were not entitled to a liquor ration. Rum and other liquors were never listed with provisions supplied to Michilimackinac and other Great Lakes posts, and soldiers could not expect a daily drink as part of their regular rations.

  Even though rum was not regularly issued, soldiers had access to liquor and other drinks through a variety of official and informal channels. Soldiers performing heavy labor, such as construction work or serving as boatmen, might be issued a special ration of rum in return for their extra exertions. In 1780, while his soldiers were heavily engaging in constructing a new fort on Mackinac Island, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair complained that the work was being held up “for want of working Cattle, Tools, the materials and Rum.” Soldiers could also be offered rum as a form of compensation. Earlier in the summer of 1780, a portion of the Michilimackinac garrison complained that they had not received their pay since August 1779. In lieu of money, Lt. George Clowes offered tobacco or rum, which the soldiers rejected. Of course, soldiers were also usually able to simply purchase liquor and other drinks on their own, using personal funds saved up from their wages. Rum and brandy arrived at Michilimackinac in huge quantities (2,155 kegs in 1778 alone) and were popular and important trade items, so they were readily available for purchase from the many civilian merchants operating at the post.

  Although soldiers may not have received official rum rations, Great Lakes sailors were another matter. Civilian sailors, such as those employed by John Askin in 1778, enjoyed a gill (one fourth of a pint, or four ounces) of rum a day, although Askin dictated that Pompey, an enslaved sailor, only receive half a gill. Sailors in government service also apparently received a regular rum ration. In 1783 a rum shortage caused considerable unrest among the British sailors working on the Great Lakes. At Detroit, Lieutenant Colonel Arent DePeyster complained that “we have not one drop of Rum in store here, the Naval Department begin to cry out.” General Allan MacLean, writing from Niagara, warned that “the seamen must have it [rum] for it’s part of their wages, and they will desert or mutiny if they do not get it.” To stave off desertions, MacLean ordered a small quantity of rum distributed from Niagara’s stores, but wrote to his superiors that it was almost impossible to replenish the garrison’s stocks of liquor. He declared that “I have more Plague with Rum than all the Business I have to do” and believed that “it’s a Pity that such a cursed Liquor ever had been found out.”

  While rum isn’t issued to our historical interpreters today, it was clearly an important item at Michilimackinac historically (especially for sailors). If you would like to learn more about trade on the Great Lakes, the British military at Michilimackinac, or the role of liquor in the fur trade, come visit us at Colonial Michilimackinac. Check out our website for tickets and more information.

 

Why are certain things banned on Mackinac Island?

There is so much to explore and enjoy during a visit to Mackinac Island State Park. When you visit the island make sure you bring sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and a camera! However, there are a few things you should leave on the mainland.

  • A site you won’t typically see on Mackinac Island. This was done for an ad.

    Your car – Ask someone what they know about Mackinac Island, and you’ll likely hear that there’s lots of fudge, bicycles, and horses, but no cars. Since 1901, cars have been banned in Mackinac Island State Park. There are numerous accounts of early automobiles causing problems with horses and carriages. The ban was incorporated into state law in 1960. There are few exceptions to the use of motor vehicles regulation, the biggest of which is emergency vehicles. There is one police car, two fire trucks, and an ambulance available on the island. So, when you come for a visit, the ferry services have plenty of parking available on the mainland. Lock up your car and hop on a shuttle to the dock. The lack of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is extremely important to keeping the historic character of this National Landmark alive, and one of the most enduring memories of your visit here.

  • Your e-bike – Speaking of vehicles, e-bikes are also banned within Mackinac Island State Park. The absence of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is uniquely effective in retaining the historic character of this National Historic Landmark. State law currently forbids the use of e-bikes within Mackinac Island State Park and the City of Mackinac Island without authorization from those respective entities. However, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission and City of Mackinac Island do have an exception for the use of Class 1 bicycles in certain situations.
  • Your drone – Yes, aerial pictures are awesome, and Mackinac Island State Park has numerous areas that are breathtaking at and above ground level. However, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) are not allowed in the State Park. Let’s face it, most drones are noisy, can be dangerous around groups of people, and very distracting to horses. Their presence takes away from the natural and historical environments our visitors are coming to experience. Therefore, the commission reviews professional operator requests thoroughly, and, more often than not, does not approve these requests.
  • The old campground in Michilimackinac State Park in Mackinaw City. Camping is now banned throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks to allow for guests to enjoy as much of the natural environment as possible.

    Your tent – While Mackinac Island is a beautiful island with a lot of open spaces, there is no camping permitted in the state park. Great care is taken to balance the amount of land left undeveloped with areas that have amenities like carriage roads and trails. The threat of a wildfire is also a particular concern, so campfires are also not allowed in the park. And what’s camping without roasting a couple marshmallows. For those that want to spend the night under the stars, there is a plethora of campsites to choose from on the mainland.

However, we do have a couple recommendations of a few special things you can bring that can make your visit even more enjoyable.

  • Your bicycle – Since you can’t drive on Mackinac Island, almost everybody gets around by bicycle. There are many bike rental shops on the island, but if you are more comfortable riding your own – bring it along. Mackinac Island State Park has more than 70 miles of natural and paved trails around the perimeter and through the interior of the island. The island is small enough that you can pedal around it at a leisurely pace in an hour and a half. Along the way you’ll come across many incredible scenic spots for photos of the island and Lake Huron. Please be aware there are few requirements for e-bikes and you’ll need to pay for a temporary bicycle license before boarding the ferry.
  • Your pet – Have fun exploring the state park with your dog by your side.  Make sure you have what you need to keep your pet hydrated and don’t forget the doggy bags. While Mackinac’s sanitation department takes care of the horse droppings, you’ll need to pick up after your pooch. Leashed dogs are allowed on all state park trails and within Fort Mackinac. Remember to cover your pup’s ears during the cannon and rifle demonstrations.

The Mackinac Island State Park Commission and Mackinac State Historic Park staff work hard to protect, preserve, and present Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources. We appreciate your help in keeping Mackinac Island State Park a wonderful place to visit.

Mackinac Island’s Field of Dreams

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again.  –Terrence Mann – “Field of Dreams”

  The large, grassy field behind Fort Mackinac has served many purposes since the end of the Civil War. It has been a drill field for soldiers, a playground for scouts, and a great place to canter a horse. But the one constant on that field for nearly a century and a half has been baseball. Fort Mackinac soldiers established the first ball field on this site in the 1870s and continued to develop and improve the field until the fort closed in 1895. Local residents and summer workers played baseball at the “fort ball grounds” in the early 20th century. Since 1934, when Civilian Conservation Corps workers built the nearby scout barracks, boy and girl scout troops from across Michigan have played ball on the same field during the summer months.

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Using Cold Frames at Michilimackinac

 Gardeners, especially at the Straits of Mackinac, have always been interested in helping their plants grow despite sometimes problematic environmental conditions. Building walls or planting hedges can protect plants from the wind, which might break fragile stems and leaves, while changing the soil chemistry with manure or compost can make a poor soil rich enough to grow the sweetest melons. But what about the cold? How would gardeners in the 18th century protect tender plants from the snow and frigid temperatures so common in northern Michigan?

 Cold frames may have been the answer. Our gardeners at Colonial Michilimackinac have recently been generously gifted with a very nice cold frame. Built using 18th century specifications, it is essentially a miniature greenhouse. Pots of plants are set inside the frame, or seeds can be planted directly in the soil to get off to a good start in the small, protected environment. The wooden frame is topped with two glass “lights” or windows that can either be kept closed in cold weather to trap heat, vented to release moisture, or completely removed to allow for air flow on sunny and warm days.

 With a bit of work, a cold frame can even be used to generate heat to keep young plants warm and healthy. Historically, frames were placed over brick-lined pits full of animal manure. As the manure decomposed, it released heat, keeping the inside of the frame warm enough to support lettuces, spinach and other cold season vegetables throughout much of the winter, or at least late fall and early spring. Modern gardeners use electric heat mats to produce similar results.

 If you are interested in see our new cold frame and learning more about the gardens and the people that lived at Colonial Michilimackinac visit mackinacparks.com for tickets and more information.

July 4 at Fort Mackinac

As we get ready to celebrate the 245th anniversary of the date the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress declaring independence from Great Britain, we thought we’d take a look back at some of the ways the historic soldiers and residents celebrated July 4 at Fort Mackinac by taking a peek at some of the various books published by Mackinac State Historic Parks.

Shooting matches were a popular July 4 activity. Here is the Fort Mackinac squad showing off a trophy won.

  From “A Desirable Station: Soldier Life at Fort Mackinac 1867-1895” by Phil Porter:

“The United States army had a special affinity for the Fourth of July. Fort Mackinac soldiers celebrated the holiday with a variety of ceremonial and recreational activities. A hand-picked squad fired the national salute – one round for each state of the Union – from the fort cannons at daybreak. In 1873 Captain Leslie Smith dispensed with the firing “in consequence of a serious illness of a prominent citizen…” but took the opportunity to have the Declaration of Independence read to his men. Soldiers spent the rest of the day playing games, relaxing in the park or joining civilians in village-sponsored activities. In 1886 soldiers ran foot races, squared off against Cheboygan in a rifle match, played baseball against the St. Ignace club and enjoyed a special dinner with desserts of peach and raspberry pie, cherries, strawberries and cream and ginger snaps.”

  The diary of Harold Dunbar Corbusier was published with the permission of the Corbusier family under the title “A Boy at Fort Mackinac.” Dunbar kept a diary of his time on the island as a ten-year old boy in 1883-1884, and again as a teenager when his family returned to Mackinac Island in 1892. He was on the island for July 4, 1883 and July 4, 1892. His diary is presented as he wrote it, including spelling and grammatical errors:

“July 4 (1883): It has been a pleasant day. They fired a sulute of thirty-eight guns at noon as we have had a very nice time today down town they had go-as-you-please races, walking maches, pony hurdle, row boat races, greased pole, tub races. Jumping matches. Mama Mrs. Sellers, Miss Duggan and Mr. Duggan went to the point on the Algomah.”

The Fort Mackinac ballfield in the late 19th century.

  For his entry on July 5, Corbusier notes they set off a great many fireworks the night before, but Claude (his brother) hurt his hand very badly.

“4th. July (1892): They had a few country races & other amussements (?) down in the village today besides these there has been no unusual excitement. The usual salute was fired from the fort & they had a pretty good ball game up there. The Fort Wayne nine played the Fort Mackinac. The score was 3 to 1 in favor of Fort Wayne. There was a hop at the Grand Hotel this evening. I dance twelve dances. I am beginning to waltz a little.”

  From “Reveille Till Taps: Soldier Life at Fort Mackinac 1780-1895” by Keith R. Widder:

“Part of the commemoration of Independence Day in some years included issues of extra whiskey. On such days, fatigue duties and most military activities came to a halt. Generally the cannon fired a salute to the United States in honor of her successful Revolution. In the 1880’s and 90’s, the garrison took part in elaborate ceremonies with people of the village or St. Ignace. Both communities sought the assistance of the garrison in their celebrations because the presence of men in uniform added much glamour.

“…A year earlier (1884) the garrison put together a rifle team of ten men and officers to challenge the Cheboygan Rifle Team. On July 4 most of the garrison went to Cheboygan to watch their team in action. Out of a possible score of 510, the Mackinac marksmen scored 401 to Cheboygan’s 385, thereby winning the silver cup selected as the prize.

“…On the same days that the rifle team beat back challenges of the Cheboygan shooters, Cheboygan’s “Diamond Baseball Club” took the field against the post squad. The fort won the first tame 17-10 and the twenty-five dollar prize.”

  We also know that on July 4, 1879, at the “National Park” on Mackinac Island, there was a “Free to all rowing regatta, one mile and return” as well as a picnic in the park at 11:00 a.m., a reading of the Declaration of Independence, and dancing on the platform at 3:00 p.m.

  This July 4 at Fort Mackinac we will do our best to recreate these Independence Days of old with “A Star Spangled Fourth of July.” The iconic fort Mackinac decked out in patriotic finery with banners, flags and bunting for the program beginning at 7:00 p.m.

  Featured will be a reading of the Declaration of Independence, patriotic toasts, the raising of the colors, and games on the parade ground including sack and foot races, games of catch, hoop and stick, and Jacob’s Ladder. Guests join the party and participate in games on the fort parade ground.

  After the toasts, the ‘fireworks’ begin. We will recreate the 38-gun salute, honoring the 1880s states of the union with rifle firings, followed by the finale of a cannon salute in honor of the holiday. Guests are then welcome to stay at Fort Mackinac, enjoying the buildings, galleries and views, and stick around for the fireworks from the cannon platform, Wood Quarters, or Stone Quarters.

  The Tea Room Restaurant, operated by Grand Hotel, will be open until 9:00 p.m. serving hot dogs and brats, chicken sandwiches, salads, sweets, and beverages, including beer and wine.

  All special programming is included with regular admission to Fort Mackinac ($13.50/adults, $8.00/child (5-12), and free for kids under 5). Guests who visit Fort Mackinac earlier in the day on the fourth are welcome to come back for the special event without having to purchase a new ticket.

Dive into the past at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and learn why ‘shipwrecks don’t just happen’

You may know the story of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and quickly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. But did you know that another large ship met a similar fate off Michigan’s coastline just three years earlier?

“We got around to the men struggling in the water as quickly as possible,” the surviving Capt. Timese Lemay reported in the days following the Eber Ward’s sinking. “Some had grabbed the wreckage. Others were holding fast to pieces of the ice floe. We pulled six into our boat. Then I looked for the others. They were gone. Nothing but pieces of wreckage, some ice and a few bubbles showed where they had been.” (Photo credit: Cliff Roberts, Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve)

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse tells the story:

It was April 1909 when the Eber Ward departed Chicago on its first trip of the spring. The wooden freighter picked up a load of corn in Milwaukee and then charted a course up and around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula toward Port Huron.

The day was calm and sunny as the ship neared the present-day location of the Mackinac Bridge. But as is often the case in early spring on the Straits of Mackinac, the thawing water still was quite slushy. And unfortunately, there were large chunks of solid ice, too.

Going too fast for the conditions, the Eber Ward slammed into an ice floe that ripped a hole in the ship’s bow, filling the peaceful morning with a surge of panic among the 16 crewmen. Within 10 minutes, the 213-foot-long freighter had disappeared.

One of two lifeboats safely launched, while the other was capsized by the sinking ship. Eleven men went into the water. Five were never found.

Shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are ‘usually someone’s fault’

  The Eber Ward is one of more than 100 wrecks that remain on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow passage from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron between Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas. Each one has its own incredible story of human tragedy, from the “Sandusky,” an 1850s sailing vessel that was overwhelmed by waves and is the oldest-known shipwreck in the Straits of Mackinac, to the “Cedarville,” a 600-foot modern freighter that went down after a collision in heavy fog in 1965.

  Each of those three wrecks occurred for different reasons. Yet, they illustrate the museum’s overriding theme: “Shipwrecks don’t just happen,” says Craig P. Wilson, chief curator for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s usually someone’s fault.”

  Museum visitors get to see exactly what caused the various shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac. And there are artifacts from the ships on display, including the original figurehead from the Sandusky, kitchenware from the galley of the Eber Ward and, ironically, a paper safety placard from the Cedarville. There’s even a revolver that was recovered from a wooden freighter that was cut by ice and sank in 1894.

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum also features dive footage from the wrecks. You can see the Eber Ward’s damaged hull, which sits upright and intact about 140 feet below the surface, as well as the damaged lifeboat that went down with the ship. And there are three sets of models that show the Sandusky, Eber Ward and Cedarville as they appeared while in service, and how they look now on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

RELATED: See underwater footage of the Sandusky

Plan a visit to the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

  The “Titanic” movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio still ranks among the highest-grossing Hollywood features ever. And just like the Titanic, the shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are fascinating, too.

  Yet, they’re also sobering. In many cases, people lost their lives. As Wilson notes, “there is a real human cost to these events” as people suffered the consequences of their own or other people’s decisions.

  Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum are open daily through Oct. 10 this year. In addition to the museum, the historic site at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City features a “Shipwrecks of the Straits” movie, daily demonstrations of a fog signal whistle and a lighthouse keeper’s quarters with period settings and exhibits about the science of lighthouses and what life was like for the people who lived there.

  The lighthouse tower itself is currently closed.

SS Minneapolis Revolver

On April 4, 1894, the bulk steam freighter Minneapolis sank in the Straits of Mackinac after taking on water due to ice damage. On board the ship was a Smith and Wesson Model No. 1, Second Issue revolver manufactured in 1864. It is a bottom-break revolver that holds seven brass .22 caliber short rimfire cartridges. It was one of the first handguns produced by Smith and Wesson and one of the first to use self-contained brass cartridges. The revolver belonged to one of the 14 crewmembers aboard the ship who may have carried it for numerous reasons.

Firearms were not uncommon amongst Great Lakes sailors. Revolvers provided a form of protection against unwelcome guests aboard a ship and assisted in protection of valuable cargo. Pursers aboard passenger ships were known to carry weapons to protect items entrusted to them by their guests. Officers carried them to protect monies carried on board for payroll and other business. In an emergency, firearms could be used to keep order and act as a signaling device to attract the attention of other vessels and searchers.

The crew of the Minneapolis survived the wreck, being picked up by the San Diego, a consort barge the ship was towing along with the Red Wing. The wreck was located in 1963 and today is approximately 500 feet from the South Tower of the Mackinac Bridge. The revolver was recovered from the shipwreck prior to the 1983 creation of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, which makes it illegal to remove items from shipwrecks today. Along with several other objects, the revolver was donated to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 2013.

Conservation work was done in the winter of 2014 by Inland Seas Institute (ISI) for inclusion of the revolver in the new Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. The revolver was placed into electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity, an electrolyte, and anodes to remove corrosion from metal objects. After just a few hours of treatment, it was noticed that the gun still contained cartridges. Treatment of the revolver continued with the awareness that the gun could still contain black powder and lead bullets.

The revolver is composed of a silver-plated brass frame with a steel barrel, cylinder, cylinder rotating mechanisms, screws, springs and pins and brass cartridges with lead bullets which over time interact with one another causing deterioration via bi-metallic corrosion. Even though the revolver was treated, contact between these metals would continue to cause corrosion over time especially during environmental changes. During a cleaning of the exhibits in 2020, recent corrosion was noticed on the revolver. It was removed from display, examined, and photographed. ISI was contacted and a new proposal was developed to treat the corrosion and attempt to disarm the revolver by removing the cartridges and their bullets.

Electrolysis was performed again to halt the corrosion and once stabilized, the revolver was taken to a gunsmith. The cylinder was removed revealing that the gun had 6 loaded cartridges and an empty cartridge under the hammer possibly to act as a safety. Corrosion in the cylinder prevented the gun from being unloaded once the cylinder was removed, so a plan was developed to melt out the lead bullets, remove the powder, and have safe access to the cartridges for their removal. The cylinder was positioned in a way to safely do this in case the powder was still active after 60+ years underwater.

The lead bullets were melted using a propane torch, which upon contact caused three of the cartridges to go off in a controlled manner for safety. The cartridges were then removed using a specially made brass punch. The screws and pins holding the revolver together were removed so complete treatment of each piece could be performed. Upon completion of conservation the revolver parts will be coated with microcrystalline wax prior to reassembly to prevent future corrosion of the barrel, cylinder and cylinder works. The revolver will be reassembled using carbon fiber screws and Delrin (polymer) pins to minimize future bi-metallic corrosion. The cartridges, screws, and pins will be returned and the revolver will be placed back on display inside the shipwreck museum. We hope you’ll join us at Old Mackinac Point in the near future to see the Minneapolis revolver on display once again.