Passenger Pigeons at Mackinac

“It is reported that wild pigeons have arrived in this section, and are coming in great numbers. This would, we think, indicate that winter was over.”   Northern Tribune, March 9, 1878 Cheboygan, Michigan 
  As long as people have lived in the north woods, they’ve eagerly awaited signs of spring. For many centuries, the season of melting ice and flowing maple sap was also marked by tremendous flocks of passenger pigeons arriving from the south. For the past 130 years, however, no one has experienced the awe of a pigeon flock descending like a force of natureEctopistes migratorius, the passenger pigeon, has disappeared.  

Natural History of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands. Mark Catesby (1743)

  While related to pigeons and doves of today, passenger (or wild) pigeons were unique in the animal kingdom. About 50% larger than a mourning dove, the species was known for its long tail and wing feathersbright iridescent plumage, and deep red eyes. Congregating in huge flocks, they flew at speeds up to 60mph and settled in colonial nesting sites covering many thousands of acres. These colorful birds were common east of the Rocky Mountains, especially where their favorite foods of acorns and beech nuts were abundant.  

Ornithology of the United States and of Canada. Thomas Nuttall (1832)

  At the Straits of Mackinac, archaeologists have found passenger pigeon bones at Colonial Michilimackinac and Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, especially near Native American and French-Canadian habitationsDescribing the Straits in 1773, trader Peter Pond noted “These Wood afford Partreages, hairs, Venesen, foxis & Rackcones, Sum Wild Pigins.     Arriving iflocks of millions, pigeons meant a suddenly abundant food source during a lean time of year. Thomas Nuttall, the first botanist to explore the Straits, also studied birds. In 1832, he wrote: “The approach of the mighty feathered army with a loud rushing roar, and a stirring breeze, attended by a sudden darkness, might be mistaken for a fearful tornado about to overwhelm the face of nature. For several hours together the vast host, extending some miles in breadth, still continues to pass in flocks without diminution… and they shut out the light as if it were an eclipse. 

Lyster O’Brien, c. 1855. Courtesy Edward Nicholas, in The Chaplain’s Lady (1987)

  In the 19th century, accounts of pigeons at the Straits became increasingly common. IJuly 1852, Lyster O’Brien, 15-year-old son of post chaplain Rev. John O’Brien, wrote from Fort Mackinac“My dear Uncle, We are all happy to learn that you are coming here, and will you please bring up your gun with you, for we expect plenty of pigeons this summer, and I think we can tramp all over the Island with you after them…”    Pigeons not eaten locally were killed by market hunters who travelled far to find roosting flocks. After being packed in barrels of salt for preservation, their harvest was shipped to cities such as Detroit, Chicago, and New York, where hotels and restaurants bought them by the dozen. Crates of live pigeons were sold for trapshooting competitions.     In 1862, Henry T. Philips opened a grocery business in CheboyganHe quickly became a major exporter of wild gameshipped by steamboat and railroad. He recalled, In 1864… I had a shipment of live wild pigeons which we brought down the Cheboygan River from Black Lake in crates holding six dozen each… In 1868, at Cheboygan, I took over six hundred fat birds at sunrise. I sold to the United States officers at Mackinac for trap shooting, also to Island House [hotel].”    Organized by groups such as the Cheboygan Gun Club, trapshooting matches were popular from the 1850s through the 1890s. On July 4, 1880, a target shooting match pitted members of the Cheboygan club against Fort Mackinac soldiers. After the contest, some races were held, followed by a public “pigeon shoot” featuring 15 dozen birds  In 1878, the largest colonial nesting in Michigan history occurred near Petoskey, covering an area of 150,000 acres. The following year, in his Annotated List of the Birds of MichiganDr. Morris Gibbs noted wild pigeons were “exceedingly common some seasons.” In such huge numbers, it seemed unimaginable their population would ever decline.  

Northern Tribune, July 3, 1880.

  Market hunting, trap shooting, and extreme habitat loss due to lumbering caused pigeon numbers to fall sharply through the 1880s. The last large nesting in Michigan occurred in the spring of 1881, near Traverse City. That same year, a heavy sleet storm occurred on October 15 as a large flock of pigeons flew south across the Straits of Mackinac, causing many to drop into the water and drown.    

Prang’s Natural History Series for Children (1878)

On April 22, 1882, Cheboygan’s Northern Tribune reported: “Some of our hunters were led to believe there were pigeons in plenty a few miles from town… but it was only a cruel hoax.” A few years later, Morris Gibbs observed pigeons on Mackinac Island in June 1885, but ornithologists only located small nestings in proceeding years.  

Steward Edward White (1912), Library of Congress, Bain News Service Photograph Collection

  Near the end of the century, brothers Stewart Edward and T. Gilbert White spent summers at their family’s Mackinac Island cottage. A prolific author, Stewart’s essay and list, Birds Observed on Mackinac Island, Michigan, During the Summers of 1889, 1890, and 1891, was published by the American Ornithologists Union. Of pigeons, he wrote, “A large flock was seen feeding in beech woods, August 30, 1889, after which they were frequently seen. About a hundred were observed September 10, and on September 12 the main body departed None were observed in 1890 or 1891.”    On September 14, 1898, the last known passenger pigeon in Michigan was shot near Detroit. At thtime, it was feared that other iconic animals, such as the bald eagle and American bison would follow this sad decline. The very last passenger pigeon in the world, “Martha,” died in her cage at the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914.     Today, it appears the extinction of this incredible species was not entirely in vain. Hard lessons learned helped fuel 20th century conservation efforts that brought some species back from the brink of disaster. During your next visit to the Straits of Mackinac, search the skies and you’re likely to find a bald eagle. As you watch it soarremember the tale of the passenger pigeon, once a sign of spring in the north woods. No matter how common something seems, it’s up to us to care for all life to ensure the awe of future generations. 

Michigan State Troops at Mackinac, 1888

Drill was a regular feature of daily life for the soldiers of the 23rd Infantry posted at Fort Mackinac in the 1880s. Like American soldiers across the country, they spent several hours every week at drill, target practice, and other exercises to hone their skills. However, the small American army of the 1880s was widely dispersed at isolated posts, meaning that soldiers rarely had the opportunity to practice large-scale maneuvers or tactics. To provide the soldiers with a taste of regular campaigning, through the 1880s the 23rd Regiment partnered with the Michigan State Troops (a forerunner to the Michigan National Guard) to host summer training camps. In 1888, the Michigan State Troops elected to hold the annual encampment on Mackinac Island.

Fort Mackinac during a summer encampment- note the tents in the distance, pitched on the government pasture.

  Since over 1,000 men belonged to the brigade of the Michigan State Troops, they visited Mackinac in two waves. The 2nd and 4th Regiments came to the island July 12-16, while the 1st and 3rd Regiments arrived on July 19 and departed on July 24. Additionally, Colonel Henry Black, commanding officer of the 23rd Infantry, brought two more companies of regulars and the regimental band from Fort Wayne in Detroit. Alongside the men of Companies E and K stationed at Fort Mackinac, these professional soldiers of the 23rd were expected to teach the part-time troops of the Michigan State forces by example. All of the visiting soldiers set up camp on the government pasture, now the Grand Hotel golf course, and named their small tent city Camp Luce after Governor Cyrus Luce.

  For the most part the camp went smoothly, with the amateur and professional soldiers working alongside one another. The troops participated in a variety of large-scale drills, culminating in a sham battle staged for Governor Luce and Governor Richard Oglesby of Illinois on July 23. However, numerous reports from the Cheboygan Democrat newspaper, and some of the officers of the 23rd and the Michigan State Troops, make it clear that some of the men may have had a bit too much fun at Mackinac. On July 12 the Democrat shared the story of an MST soldier who, after drinking downtown, went back to camp

“but did not have the countersign, and was afraid of the guards. Finally a bright idea struck him. He went back downtown and secured two bottles of beer, and one under each arm proceeded back to camp. Soon he was halted by a sentry, and the following conversation ensued: ‘Halt! Who comes there?’ ‘A friend with two bottles of beer.’ ‘Advance, friend, and deliver up one bottle.’ The truant did so and passed into camp.”

Soldiers inside the fort.

  The summer nights were apparently quite cold for the men sleeping in tents in the pasture. On July 19, the Democrat reported that as the sentries called out “Two o’clock and all is well” one man “in a sober strong, foghorn voice,” yelled back “Two o’clock and colder than hell!” In the same issue, the Cheboygan reporter noted that Mackinac’s saloons were doing brisk business, with one taking in $218 in a single day. “Pandemonium reigned in the village and respectable ladies had to keep off the streets.” Later the same week the paper reported that a gang of soldiers boarded the yacht Julia in the harbor and “stole two marine glasses valued at $75, and even went so far as to climb the mast to steal the brass ball off the top mast head.” The same soldiers apparently “stole everything they could lay their hands on in the stores and elsewhere.” On July 26, the Democrat proudly related that at least some of the mischievous MST men met their match earlier in the week and “had a genuine experience in war in about one-hundredth of a second after they insulted a Cheboygander’s better half Monday. One had both eyes blacked, and the other had his bread basket kicked in, and the rest took to their heels.”

  Reflecting on the island camp, Colonel E.W. Irish of the 2nd Regiment of the MST advocated against returning to Mackinac. Given the hijinks reported by the Cheboygan Democrat, Irish’s assertion that “I fear the many attractions of the isle of ‘Fairy Legends’ necessarily interfere somewhat with the devotion to duty which ought to be expected of soldiers” seems to be a bit of an understatement. According to another Democrat report from July 12, the “dude soldiers with new uniforms and a pocketful of cash” from the state troops also caused friction with the regulars of the 23rd Regiment.

  In any case, the 1888 summer encampment was the first and last time the Michigan State Troops ventured to Mackinac. In 1889 they stayed in southern Michigan, going into camp at Gognac Lake, near Battle Creek (previous summer encampments were held at Island Lake near Brighton). The men of Companies E and K traveled south from Mackinac for the summer training period, this time joined by the entire 23rd Regiment. If you would like to learn more about the soldiers of the 23rd Infantry and the summer drills held on Mackinac Island, plan a visit to Fort Mackinac. Please also consider joining or making a donation to Mackinac Associates, who fund projects throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks’ museums.

Things Named Mackinac/aw

A logger wearing a mackinaw coat near a log train, ca. 1906. Hennepin County Library

Today there are several easily recognizable places and things named either Mackinac or Mackinaw. Mackinac Island, the Straits of Mackinac, the Mackinac Bridge, and Mackinaw City all come to mind. Did you know there are even more uses for Mackinac/Mackinaw? (more…)

Railroads in Mackinaw City

Railroads in Mackinaw City

An early 1880s ad for the Grand Rapids and Indiana.

Although platted in 1857, Mackinaw City remained undeveloped until about 1870. By then a village stood on the shores of the Straits of Mackinac, and steamboats linked the community with cities around the Great Lakes. However, the town remained small and isolated until 1881, when the first train arrived.

The Michigan Central Railroad was the first to reach Mackinaw, running north from Detroit through Saginaw. George Stimpson, an early settler and prominent resident, drove the final spike. A year later, the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad also reached the straits, linking Mackinaw City with Traverse City, Grand Rapids, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. On the north shore, meanwhile, the Detroit, Mackinac and Marquette Railroad ran west from St. Ignace across the Upper Peninsula. The railroads brought increased traffic to the straits and Mackinaw City grew quickly, formally incorporating as a village in 1882. (more…)

Mill Creek – What Happened Next?

Mill Creek – What Happened Next?

The earliest known photograph of the Mill Creek site, taken in about 1915. The bridge carries the state highway across the stream and the lake would be to the back of the photographer. The “MC” markings are noting the location of the Michigan Central railroad. The bluff at left center is where today’s overlook is.

Visitors to Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park learn about the Campbell and Dousman families and their employees operating the saw and grist mills and farm at the site. What happened next? (more…)

The Fort Mackinac Never Sweats and Vintage Base Ball

The Fort Mackinac Never Sweats and Vintage Base Ball

“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.

(more…)

It Could Be Another Good Winter To See Snowy Owls

It Could Be Another Good Winter To See Snowy Owls

Snowy Owls have recently been observed on Mackinac Island, in St. Ignace, Mackinaw City, and Cheboygan and on the Mackinac Bridge.  It is still the first week of December but these beautiful arctic visitors are appearing throughout the Midwest in relatively large numbers.  If they continue to arrive at this rate, we may be able to enjoy watching them in the Straits area all winter long. (more…)