Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Kingston Plains

Unlike copper or iron, timber is a renewable resource. Modern forest management practices demonstrate that, though the concept is curious 'cause without we first intrude ourselves upon it, forests manage to manage themselves quite well, thanks very much.

By the 1880’s white folk had been picking over the shores of Lake Superior for better than 250 years. Etienne Brule first saw the big lake in 1622 or 1623. Father Marquette established a mission at Sault Ste. Marie in 1668. The Hudson’s Bay Company was formed in 1670 and out of their northern headquarters came to control the fur trade around Superior for nearly 100 years. From there the fabled Voyageurs roamed the big lake far and wide.

Yet save for Indians who lived there, almost no one dared venture far from shore. The wilderness was considered an impassible wasteland fit only for animals and savages, which were taken by many as mostly one and the same. Then in 1841 Douglas Houghton documented copper in the Keweenaw and soon the rush was on.

When white men finally did wander inland, what they found there filled them with awe: a region so vast and rich as to be “inexhaustible”. This they believed, even as they proved it untrue and damned quickly, too. At the same time and for a variety of reasons that destruction was mythologized.  These were indeed mighty men engaged to tame the wilderness, which was both us doing God’s work and (happy coincidence!) essential to commerce and the building a great nation.

West of Grand Marais MI and south of the Grand Sable Dunes, on the Kingston Plains a vast forest of old growth White Pine stood on sandy ground. Then Thomas G. Sullivan came to town and in three years his crews removed 50 million feet of white pine from the Kingston Plains and areas nearer the lakeshore. Often this work was accomplished during winter when the heavy logs were sledded over to the base of the Dunes to await the first barges of spring.  At night men sprayed the snow with water to make ice roads to facilitate transport of the next day’s work.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Come ice out on Superior, crews then hauled their treasure right up the backside of the Grand Sable Dunes and dropped it piece by mighty piece onto a constructed wooden logslide leading some 500 feet down to the water and barges gathered there to haul logs to mills in Grand Marais and Munising. Sometimes, the logs went down the slide so fast the thing caught fire. Sometimes, instead of bobbing around on the water at the bottom, the massive logs skipped as much as 200 feet over the surface of the lake and occasionally crushed those men tasked with their retrieval.

From the top of the Grand Sable Dunes Logslide

Just like the copper and iron folk want to mine for today is mostly targeted for sale to China, much of this timber was shipped off to Europe, though a bunch of it went down to Chicago, which was then being transformed from a devastated town into a great city after the Fire of 1873.

Others followed Sullivan. The Plains were logged over again and again, finally abandoned in 1909 and left piled high with “slash”, which is vernacular for branches and fast drying scraps of wood with no commercial value. All of it full of resin.

Then came fire and like the loggers it came repeatedly, caused both by lightning and the hand of man. The last big fire on the Kingston Plains occurred in the 1930’s. After that the barren landscape fell to rest.

No one knows absolutely why this forest failed to regenerate. Probably the fires burnt so hot they cooked the resin in the wood and left no seeds to germinate. Certainly, the poor soil of humus and peat that nevertheless once supported a mighty old growth forest burnt right down to the sand. What’s true is that more than 110 years after the last logger left the Plains, the landscape remains a stump field.

During recent decades, some of the place has been replanted, which accounts for those lines of trees you see on the horizon. But most of what grows there of its own accord are lichens with the occasional scrub bush thrown in for good measure. Perversely and/or appropriately, the morning I worked the landscape the only vehicles to kick up dust along the Adams Trail were logging trucks, rushing from somewhere to somewheres else. There’s no need for them to stop anymore, along the Kingston Plains.

Still, for all the evident devastation that surrounded me, I found sights like this:

And most amazingly, these tender spring flowers finding life from within a flower pot that’s been stone cold dead for better than a century:

It’s said that “life finds a way”.

No matter how heedless our intrusion upon it, regardless that a given landscape isn’t what it once was and might remain forever altered by our inveterate ambition to bend nature to our will, life does indeed find a way.

And on the Kingston Plains, there is proof:


  1. This was so informative -- thanks for explaining what happened in Kingston. Do you know why there were man-made fires after the loggers left? Was it intentional or just by accidents?

    1. Thank-you for reading and commenting. I don't know for sure but believe the man-made fires were accidental. Back when we burnt wood for fuel, fire was a persistent scourge. And on tinder like the plains, all that'd take was a wayward spark carried on the breeze.

  2. This was very informative and insightful. Thanks for the care you took in writing it. Do you know why there were man-made fires after the loggers left? Did they mistakenly think it would help with regeneration or was it simply accidents?

    1. Thank-you for the kind words and for taking the time to comment. I don't expect there was any attempt at regeneration until 'modern' times, which is why there's a (short) tree line in the background of some of the images. We didn't understand the nature of the damage done so really couldn't begin to comprehend that we might mitigate at least some of that. The day I spent working at Kingston was during a lengthy dry spell and it was like walking on potato chips. As much as any other damaged place I've worked, the Kingston Plains stays with me...

  3. Frank... I, too, find this area extremely fascinating and moving. It's like a stump cemetery. I would very much like to post a link to your blog piece on my Facebook photography page: https://www.facebook.com/KathrynLundJohnsonNaturePhotography/?ref=aymt_homepage_panel (Superior Inspirations by Kathryn Lund Johnson), and am requesting permission. Best wishes...

  4. A cemetery of long gone giant pine upon a blasted landscape that prompts real contemplation, yes. It's the one place I visited during the Odyssey that I really need to return to because I know that with the short time allotted I failed to do it justice. Sadly, life intruded and my plans to work there this spring didn't pan out. By all means link away, thanks.

  5. Thank you so much for your response, Frank. I look forward to reading your additional blog entries. Kathryn

  6. Sharing lends the resource greater visibility, like moving a book from the back of the shelf into the light. Can't beat that, in this type of venue. Thanks again, Kathryn.

  7. Great read!! We have a camp just off from the plains. Always fun to read some history of the area. Our camp has a lot of history as well, as it is an old logging camp. We can date it back to the 1850's.

  8. Sweet. The 1850's is mighty near the beginning. Sometimes I think those of us who don't live history are doomed to study it but the more I do, the more 'official' history's revealed as just another competing story among many and the complexity of that unraveling keeps things interesting. I recall the author Jim Harrison had a camp near there as well. I'm jealous, though I'd miss the 'big' river systems that run through the Gogebic Range. Thanks for the kind words.

  9. What a fascinating and informative article. Thanks for the history lesson Mr. Hutton. I just rode through the Plains last week along the old Adams Trail in a Polaris Ranger. I have been fascinated with this area since childhood when my parents used to take us through there before H58 was paved that far. My Dad always said some of the lumber went to rebuild Chicago after the great fire. It is a beautiful and almost mystical area to visit. I thought I would do some research after my trip last week. Your article was a great read--thanks again from a Yooper at heart who truly loves the Upper Peninsula and all the history behind this gorgeous and spectacular area!

  10. It's true about the old growth forests of the U.P. being used to rebuild Chicago. I understand a lot of it went to Detroit, too. What astounds me is how fast all of it was gone. The lumbermen swept from Maine to Washington State like a swarm of hungry locusts. Thank-you for the kind words and for taking the time to comment. I think you're right -- the Plains is something of a mystical place. Having only walked a small portion of them, I'm jealous of you & your Ranger...