Monday, July 23, 2012


Torched lake

"Perpetual maintenance" is an elegant little phrase, in which simple directness masks the nature of the beast.

Once a mine plays out or whenever mineral extraction otherwise becomes economically unsound, Job Creators ship out the last harvested resource, pocket their money, hang out the "Closed for Business" sign  and head back where they came from. Too often they steal away as well with the sole purpose a proud, robust community ever had for being.

Many historic mines that litter the Superior Basin require perpetual maintenance. Great mountains of chemical laden stamp sands & tailings taint water and land alike. In some cases, these threaten not only the environment at large, but specifically the health of those folk still living in communities where once their ancestors thrived.

Founded in 1894 along the western shore of Torch Lake in the Keweenaw, the town of Hubbell was convenient to the moving of copper; raw ore and refined product both. Torch Lake connected to the Portage Ship Canal, which provided ready access to Superior and from there a worldwide market hungry for Keweenaw copper.

At one time, at least three stamp mills and a copper smelter operated in Hubbell. It's estimated that over 200 billion tons of copper tailings were deposited into Torch Lake, displacing fully 20% of its water volume, bequeathing a legacy of toxins that eventually led to the lake being declared an EPA Superfund site, which means that even today you and I still pay for what Job Creators never cared to take.

Along Torch Lake

In the case of Torch Lake, cleanup means cover up, which is apparently the best of our bad choices. Acres & acres of stamp sands are now blanketed with fresh soil and replanted, an effort at remediation so successful the tumors once found in Torch Lake fish have subsided, the amount and variety of toxins in the water has roughly stabilized and the various Areas of Concern along Torch Lake are being "delisted", which means we've done  everything we can. From here until pretty much the end of us, Torch Lake will merely require perpetual monitoring and (it's hoped) only occasional maintenance.

What's true is that all those billions of tons of waste remain exactly where the Companies left it, hidden beneath the shiny blue waters of Torch Lake, or under a thin layer of new soil and the grass that grows fresh upon it.

Thus do we take our sometimes meager measure of success.

As of 2010, 946 residents remain in once thriving Hubbell. Safe to say, none of those work here:

Along Torch Lake


Laurium, MI

Attached to Calumet at the hip, the town of Laurium MI enjoys at least two distinct claims to fame. The 1st is resonant but minor key, the 2nd strikes a decidedly national chord, even if by something of proxy:

The Hoatson House

While most miners shared beds in crowded boarding houses or lived with their families in Company housing, Captains of Industry surrounded themselves with all the creature comforts money could buy & status deserved. In some of the most remote old mining towns of the Upper Peninsula, you'll happen across surprising evidence of lives once exceptionally well lived in what was, even then, not exactly the fat lap of civilization.

Thomas H. Hoatson served as Supervisor of the mighty Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. He built his house in 1907, as a surprise for his wife and six children. Totaling 13,000 square feet, with 45 rooms including a 50' by 50' billiards room and with only the very finest of detailing throughout, just imagine what a surprise that must have made.

Today the building is a notable Bed & Breakfast called the Laurium Manor Inn, having been added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998:

American Myth -- the Two Gippers

Just down the street from the Hoatson homestead is a memorial to a man, not a myth.

Born February 18th, 1885 in the then rough hewn mining town of Laurium, George Gipp™ gained fame as a great football player for the fabled Fighting Irish of Notre Dame under the team's legendary Coach, Knute Rockne. Gipp died on December 14th, 1920 during his senior year, most likely from strep throat brought on through pneumonia contracted during football practice. And Gipp's story would have ended there, little remembered save for diehard Notre Dame fans and the good folk of Laurium...

...except that the ever churning blender of American Mythology soon found use for him.

During halftime of the 1928 game with Army -- eight full years after Gipp's death and while enduring his worst season as Coach -- in what today might be taken by some for shameless exploitation of a young man's untimely death, Knute Rockne told his team that these were George Gipp's dying words:

Rock...sometime, when the team is up against it -- and the breaks are beating the boys -- tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper. I don't know where I'll be then, Rock, but I'll know about it -- and I'll be happy.

Notre Dame says it's unlikely those are Gipp's last words and if Notre Dame says it, that's good enough for me. Still, the team went on to win the game and -- shorn of a single word to make it evergreen -- the hallowed American phrase "Win one for the Gipper" was coined.

Again, the thing might have fallen into obscurity, but in 1940 and on the cusp of War when a nation most needs heroes, Hollywood intervened.

"Knute Rockne, All American" is a typical Hollywood biopic in that fact isn't allowed to get in the way of a good story. Copping third billing beneath the featured stars, a B Movie actor with a certain gift for pathos assumed the role of George Gipp, a relatively minor character in the movie, but with the scene everyone remembers:

Even then the thing might have ended in obscurity right along with the actor who uttered the lines, as after that and apart from the later 'King's Row' Ronald Reagan's acting career was mostly no great shakes. But in true American fashion, the man wove middling talent with an aw shucks affinity for pathos & sincerity to remake himself. So tied was he to the whole milieu that in most folk's minds, today the 40th President of these United States is the Gipper.

And without he delivered on film those deathless words first offered up by Knute Rockne that young George Gipp of Laurium likely never said deathbed or otherwise, perhaps Mr. Reagan would now best be remembered for his association with 20 Mule Team Borax on the TV show "Wagon Train", just sayin'...

All the same, proud Laurium's Memorial to its son George Gipp offers no insight into Hollywood movies or of actors turned Presidents and if you're ever looking for the authentic 'Gipper', you'll find him along the Superior Basin, in his hometown of Laurium MI:

And, if you look up the movie 'Knute Rockne, All American" on YouTube, you'll find that listed in the genre' category of "Horror, Romance", don't blame me I'm just a reporter...


America's First 'Official' Gay Bar...

Located on the Keweenaw in the once rollicking community of Gay.

First a mining company building, then established as a tavern just after Prohibition, the Gay Bar has for that long catered to a wide variety of clientele 'cause when you're stuck so far off the beaten track you either accept what traffic comes in off the road or don't stay in business long...

And every 4th of July, the town hosts its very own Gay Parade. That comes complete with Annual Fish Toss, about which the less I say the better, so we'll just let it speak for itself. The Fish Toss begins @ 1:30...

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