Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ghosts of Victoria

The Cushin Mine opened in 1849, downriver a bit from where Julius Eldred snatched the Copper Rock of Lake Superior and over the hills a piece from the famous Minesota Mine. It went through a succession of owners, was reorganized, suffered a variety of disasters and operated intermittently until 1899, when a half dozen companies in the area combined assets to create the last Victoria.

By the turn of the 20th Century, the denuded landscape caused a fuel shortage. The Victoria brought in a Canadian inventor who built an air compressor driven by the power of the Ontonagon River and the new operation was in business.

High atop a hill they built their company town, Victoria, MI.

Though the ore was poor quality, nearly 20 million pounds of refined copper was produced from thereabouts. In 1917, the town numbered a robust 750 souls and for a while life at Victoria was likely about as good as it got in the Superior wilds, with the rest of the world at war.

Image Courtesy of the Society for the Restoration of Old Victoria

In 1921 the mine closed and Victoria was mostly abandoned.


Company town sites are everywhere across Superior's basin.

Some remain home to modest communities of folk and are innocuous; small houses sided or painted, plastic deer set on scrappy, sloping  lawns. When there's no historical signage and often there's not, a casual visitor mightn't know there was ever a mine.

Except that most all the houses are built exactly the same, decades prior to subdivisions cutting their swath across an American landscape.

Often, a couple of the houses are notably fancier and set off from the rest, while some are just wrecks. Maybe there's a crumbling three story brick school that someone lives in a portion of. Or even a shuttered hospital, its tiny parking lot choked with weeds and a dead car or two.

All for a few dozen residents perched atop a hardscrabble hill at least half to the middle of nowhere, which has gotta make you wonder...

Many (most?) Company towns are today lost to a resurgent landscape.

A handful of sites are preserved by people whose efforts ought be held with those folk who first made the mark, who carved a place from the wild to live and work and die there. At these sites our collective past isn't irretrievably lost.

Victoria is such a place.

All remaining images taken from 4x5 or 120mm Transparency

The Captain's house still oversees a smattering of private homes on the hill, just up from the wreckage of the last workings and the huge pile of tailings it bequeathed the landscape. Down the hill stands a clutch of wooden cabins, the largest group of vintage log homes in the region that remain on original foundations.

Officially The Old Victoria Restoration, the site is operated by the Society for the Restoration of Old Victoria, which is made up mostly of neighbors and of late is associated with the Keweenaw National Historic Park. My own association with Victoria goes back better than 30 years.

Speaking strictly as a photographer, I prefer my architectural history mostly wrecked.

The geometry of wreckage informs my best work. But there're only so many abandoned school buildings and factories and farmhouses and barns left to crawl through and it can be dangerous, too. I figured out a long time ago that working historic sites bears its own distinct rewards.

None more so than Victoria. Or 'Vic', as she's called by friends.

Across the Superior Basin is a wealth of culture and history preserved by the will of local folk. It's a never-ending task that grows only more intensive with time. The work is hard and too often mostly thankless. The pay (when there's any at all) is meager. The hours are long and can be lonely.

It's a labor of love. Folk devote their lives to it so that our children & our children's children will know that sometimes, the song of who we were might still be heard in places where once we lived.

During our Search for Perfect Light it's the docents and caretakers and site managers and interpreters and Friends of wherever who've proven most helpful to the project. They welcome fellow travelers.

Through my extended association with Victoria, I count two of these indomitable people as personal friends.

Lynette's visited the place since she was a child, then came around a few years ago as a docent and stuck, which wasn't the previous pattern for docents. She's bright & personable and has a handle on the formalities introduced to the site through its association with the Feds. Lynette's now the Interpretive Manger of Old Victoria, which means most days it's she that'll greet you when you show up at the door.

That's a tough job.

In addition to myriad 'behind the scenes' things that need be done on a regular basis -- from sweeping dead flies out of cabins to pondering a maze of federal stipulation -- Lynette's also the public face of the place, whether for the occasional tourist or 30 hyper kids suddenly spilled from a school bus.

I've known Victoria during hard seasons when you wondered if it could hold on. Lynette's been a godsend.

Which brings me to Patty -- over some decades and at various times the Site Manager, President and today Director of Old Victoria.

Patty is like a tree prevailing upon a windswept landscape and is well suited to her hard place. Compassionate, whip smart, skeptical, capable, protective and occasionally bawdy. A resolute sufferer of no fools and funny as hell.

You don't get to hear my Patty stories.

Except one year I got ambitious and called to ask if we could open the place at night during a full moon so I could capture it like it was alive. I'd rent a cottage on the hill for two nights to be certain.

And a couple months later there we were in the gloaming, working together to call the ghosts of Victoria.

Smoke wafted from a chimney and the place was aglow well before the last birds turned in for the night. A group of hikers coming off the national North Country Trail saw the lights and stopped on by, just like old times. Patty played hostess while I mostly worked until full dark when the hikers retired for camp and Patty for home.

I sat for a while, alone with the ghosts.

Fine folk like Patty and Lynette and all the others across the basin take our history in their hands to cradle it until a next generation comes along and does the same.

Or until such time as resurgent wildness, rural poverty and even cultural indifference combine to let it slip through our collective fingers, as it often does.

All the same, when my images outlive me via the Internet and when the Victoria Restoration operated by the Society for the Restoration of Old Victoria outlives Patty, someone will erect a sign there saying that the place never would have survived as well as it has, without Patty dedicated the bulk of her adult life to the task.

Since neither of us will be around to see that sign, I'll get a jump on the proceedings by posting my favorite image of Patty here -- dedicated not only to her, but to every preservationist at work around the basin.

And to all the ghosts of Superior. Past, present or future...


  1. Very well done, of course one wouldn't expect less. Thank you for your attention and hope to see you again. Keep on clicking. Oh and a fine sight you have here.

  2. I appreciate the kind words, thanks. Victoria has long been one of my favorite places in the U.P. It's an intimate, living place you can really sink into, as opposed to being an exhibit walled up behind glass or some such...

  3. This is beautiful. As a Greenland gal, I appreciate kindnesses to our culture of tiny towns and old things. ty.

    1. Though raised in the big city, I've always very much wanted to return 'home' to Bessemer. Who knows -- I might yet get that chance.

      Thanks for the kind words. The western U.P. is my favorite place in the world, the only landscape upon which I feel at completely at home.

  4. I learned how to cook on a wood stove at old vic. I have great memories of hauling cedar shingles up ladders, building porches and splitting wood, but the best memories are from hanging out in that low light after the work was done shooting the stars with the interesting folk also drawn to the history and feeling of the place.

    1. The night I spent at/around Vic was the best time ever. It's (mostly) only after the light starts to fade that the place seems to really breathe and all its history comes creeping in like some quiet cat.

      A close 2nd are those chill, damp days at the end of the season, sitting alone in the only warmish room, sharing quality time with Patty or Lynnette...

  5. I thank God here are still people that truly appreciate all the hard work, for meager or no pay, that has been put into Old Vic. It is a true labor of love. Especially for Patty and Lynnette.

    1. Victoria is one of my favorite places. For many years Patty, then later Lynette, have been among my heroes. When I visit other sites around the Basin my deep appreciation for the work people do came about primarily because I'd visited with Patty so often at Victoria over the years.

      The qualities of devotion and sacrifice asked of a precious few in order to keep our past relevant for the rest of us is humbling.