Exploring Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula

Relief map of the Keweenaw Peninsula

After leaving our campsite near the town of Munising and the Pictured Rocks area, we traveled west to the Keweenaw Peninsula for our last stay in Michigan. The Peninsula is the most northern part of the state and juts out into Lake Superior. It was the site of the first copper boom in the United States. There didn’t seem to be many campgrounds to choose from but we did find one in the town of Ontonagon and reserved a spot for one week. I thought this would be a good location as it was central to the main town of Calumet to the north and also in the vicinity of Porcupine Mountains State Park and Bond Falls to the south. Our campsite was basic, inexpensive and situated across from the Ontonagon River.

Ontonagon River with Yellow Yarrow wildflowers

The River is most well known for the Ontonagon Boulder discovered near the shore in 1667, exact location of discovery unknown. It is a 3,708 pound boulder of native copper that is now held by the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C.

During our short stay in this town I found two main things of interest. The first was the Ontonagon Lighthouse which can only be accessed with a tour guide. The tour ended up being myself and one other family who met at the local museum and then were driven by van to the lighthouse built in 1866. One of the main keepers was a man named James Corgan who began work here in 1883 and remained for 37 years, retiring in 1919 when he was 71. Mr. Corgan is credited with saving the lighthouse when fire 🔥 broke out in Ontonagon in August 1896. The fire destroyed the town including sawmills and the Diamond Match Company, the town’s main enterprise. Mr. Corgan and his family carried water from the river, keeping the roofs and buildings wet to prevent igniting. The light was discontinued in 1964 and in 2008 restored to its 1915 appearance.

The tour was given by a life-long resident of Ontonagon, who reported he was 80 years old. He really knew the history of the town and lighthouse. Inside we were able to visit all of the rooms as well as the light tower. Although, me and those spiral staircases ☹️ .

Lighthouse living areas

After driving back from the lighthouse tour I saw a small hand made sign on a street corner advertising music that night by Peter Yarrow at the community theater building. I pondered if this could possibly be the Peter of the “Peter, Paul and Mary,” trio, the famous folk group in the 60’s and 70’s. I found out it was indeed and there was no way I was going to miss this show. I really enjoy the music of Peter, Paul and Mary and had never seen any of them performing live.

Peter Yarrow and his son Christopher

During the show Peter was accompanied by his son who played the washtub bass as well as a talented duo called “Mustard’s Retreat.” This turned out to be one of the most fun musical evenings I had been to in years. Peter encouraged lots of audience participation and we sang along with him during many of the songs, including: If I Had a Hammer, Leaving on a Jet Plane, Blowin’ in the Wind, Lemon Tree, This Land is Your Land and El Salvador. When it was time for Puff the Magic Dragon, he asked that all the children come on the stage. Well, there was a real lack of children in the theater that night but a few adults came up. He insisted that more join him and a few more came including myself. On stage we all sang about Puff together and it was a memorable experience. Throughout the show Peter was personable and funny with frequent messages promoting good will. He encouraged love and acceptance as the remedy for society’s ills. During the intermission he invited people to come and say hello and get a hug.

After intermission which included homemade cookies and punch (at no cost and something you don’t usually find in a big city) the concert continued as Peter played requested songs from the audience. When it was getting close to 10:30 and he had been performing for over three hours, even I a night owl was starting to get a little tired. After all, you can only sing along so long 😊 😊. I was amazed by his stamina and exuberance especially since he is now 81 years old. When the show ended I thought it was the best $20.00 I had spent in a long time. I was glad my eye had caught the small Peter Yarrow sign on the street corner.

The town of Calumet was once the center of the copper mine industry and a National Park (NPS) Historic Site Visitor Center is located there. The day we drove up we found a parade getting ready to start. Turned out this was part of the Upper Peninsula Firefighters Tournament which was in its 125th year. The tournament included fire departments from various towns competing in skill races and other events. We were glad we came at just the right time because we watched dozens of fire engines, both vintage and new as well as floats travel the downtown streets of Calumet.

One of the most clever floats was put together by the West Iron County Fire Department from the town of Iron River. Dressed like KISS band members they rocked and sang their hearts out.

Mark and I were surprised to learn that hockey had its beginnings in this part of the Peninsula. The nearby town of Houghton claims to be the birth place of organized professional ice hockey and home of the world’s first all professional ice hockey team which began in 1902. So, it made sense that there would be kids from ice hockey teams in the parade. We were especially interested to learn about hockey in this area because our son Matt has loved and continuously played the sport for 26 years, since he was nine years old.

Young hockey players parading past the former St. Anne’s church and carrying a sign “Calumet is Hockeyville USA”

The NPS Visitor Center was a place to get our passport book stamped and see all the exhibits regarding this once booming copper mining town. We learned that the copper rush began here in the early 1840’s, before the California gold rush got going in 1848. For about 40 years, Michigan surpassed all other states in copper production. Several copper mines no longer in operation can still be toured and are a popular attraction in this part of Michigan. Today, Arizona remains the top copper producing state.

Remember the pasties we ate in Munising? Miners carried them in these tin pails

I really enjoyed seeing Calumet’s historic buildings and many were built with Lake Superior sandstone. In the later years of the 19th century small towns with wooden buildings in the Keweenaw Peninsula were ravaged by fires. Sandstone was seen as a much better alternative as it was prized for its beauty and toughness. I always love seeing historic churches when we visit new places and I admired two very beautiful sandstone churches – St. Anne’s, a former French Canadian Catholic Church and now a heritage center with the National Park Service and St. Paul Catholic Church, built in 1902 and still holding services.

St. Paul Catholic Church

Calumet has several museums and we spent some time at the Copper Country Firefighters History Museum. It was built as a fire station in 1898 with the rear of the station functioning as a stable for eight horses that pulled the fire wagons. The horses were used into the 1930’s even though the first mechanized fire truck arrived in 1919. During the winter the wheels were removed from the fire engines and sleigh runners attached so the fire trucks could be pulled to fire locations by the horses.

Calumet Fire Museum

The museum has a variety of historic fire wagons, engines, memorabilia, photos and information. The first mechanized fire truck was the La France pumper made in 1919 and shipped to Calumet over the ocean and then by rail.

First mechanized fire truck

Perhaps the most well known historic sandstone building is the Calumet Theater which was built as an opera house in 1900. Many famous performers of that era came to this opera house which still has shows today. I was hoping to see the inside of it but it was closed even though we were there on a weekend. I was told at the Visitor Center that the buildings are staffed by volunteers and hours of operation are therefore limited.

Calumet Theater

This finishes our Michigan exploration as the next day after our visit to Calumet we had to return to California for a family emergency. In my next post, I review our time in California and plans for the Fall.

3 thoughts on “Exploring Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula”

  1. Thank you once again, Beth. Since I was the family emergency, I just want to record (for posterity) my sincere & deep gratitude to you & Mark. You interrupted your tour, & Bob & deeply appreciated all the help and support you gave us.

  2. Very fun. Love the story about Peter’s concert, such a great surprise. Also a big fan of anything hockey history! Best sport on Earth! Looks like a beautiful area and a great time to go with a lot going on

    1. Thank you for commenting Matt! Yes, it was fun to find out about the hockey stuff in the Keweenaw Peninsula. One of the great things about traveling is finding the unexpected in new places.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *