Ghost on the Water
By Mikel B. Classen
A ghost makes its home in the Upper Peninsula. It is always present for all to see and doesn't require special ghost hunting equipment. A remnant of what it once was, only a shell of days gone by, the name of the ghost is Pequaming.
On the day I saw it, it was one of those Lake Superior mornings when a low fog comes in enshrouding and creatively draping everything, clouding but not obscuring. Through the morning mists the ghost of Pequaming stood waiting for another wayward traveler.
Pequaming is one of the largest still standing ghost towns in the Upper Peninsula. It stands not only as a ghost town but as a ghost of a bygone piece of a very prosperous era in the history of Michigan. The town sits about eight miles north of L'Anse on the shore of Lake Superior. Its pier, water tower, and the skeleton of the abandoned Ford factory can be clearly seen protruding into Keweenaw Bay.
To get to the old town, one merely has to go into L'Anse and drive the Lakeshore road north. You can watch the ghost approaching through the majority of the drive. This road takes you directly into the former main street where Pequaming's remains can be seen dotting the surrounding landscape, an old schoolhouse, general store, some of the homes, and the old Ford water tower and manufacturing plant. An old cemetery is also present and has weathered the years well.
Pequaming began, in its infancy, as a sawmill. It was founded in the late 1870s by Edward and Charles Hebard along with another man named Thurber who stayed in the background and did very little in the actual operations. The initial investment into this venture was about two million dollars which was a massive amount for the time. The company purchased 100,000 surrounding acres and began producing 25 million feet of lumber and 25 million shingles annually. Nearly a thousand men were needed in the mills and lumber camps scattered liberally throughout the woods.
The Hebard Company reared Pequaming into childhood by building company houses and a company owned general store. The workers rented homes, traded at the store, and the bill was simply deducted from their wages. Pequaming was an example of a true company town.
As the Hebard and Thurber mill grew, so did Pequaming. Tree lined streets were established. The Hebards built a mansion for themselves, a 30 room southern plantation style home on the lakeshore. Prosperity was making its mark.
The mill was the first and largest lumbering operation in the Lake Superior area, but it did something it didn't foresee. By 1910 it had exhausted almost all of the virgin pine timber in the area, slowing down operations to a trickle. Pequaming became desperately ill and it appeared that it might die during childhood.
In 1920 a cure was found and its name was Henry Ford. For his plants in Detroit, Ford decided to purchase approximately one million acres of land in the Upper Peninsula. Four hundred thousand of the acres purchased included the entire town of Pequaming and all of the holdings of the Hebard sawmill including the lumber camps that were by then nearly deserted.
Ford believed in a certain amount of self-sufficiency, feeling that he should control all of the sources required for his industry, so he bought up large tracts of land to supply his plants with raw materials required in Detroit. Nearly all of the materials needed were found in abundance throughout the Upper Peninsula. A stone quarry that was located to the east of Pequaming and the remaining hardwoods untouched by the Hebards made Ford decide to make his largest single purchase in Upper Michigan there.
Henry Ford cured Pequaming so that it could become an adult. It matured as Ford's ideal model town. He revitalized and revamped the city with remodeled homes, a water tower (the one that can be seen today from nearly everywhere in the bay), and fire hydrants all through the town. Men were paid $6.00 for eight hours of work which was a considerable amount, but strict rules had to be followed: no drinking, mandatory savings of a percentage of wages, and surveillance of their homes and general way of life.
Even the surrounding lumber camps were required to take on a new look and follow the rules much to the dismay of the rough and rowdy old lumberjacks. Buildings were erected in place of the tents, recreation halls with movies and radios were constructed,and in the mess halls the men ate balanced meals on china dish settings. The camps even had electricity and running water.
In Pequaming, a hotel, more stores, three churches, a school, and railroads were all constructed according to Ford's personal specifications. Pequaming was a proud model to all of those around and Ford publicized it. He bought Hebard's mansion and resided in it during his revival of the town and made frequent stays after. Ford liked to keep a personal eye on how everything connected with his industry was progressing.
Pequaming stayed prosperous and happy, a boon to the Ford family until the depression of the 1930s. Like so much of the rest of America, the town suffered. The mills ran part time but almost everyone was laid off. Again Pequaming fell ill.
With the outbreak of World War II, work started back up. This time it was done around the clock, six days a week. Even though the war gave it a boost of energy, Pequaming's illness never quite went away. It was terminal and this time there would be no cure.
The elimination of wood parts in automobiles after the war and the nearly depleted supply of hardwood was the death of Pequaming. The immaculate homes and lumber camps were subsequently abandoned. Pequaming passed away in 1948.
So next time you drive along the Keweenaw Bay, look and think about the ghost on the water and maybe you'll see it waiting for the occasional wayfarer that comes to contemplate and remember or imagine its once full and thriving life.