From mining to fat bikes

Historian views regional changes throughout the years

Robert Archibald gives a presentation on the evolution of regional history Saturday at the Women’s Federated Clubhouse in Marquette. The talk was part of the annual “Celebrate the UP!” event sponsored by the Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition. (Journal photo by Christie Bleck)

MARQUETTE — With the constant evolution of a region comes constant education.

That was at least one reason to listen to the presentation, “Who Do We Think We Are? A Tale of Mine Shafts, Caving Ground, Wilderness, Weed Wackers, Wolves and Fat Tire Bikes,” given by local historian Robert Archibald Saturday at the Federated Women’s Clubhouse during the day-long “Celebrate the UP!” event.

The Upper Peninsula Environmental Coalition sponsored the event.

Archibald, who teaches Upper Peninsula history, public history and Michigan history at Northern Michigan University, also has worked in museums and currently is researching and writing about U.P. environmental history.

UPEC board member Jon Saari said: “A public historian is one who thinks that the narrative of history, getting lots of people to participate in it, can be a unifying factor in the locality, help them deal with difficulties of the past, with dead ends, with catastrophes, with the sense of no future.”

Anders Ahlberg, a Marquette-based kayaking guide, goes out for a paddle from the west side of Presque Isle Park. It’s an example of the type of tourism at which the U.P. excels. (Journal file photo)

That could be said about Archibald who, Saari said, returned to the U.P. after being away for 40 years, “obviously” having deep feelings for the area.

Developing a sense of “place” was a major theme in his talk.

“We construct the future premised on our understanding of the past and the present,” Archibald said. “We can change the story. We can modify the narrative, and in doing so, make different decisions and define a different future.”

Over the last 100 years in the U.P., that narrative has evolved from one that justified “unbridled resource destruction” to one that now embraces significant protection for almost 47 percent of the total land area, he said.

“The immigrant generation of the late 19th and early 20th century came seeking economic opportunity,” Archibald said. “For most of them, life was precarious, hand-to-mouth and uncertain. They could appreciate nature and beauty. They had no control over what happened to their surroundings. Surviving their hardscrabble lives trumped all other concerns.”

a sandhill crane is one of the sights many residents would value, as would tourists. Tourism based on the Upper Peninsula’s natural beauty was a main theme in Archibald’s talk. (Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources)

His backyard when growing up, he said, was Lake Angeline, known then as “the pit” after being affected by mining.

“The hills around our house were devoid of big trees because they were all cut for use in the mines as fuel for charcoal kilns,” said Archibald, who noted new snowfall turned pink with red ore dust.

However, he acknowledged that people who reaped the most benefits from the business didn’t live with the consequences of their destructive decisions.

“There was not much pride of place here then, and we accepted the pink snow, the miner’s lung, the pockmarked land as the unavoidable cost of doing this sort of business,” Archibald said. “No mines, no mills, no jobs.”

However, there also was an “unspoken sense of loss.”

Archibald moved back to the U.P. in 2012.

He was struck by the transformation of Ishpeming from an “economically vibrant, compact mining community” to a “place with diminished population, vacant lots and a derelict downtown.”

Archibald said that within a short time, he found himself “surprised and delighted” by a new self-consciousness in the U.P.

“There is now a sense on the part of most residents that we are privileged to live in a place of extraordinary beauty with a relatively pristine environment,” Archibald said. “There are now expanded wilderness areas. Moose are back. Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is a national treasure. Wolves howl, eagles fly.”

He pointed out that for the most part, though, U.P. residents remain suspicious of government, protective of individual rights and insistent on property rights, and therefore are deeply conservative and constantly worry about jobs.

“When jobs and land ethics collide, the contest, as you know, is ferocious,” Archibald said.

The battle, though, goes beyond just government involvement.

Nonprofit organizations are part of the struggle, he said, and individuals are creating conservation easements on private property. There also are watchdogs and vocal opponents about misuse of the U.P.

Frequently driving on M-35 from his home to Palmer and then to Negaunee, he remains stunned about the land devastation resulting from the Tilden Mine and the now-closed Empire Mine.

“I think devastation on that scale, consuming over 100 square miles, will not happen again because changed societal attitudes and citizen vigilance will successfully oppose it,” Archibald said.

He believes environmental activism will ensure protected spaces in the U.P. stay that way, but so will tourism based on natural beauty.

Upon his return to the U.P., he noticed that even the “unthinkable” happened — winter had become a tourist season, with miles of trails for snowmobiles, skis and fat bikes. Also, word is out that fall colors in the U.P. are unsurpassed.

“This is our new narrative: pride in the natural splendor of our place and a conviction that ever-expanding tourism will replace the jobs lost as the old narrative of immigrants and industry become outdated,” Archibald said.

In fact, he mentioned that a 2014 study by Michigan State University of U.P. counties identified tourism as the industry with the greatest growth potential, stressing the U.P.’s beauty and sparse population.

That said, he noted places like Pictured Rocks can be “loved to death” by too many visitors.

“I don’t hear any public conversation in the Upper Peninsula about the adverse impacts of too much tourism,” Archibald said. “Every community in the Upper Peninsula is promoting tourism, and we need to discuss at what point the sheer volume of people overwhelms what is most attractive.”

Rich Robinson of Sault Ste. Marie asked how the conversation was being handled inter-generationally, with the older demographic not subject to the same kinds of economic pulls facing the young generation.

“How do we make the case?” Robinson said.

Archibald said the refrain of never having enough jobs in the U.P. has been going on for generations.

Another issue, he said, is the region’s aging population, with Northern Michigan University’s declining student population attributed to fewer people of college age living in the area.

However, he said many young people with ambition and energy are clear-headed about those issues and what they love about the U.P., but they need ways to be “plugged in” about them.

“We need to be involved in a broad public conversation about what we value most about the Upper Peninsula and those things that we wish we could overcome,” Archibald said. “That’s how we go about planning a better future for all of us, and especially — and it’s always about the children, isn’t it? — it’s about the next generation and about the kind of place we leave for that.”

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is