Marquette’s black shore: Part one

Marquette Harbor, shown above in 1862, has embraced both commerce and industry. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

From a heavenly perspective, the harbor on Marquette Bay is shaped like a slightly obtuse angle; a cosmic protractor would measure it at about 110 degrees. In the past the arms of the harbor have embraced both commerce and industry. And yet there is a basic difference between the two sides. For simplicity’s sake, if history could be color coded, we might think of the west shore as red and the north shore as black. In its heyday, during the shipping season, the west side pulsed with energy around the clock, its atmosphere reverberating with the sounds of chuffing engines, groaning timbers, clanging metal, all cloaked within a red haze. While the north side had its fierce furnace fires and torturing band saw sounds, all within drifting sooty clouds. But what was specifically notable about the north shore was the wider variety of enterprises which sprang up there; there to weather, as best they could, nature’s angry elements, economics, and fire.

In 1854, in anticipation of the completion of the Iron Mountain Railway (which was mule-powered) and the Iron Mountain Railroad (which was steam powered) then cutting their ways through the forest, the Sharon and Cleveland Iron Companies constructed an L-shaped dock/breakwater complex on the north shore.

Things seemed to be going well, but, in early October, The Lake Superior Journal reported,

“…the dock which the Sharon Iron Company has been constructing this past season at great expense is entirely destroyed. This was a line of crib work, stretching from Indian Point into Marquette Bay, a distance of about five hundred feet, with a line of the same kind of work, extending at right angles with it westerly several hundred feet and partially filled with stone. The line of crib work extending southward into the Bay was intended for a breakwater against north-east storms. Yesterday, however, two hours after the gale set in it was destroyed. The sea broke against it bodily tearing it to pieces. In some instances the cribs were displaced and loose stone which was in them dropped out. They floated off and were torn to pieces. The whole Bay for miles southward was covered with wreckage of floating timber. This morning not a vestige of the dock remained and the shore for three miles is covered with wreckage.”

Undaunted, the companies began work on a new ore dock the following spring. It was a long one, roughly following the route of the road on the lakeside of Mattson Park. At this time the space to the north, to Lakeshore Boulevard. was still under water. As before, the far end of the dock was intersected by a company built breakwater. A trestle was raised atop the dock, and, during the Civil War, pockets and chutes added. The whole was known as the Jackson Dock, after the mine it served. The railroad approach to the dock, now memorialized by the street named the Jackson Cut and the Saving Bank Building’s triangular shape, ran under a bridge on Front Street.

The Marquette Waterworks Building, shown above, is the current home of the Marquette Maritime Museum. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

The Jackson was one of three ore docks destroyed by the Great Fire of 1868. However, by that time, it was no longer in use, the company shipping entirely out of Escanaba.

One of the immediate results of this holocaust was the acknowledgement of the need for city-wide firefighting capability. And, in 1869, the Board of Fire and Water Commissioners finally got a bond passed to build a municipal waterworks. This was a stone structure constructed just inside, and at the foot of, the new wooden U.S. Breakwater. An intake pipe was laid out into the harbor, and a steam engine was used to pump the water up and out into the spider web network of water lines emanating from the building.

But the harbor was an outlet for much of the city’s waste, and the water within it not always the cleanest; so, in 1877, it was decided to run the intake pipe through the breakwater and out into the Lake. While advanced some distance offshore, still, the intake itself lay in relatively shallow water. This caused problems.

In the winter Anchor Ice, ice formed below the surface of the water and clinging to the bottom, often blocked the pipe’s screen, shutting off the intake. This challenge was only solved years later, when the pipe was advanced into deeper water. The cribs that supported this pipe can still be seen today, in the water near the shore, on the outside of the breakwater.

Ironic as it may seem, in the summer of 1889 the waterworks actually caught fire. Interestingly, it was not the first time that had happened: “The building is old and decrepit and not particular credit to this growing and beautiful city… Only last week the roof caught fire from the dilapidated old smoke stack.”

This time, the blaze began in the interior. The Fire Department responded quickly, and so did the crew from the USS Michigan, which lay at anchor near the breakwater. While the heavy machinery and boiler were saved, the interior was gutted, and the roof destroyed. It was time to rebuild.

The next year, the new waterworks, now the Marquette Maritime Museum, was constructed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Cebalo is a MRHCmember, volunteer and historical writer.