Longyear’s landlooking

Winter camp at Chapel Rock, March 1887 (L-R, John Longyear, Phelps, Frank and Pendill)


adapted from the MRHC’s 2013 Longyear Legacy exhibit

John Munro Longyear is one of Marquette’s more famous residents. Many people know the story of his grand mansion that overlooked Lake Superior from Arch Street. It was the “house that rode on a train” when he had it dismantled and moved to Brookline, Massachusetts.

When Longyear died in 1922, he was worth $7 million and owned or controlled over 1 million acres. But how did he earn his wealth? He worked as a landlooker, assessing, selecting, buying and selling land for others.

Instead of operating a mine, or selling valuable land, he usually leased the land. He pioneered the idea of the royalty lease. For instance a mining company paid a royalty to Longyear based on the production of the mine. Longyear also made use of multiple partners, many of them childhood friends or family. He was able to amass much of his large landholdings largely through sweat equity: he provided the initial labor of landlooking, and his partner provided the cash to purchase the land. He was often paid in land.

Longyear came to the Upper Peninsula in 1872 working as a landlooker for Henry Thurber in the Keweenaw Bay area. On his first excursion as a landlooker, he rode the train 62 miles from Marquette to L’Anse with three others: R.S. Thomas, another landlooker and two Native American packers who had been hired in Marquette. Most travel was done by foot with an 80-pound pack.

At L’Anse they followed an old trail for 15 miles which connected L’Anse with Lac Vieux Desert. Then for two weeks, they traveled off the trail following the section lines of the government survey of 1846.

“When I first went into the woods, I was very awkward, continually tripping and falling over logs and stones,” he reportedly wrote. “After the first year I found I had acquired the knack of traveling easily in the woods. My muscles were toughened to the work, and I had learned how to keep my reckoning and a sense of direction. A light weight and slender build (6-feet, 2-inches tall) were also in my favor, so that I was as rapid a traveler in the woods as anyone. My pacing, through practice, became very accurate, and I gained the confidence in my own work that is absolutely necessary in woods work–or any other work for that matter.

“It was difficult for me to keep Indian packers for more than a trip or two. They complained that I worked too hard and made them work too hard to keep up with me.

“There has always been a strong fascination for me in forest and woods life. During my five years of almost continuous work in the woods this fascination did not diminish, although the hard, grueling work, short rations, etc., often made me resolve to stop going to the woods. Yet I discovered that after twenty-four hours in town, I was eager to return to outdoor living, which tended to develop a man’s self-reliance, patience, and perseverance; in fact, all his physical and mental resources.

“You are obliged to do everything on your own. If you find yourself in an almost impassable windfall or cedar swamp, you must figure the way out by yourself. No one can help you. If you get caught far from human habitation with food running short, you must plod along, little food, or no food, step by step, until you reach a source of supply. Such experiences may be severely trying and even exhausting at the time, but you are glad afterwards that you had them. You gain a sense of strength and self-confidence that can be obtained in no other way.”

Clothing was quickly worn out on these woods excursions. After one trip, he approached a log cabin in the Keweenaw for directions. He overheard one of the group quip, “I bet he’s a tramp” because of his clothing, and all the faces peered at him with curiosity. In the early years when he was forced to live somewhat frugally, Longyear slept in his office when he was not in the woods or in Detroit with family. At one point, he only had 2 cents in his pocket.

Since he didn’t have another cent to post a letter, he couldn’t write home to ask for return fare.

In 1878, Longyear’s hard work paid off. It marked the end of his rough landlooking excursions. He was hired as the resident land agent for Frederick Ayer of Boston. The Ayer family held the controlling interests in the Lake Superior Ship Canal, Railroad and Iron Co. After the company had received 400,000 acres for completing the 2 mile canal connecting Portage Lake with Lake Superior, the company was sold to a new group including Ayer. Before he was hired, Longyear was asked to set up a system to handle the land. Longyear devoted several months to developing his system. After being hired, the first task was to decide which lands should be sold, and which to keep and pay taxes on (the land had been tax exempt for five years).

Ayer proposed to pay Longyear in sweat equity, paying him for half the acreage he worked. This 50-50 partnership provided lucrative for both men.

His first exam of the canal lands valued the 1.5 billion board-feet measure of white pine timber at $1 or $1.25 per 1,000 foot. In 1879, he estimated its value at $3 million.

Prior to 1880, white pine lands could be bought for less than 10 cents per measure. Prices for pine continued to rise, however. Even after the timber had been harvested, he again estimated the timber to be worth $3 million and after a few years, he valued the pine a third time at $3 million.

By then other types of timber had developed as well. He referred to this as a case of having one’s cake and eating it too.

Iron mines were also located on the land and a royalty was collected on the lease. Later the company was renamed the Keweenaw Association and then the Keweenaw Land Association. Longyear continued his work for the canal company throughout his life.