Sugarloaf Mountain: History within walking distance

Boy Scouts are pictured at the Bart King Memorial atop Sugarloaf Mountain in a photograph taken in 1921. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

marquette — When was the last time that you climbed Sugarloaf Mountain? As you gaze over the horizon, have you ever stopped to wonder about the thousands of people who have made that climb before you? The mountain has been a favorite hiking spot of residents and tourists for years.

Sugarloaf is located along County Road 550 about six miles northwest of Marquette and towers 1,079 feet above sea level. From the parking lot, it is a vertical climb of 315 feet to the top of the summit. The average walking time up the mountain is about 20 minutes. From the summit you can see the Huron Mountains on the northern horizon, Little Presque Isle and Wetmore’s Landing Beach directly below, Hogback Mountain rises above Harlow Lake in the west and Partridge Island, Presque Isle and the city of Marquette can be seen off to the right.

In 1821, Henry Schoolcraft recorded the Native American name as Mount Totosh, which according to Bishop Baraga’s dictionary means “source of the milk supply” or breast. Nearby Hogback Mountain was known as Cradle Top because the curving outline resembles the stiffened hoop protecting the child’s face in an Ojibwa cradle. Schoolcraft apparently suggested that Mount Totosh could become Schoolcraft Mountain. By 1846 it is listed as Mount Burt on the government survey maps, in honor or William Austin Burt who headed the government survey party.

During the second half of the 19th century, the Native American Madosh family lived near the base of the mountain. It was sometime during this period that the current name, Sugarloaf, appeared. We don’t know how the name was chosen, but the name derives from way sugar used to be sold. While we now buy granulated sugar, until the mid to late 19th century, sugar came in a loaf or cone form with small pieces broken off as needed.

One of the most recognizable features of Sugarloaf is the stone monument at the summit. The Bart King Memorial honors Bartlett King, a Boy Scout leader who lost his life in France during World War I. The twelve foot obelisk was built by the troop under the direction of Scoutmaster Perry Hatch and local stonemason Harmidas Dupras during the summer of 1921.

The tower required 4,000 pounds of sand, 1,600 pounds of cement, 1,500 white boulders and six tons of trap rock hauled up the mountain by hand, usually 10-12 trips a day. To supply water for the mortar, a tarpaulin was used to collect rainwater which was stored in a giant wooden pickle barrel. The monument was visible from the King family’s Marquette residence where Bart’s mother watched the progress from a second floor window. The original monument was replaced in 1950 due to the weather-wearing of the stones and people pulling the loose rocks out in order to heave them down the side of the mountain.

The original path created by the Boy Scouts is the steeper but shorter, hard path. After the County of Marquette acquired Sugarloaf around 1930-34, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) built the easier but longer path with steps in 1938. These steps have been repaired and rebuilt numerous times over the years.

In 1955 the Marquette Exchange Club took the mountain on as one of their projects. They helped with the perennial problems at the mountain – picking up litter and repairing the wooden stairways. In 1965 the group installed a new sign but by the following spring it was missing, the victim of vandals. The replacement sign was a 500 pound, 25 foot steel beam embedded in concrete. Eventually the club reached the point where they felt it was a waste of time to continue their work on the mountain because as fast as they repaired things, they were destroyed by vandals.

Over the years Sugarloaf has been touched by numerous fires, both wildfires and at least one which was deliberately set. A lightning strike in June 1988 started a fire that burned 37 acres. In May 1992, a 14-year-old boy trying to see if he could start a fire without matches managed to start a forest fire that consumed 34 acres on Sugarloaf. The fire damaged or destroyed 8 of the 17 staircases on the trail but luckily the $60,000 loss was covered by insurance. In August 2007 a vandal started a fire on one of the observation decks at the summit burning a small area before it was put out. Other blazes occurred in September 2003 and August 2011.

These days, Sugarloaf Mountain Natural Area is one of the most popular scenic overlooks on the central Upper Peninsula coastline. The next time you go for a hike up the mountain remember all the history that this mountain has seen and endured.