Capt. Bendry was quite a fellow

This is a sketch of Capt. James Bendry from the L’Anse Sentinel. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

James “Captain Jim” Bendry was born in Wiltshire, England in June 1822 but he didn’t stay there long. At just 12 years old he signed on as a cabin boy on a merchant ship that sailed in the Mediterranean. Over the years he also worked on Atlantic routes between Liverpool, New Orleans, the West Indies and Africa before shifting to the Great Lakes.

In 1845, he helped bring the ship Independence around the rapids at Sault Ste. Marie on wooden rollers where it became the first steam vessel to sail on Lake Superior. (The Soo Locks didn’t open until 1855.) Afterward he served as the wheelsman on the ship’s only voyage that fall before returning to Sault Ste. Marie for the winter.

In late November 1846 Bendry married Charlotte Contoui, a half Chippewa woman. Four years later in the fall of 1850, the Bendrys and their two young children were travelling on Lake Superior in their small schooner, the Siskowit, when an autumn gale forced them to take shelter in what is now Keweenaw Bay.

By morning ice had formed around the ship, stranding them. They built a cabin on the shore and spent the winter there, making them the first settlers at what is now Baraga. Although it is not mentioned in our records, it is likely that they had contact with and possibly help from the local Ojibwa community during the winter.

When they returned to Sault Ste. Marie in the spring, Bendry registered his claim to the land with the U.S. Land Office. James and Charlotte resided in Baraga for the rest of their lives, raising eleven children there. Over the years James operated a number of business ventures including a steam tug, several lumber mills and a brickyard as well as holding a number of government positions including postmaster and township supervisor.

One of James’ business ventures in the years prior to the completion of the Portage canal involved hauling freight from Portage Entry to the copper mines on Portage Lake using a tug towing flat-bottomed scows. At times business was so busy that Captain Bendry would remain at the wheel continuously for 36 or even 48 hours at a time, with only catnaps at intervals when the piloting was not very difficult. There was a rumor that he had his boat so well trained to the sinuous course of the Portage river that she would steer herself when Bendry wanted a nap, all while towing a scow and never touching a bank or shoal.

In 1871, Captain Bendry platted the village of L’Anse along with S. L. M. Smith and Charles H. Palmer. At the time, Bendry was the proprietor of a steam tug, a lumber mill and a brickyard. Several hundred people flocked to this boom town, causing a housing shortage. To combat the shortage Bendry moved a number of houses and three hotel buildings to L’Anse by boat from Torch Lake, including the Lake Linden Hotel and the Lloyd House.

After one of the hotels was loaded onto the scow, Captain Bendry decided to make the trip at night as the lake was calmer. But he must have had a flair for the dramatic. To avoid collision and possibly to advertise the moving job, he had lighted lamps placed in each window of the building as well as having his family occupy several of the rooms. The scene was remarkable enough that it was talked about for many years afterward.

The Bendrys remained respected members of the community until their deaths, Charlotte in May 1892 and James in November 1894; they were survived by six of their eleven children. The L’Anse Sentinel newspaper eulogized Bendry:

“Although below the average stature, Mr. Bendry was a man of iron constitution and indomitable will. Although an active man and a money maker, he was thoroughly unselfish, didn’t accumulate wealth in accordance with his opportunities; endowed with an honest heart and generous impulses he could not conceive a fellow man essentially dishonest- hence his trusted employees sometimes robbed him of thousands of dollars during the days of his prosperity. During the twenty years the writer has known Capt. Bendry he has never heard him speak a disrespectable word of any woman nor evil of any man. Within the rough exterior we once knew as Capt. Bendry there beat a noble heart. Fearless of any danger, a child could command him; hardened to the roughest of life’s unwelcome scenes the cry of pity never fell upon his ears unheeded; although pursued by adversity, the selfish and greedy, his purse was always open to church and charity. Peace to his ashes.”


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