Trail marker trees provide path through U.P. forests

Susan Cox and her canine companion are dwarfed by the trail marker tree that stands alongside the Cox driveway. (Photo courtesy of John Cox)

When John and Susan Cox bought waterfront property near the northern Marquette County hamlet of Buckroe 11 years ago, there was a large tree with a double bend in the trunk at the end of the driveway. In 2014, a neighbor attended a Marquette Regional History Center program on trail marker trees. Afterward, she told Susan Cox that the bent tree was probably a trail marker. Susan studied a reference book. Among the illustrations, she found one tree in particular that looked amazingly similar to hers. She sent photographs and measurements to the reference book author, asking for his opinion, but got no response as the author was ill.

After our first trail marker tree article was published, Susan called to report her tree. When I visited the site a few days later, I found a massive old sugar maple, 25 inches in diameter, having the classic trail marker shape. In addition to its shape and age, this tree has another characteristic supporting the premise that it was shaped by human hands rather than random natural forces. A trail passing through this place would logically be parallel to the nearby north/south shoreline of Lake Superior. A compass reading confirms what our eyes tell us. The Cox tree points south.

Richie Reader and his wife live in Chocolay Township on land homesteaded by Reader’s great, great grandfather, during the Civil War. A few weeks ago, Reader came to our house. He told me, “I never heard of trail marker trees until I read your article in the paper, but I think I’ve got one.”

He was right. He does have one.

As far back as Reader can remember, a peculiar-looking tree in his sugar maple forest has been used as a landmark. Because of its shape, it acquired a nickname. Family and friends refer to it as “The Chair.”

Richie Reader stands by a tree that has been on family land in Chocolay Township for four generations, but was only recently recognized as a trail marker. (Photo courtesy of Bill Van Kosky)

When originally shaped, this trail marker had two upright trunks; the existing one at the end of the horizontal trunk, and another one in the center, behind where Reader stands in the photograph. About twenty years ago, Reader recalls, “the second top broke off during a big blow.”

Instead of snapping off cleanly, the falling upright trunk pulled a big slab out of the horizontal trunk. Decay has set in all around this wound. Every strong wind is a mortal threat to this decrepit old Indian trail marker tree.

I took photographs of the tree, and the downed trunk, where it lies rotting on the ground next to the tree, but so far as Reader knows, no one ever photographed the tree before the second vertical trunk broke off. Two-trunk trail markers are relatively rare but have been found in many regions of the United States. They conveyed some message beyond simply marking a trail, but we don’t know what it was.

When we undertook this Marquette County trail marker tree project, we were aware of only the Van Kosky tree in Chocolay Township, and the Presque Isle Dinosaur Tree. Our objective was to locate, describe, measure and photograph as many others as we could. Thanks to fourteen readers who reported potential trail markers, we now know of five in the county. Several other trees were eliminated from consideration, and two “possibles” were recorded. All notes, reports and photographs relating to this project will be kept in the Longyear Research Library at the Marquette Area Regional History Center.

Three of the five Marquette County trail marker trees are in advanced stages of decay, and are susceptible to collapse at any time. We need to locate more of these historic bent trees, while they are still standing.

The dinosaur tree is pictured, so named because of its shape. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

So, to all landowners, campers, hikers, hunters, timber cruisers, loggers and anyone else who spends time in the woods, keep looking for large old trees with unnatural shapes. Please continue to report any “possibles” to the Marquette Area Regional History Center. If new trail marker trees are found, we will report them here on the Mining Journal Superior History page.


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