FROZEN IN PLACE: Ice blockades of Marquette’s harbors

Schooner Susey Chipman of Milwaukee, June 8, 1873.
A group of boats stuck in the ice blockade June 9, 1917 in a photo taken from the walkway to the foghorn on Lighthouse Point.

Winter seems to be keeping an unusually long hold on the Upper Peninsula this year. In late March, both the Kaye E. Barker and the James L. Oberstar were stuck in the ice off Marquette. Now strong winds and high waves from last week’s storm have compressed the remaining ice cover between Marquette and Whitefish Bay. The Kaye E. Barker became stuck again in this compressed ice off Marquette last Wednesday, with the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw called in to break the ice and assist the Barker on Thursday. But this is hardly the first time this has happened. In past years, the opening of navigation has been delayed due to ice blockades in the harbor, most notably in 1873, 1884 and 1917.

After several days watching boats visible in the ice some miles from shore, on May 17, 1873 The Mining Journal reported that winds had driven great quantities of ice into Marquette’s harbor “which now presents quite a wintry appearance with no water visible.” Then on May 31, “The ice sailed majestically out of our harbor, last Tuesday [May 27], before a brisk southwest wind, but on Wednesday it was wafted majestically back again.” The ice lasted until mid-June.

In 1884, the wind blew the ice out of the harbor on April 29 and the tug P. L. Johnson reached Marquette, opening navigation for the year. The following day the wind shifted and blew the ice right back into the harbor, preventing all boats from entering or leaving the harbor. Even a special effort by several of the larger boats to break through failed. It wasn’t until June 4 they were able to resume shipping and some ice remained as late as July 3.

In late April 1917, a report in The Mining Journal predicted that navigation would open within the week but this prediction proved overly optimistic. Reports throughout the month of May detail a total of 15 ships getting stuck in the ice, some stuck for up to two weeks, including some ships going out to help free the stranded boats and getting stuck themselves.

At least three of the boats, the Munising, the Theora and the Columbia, ran short of food, with their crews desperate enough to cross the ice to shore in search of supplies. As news of the ice blockade spread, the mayor received several telegrams suggesting using airplanes to take food to the ships. But at that time “airplanes [were] yet a novelty to Marquette.” On June 2, there was hope that the ice was thinning and beginning to break up, but on June 9 there were five more ships stuck in the ice. As World War I took over the news, the paper failed to note the end of the ice blockade but shipping appears to have returned to normal in late June.