Spear family shaped harbor history

The Spear Coal Dock is seen in a photo from the 1960s-70s. The site was developed into the Ellwood A. Mattson Lower Harbor Park. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

MARQUETTE — Lake Superior defines Marquette. Our city began as a safe harbor on the south shore of the largest of the Great Lakes. Iron Bay, as our port came to be known, shipped hundreds of millions of tons of iron ore to a rapidly industrializing America.

One family arguably did more than any other to shape the history of Marquette Harbor. The Spears controlled a sizable share of the incoming maritime trade for over a century.

Brothers Franklin Bennett Spear (1842-1924) and John Wilder Spear (1847-1935) arrived in Marquette May 8, 1864. They grew up in Hamilton, New York, and came to the Upper Peninsula via Detroit. The young men sought their fortunes in the newly booming Marquette Iron Range. They gained employment with Hiram Burt of the Burt Brothers company, handler of mercantile goods in Marquette Harbor.

Soon after arriving in Marquette in 1864, the Spear brothers showed entrepreneurial aptitude. F.B. Spear recalls bringing 1,300 pounds of anthracite coal to Marquette, the first known instance of the substance being brought to our harbor.

With funding from their father, a Colgate University educator, the Spear brothers bought out the Burt Brothers concern in the dockside business. The two Spears brothers then owned equal shares in a thriving lakeside mercantile enterprise.

The Great Fire that swept through Marquette June 11, 1868 destroyed scores of businesses in the city’s downtown. It also devastated the harbor. Fortunately for the Spear brothers, they owned the only engine in town and managed to pump enough water to quench the flames that threatened their dock. No other commercial dock survived.

In the aftermath of the fire, as Marquette rebuilt with funds from the ongoing iron boom, the Spear brothers prospered. They each made $15,000 in the year after the fire, a considerable profit for the time.

J.W. Spear chose to start his own business and became a successful grocer. F.B. Spear remained in the mercantile shipping trade. In 1869 he headed the company called F.B. Spear and Co.

The firm was one of Marquette’s largest harborside businesses, trading in coal, wood, grain, and building supplies. F.B. Spear purchased the tugboat J.C. Morse, which plied the Marquette coastline for years, transporting trade goods, logs, and quarried stones.

F.B. Spear married Sarah Stone Kennedy (1848-1922) in 1871. Sons Franklin Bennett Spear Jr. (1872-1949) and Philip Bennett Spear (1874-1949) joined their father in the family trade when they came of age. In 1898 the successful firm was doing business as F.B. Spear & Sons. Philip Spear’s sons Philip Bennett Spear Jr. (1900-1981) and George Northrup Spear (1902-1974) carried the company into the next generation.

By the 1930s, the company was one of the main fuel suppliers in the county. A 1938 estimate stated that F.B. Spear & Sons had handled over 1,750,000 tons of coal and 100,000 cords of wood.

Running the family business required substantial attention to detail and a great output of labor. F.B. Spear Jr.’s daughter, Mary Reeve Spear (1903-1991) remembered that her father had an observation platform built at their home at 230 East Ridge Street, so he could watch the docks with binoculars. She also recalled how much work went into delivering heating coal throughout the town by horse-drawn wagons.

The business also required keeping up with the latest developments in dock engineering. The Spears embraced innovation. From 1900 to 1929 the Spears Coal Dock operated just off Main Street. In 1929, the company built a state-of-the-art coal dock at the former Grace Furnace site at what is now Mattson Park.

This coal dock, which cost $125,000 to build, had a six-ton bucket and a capacity of 4,000 tons per day. The Spears Coal Dock built in 1929 was in operation well into the 1970s.

To learn more about the people, docks, and ships that made Marquette Harbor a bustling commercial port, come to the Marquette Regional History Center’s unforgettable evening at Kaufman Auditorium Jan. 24 at 7 p.m.. Jim Koski and Jack Deo are collaborating to create a presentation that will delight and inform lovers of maritime history. Come witness rare historical photographs and newly digitized archival film footage of the harbor shown on the big screen. Learn the nearly forgotten true story of our harbor.

Buy your tickets now or hear about it later. Call 906-226-3571, visit the museum at 145 W. Spring St., Marquette, or go to MarquetteHistory.org for more information.


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