William Washington Gaines and Gaines Rock

William Washington Gaines is pictured. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

For some ex-slaves, the remoteness of the Upper Peninsula represented freedom and the chance for a new life. In the days before railways simplified overland travel, most people came here by ship, and maritime transport was relatively slow and difficult. Bounty hunters who kidnapped suspected runaway slaves in northern states didn’t come up this far.

Before the Civil War, the Upper Peninsula was the northern frontier of the United States. As is often the case in frontier areas, social norms were more relaxed than in America’s densely settled regions. For ex-slaves, this meant a chance to achieve relative equality with their neighbors. Our northern frontier was also rich in economic opportunities. Mineral booms created jobs. The copper in the Keweenaw and the iron in the Marquette Range drew ambitious workers from all backgrounds.

Consider the case of William Washington Gaines (1823-1903). Born to an aristocratic ship builder in Virginia named Pitt Gaines and his slave named Nancy Wheatley, William Gaines was given his freedom by his father when he reached adulthood. William then purchased the freedom of the woman he loved, Mary. The couple married and left behind their old life as slaves to move to the Upper Peninsula.

William and Mary Gaines first came to the Keweenaw. He found work in the copper pit mines. This form of mining was particularly dangerous, with cave-ins, dust, and explosions posing substantial risks to workers. William was injured by falling ore and was unable to continue working in the copper mining industry.

In 1855, the Gaines family moved to Marquette. William worked as a coachman and groundskeeper for Herman Ely, an early Marquette County businessman who lived in a stately home on Lake Superior near Whetstone Brook.

The Gaines family first lived in an attic room in the Ely house. They then built their own home at a nearby granite promontory on the shore of Superior we now call Gaines Rock. They constructed a comfortable house on the west side of the rock. Their new home boasted proximity to sand beaches, a creek teeming with trout, and views of the quickly developing Marquette Harbor to the north.

William Gaines was known throughout Marquette as an excellent gardener. As well as working for the Ely family, he was employed as a landscaper for Amos Harlow. There is some evidence suggesting that William Gaines played a substantial role in constructing Harlow’s Wooden Man. Gaines also did quite a bit of landscaping at Park Cemetery, where he was later buried. The William Gaines family was active in the Marquette Methodist Church.

His descendants remembered William Gaines as a kind man and popular figure in early Marquette. They recalled that William carried a bag of candy in one pocket and pennies in the other, which he would hand out to the delight of neighborhood children.

William and Mary Gaines’ son Charles (1867-1917) also raised his family in the house on Gaines Rock. During his lifetime, the Gaines home bore the address 721 Lake Street. Charles Gaines worked as a barber and as a drayman, hauling freight around town in a wagon. His ten children attended the Fisher Street School in south Marquette. Charles ran for City Commission in 1914. Although he lost to incumbent Jacob Werner, Charles impressed the community with his better than expected performance in this local election.

When Charles Gaines died in 1917, his widow Cassie moved with their 10 children, seeking broader economic opportunities. Though they moved away from the Upper Peninsula, the Gaines family was an important presence in Marquette for more than 60 years. Remember their contributions to early Marquette culture when you’re near Gaines Rock.


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