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Superior History: Learn about George Shiras III

George Shiras III
An albino porcupine photographed by George Shiras III. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

By Adam Berger

Marquette Regional

History Center

Special to the Journal

MARQUETTE — In 1849, a group of pioneering businessmen established the Marquette Iron Company near the mouth of the Carp River on Lake Superior.

They came to the central Upper Peninsula to make money exploiting rich iron deposits in the area that became known as Negaunee and Ishpeming. Their work establishing a local iron industry contributed to the settlement of Marquette County.

The same summer, a Pittsburgh-based attorney named George Shiras I (1805-1893) traveled along the shore of Lake Superior. He was an avid fisherman, enamored with the quality of the local trout streams, and particularly interested in catching coaster brook trout found in this area. This angler has sometimes been called Marquette’s first tourist. Indeed, he came here not for financial gain, but to enjoy the natural beauty of the central Upper Peninsula.

George Shiras I was impressed with the small settlement on the northern frontier. The Shiras family returned in summers, coming here to hunt, fish, and enjoy adventures in the U.P. wilderness.

Following the tradition started by his grandfather, George Shiras III (1859-1942) grew up recreating in the woods of the Upper Peninsula. At the age of 12, he was taken by a Native American guide to a lake approximately 20 miles east of Marquette, near Deerton, in what is now Alger County. Young George Shiras III named Laughing Whitefish Lake after the small river that flowed from it into Superior.

George Shiras III returned to Laughing Whitefish Lake each summer. He met and fell in love with Frances White (1862-1938), daughter of Marquette pioneer Peter White (1830-1908), whose family also had a camp on the lake.

George Shiras III graduated from Cornell in 1881, received a law degree from Yale in 1883, and became a practicing attorney in Pittsburgh. He married Frances White on October 31, 1885 in Marquette.

Shiras III enjoyed a successful political career. He served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1889 and 1890, then in the United States House of Representatives in 1903 to 1905. Shiras III advocated for wilderness preservation. He contributed to establishing the Olympic National Monument in Washington and the Petrified National Monument in Arizona. George Shiras III also helped to draft the text that became the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, now considered one of the most significant wildlife protection laws in the world.

Sometime around 1889, George Shiras III began to experiment with wildlife photography. In partnership with Norwegian-born machinist John Hammer (1858-1957), he developed an early form of flash photography, capturing images of wildlife in natural settings at night. Shiras III is often credited with pioneering the field of nocturnal wildlife photography.

He was also instrumental in establishing National Geographic as an internationally renowned publication. Images of wildlife he published in National Geographic in 1906 brought worldwide attention to the magazine. Shiras III served as a life trustee of the esteemed publication for 30 years beginning in 1911.

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) and George Shiras III developed a friendship based on their mutual love of wilderness. When Roosevelt came to Marquette in May 1913 to settle a libel lawsuit against the Ishpeming Iron Ore newspaper, he stayed with the Shiras family at 460 E. Ridge St.

To learn more about the fascinating life of George Shiras III, come to the Marquette Regional History Center at 145 W. Spring St. at 6:30 tonight.

Northern Michigan University professor James McCommons will be discussing his biography titled “Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography.”

The author will be available to sign copies of this beautiful book after the presentation.

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