History conference held at MTU

HOUGHTON – Phil Smith has been to nine consecutive Upper Peninsula History Conferences, and he learns something new at each one.

The event this year took place Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Michigan Technological University Memorial Union Building, and Smith, who is from downstate Farmington, but has a residence in Aura, said it’s a well-run event.

“It’s a great venue to get information about the (Upper Peninsula),” he said.

Smith said he especially enjoys the tours which take place during the conference.

“To see the place we’ve been talking about is very, very interesting,” he said.

The presenters for each of the sessions are very knowledgeable, also, Smith said.

The Upper Peninsula History Conference is an annual event of the Lansing-based Historical Society of Michigan, and Executive Director Larry Wagenaar, said this was the 64th year for the conference, which rotates host communities.

As of 12:30 p.m. Saturday, more than 220 people had registered to attend the event, which Wagenaar said was a record.

Wagenaar said the topics for each of the conferences are often chosen by what is happening locally, and since this year is the centennial of the 1913-14 copper strike, it was decided to use that period, although not all sessions were just about the strike.

Other topics included mining in general, the presence of Chinese people in the Copper Country, and Ojibwa fishing practices.

The plan to come to Houghton for the conference went back several years, Wagenaar said.

“We earmarked five years ago that we wanted to come to Houghton,” he said.

Although the presenters are educators or specialists on a particular topic, Wagenaar said the people attending it are “educated lay people” who have a “passionate interest in history.”

The keynote presentation given during the lunch break was Shipwrecks of Lake Superior by Mark Rowe of Calumet.

Rowe is a trustee of the Keweenaw County Historical Society and a diver, who has been photographing shipwrecks for many years.

Deciding when in the past to start looking into shipwrecks in Lake Superior wasn’t very difficult, Rowe said.

“It probably starts with Douglass Houghton,” he said.

The Michigan state geologist found there was enough copper in the Keweenaw to make commercial mining feasible, and that started an influx of mine operators and businesses related to the support of the industry.

“We had a number of shipwrecks (related to the industry),” Rowe said.

Because the area had such heavy ship traffic, Rowe said many lighthouses were erected around the peninsula, and some still stand, including one not so well known on Isle Royale.

“Many people don’t know it’s there,” he said.

Rowe talked about some of the more famous shipwrecks of the 19th and early 20th centuries, including the City of Bangor, which was carrying a load of Chrysler automobiles when it went aground near Copper Harbor. After Lake Superior froze, the cars were taken off the ship.

“They made a road,” he said. “The cars were driven off the ice.”

Another well-known shipwreck was the coal-fired Langham, which went down in 1910 after catching fire.

“The steamer supposedly burned to the waterline,” he said. “All the cargo of coal is still on it.”

The local planning committee for the 2013 Upper Peninsula History Conference were Erik Nordberg, former archivist for the Tech Archives and current Michigan Humanities Council executive director, Wagenaar, Mary Ann Smith of the HSM, Trina Barrette of the Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce, Glenda Bierman, manager of the Quincy Mine Hoist Association, Sean Gohman from Tech, Scott MacInnes, Houghton city manager, Jane Nordberg, former managing editor of the Daily Mining Gazette, Dave Pulse of the Houghton County Historical Society, Scott See, Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission executive director, and Ann Vollrath city of Houghton clerk and treasurer.

Wagenaar said the Upper Peninsula History Conference is one of three major conferences the HSM conducts each year. Members of the organization made certain 64 years ago the U.P. was covered by a conference for a simple reason.

“It’s part of Michigan,” he said.