Truckey talks history of U.P. timber towns at Bonifas

ESCANABA – The William Bonifas Fine Arts Center in Escanaba was filled with people Tuesday who came to hear about the history of timber towns in the Upper Peninsula – including those towns that no longer exist.

The program, “Logging Boom Towns: Boom & Bust” was the third of a six-part Brown Bag Lunch Series of presentations called “Selling Nahma,” which are supported by a grant from the Michigan Humanities Council. For Tuesday’s presentation, Daniel Truckey, director of the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University presented an historical overview of logging settlements and towns throughout the Upper Peninsula.

“After I started working on this program I started thinking ‘Logging town boom and bust and back again,’ because everything always comes full circle wherever you go, and in the U.P. we do have a (full) circle with the logging industry,” said Truckey of the presentation.

In the early 1800s the U.P. had what seemed like an over-abundance of timber for harvesting. Trees were plentiful and much larger than the timber harvested today.

“The truth is when these were cut down they couldn’t imagine a time when you couldn’t cut down trees like this,” said Truckey displaying an image of logs multiple feet in diameter and stacked stories high on a horse drawn sleigh. “Because they couldn’t imagine that we would need that much lumber at the time.

In the beginning of U.P. logging the timber industry and the mining industry were linked. Timber was used not only to create the towns that miners lived in, but also for surface operations, to fuel the fires that smelted iron ore, and to build the tunnels that miners worked in every day.

“It often is said that much of the forest in the U.P. is still underground,” said Truckey.

But by the later part of the 19th century the mining industry required less timber as the technology for processing and shipping ore changed. While many of the booming timber towns shrank or diversified their economies others completely disappeared.

Forestville, located just a few miles outside of Marquette on the Dead River, was one such town that simply faded away into the forest after it became more cost effective to ship ore to Chicago and other cities for processing. In 1854, Forestville boasted 200 people, a school, a store, a sawmill, and charcoal kilns to smelt iron. By the end of the 1870s the kilns were no longer in service and the sawmill closed down in the 1880s.

Today there are no buildings standing at the former site of Forestville. In fact, there is little to indicate Forestville ever existed, even though the area where it once stood is frequented by hikers, canoers, and mountain bikers who simply know the recreation area as the “Forestville Basin.”

“Most people have no idea there was this town of 200 people up here. It’s just been completely consumed by the woods,” said Truckey.

While the mining industry helped create the first timber towns in the U.P., the need for lumber to build cities in the Midwest sustained the forest industry beyond the needs of mining operations.

Timber towns harvesting white pine for building started forming in the Lower Peninsula in the 1800s, but as the forests were cleared, newer settlements were constructed farther north to keep up with demand. Eventually that led to the creation of timber towns in the U.P., with the first towns focused on this type of logging being located near the southern U.P. shoreline.

The first sawmill created in Menominee was opened in 1832. Escanaba followed in 1852, and Ontonagon opened its sawmill in 1852. Using the natural rivers – and the newly opened Soo Locks – as a transportation system for the harvested logs, these locations allowed for timber to not only be processed in a central location, but easily shipped to other parts of the country via the Great Lakes.

Despite events like the Great Chicago Fire fueling a need for wood, the forests themselves eventually started to become depleted. Some communities like Escanaba and Marquette diversified their economies and survived the reduction in timber, but others like Nahma failed to make the adjustment.

“The nature of Nahma being a company town, to the point where they actually just sold the town, kind of tells you what the intention was, that there was not an intention of diversifying,” said Truckey, adding that while Nahma still exists, the lack of diversification was one of the reasons the town did not continue to grow like other logging towns following the reduction in timber.

By 1900 most of the white pine stands had been completely logged off, especially along U.P. riverways. However, railroads were now capable of reaching into the heart of the U.P. to collect the hardwood timber consumers craved.

The railroad led to the creation of more small towns that existed purely to support logging operations. Some of these outposts had no other access than by the railroad, and as resources dwindled, many became ghost towns.

Because much of the U.P. is uncultivable, farming never took hold in the land that was previously occupied by timber stands. it took time, but the forest eventually recovered, allowing modern loggers to harvest from a second growth of timber for paper pulp and other forest products.

“It’s still a big part of the U.P.’s economy. The boom and bust mentality has been replaced with a more sustainable forest management in communities around the U.P.,” said Truckey. “Hopefully that’s what will continue so that we can continue to have a thriving forest industry, and also that we can protect those resources that we want to protect.”

The Brown Bag Lunch Series “Selling Nahma” will continue each Tuesday at noon through Aug. 5. Admission is free and guests are encouraged to bring a lunch. A full list of weekly topics is available on the William Bonifas Fine Arts Center website at www.bonifasarts.org.