Editor's Note: This article is reprinted from the September 2011 issue of the Delta Historian.
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ESCANABA - Over the last year or so there has been considerable interest in some illegal commercial fishing in the Bays de Noc. It occurred to me that some of our members might be curious about what fishing was like in the golden era of commercial fishing in this area. As it happens, I have been doing a bit of research on that subject in relation to a history of early Escanaba I am working on, and for what it is worth, here is what I have found out.
In the mid-1870s there was one local firm that was especially active in the wholesale marketing of fish in Escanaba. That was Schiller and Winegar. In 1876, this firm was shipping out 1,900 to 2,000 pounds of fish daily which in turn bought from a number of local fishermen. The fishermen themselves were the people who went out on the lake every day they could, mostly using seaworthy mackinaw boats, to get to their fishing grounds to drop their nets. Some fishermen used pound nets close to shore. Pound nets were more expensive than gill nets, though, and so most fishermen fished offshore using gill nets.
Some of the local fishermen in the 1870s and 1880s included the Mulhegen brothers who used gill nets and had a tug. Then there were Captain John Lutz and Hiram Wellman who fished below Ford River and ran 300 gill nets. They used mackinaw boats in their business. Ole Gunderson was another local fisherman. He ran pound nets on the east side of Little Bay de Noc using Mackinaw boats and sold his catch in Escanaba. John Coffey ran 250 gill nets with mackinaws and lived in and sold his catch in Escanaba. Yet another was Job Dodge who ran 100 gill nets using a mackinaw.
By 1880s this local network of fishermen and their wholesaler, which was Winegar and Burns by 1882, was about to be transformed by the arrival of the largest wholesaler in fish that the Great Lakes has ever seen. That was the Chicago firm of A. Booth. In the early 1880s it set about making Escanaba the center of its northern Lake Michigan business. By 1881, Booth had 30 or more men working along with its local representative Winegar and Burns, in Escanaba. A. Booth was running 11 pound nets and 900 gill nets in local waters, and the firm had a fleet of four tugboats coordinating the work and collecting the catch of the fishermen. One of these boats, the A. Booth, made daily trips to Sac Bay on the Garden Peninsula and then on to Summer Island, St. Martin's Island and Washington Island in northern Green Bay. Two of the tugs, the William Maxwell and the Hahn, concentrated mostly on the gill net operations of the Booth operatives themselves, and the fourth tug, the Emily, kept busy attending the catch of the company's pound nets.
To handle all of the fish being caught and brought to Escanaba, the Booth Company in 1881 began building in Escanaba the largest fish freezing plant the nation had ever seen. It would have the capacity of storing 400 tons of fish in the plant which would be 30 feet wide, 132 feet long and three stories high.
Thanks to this freezing plant Booth could sell frozen fish rather than salted fish which greatly increased the demand for this product. By 1883, Booth was shipping thousands of pounds daily to Chicago using two company steamers.
Here in Escanaba the company went so far as to buy a local hotel, the City Hotel, which it used as a home for its employees.
Unfortunately, Booth's extensive development of the fishing business in these local waters was more than the population of fish could take. From over 2 million pounds of whitefish, lake trout, dory, pickerel (known today, I think as walleye) and sturgeon shipped to Chicago annually in the early 1880s, the total catch was down to about 500,000 pounds annually by 1890. This was not enough for Booth, and it closed down its freezing plant and packing operation and left the field to B.D. Winegar.
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Charles Lindquist is the president of the Delta County Historical Society.