ESCANABA - This year Escanaba will be celebrating its 150th birthday. With that in mind I have been working on a new book that tells the story of Escanaba's early years in the 1860s, 1870s and early 1880s. This is the first new book to be written about Escanaba's early history in the last 50 years.
There are at least three things about Escanaba in its pioneer years that made it a special place. First and foremost, there was the commercial waterfront. This waterfront was dominated by its great ore docks. From the beginning these ore docks were the largest in the world. To keep them operating efficiently the company that built and operated them, the dynamic Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, constructed engineering shops and a large railroad yard that rivaled the docks as state-of-the art facilities.
So here you had in the far northern precincts of the state of Michigan and the United States of America a business in a small town that was as advanced in technology and organization as any business that you could find in the country and even the world.
This map of the Upper Peninsula depicted on the front and back covers of “Pioneer” comes from a map of Michigan found in the 1874 Atlas of Lenawee County, Mich. Notice that the major locations listed in Delta County, in addition to Escanaba, are Maple Ridge, Campbell, Beaver, Flat Rock and Mason.
Interestingly, though, if you had visited Escanaba during this time, the progressive aspects of the town might not have been noticed. How could you with all those taverns lined up along Ludington Street - not to mention a few discreet bagnios that might have been tucked away here and there. This was a pioneer town, after all, with many more men than women, and communities of this sort tend to be a little on the wild side socially.
If a visitor had looked a little harder, though, he would have also seen strong signs of a more mature and long-lasting community gradually emerging as well. These signs included the village's first schools, several churches like St. Joseph Catholic, First Presbyterian, and not one but two Methodist churches.
Also, the town had as dynamic and varied a group of merchants as you could find anywhere. Here is one indication of how remarkable these merchants would become: in 1890 Escanaba was only the sixth largest town in the Upper Peninsula, but it did more business than any other community in the entire peninsula.
When you combine all these special characteristics of pioneer Escanaba along with its varied groups of people coming from Ireland, Germany, Canada, Sweden, Norway and other places, you have the makings of a very interesting history.