Jul 1, 2023
Michigan Tech Archives This October 1912 photograph captures the history of the Copper Country in the motion of change. Captain Robert E. Clary and his two companies of the Fifth Infantry constructed Fort Wilkins during the summer of 1844. The buildings were still in remarkable condition 68 years later when this automobile was parked on the post parade ground. In less than 70 years, the Lake Superior copper district had evolved from a wilderness to a world-class industrial complex.
By the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century, the Copper Country, like the rest of the United States, was rapidly transitioning into modernity. The region began to have more in common with 1950 than 1880. Between 1870 and 1900, the United States experienced, as the Smithsonian Institution states, “a surge of technological innovations and inventions, like Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, fueled economic growth.”
In the summer of 1910, the Copper Range telephone crew was erecting poles and stringing wire between the railroad depot on Eighth Street in Calumet and the depot at the Champion mine, near Painesdale, passing through Mill Mine Junction and South Range along the way. The new private telephone service was for dispatching Copper Range trains faster, with more efficiency, than the telegraph system it was replacing. The new system would soon be extended out to the mill towns of Redridge, Edgemere, Beacon Hill and Freda for the benefit of the trains traveling those routes.
Telephones were finding their way into private homes as well. In 1910, the Daily Mining Gazette began advertising “Shopping by telephone,” listing several businesses, along with their telephone numbers, that were happy to conduct business using the increasingly popular telephone system.
In some ways, the Copper Country was ahead of many other sections of the country insofar as many homes having been wired for electricity, a decade ahead of other regions. Electricity truly increased efficiency in homes, as modern appliances, large and small appeared on the market. Some, like flat irons and washing machines that first appeared in the middle of the first decade, were quick to catch on.
The rush of technology’s innovations and inventions created new industries, new investment opportunities, and a growing percentage of the American population entering the upper economic class. It was largely due to this expansion of the upper class that the automobile’s popularity burst into American society.
When the automobile initially started its rise in popularity, they were a novelty plaything reserved for the wealthy class. In 1910, a Ford Model T touring car cost approximately $950. By comparison to the Pierce Arrow, that was a bargain. During that same year, a Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau cost more than $8,000.
In 1900, three Dodge brothers in Auburn Hills, Mich. founded the Dodge Brothers Company machine shop. Initially the Dodge company provided precision parts to Ford shop supplied Ford with the entire chassis for his 1903-04 Model A vehicles. Ford simply added the body and wheels to it. The odd partnership led the Dodge brothers to the opinion that Ford’s Model A was not a true Ford automobile. John Dodge is credited with having once commented, “Just think of all those Ford owners will someday want an automobile.”
While many had first thought moving pictures were a novelty and a passing fancy, that same opinion was also applied to the automobile. But just like moving pictures, the automobile did not fade from the public; rather, both of them not only hung on, they came to revolutionize American culture. This was as true in the Copper Country as it was all across the U.S.
While the Houghton County Road Commission’s website states that when it was established, in April, 1901, there were less than 1,000 automobiles in Houghton County, evidence suggests that estimate is quite low.
On April 6, 1910, the Daily Mining Gazette reported that Calumet Township had voted overwhelmingly to approve the ballot proposal that created the Houghton County Road Commission.
“The automobilists of Calumet and vicinity, and there are nearly 300 of them,” the Gazette stated, “are unanimously in favor of the country road system –.”
The article went on to say that Ontonagon County had already adopted the “county road system” and would connect its system to that of Houghton County’s.
Three months later, on July 16, the Gazette published an article outlining the best route for automobilists to take from Calumet to Chicago, submitted by John Macauley, manager of the Superior Motor Company, of Laurium.
“From Watersmeet the road branches over into Michigan to Rockland, Baraga, Houghton and to Calumet,” the article stated, “and is very good.”
While the mining companies in the Copper Country were already lamenting shortages of men to work underground, on July 18, 1910, the Gazette ran still another article related to the rapidly growing automobile craze.
The Northern Garage and Supply Company (in Houghton), the article stated, had a large force of men who “are constantly engaged in making repairs to automobiles and the indications are that summer will bring a continuance [sic] performance in that line.” The garage had hired a man from Minnesota to work exclusively on automotive tires.
As if the local mining companies needed another clue regarding the increasing shortage of workers, on July 22, the three-month-old Houghton County Road Commission placed an advertisement in the Daily Mining Gazette for a “Road Engineer.”
“Applicants should state fully their technical education,” the ad stipulated, “and engineering experience.”
Regardless of the conditions of the roads, or lack thereof, automobilists increasingly selected the Copper Country, particularly Keweenaw Point, as a tourist destination. In July, 1910, businesses throughout Houghton reported a surprisingly brisk business in souvenirs from tourists coming into the town on passenger excursion liners.
Mining and lumbering were quickly becoming challenged by the new and rising hospitality, tourism and automotive industries, created by the economic prosperity the companies themselves had bought into. More and more opportunities began to present themselves to mining company employees who found work on road crews, or for electric companies, repair garages, and similar fields. Perhaps jobs in those sectors paid less in some cases. But at the same time, these expanding fields gave more and more men the chance to work above ground, in safer environments, while at the same time getting out from under company-owned roofs, in company-owned neighborhoods in company-owned housing clusters.
Like bicycles and passenger ships, the automobile was an early indicator of the American spirit seeking independence and a world beyond company paternalism and the claustrophic surroundings of everyday life in the same residential blocks of the same residential towns and high-rise buildings and offices.
The American culture was in a fast transition by the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century. Utility poles carrying electric and telephone lines lined newly created roads that began to spiderweb the Copper Country, which transformed the landscape just as innovation and invention had begun to transform society.
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