July 8, 2000

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The lady just happened to be in town that day. The day was May 12th, 1883, a Saturday. The town was Fayette, Michigan. And the lady was a boat, a boat by the name of Lady Washington. Fayette's harbor, called Snail Shell due to its shape, offered protection from the lake's storms, and vessels often took refuge in its shelter. If there was enough of this once-thriving smelter town in 1959 to fashion into a ghost-town tourist attraction, a lot of the credit goes to the lady.

Foundries ran around the clock then, what we today would call 24/7, and most people worked Saturdays anyway, so it wasn't unusual for a clerk in the warehouse to be on the job. He happened to glance off toward the waterfront where the stock building was located. It's purpose was to hold the fuel, coke by this period, before it went into the furnaces. Suddenly he took another look. Flames were emerging from a corner of the building. No time to hesitate. There was a wind, a few sparks could set the whole wooden village ablaze. He turned in the alarm and it wasn't long before every inhabitant that could walk, including the kids, was on the scene. The timbers of the stock house, coated with years of coal dust, spread the fires like fuses in a melodrama. 65,000 bushels of charcoal caught, and finished the stock house. The fire engine had been dragged in and bucket brigades formed. But the former didn't have sufficient power, mere pails of Lake Michigan were next to useless, and the wind continued to blow. Fayette was going to go up in flames. Town in distress and, damsel to the rescue.

The discouraged townspeople were suddenly aware of the sound of an engine, coming from the docks. The Lady Washington was moving into position with engines revved up and pumps churning. With her help the battle finally turned. When the last flames were extinguished the Jackson Iron Company had been heavily damaged, but its town had survived. A number of smelter buildings were lost, to the tune of $40,000. The two stacks, the blast furnaces, the casting house and the engines that operated the machinery were also spared. as were the docks, coal bins, and stacks of cord wood.

What the fire didn't destroy that evening the passage of time and the depletion of local forests eventually polished off. In 1920 the iron works and the town it owned, was sold off for $10,000. The population dwindled, almost to the vanishing point. Over the next 39 years what was left changed hands several times. Eventually the state of Michigan took over, decided the place was worth rescuing as a tourist attraction, and set out on a massive restoration project. Every August now, boaters gather in Snail Shell Harbor to watch as a local high school girl, the annual Queen of the Fleet, tosses flowers on the water to honor the fishermen who lost their lives on the Lakes. The guardian spirit of another, much older lady is most likely present.

 

OUTRO For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

© 2000 David Mior / Eagles Byte

 

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