August 12, 2000


Recipe for a boom town. Take four glaciers. Fold in vast cycles of geologic building and destruction. Add an infamous day. Let simmer for approximately 11,941 years. And you have Escanaba, Michigan. To explain...

The primary ingredient was the iron and copper deposited uncountable centuries before the land and waters took their final shape. Three, mile-thick, ice sheets drifted southward, melted back. As the fourth and most recent sheet, the Wisconsinan, retreated, one lobe, or branch, gouged out a long, north-south depression, which gradually filled with water, forming a narrow lake parallel to the northern end of Lake Michigan. The ridge between the two bodies of water eventually wore through and, Voila! Green Bay. The northern end of the bay had a smaller bay, its own Mini-Me, divided by an unnamed peninsula into Big and Little Bay de Noc. The Noc (or Noquet) were an early Ojibwa tribe who left little but their name behind. It was in 1830 that fur trader L. A. Roberts and his reputedly Indian wife settled on a stream flowing into the northwestern end of the bay. The Ojibwa had named the stream Eshkonabang, meaning land of the red buck, after the natural trail used by a large herd of red deer over the years. A second theory claims the name means flat rock, after a feature of the landscape where Roberts and his wife settled. Whatever the derivation, it became known to whites as Escanaba.

As the iron and copper deposits were discovered, the Lake Superior port of Marquette became the main shipping point for the raw ores, especially after the opening of the Soo canal. Escanaba became the Upper Peninsula's main shipper of Michigan's lumber as railroads began connecting lakes Superior and Michigan at the western end of the Peninsula. As ore shipments increased the closing of the Soo locks in the wintertime became a real nuisance. However northern Lake Michigan was ice-free throughout most years, so much of the raw ores was diverted to Escanaba during those winters. Beginning in the 1850s, huge ore docks were built. Production was high and both ports were kept quite busy for many years. Then, early one December morning, nearly 5,000 miles away, Japanese warplanes left the U. S. naval base at Pearl harbor in smoking ruins. The U. S. suddenly felt very vulnerable. And as wartime production began kicking in, it occured to military planners that an enemy strike on the Soo locks could seriously cripple the supply of raw materials. Escanaba began looking more and more attractive. From then on there was no looking back. By the end of the decade millions of tons of ore were being shipped through the port. Demand remained high, even as new technologies were being developed to transform lower grades, called taconite, into pellets. Since the late 1970s demand has declined; top grade ores are played out. And the steel industry advertises for customers on television. As a revived national economy trickles down to the mining industry, another turnaround may be imminent. And the Mesabi Range still has enough taconite to last 200 years.

For Classical 91.5 and 90-point-3, this is David Minor


© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte