Middle Island, Pt. 1: “Strong as the Foundations of the Earth”

September 2013.

At some point during the 2012 season, I became infatuated with exploring islands, and with getting to as many of Michigan’s major islands as possible. I mean, often that is where you find the coolest forgotten stuff is off on some deserted island. One way that I opted to accomplish this quest was by looking around for islands that had lighthouses on them that were being restored by non-profit volunteer groups.

I contacted several such groups, and one was the Middle Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, or MILPS. In September of 2013 I set out toward Alpena County to meet up with Captain Mike to go to the island and do some trail maintenance work.

On the way I stopped through Tawas City, and saw the Tawas Point Light.

Looking out to the tip of Tawas Point:

I arrived in Rockport after nightfall (MAP). If you recall, I stopped here briefly back in August as well, on my way to the Yoopee. Here is a shot of the old pier from that day, which has been basically left as-is by the DNR:

I didn’t have much time that day to do a proper investigation of what had appeared to my eyes to be an abandoned quarry, but this time I planned to camp here overnight, and have time to explore the area before leaving on the boat in the morning.

Granted, there wasn’t a lot to go on, but there were some scraps of evidence left behind. As I mentioned in the previous post, Rockport Quarry had just been turned into Rockport State Park—Michigan’s newest—as of 2012.

The structure seen above was most likely a support to the old conveyor that moved crushed rock to the loader at the dock. There are some good historical images at friendsofrockport.org.

According to that, this site was once the home of the Great Lakes Stone & Lime Company, founded in 1913 to quarry rock for building and paving materials.

Rockport is definitely one of the most serene places I have found in the Lower Peninsula, when you consider how easily accessible it is. A couple minutes over a gravel road off of US-23, and you are here, cloaked in complete stillness and silence.

You almost don’t need to go to an island to get anything better than this.

An article in the 1915 Cement and Engineering News gives an unexpectedly thorough glimpse into the background of this ghost quarry. It speaks of the new plant of the Great Lakes Stone & Lime Company as “one of the largest and most complete of its kind…unusually interesting on account of its enormous capacity of production and remarkable flexibility of operation.” It was founded by E.P. Smith of the Michigan Alkali Co. of Alpena, and was to begin full production very soon.

In the old days the article pines, grain was the principal good shipped on the Great Lakes, but mined ore later supplanted it, which called for bigger boats, and bigger channels. Around the time this quarry opened, limestone was looking to step into that number-one spot.

Rockport included stone crushers, power houses, an ore dock / loader, and a dredged channel and 24-foot harbor with breakwall to provide shelter for beleaguered ships traveling down Lake Huron as well as facilitate their company’s limestone trade. A rudimentary town grew up around the quarry, featuring workers housing, and a school.

The stubs of iron superstructure poking up from the rockpiles were about all I could find to show where the conveyors used to be:

The plant had two crushers with 5,000 tons of crushing capacity per 10 hours, and a dock to accommodate the largest steamers built in those days. There were also bins for storing stone to be shipped via the Detroit & Mackinac RR, so as to keep the quarry in business after close of the navigation season.

Here, in the glare of the rising sun, Middle Island’s silhouette is visible over the pier:

Mr. Smith outlined the great industrial demand for stone in the region.
During 1913…10,000,000 tons of limestone were used by such purposes for metallurgical purposes alone, and bearing in mind each ton of pig iron produced in the United States requires from 800 to 1,200 pounds of stone…the rapid growth of the market is at once evident.

The Rockport tract is 1,500 acres.

Mr. Smith continues,
According to chemists and metallurgists who have made surveys of Lake Huron stone beds, they are virtually inexhaustible. A geologist at the University of Michigan says that the stone of Rockport is the richest in lime formation in the world, and surveys show that there are 400,000,000 tons of it above lake level. It will take, according to the most optimistic figures, about 250 years to work out this amount.

Seeing as they didn’t even last 100 years, I would guess that the usual Rust Belt Cancer was what put an end to production, then.

According to another vintage trade publication article, Stone, Volume 43, the Kelley Island Lime & Transport Co., one of the largest stone companies in the world, bought the Great Lakes Stone & Lime Co. operation for $1.25 million in 1922, and continued to operate the Rockport Quarry under their auspices.

Also of historical interest is a little footnote in Alpena County's mineralogical past about the ghost town of Herron, which actually had a gold and uranium mine, until it blew up on October 5, 1952, killing five men. Larry Wakefield's Ghost Towns of Michigan tells the tale of Herron, which started out as a logging camp. In 1928 a Chicago investor named Charles Herriman set up shop there and hired some locals to start a gold mine and sink a 100-foot shaft, despite there being absolutely no indication that it was a mineral rich area.

Perhaps Herriman had heard the story of how in 1912 some yokuls in neighboring Alcona County had "discovered" gold on their farm, but didn't realize it was a total hoax? In any case Herriman's mine blew up and closed down, but was reopened 24 years later as a uranium mine, and deepened to 272 feet. Once again, the chances of finding uranium were slim-to-none, but some bozo thought it was a good idea. And once, again the mine was put out of business by another lethal explosion.

Anyway, back to Rockport.

Some kind of grate, like you’d see installed over a mineshaft:

I walked down around the side of it for a better look:

It looked like some kind of tunnel built in sections, but with a large metal plate bolted over it now.

Here in the brush, a small rail for a tram, or narrow-gauge locomotive:

Not much else in the way of ruins was found in the area of the docks…

…so I made my way inland, into the quarry itself.

A quick hike through a line of trees, and I was in the relatively open expanses of the quarry bed. The feeling of isolation here was intense.

An old .pdf document from the Michigan DNR explains that the community of Rockport gradually vanished as the quarry’s production slowed. Operations finally came to an end in 1958, though it is not said why. Interestingly, the Rockport quarry’s last commission was to provide caissons for the construction of the Mackinac Bridge.

Wow…that’s pretty historically significant, I suppose. For an industrial concern that once was so emphatically described as of impeccable purity and such inexhaustible extent that it seemed almost as mighty as if one of the very bones of the Earth itself were being mined, and deemed fitting for the construction of the underpinnings of Michigan’s greatest engineering feat, it seemed to have met a quick fate in comparison to its nearby brethren in Alpena, Calcite, and Rogers City, which still operate today.

At least now I can say that not only have I explored the lime kiln where the mortar for the Michigan State Capitol was made, I have also explored the quarry where the limestone for the foundations of the Mighty Mac was dug as well.

In the distance I could see a wall of limestone marking the back boundary of where the quarry stopped, and in between was just a vast expanse of shattered rubble, seemingly arranged in rows.

In 1962, the Marquette Cement Company of Chicago acquired 3,900 acres of limestone and shale beds in this area, including the Rockport quarry and harbor once operated by the Kelley Island Lime & Transport Company, though I do not believe that any work was restarted.

The sun beat down across this barren landscape, and I could tell it was going to be warm today already. This felt like something out of the Old West.

Many of the boulders that were left behind bore obvious fossil life:

Another .pdf document from the Michigan DEQ indicates that the area is indeed very “fossiliferous,” dating from the Devonian Period, meaning about 419 million years ago.
The Rockport Limestone is essentially stromatopora, coral, etc., with a matrix of dark or black crystalline and very bituminous limestone. The stone contains from about 94 to nearly 98 per cent of calcium carbonate. Analyses Nos. 24 to 29 show the general character of the stone. It is said to be especially well adapted for flux. Owing to its very bituminous character, however, it does not burn well. The bituminous pieces are apt to have a dark carbonaceous core but the white masses of stromatopora, coral, etc., burn well and make excellent chemical lime.

Here you can see the grade where an old railroad bed once sat…some of the ties are barely visible beneath the ground:

A report held by University of Michigan entitled, Devonian Strata of Alpena and Presque Isle Counties, Michigan, by G. M. Ehlers and R. V. Kesling says that a Dr. Carl Rominger once explored this area, while acting in his capacity as State Geologist.

In 1876 Rominger published his "masterful" work on the geology of the Lower Peninsula, which included a chapter on the natural limestone outcrops of this area, and described what was to become the site of the Rockport Quarry as "directly west of Middle Island, on the side of a small creek flowing southeastward into Lake Huron," marked by "a chain of bluffs about 16 feet high beginning about half a mile from the shore."

Furthermore, Dr. Rominger observed that the very same limestone outcrop also reappeared further inland at Ocqueoc Falls, “where it can be seen in the bed of the Ocqueoc River and on the banks lining the falls and rapids.” I stopped and saw this very falls not long ago, while returning from visiting Bois Blanc Island.

I decided to climb right up on the rock shelf for a better overview of the tract.

Here, you can more easily discern the striated patterns left in the rubble on the quarry floor, almost like cornrows, or a tilled field:

Lake Huron is just visible:

I began venturing back out into the rest of the quarry again, and found this old pipe:

Surprisingly, a lone railroad spike:

More of the abundant fossilized plant life, a calling card left behind by the prehistoric seas that used to cover Michigan several hundred million years before the first dinosaur hatched:

Finally it was time to go to Middle Island, so I went to meet up with Captain Mike.

CLICK for part 2

Cement and Engineering News, Volume 27, 1915, p.259 & 277
Stone, Volume 43, 1922, p.245
http://www.michigan.gov/documents/deq/GIMDL-PU21B_216237_7.pdf pg. 30
Devonian Strata of Alpena and Presque Isle Counties, Michigan, by G. M. Ehlers and R. V. Kesling, 1970, pg. 47 & 51
Geology of Michigan, by John A. Dorr & Donald F. Eschman
Ghost Towns of Michigan, Vol. II, by Larry Wakefield, p. 107

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