The Last Place on Earth

Even after having made so many trips to Michigan's Copper Country and the Keweenaw Peninsula, I still had not made it to the historic Fort Wilkins, at the northern terminus of U.S. Highway 41. I finally made a point of visiting in October of 2014.

Rutabaga and I traveled along the Brockway Mountain Drive for a scenic journey to get there from Eagle Harbor, but it can be fairly said that there is not a single drive anywhere in Keweenaw County that is not scenic.

Atop Mount Brockway itself the autumn colors were beginning to show, in this westward view back toward Eagle Harbor:

You can see a snippet of Copper Harbor in the distance between the hills here, which is where Fort Wilkins lies:

Unfortunately we got here late in the day and most buildings were already closed, but we were still able to wander about the fort grounds freely.

The first of the treaties separating the local tribes from their mineral-rich lands in this region was signed in 1842, and the federal government quickly had it surveyed and sold for mining. The Michigan Copper Rush began in 1843, and Fort Wilkins was built in 1844. The local U.S. land permit office was originally down in Houghton-Hancock, but according to local historian Lawrence Molloy it was relocated here to the fort when it was built, to distribute leases to arriving copper prospectors.

Fort Wilkins is definitely not very heavily fortified...the term "fort" is more of a formality, really, since in truth it is more like a wilderness outpost surrounded by a small, log palisade on two sides (Lake Fanny Hooe protects the other two sides). In the 1840s northern Michigan, being an unsettled wilderness, was still part of the "Wild West." There were no roads, only Indian trails, so the only way to conduct major commerce was by sailing ship, which depended upon the few natural harbors to be found along the Keweenaw's jagged, mostly uncharted Lake Superior coast.

"Fearing that the Indians of the area might be resentful of the intrusion of the prospectors and the miners," the U.S. War Department established Fort Wilkins to protect the incoming white settlers from those ghastly savages. It soon proved however that the natives were "far less dangerous than the boisterous prospectors and miners," according to the book Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State.

Along the back of the Keweenaw Peninsula, the first frontier ports in the early Copper Rush were established at Ontonagon, Eagle Harbor, and Copper Harbor, and each started to get rowdy as tent cities sprang up around them with the arrivals of prospective miners. Again, the taming of northern Michigan presaged the much more romanticized American story of the Wild West, and the Michigan Copper Rush was a preface to the much better remembered California Gold Rush of 1849. In the days when Michigan copper was shipped from those three ports, it was coming from the older, first-wave mines like the Cliff MineOld Victoria Mine, and Norwich Mine (all of which I have already explored in depth on this website). There were also the early mines on Isle Royale, which should probably not be left out.

Hunt's Guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula describes Fort Wilkins as "way beyond the frontier of settlement," and points out that it was the northernmost garrison in the United States, flung some 600 miles from Detroit. Of the soldiers garrisoned here between 1844 and 1870, 8% died while serving in the Army (half of natural causes), and 11% deserted. I'm guessing that's because for six months out of the year, the weather here made it feel like being stationed in Siberia. Some also perhaps found it more attractive to be a prospector than a soldier.

As you can see, the fort is perched right on Lake Fanny Hooe, although this minuscule outpost hardly commands a formidable strategic grip on waterborne trade; if the British Navy had somehow reappeared in Lake Superior to compete for the riches of these lands, tiny Fort Wilkins would have posed no obstacle to them (neither would have the obsolete Fort Mackinac or Fort Brady, for that matter). Fort Wayne in Detroit was the only real strategic protector of the upper Great Lakes during the 1840s Copper Rush, but it was never fully armed. Luckily there was very little chance of having to repulse naval invasions of the Great Lakes after 1865.

One thing Fort Wilkins had going for its defense however was that it was located in the woods so far back from navigable waters that I don't know if any enemy naval gun from that era would have been able to reach it, even if they knew where to aim. By the same token, Fort Wilkins was equipped with no seacoast-caliber artillery—only a few field pieces.

Then again, when the fort was active it is likely that all the trees in the area would have been chopped down to be used both as lumber and as fuel, and so as to eliminate the chance of a surprise attack.

A casual glance at Fort Wilkins' location on a MAP makes it seem as if it were deliberately placed so as to protect it from the chance of ever being engaged in a real battle. If it were built substantially—with stone ramparts and heavy cannon—and placed out on Hayes Point where the lighthouse is, it could have plausibly protected the shipping route through Copper Harbor, but it appears to be more designed to command Lake Fanny Hooe than Copper Harbor for some reason. Which seems strange since this small lake is hardly of strategic importance, as it doesn't connect to any other major water route.

In any case, the Mexican War in 1846 caused Fort Wilkins to be emptied of its garrison two years after it was completed. During that conflict, the fort was left in the hands of a single caretaker, Sgt. William Wright. Could you imagine being that guy, out here all alone? It would be great in the summer...

Fort Wilkins was left unmanned until 1867, when some Civil War soldiers were sent here to fill out the remainder of their enlistment terms. It stayed open in that capacity until August of 1870, when it was permanently decommissioned by the Army. Most of the small-time prospectors had given up and left the Keweenaw by 1846 anyway; the larger mining companies stabilized the region, and the fort wasn't needed to "keep the peace" anymore.

As I recall, there was a plan issued by Washington D.C. in the middle of the Civil War to beef up U.S. defenses along the Great Lakes by building a chain of new heavy forts and to reinforce existing ones, in case the Confederate alliance with England resulted in a British naval assault designed to cut off crucial Union supply routes. I don't recall whether Fort Wilkins was considered for reinforcement at that time, but Fort Wayne was heavily improved, and later so was Fort Brady at the Soo Locks.

After the Army abandoned Fort Wilkins in 1870, the Hunt's Guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula says it became a popular picnicking and camping spot, and the favorite destination of a certain bicycle club in the 1880s; by 1910 automobile clubs were doing similar jaunts. I imagine the buildings were kept up somewhat by the locals who used it for picnicking and camping, but it probably started to fall into ruins after the automobile brought more tourists (and vandals) here from further away. So you see, "Urbex" already existed over a century ago.

Fort Wilkins became a Michigan state park in 1923, although by that time it had fallen into ruins from being mostly left to the hands of nature (and Urbexers) for the better part of 50 years. When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) began operating during the Great Depression, restoration work began on the fort's surviving buildings from 1939 to 1942. That was when the site was modernized into the park we see today—i.e., with a parking lot, water and sewage, a park store, and campsites.

Even today, Fort Wilkins is sort of like the last place on Earth. It is the furthest point you can drive to in Michigan (without a 4x4). Highway US-41 ends here, and beyond it there are no communities or any sort of civilization; just solid wilderness from here to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, ten miles away. There are the ruins of the old Keweenaw Rocket Range on Keweenaw Point, but again, you need a lifted vehicle to get there, or hiking boots. One of these days I will actually get out there to the rocket range, Schlatter Lake, and High Rock; I'm told it is a sublime wilderness area. Stay tuned.

The Fort Wilkins site is currently managed and interpreted by a public-private partnership between the state parks and the Fort Wilkins Natural History Association, a non-profit organization that raises money to support and sponsor programs and special events at the fort. They were the second such organization to do this kind of partnership in the state of Michigan, and having started here at Fort Wilkins in 1969.

Every year there is a summertime artillery muster at Fort Wilkins, usually the last weekend of July if I'm not mistaken. Lots of reenactors, and cannons going boom.

This small stone building is the powder magazine, where the post's ammunition was stored. It was the only stone structure on base, naturally to protect it from flame, and enemy cannonballs. The keystone above the doorway says, "1844 AD, 5th Infantry":

Inside, crates of musket balls and kegs of powder...or are they kegs of firewater for "keeping the peace" with the Indians?

This small creek drained from Lake Fanny Hooe to Copper Harbor, and protected the fort's western flank:

Lawrence Molloy writes that the lake was named after Captain W. Albutrtis' teenaged sister-in-law, who went down to the lake one day to do some laundry and never returned.

Molloy also says that the fort's grounds contain pits from some of the earliest Anglo attempts at mining copper in Michigan...the Pittsburgh & Boston Copper Harbor Mining Co. conducted the first commercial mining here near the lighthouse on Hayes Point, and later moved their operations next to the fort. This is one of their old shafts:

One more view from Mount Brockway, overlooking Copper Harbor, and Lake Fanny Hooe:

Here are some other posts of mine where I explore some of Michigan's other forts:
Fort Mackinac
Fort Drummond

Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, by Willis Dunbar & George May, p. 255
Michigan Yesterday & Today, by Ferris E. Lewis, p. 279, 517
A Guide to Michigan's Historic Keweenaw Copper District, by Lawrence Molloy, p. 71
Hunt's Guide to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Second Ed., p. 54-55,4726,7-282-61080_62655-59547--,00.html

33° Below Zero

My friend Navi and I checked out this old Masonic hall on one of those particularly frigid Detroit days, when it was so cold it even hurt to breathe. I assumed this was always a Masonic building, due to the old sign on the marquis out front, and the layout of the upper floors. Apparently Detroit is big enough to have not only the world's largest Masonic Temple downtown (which I explored in an older post), but also a few more out in the neighborhoods as well.

As I quickly learned upon doing a little research however, it was originally built more as a temple of entertainment. I will say it certainly has a lively and distinguished exterior fa├žade; I suppose it could have either been a Masonic temple or an entertainment center.

We got in quick and hit the stairs, hoping to get some photos from the roof before sun set.

A view of the marquis, verifying this building's past use:

I found this weird little Triforce-shaped table in the stairs, and then this huge ceremonial sort of chair, so I put them together...and then Navi came around the corner holding a big wooden scimitar, so we added that to our increasingly hackneyed Masonic-themed photo op...

...Keep an eye out on Instagram to see how long before people coming behind us might add the usual worn-out staged "artistic" conventions, like fake flowers, candles, or other silliness like scantily-clad women posing in the chair with bondage gear. Or maybe even one of those Pink Panther cigarette holders. (For what it's worth, I think the "SW" on the chair indicates that it was used by the Senior Warden).

But anyway, like I said this building was originally called the "Dexter Recreation Co. & Market Center" before the Masons had anything to do with it. A Detroit Free Press article from October, 1927 introduced this prominent new structure on the city's west side when it opened, declaring, "Big Play Plant Well-Equipped," with an accompanying photo:

Image from Detroit Free Press via
It had a cool blade sign, and the name "ROWLEY" seems to appear over the front door. Focused on family fun, bowling, and billiards, outfitted with the latest Brunswick equipment, this facility was designed and owned by the Rowley-Waters Co., completed right before Halloween of 1927. Two whole floors were devoted to bowling with 12 lanes each, while a third floor was devoted to billiards, having 16 "scientifically lighted" tables. Specific attention was given to league play in both sports.

According to Mr. R.B. Rowley, it was the first type of building in Detroit to use the Carnegie "H"-section steel frame. Interior finishing was done by the Detroit Lumber Co. Apparently steps were taken for soundproofing and fireproofing the structure beyond normal considerations, namely by using Gabriel Steel floor trusses with extra-thick concrete poured into lath on top—this was definitely one stout building. Before the bowling alleys were laid out, the concrete subfloors were covered in a triple layer of balsam wool, Insulite, and cork for sound buffering, since some of the building's upper floors were going to contain office space as well.

The ground floor was rounded out by a full grocery market, bakery, deli, meat counter, a Phoenix Ice Machine, a drug store, and a restaurant. Among the local brands featured when the building opened in 1927 were: Orling's Delicatessen, Mr. Yaffa's Grocery, I. Ruffsky produce, Sam Simon Meat Market, E.H. Cooper Bakery, and the The Courtyard Restaurant. Fairmont Creamery's "Delicia" ice cream was served exclusively at the center.

This place must have been pretty cutting edge for its time; a place where mom can go take care of all of her shopping, and turn the brats loose upstairs to play games for an hour with dad sounds like a predecessor to the suburban shopping mall of 40 years later. At the very least, the idea of combining a  corner grocery with a corner meat market, corner deli, and a corner bakery seems to presage the coming of the modern supermarket by almost 30 years. I'm not sure if even the Fisher Building had all these amenities, and it wasn't opened until a year later.

A post on led me to a holiday advertisement in the Detroit Jewish News from 1948, which calls the place "A City in Itself" under the proprietorship of Herman Fenton:

Image from Detroit Jewish News
Originally a huge Jewish enclave, the Dexter-Linwood region of Detroit emptied out precipitously after the 1967 Riot, but the thing about Detroit's Jewish population was that unlike other whites, they had no problem selling their property to black people. Just as Jews migrated from Dexter-Linwood to Southfield after 1967 to be replaced by blacks, so too had Jews migrated earlier from the area that subsequently became Black Bottom. Of course almost all of Detroit is black now, which makes it a challenge for people from the younger generations to discern the population patterns that presaged Detroit's becoming a majority black city in the 1970s.

Ads I saw in the Detroit Free Press indicated that in 1935 the market on the ground floor was called the Dexter-Boston Market (after the streetcorner), and in 1949 it was serviced by Awrey Bakery (which as I recall was originally based nearby on Tireman Avenue between Dexter and Livernois, before relocating to the suburb of Livonia). Another 1947 ad called the market a "self serve grocery."

In 1950 the Higgins Importing Co., dealing in educational recordings and film strips, was based in this building according to one journal.

A week before the attack on Pearl Harbor, another battle was set to rage here on Dexter according to the Free Press. Six company teams were vying in the All-Star Classic for the chance to play in the annual Goodfellows' fund match: Paris, E&B, Schmidt's, Mineralites, Strohs, and Nationals. Other matches included teams from Vernors, Wayne Spaulding's Bowling School, and Pepsi-Cola.

I'm still confused however as to where in the building the bowling alleys would have been, since no single room I saw in here was big enough to really hold one. Perhaps the floors of the building were originally wide open, and have subsequently been compartmentalized by adding more walls and rooms?

Speaking of the Riot, two months before it happened, another tragic incident occurred here where an employee lost his life. It was a Wednesday night on Dexter Avenue. Ralph Belamy, age 22, was working as a rack man in the billiard room at the Dexter Recreation Co. An argument over a dime with a patron ended up with Belamy shot twice, before the assailant, an ex-convict according to witnesses, "menaced the patrons of the packed pool room," and fled the scene. Mr. Belamy lived at 3211 Doris, and was declared dead on arrival at Henry Ford Hospital. It was six months until Dexter Recreation Co. would be celebrating its 40th anniversary in this building, and two months before the outbreak of the infamous 1967 Riot / Rebellion—a disturbance that would devastate this neighborhood.

A few days later, Goodwill opened their 15th Detroit-area store here, operating out of the main floor. Goodwill is a resale shop selling used clothing, shoes, furniture, and small appliances, and judging by the number of newspaper ads I saw, they remained in the building for several years. I don't think Dexter Recreation Co. stuck around much longer after 1967.

Still under the impression that we were in a purpose-built Masonic hall, we came up the stairs to a large open room in the center of the floorplan that was being illuminated by a single ray of the rapidly setting sun's final light piercing through the doorway and exploding against what looked like a raised stage or altar at the back of the room...very mystical indeed, ha:

After a quick look around this empty floor we went up to the next one to find the exact same situation again, but this time actual Masonic podiums were set up around the room for the sunlight to hit, just like in that one scene in Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, with the staff and the crystal, in the place with all the snakes...

Yeah, luckily no writhing viper pits here in Detroit (at least not when it's 3° Fahrenheit), but this resembled what I remembered seeing how Masonic lodge rooms were arranged at the temple downtown, with three podiums set up corresponding to where the wardens were stationed around the southern, western, and eastern walls of the room, and a large central altar for holding the Sacred Law.

I quickly realized that all the upper floors of the building seemed to be set up like large, centrally-located Masonic "lodge rooms," surrounded by smaller ancillary rooms...each floor followed this same layout, just like in the main Masonic Temple downtown, which serves as the headquarters of all the Freemasons in Michigan.

In the corner was what looked like an office:

Scattered on the floor, I snapped a quick photo of these Masonic booklets so I could later research the names on them...

The cover reads,
66th Anniversary: May 12, 2001, Annual Scholarship & Appreciation Banquet: M.W. Jerry L. Harrison, Grand Master; guest speaker M.W. Kenneth L. Hollowell; M.W. King Solomon Grand Lodge AF & AM.
The "M.W." stands for "Most Worshipful," by the way, which is a Masonic title. The "AF & AM" part stands for "Ancient Free and Accepted Masons." Despite the large central room serving as a Masonic lodge room, here in one of the rooms off to the side looked to be another lodge room...

The draped American flag is a nice artistic touch (gag!). Notice the big letter "G" on the eastern wall, with the Masonic square symbol under it. Many people assume the "G" symbol stands for "God," but I'm told it actually stands for "Geometry," with the implication that God is the "Great Architect" of the Universe, and of the perfect and immutable laws of Mathematics, etc. The square appears again on the podium.

The "Commission on Bogus Masonry" (which judging by its website seems a little bogus itself), has the King Solomon Grand Lodge in their list of "Bogus Grand Lodges in Michigan." The list has a detailed profile of vital info on each alleged transgressor; this lodge is shown on the website as being led by A.V. Flintroy, having been incorporated / qualified on April 23, 1937, and which last filed an annual report in 2004.

Bogus or not, they had been around for most of a century by the time this building closed. I'm not even sure what criteria would constitute a lodge being "bogus."

On the next floor up, we found yet another lodge room almost identical to the last, but the ceiling was caving in a bit. Once again, you will notice the "G" on the eastern wall, since the East is the direction where the Light comes from—or Enlightenment, if you prefer:

I looked up the names of the people on the booklet, and M.W. Kenneth Hollowell is still around, but he's now called "Ill. Kenneth L. Hollowell 33°," having apparently moved up in rank; he is listed as the Supreme Grand Master of the Ralph Bunche Grand Lodge of Michigan, at 2101 Gratiot Avenue (which, incidentally, also shows up in the registry of phony Masonry). That lodge's website was last updated in 2011 (or 6011A.L., if you prefer to go by the Masonic calendar), so this information may be out of date. By the way, "Ill." stands for "Illuminated," and "A.L." stands for "Anno Lux," or "Year of Light."

Uh-oh, another hackneyed "urbex" photography convention—the looking-over-an-open-book-on-a-podium shot:

I found this lodge mentioned in a 1983 copy of African World Festival, (the magazine of the Afro-American Museum of Detroit), which indicated that the lodge president at that time was somebody named C.E. Gibson. By the way, the Masons who made up this lodge seem to have been all Afro-American, in case you hadn't already figured that out. Despite the perception that Freemasonry has always been an exclusive club for white men, it has been my casual outside observation that the generally shrinking Brotherhood has survived in Detroit based on a large number of African-American members. 

A store called the "Medicine Chest" was present in this building in 1982, which—other than the Masons—seems to have been largely vacant of tenants as the area began to decline. Alpha Phi Alpha and the Optimists were running Meals on Wheels from the building in 2012. The last owner of record for this property was Infinite Family Network, and it was subject to foreclosure as of 2014.

Now in the upper reaches of the building, I was anxious to see what these corner turrets were all about. Did they hold some secret Masonic relic such as an ancient scepter, a sacred scroll, or the enshrined bones of some medieval saint? Would I be instantly melted or incinerated, or banished to some alternate dimension upon laying my gaze over these eldritch artifacts?

This catwalk led the way to the answer—and undoubtedly mystic enlightenment...

...or more file cabinets! Not even another plywood scimitar was to be found amongst this mundane treasure trove; looks like Indiana Jones already plundered this temple. Still, it was a very cute little tiny room up here on top of this corner tower with cute little windows looking out in all directions. I would dig having an office all to myself up here, five stories above the city. I was actually surprised that it had been made habitable at all; I totally expected to find a bare utility room.

A look down at the local coney island, with the St. Paul's Elderly Housing tower in the background, which I explored in another post:

Suddenly all notions of disinterring Illuminati secrets faded from my mind as I bent my thoughts toward was time to hit the roof real quick, and go get something deep-fried.

Stepping out on the rooftop, we were instantly lacerated by the icy subzero winds that had been raking their claws across the city for weeks. It's so cold in the D, how the @#$% do we 'sposta take pics?

Facing south, a unique view of downtown with the Lee Plaza included at far right:

Looking back toward the front of the west-facing building, its three protruding turrets (and Navi) silhouetted in the luminous winter halo of the setting sun:

I liked this view looking back toward the New Center area, which is where I was currently staying:

Pulling back a bit, the old Sacred Heart Seminary comes into view at left:

One thing only remained for us to investigate, the corner turret at the rear of the building...

Inside, I was again surprised to find that not only was this not merely a bare utility room, but it had apparently once contained an apartment, or perhaps a break room for the building maintenance guy:

Whether it would actually be admissible by code or not I don't know, but with 14-foot ceilings and tall arched windows this would make a pretty swanky corner apartment.

Darkness falls on Dexter Avenue...

Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 9 (1915)
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 9, Sheet 13 (1925)
"Big Play Plant Well-Equipped," Detroit Free Press, October 23, 1927, p. 13
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, February 25, 1949, p. 16
Advertisement, Detroit Free Press, February 22, 1935, p. 13
Help Wanted Ad, Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1947, p. 19
"Bowling Alleys," Detroit Free Press, August 29, 1934, p. 19
Detroit Free Press, December 3, 1947, p. 12
"Big Battle is Prospect in Classic," Detroit Free Press, November 25, 1941, p. 14
"Lotto," Detroit Free Press, December 14, 1982, p. 13
"Meals on Wheels: We Need Help," Detroit Free Press, March 19, 2012, p. 4A
"More Goodwill," Detroit Free Press, May 20, 1967, p. 3
"Poolhall Fuss Over a Dime Ends in Death," Detroit Free Press, May 11, 1967, p. 19C
Advertisement, Detroit Jewish News, December 24, 1948
Michigan Education Journal, Volume 28 (1950), p. 50
African World Festival, (Afro-American Museum of Detroit, 1983) p. 22