Gimme Shelter

Proving once again that all I need to make a new post on is 4 photos, 1 teaspoon of history, and a 1/2 cup of sarcasm all baked in a well-oiled deadpan, here is some totally legit peer-reviewed stuff that will make a perfect addition to my vast library of informative, factual posts.

Navi and I visited Detroit's Belle Isle Park recently and we decided to stop and take a look at this old dilapidated Victorian-era shelter that is a prominent sight along Central Avenue. We were both somewhat awed by the appearance of giant spider webs all over the structure...

My partner pointed out that this explains where all the Africanized saber-tooth tarantulas ended up that were left behind in the Spider House when the Belle Isle Safari Zoo was abandoned. Since taking over operation of Belle Isle, the State of Michigan has erected some caution tape around it to keep little children from wandering into the structure and becoming ensnared in the giant cobwebs, sort of like the misadventures of little hobbits about to be gobbled up by Tolkien-sized arachnids. 

There was a state trooper eyeballing us from across the street as we approached the pavilion, but instead of warning us of the danger he retreated to his cruiser then appeared to make the sign of the cross and lock the doors. I have heard that the Michigan State Police have been involved in a few gun battles with the spiders when they come out at night to hunt, but Governor Snyder was keeping a lid on it to prevent more bad publicity. One more reason for white people to roll up their windows when they come to the D...

The official name of the structure is Belle Isle Shelter #1, but since 1897 it has been called the "Newsboy Shelter" when the Newsboy Statue was erected next to it, a gift to the City of Detroit from James E. Scripps (founder of the Detroit News, who I talked about in another post) to honor of the street orphans who sold his papers.

If you've ever watched Detroit's famous Thanksgiving Day Parade, you might remember the old guys marching with newspaper sacks over their shoulder; they are the Old Newsboys' Goodfellow Fund, a century-old charity that was established here to raise money to make sure all those poor kids got a decent Christmas. They've been marching in the parade since it began in 1924, and they are said to be America's most-copied charity—another Detroit invention that spread nationwide. claims that "some discrepancy exists" as to when the Newsboy Shelter was built, and that the earliest known reference to it was as a music pavilion in 1891, although some records say it was built in 1911. It apparently used to have a second level according to this somewhat apocryphal-looking image below:

Photo via
My archivist friend Andrea found the same photo, and according to her it was labelled "band stand."

Personally, from my short dive into the files with her, I surmise that the structure was built in the 1880s or 1890s (based on the architectural style) and classified as a "music pavilion," then the bandstand was removed from the roof for some reason in 1911 and the structure was reclassified as a regular "rain shelter" on the Parks & Rec books, which might explain why it is difficult to research. I suspect the shelter numbering system has also been changed a few times over the decades as well.

The shelter was renovated in 1992 using revenue from the Belle Isle Grand Prix, but it was a cheap fix at that time, not the full historic restoration that it desperately needed. Since taking over the island, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources had an assessment done, which estimated the cost for a proper historic restoration to be around $650,000...surely a pretty steep price tag for the state bean-counters to justify when a mere picnic shelter can be built new for a fraction of that cost. So the non-profit Belle Isle Conservancy stepped up with a fundraiser campaign to restore the Newsboy, but as of August of 2017 the Conservancy was only able to garner a mere $2,585 of its $50,000 goal.

The shelter's future looks to be in doubt, since it is left sitting in such ugly shape in the midst of other park improvements by the state, and I can find no more recent news.

Although I totally could leave you hanging and end this post after just a handful of photos, I think I will toss in a couple more random Belle Isle snaps that I can't figure out what else to do with.

These were taken from my little boat during a random excursion around Belle Isle in 2015 or so. Here is the old water intake crib of the Detroit Waterworks on the opposite shore, along East Jefferson Avenue:

It was built in 1905 and no longer functions as an intake, but is used as an access point for the tunnels for the water system. The current water intake is on Belle Isle itself.

Since my boat is so small and drafts so shallow, we decided to sneak up through a couple canals to some rarely seen areas since we could fit it underneath the low bridges...

This building is the Belle Isle Water Supply Intake, at the very northeast end of the isle. It represents the source of drinking water for basically all of Southeastern Michigan (approximately 5 million people) before it enters the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department's purification systems and distribution grid to reach your tap. Had I known this at the time I might not have just sailed right in here, but what's done is done I suppose, and luckily I wasn't shot by Homeland Security for suspected terrorism.

According to a book about the Detroit Waterworks by Michael Daisy, this intake house was designed and built in 1932 by Clarence W. Hubbell, the chief engineer of the Detroit Board of Water Commissioners. It replaced the c.1905 one I showed three pictures ago. The building is also listed however in the HAER's Lower Peninsula of Michigan Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, which disagrees, saying it was built in 1929 and designed by George Fenkell, chief engineer. Local architectural guru and personal friend Benjamin Gravel suggested that the Art-Deco exterior fa├žade of the plant may have been designed by local architects Smith, Hinchman & Grylls. In any case, you may recognize it as the hideout in the blaxploitation movie Detroit 9000.

The Southeastern Oakland County Water Authority website has a lot of informative detail about the grandiose physical infrastructure of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department System (DWSD) on their website. According to them our drinking water comes mainly from Lake Huron and the Detroit River, but obviously since all of the Great Lakes are connected, we drink a little from all of them (except Lakes Erie and Ontario).

So in other words if, say, the DeVos family's super-yacht is dragging its anchor while they're flitting around Mackinac Island, and it hits the much-scrutinized Enbridge Line 5 causing an oil spill, I imagine engineers at this plant would probably respond by shutting the intake gates to prevent equipment damage. I'm no engineer but we might be without water for awhile, and Mayor Duggan's lawn will die—do we really want to risk these grisly consequences, Michigan?!

Raw water enters the system through this intake building and is pumped to the city's west side and east side treatment plants. The big old High Lift Building on E. Jefferson at Water Works Park is the first stop along the route, which is connected to the Belle Isle Intake by a 15.5-foot-diameter brick and concrete tunnel lying under the Detroit River. From Water Works Park the raw water flows through a 14-foot tunnel for 10,000 feet, then forks to the Northeast Water Treatment Plant at 8 Mile Road & Conner, and to the Springwells Water Treatment Plant at Warren Road & Lonyo.

The Springwells plant was the largest waterworks in the world when it was built in 1924, and still ranks as the world's 10th largest today. The miles of tunnels are routinely inspected by DWSD for structural integrity and zebra mussel infestation, using remote cameras or actual divers. Detroit's water system was one of the greatest ever assembled by the human race, a true testament to civic achievement, and a model for the world. You may recall I also explored the abandoned Highland Park Water Works in an older post, which was a notable historic exception to the DWSD system.

Anyway, one more point of interest from my boat ride was the infamous "Goat Yard," where you can see this old ferry boat, and I believe there is a much older shipwreck lying underwater next to it, visible from aerial images. All this was recently cleared out however, since Detroit Edison sold the land to Chrysler. The 105-year-old Edison Boat Club next-door will be coming to an end as well; their final regatta was August 16th, 2019, just a few days ago.

Here is a different wreck, the Boblo Boat Ste. Claire, which burned at its dock recently and was moved to the east riverfront for storage, while its sister ship Columbia (which I explored in an older post) is being restored in New York:

Oh hey, look—the Whittier Hotel:

Speaking of the Edison Boat Club here is a photo I snapped of their marina after the final regatta, with the "Two Brothers" powerplant lit up in the background. All of that is going to be demolished, allegedly for a parking lot for the new Chrysler factory. At least I can lay claim to the dubious distinction of having crewed aboard the last boat to cross the finish line in the Edison Regatta, ever. LOL.

Anyway, if you go to Belle Isle, watch out for those spiders.

Old Newsboys' Goodfellow Fund of Detroit: 100 Years, by Lauren McGregor, John Minnis
Illustrated Field Guide to Carnivorous Arachnids of Michigan, by Tom Noddy, p. 546
Detroit's Historic Water Works Park, by Michael Daisy, p. 68
Lower Peninsula of Michigan Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, (HAER) p. 89-90
Special thanks for research help to Andrea Gallucci

Washed Away

Mason County was another Michigan county that I had had some trouble finding unique and interesting things to explore and write about. I mean, there were the usual one-room schoolhouses, and there are always barns and things like that, but you can find those anywhere in America, and I try to find stuff more specific than that for the purposes of this website.

So when I found out that there were still ruins left to be found at the site of the old lost village of Hamlin within Ludington State Park, I decided to just camp right there in the park. As it turns out I got most of the information I needed to compose this post from the informational signs found within the park. All I can say is: "Support your state parks!"

I arrived just in time to catch the midsummer sun dipping below the clouds and into the placid waters of Lake Michigan, so I decided to go for a brief frolic amongst the dunes, since no one else was around.

According to the Michigan County Atlas by David M. Brown, Mason County's government was organized in 1855, and it was first settled in 1847 by the Caswell family, who sailed a schooner to the mouth of the Pere Marquette River and built a driftwood cabin near a village of the Ottawa tribe. The pine logging began soon afterward, with sawmills springing up everywhere, reaching a peak in 1891.

When the pine was exhausted and the mills began closing, salt deposits were discovered in commercial quantities, so salt mining began. In 1897 the great Pere Marquette Railroad inaugurated its "Railroad of the Lakes" ferry system, which consisted of car ferries that moved across Lake Michigan from Ludington and Muskegon to points in Wisconsin. This continues today but with automobiles. Agriculture began as well, and Mason County still remains a big apple and cherry-growing area.

Mason County was originally set off as Notipekago County in 1840 (meaning "river with heads of sticks"), but in 1843 the state legislature must've decided that was not nearly colonial-sounding enough, so they renamed it after Michigan's first governor, Stevens T. Mason. Michigan actually renamed all 18 of its Indian-named counties all at once that year, which makes me wonder if it was spurred by some significant political development in 1843, or if it was just for ease of pronunciation by white people. 

One might also note that a mere six months prior, the Treaty of LaPointe marked the final major land cession in Michigan by the native tribes to the U.S. The treaty was officially declared in March of 1843—the same month that the state-wide renaming occurred. One might also note that during this same time Michigan was the recipient of a flood of Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine, and that five of the Michigan counties renamed in 1843 were subsequently given Irish names (purportedly to lure the potential Irish settlers into undesirable lands that the state wanted developed for farming). Today around 30 of Michigan's 83 counties still have Indian-related names, although nearly all of them were established after 1843, or have names based on pseudo-Indian words invented by H.R. Schoolcraft. Mackinac, Osceola, and Otsego Counties are the notable exceptions in that their Indian names were replaced in 1843 with another Indian name. 

A humid day ends in a rosy sunset. Can you see the fishing boat?

Next morning I woke up early to begin my search of the park for any ruins or remnants.

Hamlin Lake was formed by damming, to float logs to the mill when the lumber era was beginning. It was named after Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, who served under Abraham Lincoln. Cut lumber was then hauled by tram and mule to the mouth of the Big Sable River to be shipped on Lake Michigan, where the village of Hamlin was situated.

The father of Hamlin was Charles Mears, who you may recognize as the namesake of the town of Mears, located elsewhere in the county. He was a logging baron, who owned and built several other sawmill villages in the region, including one nearby named Lincoln (which explains why this one was named after the vice president). Mears built the first Hamlin dam in 1856.

Hamlin was bustling in the 1870s, a company town just outside the county seat of Ludington. Early diaries recorded that the village once contained 40 buildings, 25 of which were houses (some of which were even painted, and indicator of prosperity), and a covered bridge. Both a lighthouse and a Coast Guard lifesaving station stood sentinel at the lakeshore.

The map posted on one of the signs showed that there was a railroad track along the river for hauling cut lumber from the shingle mill to the docks, at the mouth of the river. There was also a lath mill, a boarding house, a steam-driven mill, and a company store down by the docks. Another boarding house was right next to the shingle mill, its location still marked by the old lilac bushes that used to sit next to it.

Dwarf Lake Iris again...? Apparently it was the peak of iris season, because I was finding these things everywhere on this particular trip, including in Gladwin County and Cheboygan County.

The shingle mill was built near the dam, and had a capacity to cut 15 million shingles per year, employing 60 men. Once upon a time, roofing shingles used to be cut from slices of wood, usually cedar. They lasted a lot longer than you modern folk would expect. In fact, cedar's natural rot resistance made such a roof last longer than the typical asphalt shingles we use now. It also looked a lot cooler.

Workers in these sorts of company towns like Hamlin were paid once per year, in the autumn. Living in a company town meant that you lived on credit based on your employment with the company for your room and board expenses. By only paying cash once per year, the company ensured that there was a reduced chance of workers disappearing at the end of each week to go get drunk and possibly fail to return (or to go look for a better job, for that matter).

Getting lost on my search for the old Hamlin Cemetery, I decided to go for a walk in the dunes again.

In 1872, Mr. Mears sold his interest in the operations here to Pardee, Cook, & Co. of Chicago. The dam burst in 1888 sweeping everything plus over a million board-feet of lumber out into Lake Michigan. The dam and the town were rebuilt and life continued, but its economy never quite got back to the level it was at before the deluge.

The second dam also failed in 1912, and it dealt the village of Hamlin its final death blow. A few dwellings remained until the 1930s, but they were removed by the CCC for the construction of the new state park. A third, new dam was built in 1914, but not for logging purposes. Today Hamlin Lake is the largest manmade lake in Michigan.

The maple trees here had been subject to extensive wind erosion, resulting in their roots becoming exposed from the sand. It made them look like the Ents from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

From this promontory, the expanse of Lake Michigan could be seen filling up the horizon.

Deciding I had better head back toward the dam area, I returned via a path that led down into a secluded vale between the forested dunes.

I knew I was way off course, but I couldn't help meandering for a while through this enchanting woodland. The silence in these deep dells was complete.

A long look uphill shows just how deep the valley was between these dunes:

Eventually this little ruined remnant of a cobblestone retaining wall signaled that I was approaching the cemetery:

It sits on something of a minor ridge-line, and has received a picket-fence upgrade in recent years:

The burials in this cemetery began in 1852 and ceased in 1912. The cemetery served as the resting place of not only Hamlin residents, but "unfortunate sailors and unknown victims of shipwrecks." A total of 50 graves were made here. Only two small headstones remain in this narrow burial ground, at opposite ends of the fence:


The grave of "Little Mary":

James Pendigrast...

Died September 21, 1879. Birth date is not listed, but you can probably bet he was alive to see the days before Michigan was even a state. He saw the primordial virgin forest that covered Michigan before we chopped it all down. He saw schooners on Lake Michigan, and often traveled by horse. He may have even seen British troops at some point.

After some more wandering I came across some actual ruins I did not expect to find:

These are the ruins of the shingle mill, the c.1889 dam, raceways, and control gates. With the dam breaking suddenly in 1912 large amounts of sediment were deposited here, and the river cut a new course for itself elsewhere, leaving the ruins of the former dam high and dry. Well, not totally dry by any stretch, since I was slogging through mush the whole time, and hopping over large pools.

This sloped metal object was the safety cover for a flywheel on an engine of some sort:

The two concrete pillars in the background were actually the sides of a control gate, I believe.

I began wandering out over a wider area to extend my search for other debris.

The remnants of a small concrete trench became visible as well, suggesting this was once a spillway.

The age of the concrete definitely looked old enough to be from 1889.

More wreckage in the swamp:

This turbine (see below) powered the shingle mill using water current from the dam. As the sign explained, this style of turbine was known colloquially as a "green mountain" propeller, but it was actually an old French design called an "Austin-Truax four-blade" that was believed to be superior to using large waterwheels. The turbine powered two saws: a pitman arm saw, and a shingle saw.

The rest of the wreckage of the shingle mill was either washed away or salvaged after the 1912 dam failure. In fact the equipment in this mill had probably been used elsewhere in North America before it was purchased and installed here at Hamlin. It was standard practice to sell and reuse a sawmill somewhere else after an area had been logged out, which is why finding the ruins of a complete sawmill anywhere is a challenge. Most of the ones that once milled in Michigan's woods probably ended their lives somewhere out West.

Knocking the mud off my boots I decided I had seen all of Hamlin that could be seen, and made my way toward the Big Sable Point Lighthouse.

Due to the fact that I was out of water and the drinking fountain in the park shelter by the beach was spitting out some cloudy swill, I opted to skip out on the 3-mile round trip hike through deep sand that would be involved to get there on this already hot morning. I had other destinations on my docket for the day, so I made the tough call and got back on the road with only this far-off telephoto shot to prove I had been at Big Sable Point:

It shore is purdy, though.

On my way back to Ludington I spied another ruin of some sort, although I think this is slightly more modern, and unrelated to Hamlin:

There looked to be the base of a silo nearby, indicating that perhaps there was a farm here at one time.

Then again, it's some pretty heavy machinery that would've needed to be bolted down to these big footings...

Ludington State Park signage
Michigan Ghost Towns II, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 45-53
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 114-115