The Powers of Air, and Water

Alger County was originally laid out in 1850 and was part of Schoolcraft County until it was organized in 1885, named after Russell Alger, a patriarchal Detroit lumber baron who was governor of Michigan that year. Au Train was its first county seat until 1901 or 1902 when it moved to Munising. The county embraces the famous Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, more than a dozen waterfalls, and 250 lakes. Population is a mere 9,800 people. I visited the Pictured Rocks briefly in the beginning of my older post, Tithing the Red Metal King (Part 1). Alger County is one of the few counties surprisingly not covered in David M. Brown's compendious Michigan County Atlas, known for its depth of info on the lesser-known nooks and crannies of the state—and a vital tool in my toolbox here at! [Correction: my copy of the atlas is out of date; newer versions include all 83 counties.]

Our first stop is Au Train Bay...

You may recall from an older post (Snowbound, Day 1) that I have visited Au Train Bay before, when it was locked in ice. Today the weather was much more mild, and we didn't have to slog through waist-deep snow and climb over 8-foot-tall plow drifts to get to the shore. I had often stopped here while traveling the Upper Peninsula, but then my girl told me one day that on one of the cliffs along the shore, way off to the side, there is the face of an old Indian man carved into the rock, which was made by an explorer long ago. Somehow I had never noticed it...I definitely had to see this!

The carving was left by a French explorateur in the company of the Cass Expedition, which was led by Michigan Territorial Governor Lewis Cass, and the mineralogist and Indian agent Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. The mission of the Cass Expedition was to locate the source of the Mississippi River, to explore the newly claimed parts of Michigan that had been ceded to the U.S. government by the tribes involved in the Saginaw Treaty of 1819, and to explore and document the topography and exploitable natural resources of the region. Undoubtedly this was done in anticipation of the land cessions that would come in 1836 and 1842, leading to the possession of the Upper Peninsula by the U.S. government. I remembered learning about the Cass Expedition in my Michigan history class at CMU.

The carving was made as a tribute to an Ojibwa man named "Powers of the Air," who lived nearby on Grand Island. According to the journal of Henry Schoolcraft, the Cass Expedition explored Au Train Bay on the 22nd of June, 1820, which would mean that the carving would have turned exactly 200 years old just prior to my own visit.

The night prior, the party had encamped on Grand Island, where a band of Ojibwe received them with welcome, and entertained them with song, dance, smoke, and story. Their leader stated that they had but lately returned from a war excursion to Minnesota against the rival Sioux tribe, in which they had lost a number of warriors, and began to tell the story. The Grand Island band had been recently reproached by the other bands of the Ojibwe "for not taking a more active part" in the war that had been so long waged between the Ojibwe and the Sioux. "To wipe off this stain, they determined to make an irruption into the Sioux country," without giving notice to any other part of the tribe, in order to impress their Ojibwe brethren and take the Sioux by surprise. Thirteen of their warriors thus infiltrated the lands of the Sioux without the knowledge of combatants on either side of the conflict. Tragically, because of their stealth, they themselves were unaware that peace negotiations had already begun between the two tribes as they sprung their attack in the midst of Sioux territory. 

Sadly, despite their assault claiming a great number of the Sioux who vastly outnumbered them, all of the Grand Island warriors were slain except a young runner, who was stationed on a nearby hill so that he could return to the island to tell the tale of sacrifice, and of their war debt paid to the Ojibwe tribe. This runner's name was "Powers of the Air," and he was the one telling the tale to the members of the Cass Expedition on that summer solstice evening in 1820. He must have made a big impression because Henry Schoolcraft wrote of him in the journal, "among all the tribes of Indians whom I have visited, I never felt, for any individual, such a mingled feeling of interest and admiration." Early the next morning the Cass Expedition left Grand Island to continue across Au Train Bay, where they stopped briefly, and one of the French-Canadian guides in their company carved this likeness of Powers of the Air.

And here we are...

Can you see it yet? The carving has been worn down quite a bit by the forces of erosion over the past two centuries. 

Historian Loren R. Graham wrote in his 1998 book A Face in the Rock: The Tale of a Grand Island Chippewa that Powers of the Air lived on through ensuing decades to witness the coming desecration of Grand Island by the fur and logging industries, the Christianization of the tribe, and the near total loss of the Ojibwe language, history, and culture. 

Just on the other side of the highway, Scott Falls is still trickling as always. We decided to go visit again since we were here:

Last time I actually stopped to check it out was something like 13 years ago.

Another item I had on my list to check out was the ruins of the old Schoolcraft Blast Furnace, which sat near Munising Falls and operated from 1868 to 1877.

The ruins are out there, but considering the sheer number of unmasked goons tromping through the woods to see Munising Falls that day, and the fact that my girl was waiting in a hot car for me with two impatient dogs, I decided to cut losses and make sure we had ample time to secure a decent campsite for the night (wherever that might end up being). We were rapidly learning that the Coronavirus pandemic was leaving restless Michiganders with little to do but "go up north"...everywhere we went was packed.

I had seen Munising Falls plenty of times before anyway, and couldn't remember any ruins being along that trail, so I left (that photo is from 2007 or something).

We had designs on going east along the Pictured Rocks shoreline on H58 where a couple clusters of DNR campsites were located a few miles inland. Predictably, every campsite was full. I have to say though I was taken aback at the absolute beauty and solitude of the backwoods and campsites in this county...the Gemini Lakes area particularly impressed me, and I really hope to be able to camp there someday when it is not jammed with people with nothing better to do, due to a pandemic.

So anyway, after giving up on finding an official campsite, I swerved the Jeep off the road and onto a logging trail, diving deep into the uncharted woods until we found a clear enough spot to put a tent in the remaining minutes before the sun went down:

We passed an extremely dark and silent night under a sky so clear that we could watch satellites passing over us between the treetops. We hadn't been able to really camp together in several years, and this was our approximate anniversary, so it was extra special.

The morning brought some more driving before we reached Au Sable Point, where we could hike along Lake Superior to the lighthouse, and a shipwreck. The trail started at the mouth of the Hurricane River:

In the 19th and early 20th century, ships sailed much closer to shore than they do nowadays. With giant modern freighters and advanced navigation technology, the shipping lanes have moved further out into the open waters of the lakes, meaning ships are less likely to be pushed into the shallows by storms. Older steamships and sailing vessels did not have the power or size to sail through storms in the open waters, so they stayed closer to shore, and sought safe harbor to weather storms. But by staying nearer to shore they more often foundered on the shoals and other hazards if they were lost in fog or pushed off course by strong contrary winds. 

Here along the shore of what was once known to old mariners as the "Graveyard Coast," a shallow sandstone ledge extended out a mile into the lake with a maximum depth of 30 feet, resulting in ships running aground, or breaking their keel on it and sinking. What can be reasonably traversed in calm weather can present a fatal hazard in the bottom of a giant wave trough, or at times of seasonal low water levels. Today the Graveyard Coast is designated as the Alger Underwater Preserve, a governmentally protected bottomland open to scuba diving. There are other such preserves located in high shipwreck areas around the Great Lakes.

A sign along the trail listed some of the known shipwrecks that occurred here, by year:
1873: the propeller ship Union
1880: the steamer Mary Merritt
1882: the schooner General Siegel
1883: the steam barge Mary Jarecki
1891: the propeller Empire State
1902: the steamer Crescent City
1904: the steamer Sitka
1910: the steamer Zenith City
1918: the steamer Gale Staples
1929: the steamer Kiowa

It was the wreck of the Mary Jarecki that I had planned on seeing today, which according to what I had seen on aerial imagery rested right on the beach not far down the shore from the Au Sable Point Lighthouse. I was worried however that due to the extremely high water levels currently affecting the Great Lakes that the wreck would be underwater. The lakes were currently about 2 feet higher than normal!

Image via Google Maps (click to enlarge)

Here's another smaller one you can see pointing at the shoreline not far from the NPS campground back where we started:

Image via Google Maps (click to enlarge)

Just as I was beginning to think that the risen waters had completely hidden all signs of the Jarecki, we spotted some flotsam that definitely came from an old wreck:

I looked out into the water and sure enough, there she was, just hidden below the glare on the icy waves. Damn...

Well, I guess I know what I have to do. I took off my shoes and socks, emptied my pockets, and rolled up my pant-legs to my crotch. I looked like a fool but I waded into the icy water anyway, concealing my grimace at the sudden cold as the depth quickly became a lot greater than I expected. My poor tender little footsies were not happy about the sharp rocks I was walking through either.

I think my girl started to say "come on, hurry up" or something like that, but then she must have remembered that I recently included her in my will, and happily turned her attentions to playing with the dogs on the beach.

Once I was able to step up onto the thick timbers making up the last remnants of the Jarecki's hull, I was thankfully safe from the danger of wetting certain bits of my anatomy that I'd rather keep dry on this very un-summerlike day. My feet however were even less happy about what I was stepping on, as this was in fact pretty treacherous footing, considering that these slimy logs and the 8-inch-long iron pegs sticking out of them were just about a perfect storm of trip hazards waiting to give me some sort of sprain, dislocation, or impalement (not to mention falling completely into the water and ruining my camera). 

I was obliged to take tiny steps of an inch or two at a time, carefully feeling around before shifting my weight. Suffice it to say, I wouldn't recommend trying this unless you dropped a very expensive wedding ring in here. 

These long, treenail-studded oak keelsons ran the length of the Jarecki's hull. The assemblage of larger timbers I was currently walking on actually comprised the ship's keel. And yes, those are my neon-white feet.

The 3" planking that made up the outer sheathing of the hull was either underneath the sand, or gone missing completely.

Wait, that might be some I see there in this next one...

According to the National Parks Service study Submerged Cultural Resources Study Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore done by C. Patrick Labadie in 1989, the cargo steamer Mary Jarecki was built in 1871 in Toledo, Ohio by Bailey Bros. and was last operated by Baker & Co. of Chicago. She was one of the first cargo steamers built for the iron ore trade on the lakes. 

The Jarecki was 179 feet long, had a 32-foot beam (max width), a single deck, rated a gross tonnage of 502, and had the capacity for 40 passengers. Her single-cylinder steam engine was built by the T&J McGregor Iron Works of Detroit, although she was also equipped with two masts and sails. She was largely rebuilt in 1879 at Erie, Pennsylvania, enlarging her cargo holds to carry 645 gross tons, and adding a second deck.

It's crazy that this wreck remains almost invisible to eyes on shore now, for the glare on the water. You have to be basically standing on it to see it.

The Jarecki ran aground in thick fog on July 4th, 1883 "under full headway" with a heavy load of iron ore bound from Marquette. Her captain, Anthony Everett, was "from some cause unaware that his vessel was considerably out of her course." The engine, equipment, and most of the cargo were eventually salvaged, but the hull was too badly broken to save, even after several attempts to float her by the best tug and lighter crews on the lake. Reports indicated that the impact was so severe that it caused her boiler to shift from its place, while the keel was observed to be "raised amidships," and "probably broken." Her wreck was later beaten apart by a storm. Thankfully all crew members survived the incident.

A modern analysis of the ore found among her wreckage indicates that it matched the type being mined in the Republic Range near Ishpeming at that time.

Perhaps illustrating the frequency with which commercial vessels were subject to mishap such as going aground, the Mary Jarecki was recorded to have been foundered several times prior to the accident that ended her career. She ran into shoals due to fog at Summer Island in Lake Michigan in 1872, went aground at Rock Falls on Lake Huron in 1874 due to heavy smoke from forest fires, and suffered damage from a steam syphon explosion in 1880 at Washington Harbor. Sh*t happens.

The timbers used in her framing appear to belong to a vessel much smaller than 179 feet, but in fact that is only because they have been worn down drastically from their original dimensions by the erosive action of waves and sand. The wreckage we see today has also migrated quite a ways east and inland from the place of the initial wreck due to the forces of the waves, and winter ice over the past century and a half.

Just think, these massive trees were ancient when they were cut down in 1870 (probably ~400 years old), got turned into a boat, and then sat here in the water for another 130-some years, and they're still solid.

I thought back on how many times in my youth I had been on beaches around Michigan that featured old shipwrecks just like this one, either being washed in the surf or poking up out of the warm sand. Back then I knew nothing of them or of historical research, I just took them as one of those sort of ubiquitous Michigan things that are a feature of our landscape. I had no idea how old they were, but since they were made of wood I guessed that they had to be pirate ships from the 1700s or something (sadly, I think all of the wrecks from the 1700s are gone).

Since the lake levels have raised in the past couple years causing erosion to increase, many more of these sorts of phantom wrecks have newly appeared on Michigan's shores, either from suddenly washing up on the beach after a storm, or being uncovered from the sand. For what it's worth, an estimated 6,000 ships have sunk in the Great Lakes since the French first sailed here in the 1600s.

Good thing the water was nice and clear or I could get seriously @#$%ing injured on this fugly torture device...

Finally deciding that I had enough blurry pictures of water, I daintily made my way back to dry land to put my boots and socks back on. My girl had become bored of waiting for me to drown anyway.

Continuing down the beach toward the lighthouse, we kept finding parts of the Jarecki, like this steam fitting:

Lots of evidence of accelerated erosion as well:

Suddenly I was surprised to see another section of the Jarecki that was not completely submerged, but rather had actually acted as a damper to slow the erosion of the beach...

The Jarecki's hull had definitely broken into at least two large pieces, and this was the smaller of the two. At least now you can get a better view of it, and I don't have to get wet again.

There is also some sort of reinforcing iron strapping present as well:

These pieces actually had a bit of a turn-up on their ends, although I am not well versed enough in shipbuilding joinery to know what they are technically called.

Again, keep in mind that the sanding action of the beach surf has reduced the wooden members drastically from their original width and thickness:

Here is a bit more of the wreck immediately nearby, a piece that actually has some of the 3" sheathing planks visible if I'm not mistaken:

You may recall that I have covered similar shipwrecks on Michigan's shorelines in older posts:

Had I not for so long taken these beach wrecks for granted during my travels, I could have documented several more.

Another metal piece of debris, most likely deposited on shore during the salvage operation, since metal components would not have moved far from the original wreck sight without human help:

Finally, the Au Sable Light came into view, meaning our morning trek was near it's end.

It was built from 1873 to 1874, and stands 86 feet tall. More than once the keepers of this light pulled drowning shipwrecked sailors from the icy waters of this hazardous coast. Its mechanism was automated in 1958, and it became an unmanned station thereafter. The nearest Coast Guard Lifesaving Station was at Grand Marais Harbor, to the east.

On a stony cliff, the fog signal building overlooks the famous Grand Marais Dunes in the distance:

Not only do the rocky shallows make for dangerous navigation here, but the point has been known to be unusually foggy as well.

Looking down the tall cliff at the crystal clear water, the stony bottom is perfectly visible even though the water is 15 or 20 feet deep here...those aren't pebbles, they're boulders:

As usual, there never seems to be enough time to see everything that needs to be was time to keep heading home again.

Michigan Ghost Towns of the Upper Peninsula, Roy L. Dodge, p.26
Michigan Shadow Towns, by Gene Scott, p. 172
Submerged Cultural Resources Study Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, by C. Patrick Labadie, p. 95-104 


  1. Alger County, and all 83 Michigan counties have been included in the Michigan County Atlas since 2013. If you send me a mailing address, if I ever receive the pandemic unemployment relief I have applied for, I would be happy to send you the most recent version, published September 2020, in support of your superb publications.
    Sincerely, David M. Brown
    Author, Michigan County Atlas

    1. Thanks again for reading! It's always exciting when one of your heroes comments on your website :)
      I didnt realize that the atlas was still being updated and copy is admittedly pretty old, definitely pre-2013.

  2. I was astonished at how busy the UP campgrounds were this summer. Even most of the little-known inland state forest campgrounds were completely full. My Yooper parents-in-law are not amused.

    1. That is exactly correct. There just was not one single campground space available anywhere, all summer.


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