… in the limelight

BACK THEN • Story by Larry Chabot • Illustrations by Mike McKinney
Escanaba! A resilient Yooper city on Lake Michigan that survived the Great Depression, Prohibition, two world wars, health scares, docks on fire, and other threats.
Various sources mention that Native Americans first occupied the area 5,000 years ago, the first European to appear was explorer Etienne Brule around 1600, and the first permanent settlement was in 1830. Surveyor Eli Royce arrived in 1862, laid out a town and called it Escanawba. When the city was organized in 1863, the “w” was dropped.
The first half of the 20th century saw vigorous growth, high drama, setbacks and rebounds as well as historic firsts. Charles Lindquist, in his History of Escanaba, reported that Escanaba, with its 13,194 residents, was the U.P.’s largest city at one point. By 1915, there were two large movie theaters replacing the little nickelodeon movie machines. The Delft seated 1,000 patrons and the Strand had 750 seats.
A few weeks before the new century dawned came a foretaste of momentous change when a Winston automobile–possibly the first car seen in the U.P.–reached Marquette after a 15-day trip from Cleveland, Ohio. Fueled by common stove gasoline,
the Winston undoubtedly passed through Delta County, startling residents, thrilling little kids, and scaring the horses.
In 1901, a traveling show troupe brought along a one-cylinder machine, which they showed off by sputtering up and down Ludington Street. That same year, Dr. Fred Banks bought a one-cylinder Knoxmobile, the town’s first horseless carriage, from
a Massachusetts manufacturer. A rough road linked Escanaba with Gladstone in 1903, and by 1905 the existence of a narrow, sandy trail from Marquette to Escanaba prompted the Olds Company to send three demo cars. In July, a 24-horsepower Olds
Cleveland left Marquette on a tortuous 10-hour trek to Escanaba, towed the last four miles by a team of horses.
The horses and auto, totally covered with mud, had to be hosed down. In 1906 L.K. Edwards opened Escanaba’s first automobile dealership selling Rambler models.
With the advent of autos, Escanaba replaced fire department’s horses with motorized trucks. The city aldermen chose a $5,750 Kissel Kar, the cost of which caused the closure of one fire station and the laying-off of three firefighters. Street cars that ran between Escanaba and Gladstone–one of the last such systems in the U.P.–were phased out in 1932 after 40 years of service, doomed by the automobile.
As the service ended, a line official claimed there was “no winter storm too severe to prevent the cars from making regular trips.”
More firsts: On July 3, 1911, strapped into a Curtis bi-plane, Harry Cowling soared above Escanaba in the U.P.’s first flight, which ended in a pine tree.
Barnstorming and passenger rides began the same year, continuing into the 1920s.
The peninsula’s first airstrip was laid out in Escanaba. As early as 1925, former Army pilot Wally Arntzen was offering flying lessons and rides.
In addition, radio stations were popping up beginning in 1922, but the first licensed broadcast station in the U.P. was WRAK (1170 on your dial), which aired from March 1923 until 1927. (Those call letters now belong to a Pennsylvania station).
And one more first: In 1958, Escanaba was the first U.P. city with direct-dial telephone service. Its phone system had been around since 1889, and by 1958 had 6,000 subscribers. Don’t know how to dial? No problem: Michigan Bell held dialing
classes. The fabled telephone operators (“Number please”) faded into history.
Escanaba’s Ludington Park was doubled in size and designed like classy Chicago parks, thanks to the government’s Works Progress Administration. Michigan’s long-time Attorney Frank Kelley always directed his driver to cruise through the park, and he’d ask, “Do the people of Escanaba realize what a beautiful park they have here?”

An Escanaba girl was said to have had a fever that reached 114 degrees, a temperature that kills. A suspicious doctor peeked in the room and caught her pressing the thermometer against her hot-water bottle.


Typhoid fever–a disease contracted by drinking infected liquids–was a major threat, and Escanaba was not spared as the disease ravaged the nation. The most feared and famous American carrier was Mary Mallon, a New York cook, who was blamed for 53 cases and three deaths. She’s forever known as Typhoid Mary.
The year 1904 found Escanaba in the grip of typhoid fever. As of April 16, more than 60 people had died in the previous six weeks. Residents were urged to boil their water, and schools advised to use spring or artesian water. Suspicion fell on the city water supply when it was found that Little Bay de Noc was contaminated from sewage discharged into the same spot from which intake water was drawn…

Material from files of the Escanaba Daily Press, Marquette Mining Journal, and the books of Clint Dunathan, Charles Lindquist, and this writer.

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