… 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.
Typhoid hit again the next year. “Hardly a day passes without a death,” noted the press. Again, the culprit was sewage: two discharge outlets into the bay were sandwiched around the fresh water intake. Off-shore winds and swirling water currents made it worse. Finally, the city bought the water plant from the owner, thus ending “an ugly period in history.”
Another epidemic–the worldwide influenza plague, which killed up to 40 million people–cut a mean path through the U.P. An October 1918 newspaper headline told the sad tale: “Everything In Escanaba Is Closed.”
In another health case receiving wide coverage, an Escanaba girl recorded temperatures of 114 degrees, high enough to kill.
Thousands of articles chronicled the miracle. Doctors and reporters crowded into town for a look. Then a Chicago physician, smelling something fishy, peeked into the girl’s room and caught her pressing a thermometer against a hot water bottle, and then popping it into her mouth. Once exposed, the girl and her mother left town.

Prior to prohibition, alcohol was legal and universally available. In Escanaba and other communities, spirits sales were an important and profitable part of the scene, even though continually attacked for decades by temperance societies for ruining drinkers and their families. In 1901, the new Richter Brewing Company opened a four-story plant downtown and hired away rival Escanaba Brewing’s chief brewer. By 1905, Escanaba boasted 105 saloons.
Individual states and counties imposed their own prohibition in the years before 1920, but enforcement was spotty. Then the axe fell with passage of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibited manufacture, sale, and transport of alcoholic beverages. (Note: it never banned drinking them). The law was widely ignored. People made their own beverages for sale to others (bootlegging).
They drank in illegal taverns (speakeasies). Hurley, Wisconsin supposedly had a saloon hidden behind every door on its five-block-long main street.
Prohibition hit Escanaba in the wallet. In 1918, city revenues from liquor licenses were $100,000, but Prohibition created a $30,000 deficit. Although some cities (like Gladstone) began taxing the so-called “soft drink parlors” that had suddenly materialized,
Escanaba chose not to, but did force the phony soda shops to remove the curtains and blinds, which prevented the police from peeking in. Police promised not to raid private homes, but did follow up on tips. One led them to a suspicious warehouse, but no booze. A surprise return raid a few days later turned up thousands of bottles, which had previously been hidden. The great experiment ended in 1933 with the repeal of the 18th amendment; by then the country was in the grip of the worldwide Great depression.
As economic woes deepened, the county poorhouse burned to the ground in February of 1930, forcing the evacuation of 65 bed-ridden residents. Except for exposure to freezing temperatures, there were no injuries. Taxi companies and private citizens drove the residents to other shelters.
By 1934, 43 percent of Delta County residents (13,750 people) were on welfare.
This proportion was slightly below the U.P.-wide average, but almost double the national percentage. Like many U.P. jails, the local lockup was filled with drifters in the early 1930s. Young unemployed men were being recruited for Civilian Conservation Corps camps, of which Delta County had six: at Garth, Ensign, Nahma, Sandstrom, Polack Lake, and Mormon Creek.
U.P. residents on welfare could get a fresh start in a Federal program offering land in the fertile Matanuska Valley of Alaska. The plan was to grow enough food to make Alaska self-sufficient. A total of 203 welfare families from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota moved there, including 34 U.P. families.
Among those heading north were Paul and Violet Parlette of Rapid River. The results were mixed, and many of the pioneers eventually returned to their homes.

An image from the launching of the Escanaba Coast Guard cutter in 1932.

After Delta County lost 37 servicemen in World War I, clouds formed again as the 1940s neared. This time the toll would be much higher. With a military draft in place, Rapid River teacher Lawrence Klug came home from school one day in 1940 to learn that he was the first county draftee. Second was Waldo “Punch” Johnson, an equipment operator for the Forest Service.
Delta sent an estimated 4,800 men and women to the service in World War II, leading to a population drop of 17 percent by mid-war. The county lost at least 177 men in the war, who died in 50 different places, from Belgium to Burma, Italy to Iwo Jima. More died in France–29–than in any other country. Escanaba lost 84 men, Gladstone 37. When the War Department offered to bring back the remains of those buried in foreign cemeteries, 37 Delta County families accepted the offer.
Vignettes from the war: Escanaba diver Dale Vinette earned the Navy Cross for rescuing 33 sailors from a submarine 320 down near Japan…Lt. George Smokovich survived two ship sinkings…James Boyle, recovering from wounds in a New Zealand hospital, looked up to see First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt approaching…Lt. George Labre, while a Secret Service agent, was assigned to protect one of the President Roosevelt’s sons. Labre was later killed in Belgium…Admiral Rintoul Whitney and General Emil Lenzer were among 13 U.P. admirals and generals.
The Bizeau family of Gladstone had five sons in uniform…James Krause and John Birkenheimer of Escanaba died as prisoners of war…Merchant Marine sailors Lloyd Mercer, Robert Radel, and John L. Johnson were lost at sea…Military police from an Ironwood training camp brought a display of 200 pup tents and 100 vehicles to Army Day in Escanaba…A group of German prisoners of war, destined for U.P. detention camps, were temporarily housed in the Escanaba jail.

Since the 1880s, Escanaba was the largest iron ore shipping port in the world until surpassed by Two Harbors, Minnesota in about 1900. All the docks were owned by Northwestern, which had five by 1900. Then St. Paul built two and Northwestern added another in the 1900s. St. Paul closed its structures in the 1930s but continued to ship ore through Northwestern until razing its docks in 1940.
A major 1924 dock fire took the life of foreman George Ingram, who died when a rope he was climbing burned through and dropped him into the flames. Dock-worker Sherman Serre saved himself by jumping 80 feet into the water. Thousands of spectators lined the shore to watch the blaze, their faces reddened by the glare.
A big federal dock project early in World War II had a huge impact on the local economy by creating 2,000 jobs. Michigan Governor Harry Kelly declared the project a defense area, which limited access and kept pleasure and fishing boats at least 500 feet from the facility. The project was halted later in the war, but Northwestern’s docks continued shipping millions of tons of iron ore to defense plants.
Otherwise, the area was humming with activity. Major manufacturers and employers included Escanaba Woodenware (started in 1895), Birds Eye Veneer, and Escanaba Paper Company, whose presence, according to local boosters, “put Escanaba on the map as a manufacturing city.” Some say that the bustling city by the lake was second only to Sault Ste. Marie in business growth.
There was major excitement in Gladstone in 1931 when Henry Ford announced that the city had been chosen for a major industrial development.
Gladstone celebrated with a “Ford Day” featuring 2,000 marchers, 20,000 spectators, five bands and numerous floats. Ford bought property and predicted 5,000 jobs. But nothing happened; nothing but silence. After 16 years he sold off the land.

In 1912, the liner Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking with it 23 people heading for the U.P. Among the dead was Alfons de Pelsmaeker, a weaver from Belgium en route to Gladstone to join his brother…
In 1929, Escanaba High School students voted Eskymos as the name of their sports teams, beating out Hilltops and Highlanders on the ballot…
Fine Escanaba veneer enhanced the woodwork in the historic passenger ship Queen Mary and in Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose airplane, the world’s largest wooden airplane; both are berthed at Long Beach, California…
The first U.P. State Fair in 1928 showcased auto and horse racing, cow calling, a carnival and circus, and a vaudeville show.
If events illustrate the grit of this city by the lake, consider the actions of two World War II ships that bore its proud name.
The USS Escanaba, a l65-foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter launched in 1932, served as an escort for ship convoys to Europe. In February 1943, the Escanaba was escorting the troop ship USS Dorchester when the latter was torpedoed by a German submarine near Greenland. The Escanaba, using a rescue technique in which crewmen swam to those in the water and attached a lifeline, rescued 133 of them. (674 perished, including the famed Four Chaplains). Four months later, on another convoy trip, the Escanaba blew up, either from a mine or torpedo. Only two crewmen out of 105 survived; within weeks, the two were touring the U.P. on a war bond drive. Meanwhile, the people of Grand Haven, the Escanaba’s home port, raised a million dollars to pay for a replacement cutter.
The second vessel was the armed cargo ship Escanaba Victory, which survived 47 grueling days of combat duty in the Pacific, delivering troops and supplies and supporting American landings. Standing off the Philippines in late 1944, she used deck guns to defend herself and other U.S. vessels against Japanese kamikaze suicide aircraft.
Her official Navy commendation stated that every gun was blazing at a kamikaze as it headed for the Escanaba Victory and her dangerous cargo. The gallant crew “remained steadfast in the face of almost certain death” as the attacking plane crashed into the sea.
Her fighting spirit “reflect the highest credit upon the United States Navy.”
Enough said!
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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