By Steve Ellis
Every July, I head up to the Upper Peninsula with a group of old friends. One of our favorite destinations is Calumet in the Keweenaw Peninsula – a 570-mile drive from Kalamazoo.
A couple summers ago, we stayed at the historic Michigan House (circa 1895) in the heart of Calumet. The main floor houses the Michigan House Café and Red Jacket Brewing Company. Our two cozy rooms on the second floor (the Angler Suite) cost the five of us a total of about $400 for 4 nights.
Calumet (once known as Red Jacket) was a booming city. Laurium, about a mile away, was originally known as Calumet and is where football legend George Gipp is from.
The area’s growth was due to the rich copper mines – the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company produced more than half of the country’s copper from 1871 through 1880. The mines brought thousands of European immigrants to the area.
By 1900, Calumet and the nearby mining towns had a population of 25,991. In 1913, the area suffered from a large copper strike and the population began to decline.
In the same year, the town was the site of the horrible Italian Hall Disaster. Striking miners and their families were gathered on Christmas Eve for a party in the Italian Hall, when the cry of “fire” started a stampede that claimed 73 victims, the majority of them children.
The Hall has since been torn down but the front entrance was saved and the spot where the building stood is now a memorial to those that lost their lives.
Over the years, the mines continued to decline and the last one closed in 1968. The once booming town of Calumet now has a population of about 700 and sits on over 2,000 miles of underground mine shafts, empty for many decades.
Although the mines and many of the gorgeous downtown buildings have closed, their beauty and classic architecture can still be appreciated.
Calumet’s downtown is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the U. S. National Park Service has deemed the area a Keweenaw National Historical Park.
Their two main National Park museums include: the Calumet Visitors Center in the Union building – a gorgeous multi-floored building, filled with examples of what life was like in the booming mine era, and The Quincy Unit, commemorating the 9,000-foot deep Quincy Mine shaft.
The Quincy Mine is open for tours. We enjoyed wandering the grounds and going in several of the old buildings. On our next visit, we will take the “cog rail tram” down the side of the mountain and into one of the old mines.
Downtown Calumet has several great stores and attractions including Copper World that opened in 1974 and is a treasure trove of copper mining history, featuring many copper gifts along with the largest selection of books and DVD’s about the region’s history. Copper World was voted “Best Gift Shop” by Lake Superior Magazine.
Hahn Hammered Copper is very cool shop full of artifacts from the area and creations made of copper.
Cross Country Sports, a great bike shop, was right next door to where we stayed and was a hub of activity all day long. The personable owner told us about the great mountain bike trails at Swedetown which we rode a few times as well as the much more challenging trails in Copper Harbor which we decided to pass on.
Café Rosetta was the morning gathering place for locals and tourists.
We kept an eye on the massive Vertin Building that was once a large department store with many locations in the Upper Peninsula. The building was located just across the street from our lodging. Owner Mary Sue Hyslop has filled the many-floored building with antiques, art and a little bit of everything else. She is a “champion” for Calumet and gave us great tips on local dining choices.
One of our favorites was Camelitas, a very good Southwestern grille with outdoor seating.
Another attraction was the restored Calumet Theatre. It opened as an opera house in 1900 and performers such as Lillian Russell, Sarah Bernhardt and Douglas Fairbanks Sr. once graced its stage. The theatre now shows movies, holds plays and has concerts.
Any visit to Calumet is not complete without a visit to Shute’s Saloon. Originally opened in the late 1800’s, the place hearkens back to the Copper Country’s boomtown days, with its restored original back bar and elaborate stained-glass canopy.
A few days in Calumet will give you a great sense of what it would have been like living in this gorgeous and remote area more than a century ago.
By Steve Ellis