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How wild is the Tahquamnon?


An Assessment Report of the Tahquamenon River



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A log jam on the Upper Tahquamenon Falls in 1904. Carol Taylor photo.
January 01, 2009
The Tahquamenon River watershed is very natural, with a landscape mixture of upland and lowland conifers and hardwoods, wetlands and marshes. Designated wetlands (actual or potential) make up roughly half of this 506,600-acre watershed. Urban development is restricted or impossible in many of the wetland areas, which serve to further maintain the watershed's natural condition.

Special Report 45

James R. Waybrant,

Senior Fisheries Biologist

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Troy G. Zorn,

Fisheries Research Biologist

The Tahquamenon's huge central marsh and wetland area tends to protect this region from excessive human development. The watershed remains very natural; forests and wetlands make up about 90 percent of the area. Roughly one-half of the watershed is comprised of a large wetland complex located in the center and following the mainstream. (The report refers to the mainstream as mainstem).

The Tahquamenon River drains a modest watershed of 790 square miles, mostly located in Luce County. A few tributaries originate in northwest Mackinac County and western Chippewa County. Its mainstem flows 87 miles in a generally easterly direction and drains into Lake Superior in western Whitefish Bay. Five segments are described in this special report; namely from its headwaters to Lake Superior; Upper River, Dollarville, Marsh Drainage, Middle River and Lower River. A sixth segment discusses the East Branch separately due to its fishery values, land ownership, and Natural and Scenic designation.

During the past several years, we have presented various other MDNR Fisheries reports. Two that quickly come to mind involved the Manistique River; the other, Lake Gogebic. As previously presented, this special report will cover: History, Geology, Land Use, Dams and Barriers, Wildlife and Fish Communities, Recreational Usage. Several management options will also be discussed.

Tahquamenon Watershed History...Colorful to say the least:

Native American Occupation: Upland areas of the watershed have long been occupied by Native American tribes, although the only permanent village recorded was located near the mouth of the river. These peoples were Ojibwa, now called Chippewa.

Their basic needs centered on hunting and fishing activities rather than agricultural pursuits. Trade occurred at Sault Ste. Marie, which was but a small village during 1664.

Early Indian Trails: The Tahquamenon natives often used their ancient trails, although they were indeed rare within the watershed due to the swampy conditions. A map compiled by Hinsdale in 1931 showed few trails within the Tahquamenon watershed; however, a main pathway to the interior of the peninsula led from the Sault southwest to the Tahquamenon near the mouth of the Hendrie River, and a trail still detectable in the 1920s led from the west end of Hulburt Lake south to Big Carp Lake near the present site of Trout Lake Village. Yet another trail connected the river with the Manistique Lakes to the southwest, and a well-used portage existed between the East Branch Fox River and the Upper Tahquamenon near King's Creek.

Legend: "Tahquamenon" literally means "our woman" in Ojibwa. One of their legends is about a woman who was in love with a man she could not be with, and she ended up throwing herself over the Tahquamenon Falls. To this day, it is believed that her ghost, wearing a white buckskin dress, can still be seen near the falls.

Prominent Indian Chiefs: Chief Shingabawossin, "Image Stone," was the most important figure after 1800. He was the leading chief of the Upper Peninsula prior to his death in 1828. His advice to young warriors; "Live in peace and follow the chase." His influence and concerns were reflected in many of the treaties signed after his death.

As the days of the Native American fades...the logging industry moves in: The Tahquamenon area retained much of its solitude into the 1830. River access was always poor, as extensive marshes made walking to open water very difficult in all but several rare spots. From the 1830s into the 1860s, native trails gradually became wider and more defined by increased European traffic. But these people were not attracted to the land as much as the timber. In late 1800s, many loggers and lumbermen used the river in one way or another in promotion of their fortunes or ill fortunes.

Early logging on the Tahquamenon: Lumbering the Tahquamenon was big business. Some of the river's former landmarks are still evident today: County Road 422 Bridge (High Fill), Dollarville (now a ghost town), Underwood's Fur farm (muskrats), Newberry Lumber and Charcoal Company's railroad trestle (only pilings remain), McPhee's Landing (6 miles downriver from Newberry), Deadman's Farm (5 miles downstream from McPhee's). McNearney's farm was located about 3 miles below the mouth of the East Branch and was the headquarters of Dawson Timber Company during 1872-79. Through-out logging history accountings, very few mentions of hewing square logs to be sent to England are mentioned. Timber was squared and rafted by Dawson Timber as then the logs were easier to transport to England.

It is also interesting to note that the Tahquamenon River Improvement Company's (Newberry) first project was to blast a channel in the riverbed above the Upper Tahquamenon Falls during the year 1882-83. This channel was 0.5 miles long, up to 4 feet deep and some 80 feet wide. The new channel also eliminated a 2 foot waterfall upstream of the Upper Falls. The blasting project resulted in permanent modification of the river channel. Its purpose? Provide an easier flow for transporting logs to the mouth of the river. But, the Upper Falls still remained a barrier to log movement and was the most dangerous site on the river to work logs. In 1982, a logger named Morett, built a floating bridge at the top of the falls to prevent loss of stray barges and it was believed it would help to keep loggers from going over the falls.

Note: Let me digress just a moment. Local Newberry historian, Sprague Taylor (deceased) put together a stunning book affording his insight to the Tahquamenon country and the people that became part of its unique his story. Taylor's wife, Carol, contributed many of the photos appearing in this special report. The ones showing the log jams at the Upper Falls (1904) show the problems early loggers faced when running logs on the Tahquamenon. (See sidebar for review of Taylor's book with ordering information supplied).

Lumbering on the East Branch of the Tahquamenon and on the Hendrie: Logs were driven on the East Branch as early as 1890. Cornelius Bennett had a lumber and shingle mill on the river just north of Seewhy with a railroad spur to the DSS&A (now known as the Soo Line) prior to World War I. A long corduroy logging road crossed this river a mile northeast of Hulbert. A log rollway was evident on the East Branch near the mouth of Big Beaver Creek in 1890. A great deal of the East Branch was channelized to facilitate the movement of logs. Today, it has returned to its natural state, as it was prior to the logging endeavor.

The Hendrie River flows into the Tahquamenon about one mile upstream from the East Branch. McLeod Lumber Company used the river from 1905 to 1915. Following the logging era, McLeod had visions of land promotion as the black mud flats in the Tahquamenon flood plain were noted for their ability to raise bumper crops of celery, cabbage, and lettuce. Results of his efforts are still visible today, in the Big Ditch of the Sage River system and McLeod's Ditch in the Hendrie River system.

A century after the dredging, the marshland has never drained, the original stream channels still exist concurrently with the ditches, and little sediment erosion damage to the Tahquamenon River exists. The mouths of both the Sage and Hendrie rivers discharge into deep holes in the Tahquamenon which hold good numbers of muskellunge, northern pike, yellow perch, and walleyes.

Newberry became the heart of the Tahquamenon lumbering era: Newberry was platted as a village in 1885. A charcoal furnace company employed up to 600 men...it closed in 1945. Charcoal iron was another name for crudely smelted iron. Due to this industry, the demand for hardwood was enormous. Example: During one week in June 1886, 31,899 bushels of charcoal were required for the production of 329 tons of pig iron.

The CCC leaves its mark on the Tahquamenon country: The CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) provided the labor force for an enormous reforestation effort in this watershed. Crews from camps Strongs and Newberry concentrated on reforestation effort, while the Paradise camp built M-123 from Paradise to the Upper Falls. Statewide, Michigan held 102,814 CCC participants who fought forest fires, replanted trees, stocked fish, built truck trails, bridges and park buildings.

Historical Summary: Although Native Americans resided around the perimeter of the watershed, they were not able to live along much of the mainstem, due to an extensive contiguous marsh system. Even so, the mainstem was an important canoe route from the Fox River system to the west. Early Europeans likewise generally stayed out of the watershed's interior. It was only when lumbermen arrived that humans penetrated the watershed in large numbers. When that era ended, the river again became quite isolated from human activity. (Once again, "How wild is the Tahquamenon?")

Geology: The River and most of its tributaries originate in coarse glacial outwash materials, flowing down relatively steep gradients. The watershed contains a distinctive mix of natural landscapes due to its unique post-glacial history. Most rivers in Michigan continued to erode deeper channels as glacial lake levels receded and crustal rebound occurred. Down cutting of the Tahquamenon River's channel, however, essentially stopped at locations where river met the sandstone escarpment at the Upper and Lower falls. Much of the area upstream, being flat from the former glacial lakebed, remained poorly drained and became an extensive complex of marshes and swamps connected by the river network.

...Small lakes and extensive marshes cover 47 percent of the watershed and almost every tributary flows through a wetland before entering the mainstem. These wetlands reduce flooding and augment low flows by storing water and slowly releasing it, and serve as "living filters" to remove nutrients and some chemicals from precipitation runoff. Except for the village of Newberry, there is little modern-day enterprises to modify river hydrology.

Geography: The Tahquamenon River watershed is located in the north central portion of the Eastern Upper Peninsula. It originates from the three Tahquamenon Lakes which occur about one half mile east of the border between Alger and School-craft counties. (Note: Jim Waybrant advised that these lakes often flood together during spring runoffs). From there, the river flows 87 miles to Lake Superior.

Sixty-seven tributaries (376 total miles) flow directly or indirectly into

the Tahquamenon. The best known are the East Branch, Hendrie River, Sage River, and Murphy Creek.

Dam the Tahquamenon: There are only seven dams in the watershed. Three were built and maintained by MDNR fisheries Division, and the ponds are managed as brook trout fisheries. Two additional small dams are privately owned. They each impound four acres. Fish surveys have shown brook trout populations at sites downstream from each dam. The 61-acre Halfway Lake and its lake level control dam are privately owned, and situated in the headwaters of Auger Creek. Dollarville Dam impounds 1,100 acres and was cooperatively built by local residents, state, and federal authorities.

Archeology: The office of the State Archaeologist, Michigan Historical Center, has records for 109 archaeological sites that lie within the Tahquamenon River drainage. Only two percent are related to Native American occupation; the remainder date to mid-to late-nineteenth century or early-twentieth century and are associated with European development of the region.

Although early human settlement of the Upper Peninsula began about 8,000 years ago, the earliest sites found so far in the Tahquamenon area date to the last 2,000 years, during the Woodland period. These sites include small camps, a larger village near the mouth of the river, and quarries where chert was collected for making stone tools. These peoples fished, hunted moose and deer, made pottery. It is interesting to note that these early fishermen made their own spears, harpoons, fishhooks, ice fishing lures, gill nets, dip nets and fish weirs. Lake sturgeon and whitefish were smoked and stored for winter.

Note: Sites on state lands and the artifacts found there are the property of the State of Michigan. Those on National Forest lands are Federal property.

Next month...Part two of this special Report on the Tahquamenon River Watershed will touch base on the geology of the land, seasonal flow stability, channel gradient classifications, fish and wildlife communities, fisheries management, plus what the future holds for the Tahquamenon and its tributaries.

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