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The Ontonagon...a river with an ancient past


A DNR Michigan River Assessment...


Ontonagon
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Bond Falls located on the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River shows the virgin beauty of the watershed. Brian Gunderman, DNR Fisheries Biologist photo

August 01, 2009
Imagine if you can, 4,000 ancient copper mines stretching from Ontonagon to Isle Royale. Every modern-day mining endeavor had first been worked by these "Copper Culture People.''

One of their 3,000 year old possible trade routes was evident along the Ontonagon River where a series of stone calendars were verified. Large trade canoes could have traveled from Lake Superior up the Ontonagon River to the first falls, then cargos transferred to smaller canoes for the journey to continue by portages to reach the Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers.

Michigan Prehistory Mysteries II

By Betty Sodders

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ONTONAGON RIVER ASSESSMENT by Brian J. Gunderman and Edward A. Baker, Michigan DNR Fisheries Biologists.

This river assessment is one of a series being prepared by Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Division, for Michigan rivers. (Woods-N-Water News has previously published assessments of the Manistique, Tahquamenon, and Thunder Bay Rivers). This report describes the physical and biological characteristics of the Ontonagon, discusses how human activities have influenced the river, and serves as an information base for future management activities.

During a recent interview, biologist Gunderman stated, "I hope that your article on the Ontonagon River Assessment stimulates more people to take an active role in protecting and rehabilitating this spectacular watershed."

On a more personal note, I grew up in the shadow of this great river and harbor fond memories of fishing its waters as well of other lakes and streams contained in its mighty watershed.

The Ontonagon Watershed:

The Ontonagon River is located in the western Upper Peninsula and drains an area of 1,362 square miles. Its watershed covers portions of Gogebic, Ontonagon, Houghton and Iron counties plus Wisconsin's Vilas County. Although the mainstream (mainstem) is relatively short, the combined length of the Ontonagon and its tributaries is approximately 1,291 miles. Encompassed are 200 lakes within the watershed. Lake Gogebic holds a surface area of over 13,000 acres making it the largest lake in the U.P.

The river flows from south to north and enters Lake Superior at the village of Ontonagon.

River History:

The earliest archaeological evidence of human settlement within the watershed dates back to 2000 BC during the Late Archaic period. Prehistoric copper miners had mined the region for millennia before the first modern mines were developed. Over 5,000 crude prehistoric copper pits were tabulated around Lake Superior with thousands located between Ontonagon and Copper Harbor. Copper in this area was so pure that early peoples could easily shape it into tools by cold hammering. Lake Superior copper artifacts were discovered as far south as Mexico indicating that prehistoric copper miners developed an extensive trade network.

Chippewa (Ojibwa) people occupied the watershed during the 16th or early 17th century, with their main village located at the mouth of the Ontonagon, where during summer months they fished by constructing elaborate weirs on the main stem during lake sturgeon spawning seasons. Sturgeon were allowed to travel upstream, but were hooked as they moved back downstream. These people also planted gardens near the shores of Lake Gogebic. Small hunting parties remained during winters.

French fur traders arrived during the l630s to target beaver from the river they called, Nantonnagun. As the fur trade became better organized, by 1840, following 200 years of exploitation, beaver were nearly extirpated. This event presumably affected the fish communities in the river system through removal of barriers to fish passage (beaver dams) and eventual alteration of both cur-

rent and river channels resulted.

The abundant deposits of mass copper attracted attention from varying early European visitors. In 1670, Father Claude Dablon sent copper samples to Paris. In 1690, Pierre LeSeur started the first modern copper mine in the region. Work was soon abandoned due to personal problems.

Alexander Henry persuaded Chippewa Indian guides to lead him to the site of an immense copper boulder...a giant mass of pure copper that had been crudely hacked at for centuries located on the bank of the West Branch of the Ontonagon. It was estimated to weigh five tons. (This area is now flooded by the Victoria Reservoir). During the winter of 1771-72, Henry and a crew attempted to mine copper near the site of the Ontonagon Boulder, but when a tunnel collapsed, the venture failed.

Henry Rowe Schoolcraft and Douglass Houghton visited the site in 1840. Finally, after years of claims and disputes, the Ontonagon Boulder was removed and today rests in the Smithsonian Institute at Washington, DC.

The real copper rush began in 1847 when Samuel Knapp discovered a series of prehistoric copper pits near present day Rockland. The Minesota (spelling intentional) Mine proved to be the richest project in the region. In operation 22 years, the largest mass of native copper ever recorded was discovered in this mine. It weighed 527 tons and had previously been worked by ancient pit miners.

The copper boom came to a halt in 1865 when the end of the civil war caused copper prices to plummet. Now, the Adventure • Mass • Toltec • Norwhich • Ohio • Trap Rock • Victoria and many others were shut down.

Did copper mining affect the Ontonagon River? Indeed. Trees were cut down to provide mining timbers; roads were constructed to transport ore and supplies; waste rock was surface piled. Such rock held sulphur-bearing minerals that reacted with water to form sulfuric acid and it was likely that some of this mine drainage reached the river system.

Commercial fishing commenced enforce during the mid-1880s near the mouth of the Ontonagon. By 1880, over 130 commercial fishers operated between Ontonagon and L'Anse but those numbers declined after the turn of the century. Just 16 commercial vessels fished out of Ontonagon in the 1930s. Lake trout and lake whitefish made up the bulk of their harvest.

Commercial fishing probably contributed to the extirpation of lake sturgeon, for they were deemed a nuisance because they ruined fishermen's nets. Lake sturgeon were clubbed to death, thrown on land into enormous piles, even used to fire steamboat boilers. Throughout most the Great Lakes region, sturgeon populations had diminished by the end of the 19th century.

Opening the Ontonagon River to commercial shipping traffic was a formidable task. Improvements constructed between 1852 and 1867, were inadequate; finally, by 1880 the huge sand bar was eliminated and channels were deeper and wider. Lights were added and better piers constructed which enabled 121 vessels to sail in and out of the Ontonagon River harbor.

By the mid-1800s a well-connected road system was lacking. During this period, dog sleds were still employed to deliver winter mail from Green Bay to Ontonagon. The first highway in the region was the Military Road which connected Fort Wilkins at Copper Harbor to Fort Howard at Green Bay, Wisconsin. The present trunk line covers the original road from Watersmeet to Rockland through Bruce Crossing. The gorge where Highway M-45 crosses the main stream is still referred to as "Military Hill."

Author's note: I well remember traveling this road during the 1930-l940s with my parents. What a thrill to go down Military Hill and cross the turbulent waters of the Ontonagon during spring run off of winter snows.

The village of Ontonagon entered the logging era with establishment of the Ontonagon Lumber Company on the east bank of the river's mouth. This venture was soon surpassed by the Diamond Match Company who by the mid-1880s owned not only the mills but much of the land within the watershed. Their mills produced 100,000,000 board feet of lumber annually.

Then fire struck. Michigan On Fire by Betty Sodders reports: Fire hastened the decline of pine as the "blue ribbon" crop of the Upper Peninsula forests. As early as 1871, fire swept to the borders of what we now know as the Ottawa National Forest. Fire struck again in 1894 and in 1896. During the latter date, Ontonagon with its sawmill and immense lumberyard was totally devastated...wiped out!

How Did Logging

Affect The River?

Various branches and tributaries of the River system were used to transport logs downstream to the mills. Some companies constructed temporary dams...once enough water was stored behind them, gates were opened and logs were flushed down-

stream. One such dam on the West Branch above Glenn Falls was located in the area currently flooded by the Victoria Reservoir.

Forests had also been replaced by stump fields and slash piles, resulting in accelerated erosion and increased transport of sediment into the waters, which led to changes in current and stream bed structure.

Trees along the waterways were the first to be cut down allowing more sunlight into the rivers causing increases in water temperatures.

The famous log drives altered the course of the Ontonagon River. The rapid release of water from logging dams scoured the banks and streambed downstream. This rush of water, coupled with the "stampede" of logs, caused considerable mortality of fish and aquatic animals. Log jams were common. In 1895, a massive log jam on the mainstream allowed people to walk across the river without getting their feet wet.

The logging industry brought railroads into the watershed. By 1882, the Ontonagon and Brule River Railroad was completed; in 1899 the Milwaukee and Northern Railroad connected with Ontonagon and Brule River line providing Ontonagon County with a direct rail connection to the major lumber markets in Chicago.

The Ontonagon logging era lasted 15 years; although, the industry never ceased logging within the watershed. Today, Logging remains an important industry.

Tourism Enters the Historical Aspect of

the Ontonagon River Watershed:

During the 1930s, the Ottawa National Forest was established. The original land holdings held over 253,000 acres. By 1937, the forest had been expanded to include some one million acres in the western Upper Peninsula. Roughly 50 percent of this land is located within the Ontonagon River watershed.

Tourism was a major contributor to local economy during the last half of the 20th century. The myriad lakes and streams contained in the watershed, coupled with vast tracts of forest, attracted thousands of visitors for hunting, fishing, camping, canoeing and other outdoor pursuits. There has been an increase of area vacation homes throughout the watershed.

A Powerful River Delivers...Power!

The Ontonagon and its tributaries have been used for power generation since the early 1900s. One of the most elaborate energy systems was constructed at the Victoria Mine, located adjacent to Glenn Falls on the West Branch Ontonagon River.

Thomas Hooper, mine superintendent, had a dam built to generate electricity. In 1902 construction of the dam and canal system began. The hydroelectric plant was never built for Hooper had a hydraulic compressor installed instead and the entire project was completed in 1906.

Compressed air was channeled through a series of pipes to provide pneumatic power for the mine and stamp mill. When compressed air production exceeded demands, air was released through a safety "blow-off." (Ice formation around this discharge led to disastrous blow-backs during winters of 1916 and 1930).

After passing through the compressor, the water was released back into the river.

To provide for a more consistent flow at Victoria, the company constructed another dam at the outlet of Lake Gogebic in 1906. Installation of this structure sparked a series of Lake Gogebic water level disputes that continues to this very day.

Next Month...

Part Two:

We will discuss the aspects of the various waters throughout the Ontonagon River watershed; dams that dominate its streams; species of fish and where they may lurk; wildlife along the Ontonagoni plus future plans for this unique watershed. We have a great deal of ground to cover.

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