The Great Lakes of North America (Include the Lake Name)

Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario and their immediate areas

Today in Great Lakes History - UPDATED FREQUENTLY

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August 5, 1821 – The first steamship on the upper Great Lakes, “Walk-in-the-Water,” visited Wisconsin when it arrived in Green Bay from Detroit with 200 passengers. Wisconsin History Day by Day calendar; Ron Larson, McFarland WI

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September 8, 1860 – The Lady Elgin, a wooden-hulled sidewheel steamship sank in Lake Michigan killing 400+ passengers and crew. The paddle steamship had left Milwaukee on September 6 for Chicago loaded with passengers On return to Milwaukee the evening of September 7, gale force winds kicked up. The Lady Elgin was rammed in the middle of the night by the out of control schooner Augusta. 20 minutes later, the she broke apart and quickly sunk. Heavy seas generated a massive surf with a powerful undertow just off shore, crashing most survivors into the rocks. Only 160 were saved. The exact number killed is not known as there was no known count of the number of new passengers boarding in Chicago and the manifest was lost at sea.

The Lady Elgin disaster remains the greatest loss of life on open water in the history of the Great Lakes. More on the Lady Elgin
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October 8, 1871 – a fiery day in Great Lakes history.
photo by Linda Storm

This is the date of the Great Chicago Fire, burning for 2 days and destroying about 4 square miles in Chicago, Illinois. Though the fire was one of the largest U.S. disasters of the 19th century, final estimates of the fatalities ranged from 200–300, considered a small number for such a large fire.

However, some 250 miles north, an even larger conflagration was taking place. What is known as the Peshtigo Fire, the worst recorded forest fire in North American history, raged through Northeastern Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Penninsula. By the time it was over, 1.2-1.5 million acres of forest had been consumed, an area twice the size of Rhode Island. Millions of dollars worth of property and timberland were destroyed. Between 1,200 and 2,500 people are thought to have lost their lives; an accurate death toll has never been determined since local population records were destroyed in the fire. Twelve communities were wiped off the map, including the city of Peshtigo, where the firestorm jumped the Peshtigo River to burn on both sides of the inlet town, killing half of its 1,700 residents. Many survivors escaped by immersing themselves in the river, wells, or other nearby bodies of water. The firestorm was so intense it jumped several miles over Lake Michigan’s Green Bay and burned parts of the Door Peninsula. It generated a tornado that threw rail cars and houses into the air.

Several occurrences provided a ripe environment for a fire of this magnitude. October 8 was preceded be a prolonged and widespread drought and high temperatures, capped off by a cyclonic storm. Also, the area was ripe for burning, thanks to the “slash and burn” clearing methods of logging, farming and railroad. The many sawmills and factories in the region had large piles of logs, lumber, bark and sawdust. Most buildings, boardwalks, sawdust floors and streets in the cities and towns were constructed of wood, the most readily available and cheapest material.

Even though it was much larger, the Peshtigo Fire has held a back seat and was/is largely forgotten to the Chicago Fire. In 1871, Chicago, being one of the largest cities in the U.S. had a better communication system and access to the rest of the world. Peshtigo was a remote frontier town with a single telegraph line that was destroyed by the fire. It took several days for the news to reach the larger cities to the south. When news of the tragedy finally reached Wisconsin’s capital, the Governor and other state officials were in Chicago helping the victims of that fire.

There were also large fires the same day in the cities of Holland, and Manistee, Michigan, on Lake Michigan, and Port Huron at the southern end of Lake Huron. One speculation, first suggested in 1883, is that the occurrence of these fires on the same day was not a coincidence, but were caused by the impact of fragments from Comet Biela. This theory was revived in 1985 and investigated in 2004. The key hypothesis is that methane from the comet provided the fuel for fires across the region to flare out of control.

The National Fire Prevention Week was proclaimed in 1925 by President Calvin Coolidge and is still observed the week of October 9.

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November 1, 1957 - photo by Megan Noble
The Mackinac Bridge opened to connect the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan. Prior to the opening, the two peninsulas were linked solely by ferries. The Mighty Mac spans the Straits of Mackinac, a toll bridge on Interstate 75 (I-75), between the city of St. Ignace on the north end and the village of Mackinaw City on the south. Designed by engineer David B. Steinman, the 5 mile long Mighty Mac, is the third longest suspension bridge in the world.
It was constructed between 1954-57, four summers and no winter construction, at a total cost of 100 million dollars. Six men have lost their lives working on the bridge, five during construction and one in 1997; contrary to popular belief, none of them are entombed in the Bridge. Height of roadway above Water at mid-span is 199 feet; the height of the main towers is 552 feet above water. There are 42,000 miles of cables, over 1 million bolts and nearly 5 million rivets. 11,350 men worked built the bridge on site, at mills and as engineers. Painting the bridge takes seven years, and when complete, it begins again.
The bridge achieved its 100 millionth crossing exactly forty years after its dedication, on June 25, 1998 and its 150 millionth vehicle crossing on September 6, 2009. Over 2.5 million vehicles crossed the Mackinac Bridge in 2009. Speed limit is 45 mph for passenger cars and 20 mph for heavy trucks. The Mackinac Bridge Authority has a free Drivers Assistance Program, which provides a designated driver for those who can’t make it across the Mac on their own. Two vehicles have gone off the bridge, one due to high winds and the other to suicide. One plane has crashed into the bridge (Sept. 10, 1978 in heavy fog, killing 3 Marine Corps Reserve officers.) Two lanes of the bridge are closed to traffic and open to walkers for the Mackinac Bridge Walk on Labor Day, which has been held each year since 1958 and traditionally led by the Governor of Michigan.

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June 16, 1820 – The Treaty of Sault Ste. Marie was signed, ceding 16 square miles of Chippewa land at Sault de St. Marie, in the Territory of Michigan over to the United States for a military reservation. Fort Brady was quickly built as the new Americans were concerned about possible British invasions from nearby Canada.

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September 17, 1960 – photo by John Callan

The first version of the Wawa Goose monument was unveiled at the opening of the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 17) at Wawa Ontario, just minutes from Lake Superior. With Wawa meaning “Wild Goose or Land of the Big Goose” in Ojibway, it makes perfect sense to have a goose welcoming visitors at the entrance of town. The original plaster sculpture did not stand up to local weather and in 1963, a new monument was constructed with steel which was more representative of Wawa and its large iron ore mine. It’s the largest of its kind in Canada and one of the most photographed landmarks in North America. Unfortunately, the Wawa Goose has gotten old and tired; his weary knees can’t handle the long standing periods any longer, not to mention the really cold Canadian winters! A younger gander is needed to take over this important job as Wawa’s welcoming committee so the current Goose can retire. Fundraising is under way to replace the Wawa Goose. Highway 17 is now one of North America’s most scenic drives, a part of the spectacular Lake Superior Circle Tour.

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January 29, 2000 – The first International Chicken Chucking Championship is held at the Niagra River/Lake Ontario community of St. Catharines Ontario. The event was thought up by patrons of the Kilt and Clover tavern over a couple beers (OK, maybe a lot of beer) after realizing that there was not much to do in their Port Dalhousie neighbourhood in the middle of winter. The Kilt and Clover hosts the event and the money raised is given to local charities, such as the food bank and hospice. Chicken Chucking consists of teams of four hurling, pitching or sliding six-pound frozen chickens along ice covered Martindale Pond, similar to curling and shuffleboard. The event has grown to 300-400 people attending. 42 teams of 160 participants from 3 provinces, 4 states, Ireland and England vied for the Chicken Stock Pot Trophy in 2011.

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March 25, 1949 – photo by Jack Ryan

The first Blessing of the Fleet was held in Ashtabula Ohio. The tempered winds on a sparkling Lake Erie gave promise of a delightful spring to come. There were no raucous crowds, no blaring bands, as the graying priest from Mother of Sorrows church, along with two youthful, well-scrubbed acolytes, boarded the tugboat Idaho which carried them to the vessels awaiting their blessing, “Oh God, grant them good speed and an undisturbed journey in company with the holy angel Raphael, and bring them home safely.” In all, twenty-two ships in the harbor were individually blessed. The Blessing of the Fleet continued each year and is now an annual community event sponsored by an organization of all local churches, usually held in May. Prior to the first Blessing of the Fleet, beginning in the 1930’s, the priest at Mother of Sorrows would give local sailors a special Mass, blessing and communion followed by a farewell breakfast in the hope that they would return home from a safe shipping season on the Great Lakes.

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May 5, 1994 – Tom Blake passes away at age 92 in Ashland Wisconsin.
Blake is considered the second most important person ever in the sport of surfing. He was born in Milwaukee (Lake Michigan) and after a difficult childhood, headed west after high school, where he quickly adapted to the California beach lifestyle. He became a vegetarian and pioneer in the health food movement. He trained and became a world class swimmer, setting a world record. While working as a lifeguard at the Santa Monica Swimming Club, Tom found an old surfboard in storage. He paddled out into the surf and after his first successful ride, realized the sport was quite enjoyable. He became fascinated by the history and techniques of surfing. For the next thirty years, Tom lived and traveled between California and Hawaii. Surfboards then weighed between 90 and 150 pounds, some 24 footers weighted as much as 200 pounds. Tom conceived the idea of a lighter-weight hollow surfboard in 1926, a more buoyant and maneuverable board than the solid wood boards. Blake introduced his new board to California at the first Pacific Coast Surfing Championship in 1928 (patent 1931). He was the first to add a fin to a surf board and also designed the rescue paddleboard, sail board and was an innovator in surfing photography. Blake retired from full-time surfing in 1957 and spent the rest of his life mostly in northern Wisconsin, where he surfed the waters of Lake Superior. He is buried on the Lake Superior shore in Washburn Wisconsin overlooking his retirement surfing “ground” of Chequamagon Bay. Hang 10, Tom Blake.

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June 7, 1993

photo by iamwiley -——- & -——- Jack Ryan
Pete Townshend and Chuck Berry broke ground on the shore of Lake Erie in Cleveland Ohio for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. World famous architect I. M. Pei designed the building, a 162 foot tower with a glass pyramid protruding from it. At the September 2, 1995 opening, the ribbon was cut by an ensemble that included Yoko Ono and Little Richard. There are seven levels in the building housing permanent and temporary exhibits documenting the entire history of rock and roll and a special exhibit in the museum’s spire of the honorees inducted into the Hall of Fame. Highlights include performers costumes, 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll, Treasures from the Vault, and the wall signed by all the Hall of Fame inductees.

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July 4, 1997 – Oswald’s Bear Ranch opens to the public near Newberry Michigan, located in an isolated section of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula south of Lake Superior. Dean Oswald was thinking of getting a dog, but decided on a bear instead. The first bear, age 6 weeks, arrived in 1984 and was named unimaginatively, but appropriately … “Bear”. The Oswald’s average 20-30 bears a year at their 80 acre rescue center. Rescued cubs, brought here every year from around North America, are raised inside the Oswald home during their first year. If a suitable home for them is not found (no bear is ever euthanized), there are four large securely fenced natural habitats for the adult bears, including a waterfall habitat. Wide paths provide handicap accessible walkways for visitors. Camera holes are provided in the fencing and photo platforms have been located at three of the habitats. Visitors can hold the cubs for a memorable photo opp. Sadly, the star attraction of the Oswald family passed away in July 2000; Tyson Bear was the largest black bear in the U.S. and possibly the World, certified weight of 880 pounds, pre-hibernation weight 1,000 pounds. Today, Oswald’s Bear Ranch is the largest exclusive bear ranch and rescue sanctuary in the United States. (I got the date from Mr. Ozwald himself!)

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August 12, 1679- 5 days after leaving Niagara Falls aboard The Griffon for uncharted territory, French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, Father Louis Hennepin and 31 crew members arrived at a beautiful lake located between Lake Huron and Lake Erie. He named the body of water Lac Sainte-Claire as the expedition discovered it on the feast day of Saint Clare of Assisi. The historian on the voyage, Louis Hennepin, recorded that the Iroquois called the lake Otseketa. Along with the St. Clair River and Detroit River, Lake St. Clair links the Great Lakes system, Lake Huron to the north and Lake Erie to the south. It is overshadowed by its larger, more famous neighbors and rarely included in the listings of the Great Lakes. It lies between the Province of Ontario and the State of Michigan, its midline forming the boundary between Canada and the United States.
Does anyone have a photo of Lake St. Clair in the gallery?

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September 7, 1860- H.R.H. Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), visited Cobourg Ontario, located on Lake Ontario, on his first Royal tour of Canada and officially opened Victoria Hall (named for his mother Queen Victoria), the city’s magnificent centerpiece built by architect and civil engineer Kivas Tully. The festivities included a gala ball in what is now the Concert Hall where the Prince reportedly “…danced the night away, to the obvious delight of Cobourg matrons.” He was known to be quite the playboy and is rumored to have dallied with several maidens during his visit, that possibly bequeathed more than one genetic legacy. The 4 month tour also included a visit to Niagara Falls.

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August 2, 1901- A New York Times article reports the demise of the once popular tourist attraction that was the smallest of Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. Most people don’t know that there once were 23 Apostle Islands; today, there are 22. Steamboat Island (also called Little Steamboat or Chapman) was just .17 acres and was located just south of what is now called Eagle Island (previously called Steamboat). It was discovered sunk after a storm a few days prior. There was also speculation of an earthquake as the cause. The Marine Record, Vol. 24 (August 8, 1901), gives the following brief statement: “Steamboat Island, one of the Apostle group, off Chequamegon Bay, Lake Superior, has disappeared. Before the last storm and from time immemorial it was a small island of sand and rock overgrown with trees. Now it has gone and a rocky reef several feet under water marks its place.” That rock reef is still visible under the waters of Lake Superior in aerial photographs.
Historic photo of Steamboat Island; notice the man hanging from the top of the bluff.