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History & Heritage as Told Through Our Industry

Posted on September 27th, 2018

Every town has a story. Every dot on the map is there for a reason. A town may have been established as a major place of commerce, or located along a wagon route rich with a necessary resource like fresh water, or exist simply because it was halfway between here and there. 

Alpena’s story is rich with heritage and a changing cultural landscape that is both interesting and intriguing. This cozy Northeast Michigan community has had a knack for reinvention and the history books are dotted with the lineage of trailblazing pioneers who refused to let the town die. Inventive entrepreneurialism has led the charge whether it be making paper from logging industry byproducts at Fletcher Paper Company; or, making the first American-made dresses for Paris, France at the Alpena Garment Company, the largest plant of its kind in 1926. Here is a snapshot of notable industry that has helped shape the face of the Alpena area.

Piepkorn Brothers Fish Company net menders 1922; Courtesy Fred Trelfa Collection

Fishing

Thunder Bay Island was the first place to be inhabited by settlers in the Alpena area and everything revolved around fishing. By 1845, a small fishing village was established on Thunder Bay Island with about 160 inhabitants and a fleet of 31 fishing boats in operation. By 1846, the first store, in what would later become Alpena County, was constructed on the island and this fishing community had harvested 12,000 barrels of fish for the year. The inhabitation of the island was short-lived as it became federally-owned, and the villagers were forced to relocate to nearby Sugar Island. For many years Alpena was the chief commercial fishing port on Lake Huron and ranked with the largest on all of the Great Lakes.

Fishing is still at the core of our being here in the Alpena area, and you will find people fishing all over the region across the many inland lakes, the big Lake Huron, the river systems, and even in the middle of the city from bridges and lookout platforms. Alpena’s original industry continues to be an activity that is passed on through the generations. Visit Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan to see the “Katherine V”, an authentic big lake fishing tug retired from service. 

Early loggers; Courtesy Besser Museum

Logging Boomtown

Lumbering was one of the fist nationally-significant industries to transpire in the Alpena area after fishing. The timber harvest began in southern Michigan and Ohio, and as more timber was needed to construct major cities such as Chicago, resources depleted rapidly. This led to the logging boom in Northeast Michigan. Large tracts of timber-rich land were logged and the spoils of the effort were floated down Thunder Bay River to the mouth of Thunder Bay in Alpena. The harbor was busy seeing as many as 1,500 to 2,000 ships docking annually to load logs and lumber products to ship out to the rest of the growing nation. Lumber barons (logging company and landowners) were among the first to provide the City of Alpena with basic infrastructure and services such as roads and stores.

Logging operations were at a peak from 1836 through 1921, and the thriving lumber trade birthed many small towns along the coast such as Bell. This small village lying on the False Presque Isle Harbor was once home to Presque Isle Brick & Lumber Co., McIntyre Lumber Camp, and a few more, from the mid/late 1800’s. At its peak, the town was bustling with workers and included hotels, fully stocked stores with sleeping quarters above, mills, and a dozen or more other buildings. Immigrants came from far and wide to work at these lumbering mills to build up towns as well as new beginnings for their families.

Today, Bell is a ghost town. Nothing remains except a tall stone chimney, a bronze dedication plaque, a few other building remnants, and an old cemetery; which has been lovingly cared for by Presque Isle area citizens. More history about the lumber-era can be explored at Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan. 

Manufacturing/Mining

As the lumber boom started to fizzle, residents of Alpena refused to give up. Earning the nickname “The Boom Town that Forgot to Bust”, Alpena reinvented her industry as big timber harvest days started to dwindle so residents could continue to live in this 4-season Oasis of the North. The early 1900’s brought manufacturing into the area and it is still considered one of Alpena’s top sources of employment. Two major corporations of note have made a significant impact on the economy of Alpena throughout their interesting years. 

Huron Portland Cement Company; Courtesy Besser Museum

Mining

Raw product mining for the cement making process earned Alpena the name “Cement City” in the early 1900’s. As demand for lumber diminished and over-harvest of the resource left vast fields of stumps in its wake, times were changing and opportunities for new building materials began to surface. Notable Lumber Barons joined together to form the Alpena Portland Cement Company in 1899. Sequentially, the Huron Portland Cement Company was created to make something of the waste from the Michigan Alkali Company which produced soda ash for the manufacture of glass. The answer was cement.  Huron Portland Cement overshadowed Alpena Portland Cement Company which closed for maintenance in 1909 and never reopened. The Huron Portland Cement Company came under the management of Lafarge Corporation in 1986 and mining operations at the site continue today. 

The Lafarge limestone quarry operation in Alpena was at one time the largest cement plant in the world. Today it is the second largest. Limestone quarry operations continue in the Alpena and Presque Isle area under the LafargeHolcim name. You can see massive freighters pulling into dock from Lake Huron on an almost daily basis, and you can view the quarry from a lookout point along Wessel Road. Tours of the Alpena quarry are also available at LafargeHolcim by calling (989) 354-4171.

Jesse Besser inside plant; Courtesy Besser Museum

Concrete Block Making Technology

Perhaps with inspiration sparked by Herman Besser’s involvement with the Alpena Portland Cement company, Jesse Besser, Herman’s son, developed the first hand-tamp block machine in 1904. This technology, seemingly simple by today’s standards, revolutionized the block-making industry and Besser Company was born. In 1924, the production of the Automatic Plain Pallet Stripper Tamper made it possible to produce all styles of block and brick in one pallet, another major victory in the block-making business. Besser Company briefly shifted 80% of its operation to service war contracts during World War II. During the early 1940’s, Besser Company manufactured many parts and pieces of the United States Navy.

Today, over 110 years later, Besser Company continues to raise the bar in the block-making industry with new inventions and locations worldwide; with international headquarters right here in Alpena, Michigan. See the original machine at Besser Museum for Northeast Michigan

Katherine V in Lake Huron; Courtesy Besser Museum

Shipwreck Alley

As a direct result of Alpena’s port position as a major hub of commerce on the Great Lakes, the economic growth is also reflected in the waterway traffic that pre-dated roadway infrastructure on land. From exploration and fishing, to lumber and the movement of people and product, the port of Alpena was always buzzing with shipping activity. The trifecta of economic growth, prolific shipping activity, and unpredictable weather patterns and water navigation led to the demise of many vessels carrying goods and people to and from various places on the Great Lakes in the U.S. and Canada. The remains of wooden schooners, modern freighters, and everything in-between can be found in the water graves of “Shipwreck Alley”; a nickname given to the Thunder Bay area due to its rocky underwater limestone shoals, various small islands, heavy traffic, and infamous storms known to take ships under without fair warning.

Over 70 shipwrecks reside at the bottom of Lake Huron within  the vicinity of the Thunder Bay alone. The oldest known shipwreck in Thunder Bay lies in only 13 ft. of water; the New Orleans, a wooden paddle steamer that ran aground in 1849. The most recent wreck occurred in 1966 when the German freighter, Nordmeer, ran aground northeast of Thunder Bay Island. This ship used to stick up over the water line, but has since submerged due to the pressures of time and winter ice.

Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary protects the shipwrecks laying off the coast of Northeast Michigan, as nowhere else has a collection of nationally-significant shipwrecks this varied or pristinely preserved. Visit the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center to learn how shipping played a significant role in the development of Alpena and the United States. Round out your history tour with a trip on board the Lady Michigan glass-bottom boat where you will visit and view some of the wrecks in Lake Huron without getting wet.