2005-08-13 / Columnists

Island Coal Dock Recalls Harbor’s Hard-Working Past

A Look at History Coal Dock
By Frank Straus

A Look at History
Coal Dock


In the background one can see the Bennett (formerly Dousman) Dock, with two long sheds on it. The center dock is the present Arnold Transit (formerly Hurlbert) Dock, which was built in 1852. The dock in the foreground was the government dock serving the fort. At the head of that dock is the federal customs house. This picture is prior to 1870. (Photograph courtesy of TomPfeiffelmann)In the background one can see the Bennett (formerly Dousman) Dock, with two long sheds on it. The center dock is the present Arnold Transit (formerly Hurlbert) Dock, which was built in 1852. The dock in the foreground was the government dock serving the fort. At the head of that dock is the federal customs house. This picture is prior to 1870. (Photograph courtesy of TomPfeiffelmann) Although the pile of coal that once sprawled across it disappeared more than 30 years ago, most Islanders still call the finger just west of the Arnold Line Dock the Coal Dock. This summer, the old Coal Dock is undergoing extensive renovation. Still an essential part of Mackinac Island life, the dock now serves as the site of the Island’s hardware store.

Although the Coal Dock has been owned by the Arnold Line system for more than 100 years, it was built separately from the Arnold Dock and competed with the larger pier through the 1800s. During the years after the Civil War, the Coal Dock was owned by Captain James Bennett and was known as Bennett’s Wharf. (The Arnold Dock was then called Hoban’s Wharf.)

In 1876 and 1877, the cargo schooner La Petite sailed to ports all over the upper Great Lakes in search of job cargoes. Her captain, Oscar B. Smith, kept a log in which he described his three calls at the Coal Dock during these two summers. Let’s climb on board La Petite as she carries a cargo of coal to Mackinac Island.

Nineteenth-century schooners did not have auxiliary engines, and had to hire a tugboat or wait for the wind conditions to be right when entering or leaving a harbor. As our feet begin to feel the swell of Lake Erie rocking the schooner, we notice that she is riding a bit low in the water, loaded with 334 tons of Ohio soft coal consigned to James Bennett. The sails come down at the mouth of the Detroit River as we help attach the towline. A hard-working steam tug will pull our schooner up past the small, thriving city of Detroit, through the often-becalmed waters of tiny Lake St. Clair, and help us buck the current of the St. Clair River up past Port Huron.

In Lake Huron, a favorable southwest breeze catches hold of our mainsail and jib, but the breeze brings an ugly smell with it. An aged deckhand doubles over in a fit of phlegmatic coughing as an ashen odor envelops the lake. It is the 1870s, the decade of forest fires on the Upper Lakes. “Could not see anything; there is so much smoke,” Captain Smith writes in his log. “The timber is all afire in all parts of the pine country.”

As the La Petite approaches the dangerous Straits of Mackinac, it is night and the haze thickens. Sighting the small lighthouse on the northern shore of Bois Blanc, Captain Smith gives the order to ‘heave to.’ The La Petite will have to wait until well past sunrise in order to thread her way into Mackinac Island’s harbor. The Round Island lighthouse and lighted buoys of the harbor channel are still many decades in the future.

As the La Petite lands at Bennett’s Coal Dock about noon the next day, a messenger hands the captain a telegram. The message was flashed to a cablehead in lower Michigan and then carried by steamboat to Mackinac Island. Although the wire contains good news – a commission from Ohio asking Captain Smith to stop at a sawmill in Cheboygan and buy a cargo of “mill culls” for a customer on Lake Erie – the captain can’t ignore the implications of the fact that the telegram got to Mackinac Island before he did.

After the La Petite is securely tied to the wharf, the backbreaking job of physically unloading the coal from her hold begins. It takes more than two days to heap up the grimy black lumps into a great pile on the wharf. The soft coal joins all of the other commodities that James Bennett has for sale. A local advertisement reads:

“BENNETT’S WHARF, Mackinac Island, Mich.

Capt. James Bennett, AGENT for the Various Lines of Steamboats Touching At the Island. Dealer in WOOD and COAL (Hard and Soft), Hay, Corn, Oats, and Straw;

Fresh and Salt Fish, Fish-Barrels, Salt, etc.

All kinds of FORAGE always on hand.”

Bennett’s coal dock is made of cedar piles driven into the harbor bottom, topped with broad planks of old-growth lumber laid across the tops of the piles to create a sturdy surface for the tons of coal. As the commodities are piled up and moved around, some of the planks and piles bend and buckle slightly under the strain. Future owners of the pier will have to carefully raise and block sagging sections of the wharf.

“Finished unloading at noon today,” Captain Smith writes in his log. “Tis 9 years this summer since I was here with the Spy (in 1867). I find but few changes here.”

The wind blows steadily in and around the wharf. Captain Bennett has allowed the Island’s villagers to put up a small windmill on the pier, which pumps a stream of drinking-water out of the harbor into a tub. The small La Petite , riding high in the water, slips her moorings. We quickly hoist a sail so that the schooner can ghost out of the harbor for Cheboygan.

From the standpoint of 2005, the Coal Dock serves much the same function today as it did in 1875. The commodities have changed: yesterday the dock sold hay, coal, barreled fish, and firewood; today the dock sells paint, tools, marine fuel, and propane. For most Islanders it is so practical a place that we give scarcely a thought to how old it actually is. I have asked around in an effort to find out when the Coal Dock was built, but have not yet learned the date. Even the National Park Service doesn’t know; the inventory done recently of Island properties in support of the elevation of the whole island to the status of a National Historic Landmark says merely that the coal dock was built “before 1910.”

Captain Oscar Smith’s log, which I quoted above, provides us with a valuable clue. He recalled that the Coal Dock hadn’t changed much between 1867 and 1876. If the Coal Dock looked in 1867 much like it did later (and similar to what it looks like today), and if not much was being built on the Great Lakes during the Civil War because of the wartime labor shortage, there are substantial reasons to believe that Bennett’s Wharf, known today as the Coal Dock, dates from 1860 or earlier.

Maybe in some future column I will have learned more about this pier and can share it with my readers.

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