2005-09-03 / Columnists

Labor Day, Mackinac Island, Share Historical Elements

A Look at History Labor Day
By Frank Straus

A Look at History
Labor Day


An aerial view of the Mackinac Bridge, which connected the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula in November 1957, rendering not only state car ferries obsolete but Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, as well, with light beacons at the top of its 552-foot towers that can be seen from afar by oncoming vessels. The annual Mackinac Bridge Walk started in June 1958. (Photograph courtesy of Greg Main)An aerial view of the Mackinac Bridge, which connected the Upper Peninsula and the Lower Peninsula in November 1957, rendering not only state car ferries obsolete but Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse, as well, with light beacons at the top of its 552-foot towers that can be seen from afar by oncoming vessels. The annual Mackinac Bridge Walk started in June 1958. (Photograph courtesy of Greg Main) Mackinac Island has traditionally celebrated Labor Day as one of the last busy weekends of the summer. As September comes, most of the nation’s schools and colleges have started their classes. Family vacations at the Straits of Mackinac dwindle down, and those Island workers who are students return to their lecture halls.

Curiously, Labor Day was founded during the same decade when much of Mackinac Island’s high-Victorian architecture was being built. The first Labor Day was celebrated by New York City’s craft unions on Tuesday, September 5, 1882. According to The Detroit News , Michigan’s first Labor Day was celebrated two years later, on August 16, 1884. Labor Day was standardized in New York on the first Monday in September in 1884. The day was an unofficial holiday back then, and the only way workers could celebrate it, if at all, was by making private arrangements with their employers. The first state to make Labor Day an official holiday was Oregon, in 1887. The day became a federal holiday in 1894.

This was the decade when Grand Hotel was built (1886-87). Carpenters raised many of the cottages on the Island’s West Bluff, East Bluff, and Hubbard’s Annex, and many of the larger homes and buildings downtown, during this decade. For example, Trinity Church was built in 1882, the same year as New York’s first Labor Day. Cloghaun Bed & Breakfast was built in 1884, the same year as Michigan’s first Labor Day.

Labor Day has long had a craft-union, skilled labor angle. Matthew Maguire, a New York City machinist, is credited with inspiring his fellow workers to celebrate the first Labor Day. Other accounts credit Peter McGuire, a New York cabinetmaker and member of the Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners. Richard Trevillick, a Detroit ships carpenter, is credited with leading the first Detroit Labor Day. Trevillick was fired and blacklisted for his trouble. Within a few years, American employers accepted the right of American workers to celebrate a holiday in their own honor.

Much of the carpentry done nationwide during the 1880s was done with Michigan lumber. This was the first decade when the trunk railroads of northern Michigan were in operation to haul pine logs and timbers, and sawmilling reached a peak during this period. Nearby towns, such as Cheboygan and St. Ignace, were sawmill centers.

American workers, as a group, have always been paid better than the workers in most other nations, and if American goods and services have found favor in the international marketplace, they have done so because of the skill and productivity of the workers who have made or provided them. It was skilled labor that built these buildings on the hill. Several Island carpenters, such as Charles Caskey and Patrick Doud, progressed to the extent that they could serve as their own architects when required. Working with architects, Caskey was the builder of Grand Hotel, while Doud built Stonecliffe (1904). Working as his own designer, Caskey built many of the Hubbard’s Annex cottages (1880s); Doud designed and built the Wawashkamo Golf Links clubhouse (1899).

A living reminder of Mackinac Island skilled labor is the carpenter-Gothic detail work that punctuates the interiors and exteriors of many Victorian structures. One example of carpenter-Gothic interior work that is accessible to the general public is the hand-carved walnut altar of Trinity Church.

Skilled labor is required on our Island to this day. It is tough to remember that life would practically grind to a halt without the everyday, dedicated work of people in Mackinac Island’s water works and electrical system.

Piped water and electricity are approximately 100 years old on Mackinac Island. The first generating station and waterworks, now razed, was built a century ago on the Island’s East Lake Shore Drive north of Arch Rock. The small brick building burned coal and pumped weak pulses of electricity through a primitive wiring system to light a few bulbs. Mackinac Island’s electrical needs are now measured in megawatts and the power is carried from the mainland in high-tension, underwater cables. A new water system was installed in 1983, centering on a modern pumping station built below Robinson’s Folly on the eastern end of the downtown area.

The most spectacular end-result of skilled Michigan labor in the Straits area is the Mackinac Bridge, which was being built 50 years ago this year. Organized ironworkers erected the bridge’s massive towers and spun the fine net of steel wires that support this most beautiful of all suspension spans. Labor Day was originally a day set aside, in most major U.S. cities, for parades and rallies of various working groups. As more and more workers began to celebrate holidays with drives and trips of their own, the parading tradition declined. It is fitting that the state celebrates this magnificent bridge on Labor Day with the annual Bridge Walk.

One of the purposes of history is to celebrate the skills which are no longer needed in the marketplace. The Chief Wawatam , longtime railroad-car ferry in service into the 1980s, was one of the last boats on the Great Lakes to be powered by coal that was hand-shoveled into the ship’s boilers. “Firing” a “hand-bomber” vessel was a sweaty craft carried out by strong, dedicated men; now it exists only in books.

Other labor crafts, such as driving a team of horses, blacksmithing, harness making, and carriage building and repair, are kept alive on Mackinac Island and neighboring communities as a result of the Island’s horse culture.

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