2018-02-10 / Columnists

A Look at History

Coal Dock Icehouse Is Reminder of Fishing Era on Island

On the land end of what Mackinac Islanders call the Coal Dock is a great old wooden storage building. It looks vaguely like a farm building or a shed, but close examination shows that it has very thick walls. It is nowhere close to having the “balloon frame” that was already standard in the American construction of the mid-1800s. Built with great posts and beams, it is an icehouse, built to store slabs of ice sawed out of Mackinac Island’s harbor. Island harbor ice was an essential element in the jobs and economy of Mackinac during the decades that surrounded the American Civil War.

By the 1830s, the American Fur Company’s warehouse – the structure up on Market Street that, rehabilitated and repurposed, is now the Mackinac Island Community Hall – had already begun to receive and send large quantities of cargo back and forth from sailing ships operating on Lake Huron. The fur company built a large wharf directly below the warehouse, and the pier can be seen on maps and drawings made of Mackinac Island at this time. The street from the wharf to the warehouse became known as “Astor Street,” after the Fur Company’s CEO and owner; but Astor, in the 1830s, cut his ties with Mackinac Island. There had been a sharp downturn in European demand for North American fur pelts, especially prime beaver fur, for hat making felt. Clever French weavers had invented a specialized loom that could weave silken threads together into a felt-like cloth with a sharp nap. Silk stovepipe hats, the kind of hat that we Americans associate with Abraham Lincoln, replaced fur hats. In 1834 Astor sold his interests on Mackinac Island to a consortium of businessmen headed by top aide Ramsay Crooks, and retired.

Crooks’ Fur Company continued to be the employer of many of the conventionally employed, wage-earning men of the upper Great Lakes. It was urgent for the wealthy, but troubled, firm to take steps to find new ways to make money. The Company, and its workers, contractors, and allies – many of them Native Americans – were well aware that the waters around Mackinac Island were teeming with freshwater fish. Starting in 1834, Crooks tried to rebuild the former Fur Company as a commercial fishing firm.

Under the technology of the time, electric refrigeration did not yet exist. Fresh fish were shipped in crates and barrels, and were preserved with either slab ice or salt. There was a substantial demand in the growing cities of the lower Great lakes for iced fish, and improving metallurgy was making it possible to forge thickgauge sheet steel that could be cut into saw blades. The same kinds of crosscut saws that were beginning to cut down the forests of mainland Michigan could be used to cut into the ice of Michigan’s water.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of mid-1800s icehouse technology was how ice could be stored in the heat of summer. Early Americans found that sawdust from the sawmills was a superb natural insulator. A thick-walled wooden building could be filled with slabs of ice, and the interstices between the slabs could be packed with sawdust. The ice would remain chilled through June, July, and into August and would melt very slowly.

At some point the wharf at the base of Astor Street was rebuilt into a full-fledged dock. Cedar posts were driven into the Island’s harbor to enable the dock to bear heavy loads. Steamboats, fired by cordwood or soft coal, were replacing the sailing vessels of the first half of the century, and the Coal Dock was built with heavy planks on which great piles of coal, ice, or sawdust could be laden. The Coal Dock icehouse was built as a storage depot for slab ice sawn from the water around the dock. Throughout the summer, whenever fresh-caught fish was brought to the harbor by fishermen, the fish could be rapidly iced down and shipped southward to waiting customers.

A cargo of fish spoiled fast unless it was carefully packed and prevented from exposure to room-temperature air. Surviving correspondence from the Fur Company’s Detroit office, in 1837, describes middle-management anger and dismay after many barrels of spoiled fish were shipped south from Lake Superior. The Company revised its spreadsheets in the wake of data that showed it needed to order and store more ice and salt to ship its goods.

Poor Crooks made no money from his fishing venture. His former boss Astor had stripped the firm of most of its cash before he retired, and the rebuilt operation had tried to make a go of it with borrowed money. The overextended Fur Company was hit hard by the economic depression of 1837, and went into receivership in 1842. Company assets on Mackinac Island fell into other hands; the former fur warehouse became the heart of the Astor House Hotel, a thriving Market Street hostelry for many decades. Other firms jumped into Mackinac Island fish shipping. When the wind was right, guests at the Astor House could catch the strong aroma of warehouses filled with fresh fish. The water side of Main Street began to fill in with buildings at this time.

The “fishing era” left a profound stamp on the memories of Mackinac Island. During the time of the great Irish Famine of 1845- 1849, many men, women, and children refugees had to leave the Emerald Isle for a new life in North America. Work in fishing, barrel-making, and ice-cutting were key jobs in those years on Mackinac Island. Some of today’s Island families have ancestors that did these things in the mid-19th century. And when the great railroads were built in the 1880s, and the Straits of Mackinac saw the new technology that was to open the door to Mackinac Island’s Tourist Era, the developers of the new lines sold northern Michigan as the land of fish. The Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad, the railway firm that in 1887 would help finance and build Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel, called itself the “Fishing Line.”

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