Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Canal Boat Time Travel

A view of Burnt Bluff signals
you're close to Fayette
In Killarney, one morning, the guy on the boat next to us invited us aboard for morning coffee.

Dan had done lots of cruising on Lake Michigan, so we asked his opinion: Should we go down the east shore (many cute towns, marinas spaced a day's travel apart, interesting sand dunes, beaches etc.,) or the WEST side? (somewhat less of all of the above, but safer water for our boat).
Bald eagles nest on cliffs. They feed on fish.  Could
this bit of real estate be any more perfect?
"Whatever you do," Dan said, "you HAVE to go to Fayette."

So that's where we headed, as we left Manistique Friday morning under gray skies, sailing past the blood-red lighthouse into fog and chop and committing ourselves to a trip down the west side of Lake Michigan.

By midday we had warm sunny weather and a gorgeous view of Burnt Bluff, the towering limestone cliff that signaled we were close to our destination.  A whole family of bald eagles cruised the cliff--mom and dad looking spiffy and navigating adroitly among the sharp rocks, the kid grungy and a little awkward in his motley brown feathers.

Twin furnaces for iron smelting and an old lime kiln
(the brick beehive at left)
We had been traveling for eight hours and hadn't seen a single boat all day.  We  passed the bluff and spotted a cluster of slab-sided, New England-style clapboard buildings on a low bluff:  Fayette.

We negotiated the entrance to Snail Shell Harbor--the shore curls like a snail shell here, under another set of high bluffs, to make an extremely well protected harbor--and there before us were austere limestone buildings that suggested the remains of a fortress, or an ancient church.

They're not THAT old! But going to Fayette IS like traveling back in time.  It's a Michigan State Park where you can tour an old steel-smelting town, established just after the Civil War and abandoned a mere 26 years later as the technology for steel-making changed. In its heyday Fayette was a wonder, a perfect site for a company town--with a deepwater harbor so that boats loaded with ore could deliver their cargo, access to timber for charcoal in the surrounding hills, and limestone (needed for the steel-making process) easy to quarry from the bluff a few hundred feet from the furnaces.

From left: Machine shop, grand hotel, company offices
Many of the buildings have been preserved, and many of them are set up with furnishings and artifacts that tell the story of the town--from the supervisor in his grand white house overlooking the bay to the laborers in their tiny log cabins, set close together in rows in the lee of the furnace smoke, where pigs cruised the alleys snarfing garbage tossed out the doors.

At its peak Fayette had 500 souls and was a local destination, a place you could go to shop, or to absorb culture (it had an "Opera House," or music hall, that booked popular touring acts including a ventriloquist and a dog circus!)  It had the finest hotel for miles around, with gourmet food and (I'm not making this up) a two-story outhouse for the convenience of guests.

Appearing at the Fayette Opera House for
one night only: The amazing Dr. Bill!
The buildings are kept open till dusk.  While Bill cooked dinner, I took a quick walk around, getting the lay of the land in advance of our planned joint exploration the next day.  No one else was around and the feeling was about as close to time travel as you can get--although today the town is neat and empty, and in its heyday it would have been noisy and smokey and gritty and smelly.

We were docked at the one small, modern wharf, built over the snag-toothed remains of a massive pier that once saw big schooners pull in with loads of iron ore.  We spent a peaceful night and the next day, as we were sitting at the table in our salon, we looked up to see a young man in a straw hat walking down the boat toward me, holding a little girl in his arms.

It was startling. Boat people know it's a very serious breach of protocol to step aboard someone else's boat uninvited. Bill stood up.  "Yes?  Can we help you?  What do you want?

The Dragonfly docked in Snail Shell Harbor.  
The man smiled apologetically.  "I thought you were part of the historic exhibit."

1 comment:

  1. Another great day aboard the Dragonfly! What beautiful pictures and quaint, quiet settings. Just imagining what these places were like originally is so much fun for me. I love the stories. Thanks so much, again, for sharing.