Geocaching the Thumb

I spent this past weekend visiting family in the Thumb region of Michigan. I’m not going to explain where the Thumb region is, except to say that if you look at a map, it is pretty obvious. It is a rural area dotted with small towns, farms, and increasingly, windmills. There’s plenty of interesting history in the Thumb, including stories of lumber barons, shipwrecks and even petroglyphs, all of which I hope to talk about on here eventually. However, last weekend’s adventure focused on the history we just happened to run into while geocaching.

Geocaching is a popular activity that is somewhat like a treasure hunt but without the treasure. Participants hide “caches,” post the GPS coordinates (and usually a brief description) online, and then other geocachers use the GPS coordinates to find the cache. A cache is a waterproof container, ranging in size from a thimble-sized container to an ammo box that contains at minimum a paper log. Larger caches often contain trinkets that can be traded out by other geocachers. When you find a cache, you sign the logbook and log your find online. Many geocachers have expensive GPS devices, but you can find many caches with just a GPS enabled smartphone. Geocaching is a great activity to get out and about, and it is also a great way to learn some history. Many caches are hidden at historical sites, sometimes purposefully if the person who hid it thinks the site is important, and other times accidentally, like if a cache is hidden at a park that happens to also have a historical marker. It takes you to out of the way places you may never have stopped at otherwise, which can cause you to learn things you never expected. Two of our stops taught me some fascinating history about the Thumb.

Sorry about the crooked photograph….I’m a historian, not a photographer!

One of our first stops was at a scenic overlook/rest stop off M-25, the main road running along Lake Huron. Before hunting for the cache in that area, I had to check out the historical marker commemorating the Great Storm of 1913. Ever heard of it? I sure hadn’t. It was apparently a big event however, as evidenced by the most intense historical marker text I’ve ever read: A bit of research later showed me that this storm was actually the most destructive disaster to hit the Great Lakes in recorded history. It blasted through the Midwest for four days, destroying ships and killing hundreds of people, aided by the slow pace of weather reports. There’s been a number of books written about the event, including White Hurricane: A Great Lakes November Gale and America’s Deadliest Maritime Disaster by David G. Brown, which I just placed on hold at my local library so I can learn more about it! I also found some great photographs of the effects of the storm on the Library of Congress American Memory website, including this shot of a destroyed life saving station in Point Aux Barques at the tip of the Thumb:

Photo taken by the Detroit Publishing Co., November 9, 1913
http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/det.4a16271

 

My other favorite stop took us to Stafford Park in Port Hope, where we discovered the Port Hope Chimney.

Historical Marker text: This chimney was built in 1858 by John Geltz. It is all that remains of the lumber mill established that year by William R. Stafford. Port Hope grew up around the mill. For a score of years this town was a center of lumbering in the Thumb. It also became an important producer of salt. In 1871 and again in 1881 the mill, the docks, and possessions of hundreds of people were destroyed by fire. This chimney is a monument to these pioneers who by their courage and industry developed this area

 

Lumber doesn’t surprise me, but salt? I’ve heard of the Detroit salt mines, but I was unaware that other parts of Michigan had been major salt producers. I did some online sleuthing, and learned that much of Michigan actually has massive salt deposits underground. Not only that, but according to a National Register of Historic Places nomination for the town of Port Hope, the salt industry was in many ways a by-product of the lumber industry. Salt production was cheap in Michigan due to the plentiful wood used to power the machinery necessary to obtain and separate the salt from water.  The salt industry rose with the lumber industry and then declined alongside it as well. Most of the salt companies in the Thumb had closed by 1890.

We made many other stops this weekend, including multiple cemeteries, an old schoolhouse-turned-township hall, and more parks. I had lots of fun wandering around outside, finding caches and learning a bit of history. I highly recommend geocaching as a great way to learn a little about an area while having fun outdoors.

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