by David Siwik, Præteritum Editor
Mention Michigan industry and many people will think immediately of the southern part of the state, and for good reason. Southern Michigan cities from Muskegon to Grand Rapids, from Benton Harbor to Detroit, while varying greatly in size, share in common an industrial heritage. Yet the northern part of the state too saw substantial impact from America’s industrialization in the 19th century. And a brief look at the Boardman River gives us an interesting glimpse into this part of Michigan’s economic and ecological history as well as an opportunity to track appreciable change over time.
The Boardman River is not a long stream. It’s two branches have their headwaters near Kalkaska wherein they meet about 20 miles to the east of the stream’s outflow, Grand Traverse Bay of Lake Michigan. As is typical of northern Michigan, the dense forest the stream flows through provides both excellent cover for rainbow, brook and brown trout and a considerable contrast to times past. In the late-1800s, rivers such as the Boardman saw trees, measured by the board feet, piled up along their banks, soon to be turned into homes near and far away and filling local lumber companies’ coffers with handsome profits. In the early-20th century power companies constructed hydroelectric dams along the Boardman and other northern Michigan rivers to provide electricity to the region.
Like much of northern Michigan, resource extraction played a key role in the developing industrial economy of not only the rest of the state, but the Midwest as a whole. Michigan copper once accounted for half the nation’s copper output. Michigan trees helped build (and rebuild) Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and many other industrial powerhouses. Michigan iron ore fed the steel mills located along the southern shores of Lakes Michigan and Erie, as well as Youngstown and Pittsburgh. Northern Michigan was part of the industrial revolution which greatly increased America’s wealth and power in the nineteenth century.
Little if any of this seems an obvious thought to consider when climbing along the high banks of the Boardman River, a stream known for its excellent trout fishing, as indeed Ernest Hemingway himself discovered over 100 years ago. (Compared to other northern Michigan streams such as the AuSable, the Boardman was spared the worst of the barren stripping of its banks). And yet, resource extraction and economic activity are never too far away. Logging still happens along the Boardman; however, it is not ecologically devastating as in times past. With scientific management of forests and controlled logging, trees can be a renewable and sustainable resource. People get paper and 2x4s, and the stream maintains its ph and temperature to support a healthy trout population.
No longer needed for power, the hydroelectric dams once constructed along the Boardman are now being removed and portions of the stream are now flowing as they once did before the days of the lumbermen and the power companies.
The past is often times viewed as better than the present. But as it turns out, sometimes people do learn better ways of doing things from their ancestors.