Dec. 16, 2021

Reminiscence of Lake Superior - February 26, 1874

Reminiscence of Lake Superior - February 26, 1874

A day grouse hunting becomes an underground adventure

Thomas Sedgwick Steele

Thomas Sedgwick Steele, June 11, 1845, in Hartford, died September 10, 1903. in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

Very early in life Mr. Steele manifested great artistic ability, and much of his time outside of business hours was given to painting. His earliest efforts received favorable comment from competent critics. After receiving his education in the Hartford high school, he engaged in the jewelry business. In 1877 he was admitted to the National Academy of Design of New York. He excelled as a painter of game, fruit, flowers and still life, and his paintings began to attract much attention in New York. His fame as an artist grew rapidly, and in 1887 he closed out the jewelry business, which he had conducted with profit and success, and gave his entire time to his long-cherished profession. In 1890 he was honored by election to the Boston Art Club, which has the reputation of being very conservative in the reception of members. Mr. Steele was an exception, however, to this rule, for his ability was already widely recognized, and soon after his election to the Boston Art Club his noted painting, entitled "Net Results," was etched by a Boston publishing company. In 1880 and 1882 Mr. Steele published two books, one entitled " Canoe and Camera: A Two Hundred Mile Tour Through the Maine Forests," the other " Paddle and Portage: From Moosehead Lake To The Aroostook River, Maine," devoted especially to the woods of northern Maine, and compiled a map showing the results of his explorations, to accompany these works, which had a wide sale. While he gave no time to politics, he was an earnest and straightforward Republican. A man of simple domestic tastes, he was devoted to art, to which he applied himself most industriously. His broad culture and quiet and refined manner gained him admiration everywhere as a gentleman, as well as an artist. He was extremely loyal to New England, its people, and his home town. While his great talents won remarkable success he was always of modest and quiet demeanor.

(William Richard Cutter, New England Families, Genealogical and Memorial: A Record of the Achievements of Her People in the Making of Commonwealths and the Founding of a Nation, Volume 1, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1915)




It was with a hearty laugh that Dr. W. bounded into my room one bright morning in the latter part of September, without waiting to knock or in any way announce his arrival. In almost the same breath he called out, “Why! you’re a pretty fellow to be housed here all day long, fussing over those feathers and wires ! Why are you not on the river trolling, or in the woods after partridges? Come, put up those tools and lets off for a day’s tramp. Peter has put up enough luncheon for two, so pick up your gun and come on.” The fact was, that for the past week I had spent a great portion of my time stuffing birds. I had collected some two dozen, peculiar to the Lake Superior region, and had packed them away preparatory to leaving on “the last boat of the season.” At the present time I had under consideration a Canada jay or “Whiskey Jack,”as they are sometimes called, and was manipulating it in the usual manner. I had just turned the skin of the bird to its natural position and was making a body of hemp as near the size of the original as possible, when the Doctor entered and accosted me with above salutation.

Doctor W. was an Englishman, but, instead of possessing the rotund figure which “John Bull” is always supposed to have, he was tall and slim, with that restless activity of manner and overflow of fun and jollity which are the proverbial dignity of an Englishman. He was “a hale fellow, well met” and consequently a favorite with all. His bright face alone brought relief and happiness to a sick room, and as a companion in the woods, he was everything that could be desired. All these attractive qualities were really the secret of his success as a physician—setting aside the fact of there being no other within a radius of thirteen miles. It would indeed have been a brave man who could venture to “hang out his shingle” in competition with Doctor W. Although loath to leave my bird half finished, I knew the Doctor’s company would well repay me, so I carefully smoothed down the plumage and depositing the skin in my drawer, looked about for my gun.

To most people, my room might not have been attractive, but to me, as a sportsman, it was perfection. The pegs around the room, not covered by wearing apparel, were decorated with fishing rods, creels, nets and all the paraphernalia of an angler, while in one corner, carefully packed in cotton, were skins of birds and jars of agates which I had collected during four month’s occupation of the premises. In one corner lay my game bag and a pair of deer’s antlers, while last but not least, stood my ever-faithful friend, my gun. To throw on my hunting coat, whose numerous pockets were made to contain everything from game to percussion caps, was the work of an instant, and shouldering my gun, I locked the door and followed the Doctor down stairs and out into the street.

It was a lovely morning, bright, clear and frosty, with but little wind to stir the waves of old Superior, in -whose mirror-like surface was reflected the deep blue of the sky. With one long lingering look down the Lake to see that no steamer was in sight, (as their arrival always made a holiday at Ontonagon,) we turned our backs on the scene, and passing through the town, followed the old corduroy road into the woods. Occasionally we stopped to pick a few berries, the last of the season, to snatch a few ferns from the wayside or to cut from some old stump a pretty bit of moss. It would have been better for me if, for once, I had let the “pretty mosses” go, for a favorite hunting knife mounted in ivory and silver, a relic of “our late unpleasantness” may, for aught I know, be still sticking in that old stump or some friendly Indian may have slipped it into his belt ere this. If so, I can safely assure him that he has secured a first-rate piece of cutlery.

Mile after mile we plodded up the road, our dogs working in the woods to the right and left, occasionally starting a partridge which fell by the Doctor’s unerring aim. Through the stillness of the woods came the sound of the great tree pecker or woodcock of the northern woods, his body of black and white feathers, almost as large as a partridge and a crest of Vermillion that would put a sunset to blush.

Soon we came to the thickest part of the woods where the great trees encroached on the road, and tossed their long branches into dangerous proximity to the stages for the mines. Although the morning was calm, not so had been the night previous, and across our path lay numerous mementoes of the gale, around which we had to work our way.

While passing through one of these thickets of fallen branches, our dogs came to a point. Cocking our guns, we made ready for whatever should be flushed. The next moment, whir-r r-r, that music so melodious to all sportsmen’s ears, and up sprang two partridges, the Doctor covering one and I the other. The smoke had hardly cleared away when up sprang another brace, followed almost immediately by a single bird. Being wholly unprepared for quite so many in one spot, we only knocked two, Dr.W. missing the last one. It was with great difficulty we could restrain the dogs and prevent them from rushing in, as we had not as yet retrieved a bird. But it was well we did, for a few feet further on Spot came to a point, backed by Hero in the most graceful manner possible. The undergrowth was very thick, long vines stretching from tree to tree, and across our path in every direction innumerable slippery branches covered the ground, but as Spot very seldom deceived us we pushed forward to where he stood.

The Doctor, who was a little in advance, had hardly reached the dogs when up sprang another brace of partridges which he dropped with his right and left barrel. Re-loading, we “quartered” the ground, but not another bird could be flushed, so, picking up those we had killed, we returned to the road, satisfied in bagging six out of a flock of seven. Where that seventh bird disappeared we never could discover; possibly into a swamp hard by, but we contented our minds with the thought that some other sportsman would retrieve him and that we ought to be generous. On we tramped along that corduroy road, every foot of which is so distinct in my memory, until we arrived at an old log house, a few rods back from the road, at whose door we knocked and were greeted with “come in” from a remarkably healthy pair of lungs.

The hut contained but two rooms, the latter of which could hardly be called a room, but rather a shed, and contained wood and various tubs arranged for the week’s washing. In the centre of the main room stood an old-fashioned iron box stove, while from the rafters above hung sundry ears of corn, aspargus branches and hams. The female members of the household were grouped around in various corners while the brawny head of the house sat resting one arm on the table and smoking an old clay pipe. To our request for a “glass of water” we received a decided “no,” but the “Lieut. Governor” of the family finally produced a cup of milk, saying that the well had given out and the spring was half a mile distant, but if we would accept of this, (holding forward the cup,) she would be pleased.

The cup was of stone china, had evidently seen better days, and been younger and prettier. The handle was gone and the edge looked as if it had withstood a charge of grape and cannister, while numerous dark spots confirmed the fact of there being no water in the house ! But we were wry thirsty and had a walk still of four long miles before we reached another house or the mining town of Rockland, towards which we were bending: our steps; so, shutting our eyes, we each in turn lifted the cup and it-was all over! Thanking them for their kindness, we were soon deep in the woods again, hoping that another bird or two might fall to our bag. We were not disappointed, for we soon flushed three others, all of which fell to our hand.

We had now entered the mining town of Rockland, and passing though its muddy streets, wound our way up the hill to the mines on its crest. Here -we rested our weary feet and gazed down on the village below. To the south of us stretched an almost endless forest with hardly an opening, the bright  autumnal foliage in strong contrast with the dark solemn pines. At our feet lay the village with its ever busy inhabitants, its low log houses and its noisy dogs and pigs, a very fair sample of a western mining town. Occasionally a few notes of a flute or violin would be wafted to our ears, for a Cornishman’s house is hardly complete without some kind of a musical instrument.

To the east and west extended the mountains of the great mineral range, dotted here and there with the “pepper box” shaft houses, while constantly could be heard the cliinck, chinck, cliinck of the skips as they were drawn out of the mine and the roll of the rock as it rattled down the hill. After we had sufficiently recovered from our walk the Doctor suggested that we should vary our tramp by a trip down the mine, provided we could find a “Mining Captain,” (as they are called,) who was “going in” at that time. So we immediately repaired to the “change house,” and depositing our guns, game bags and other equipments, and securing the dogs, we doffed a portion of our clothing and arrayed ourselves in heavy canvass jackets and pants.

Our heads were crowned with odd-looking hats, as hard as sole leather, something after the shape of Esquimaux huts. These were to protect our heads from falling rocks while down the mine. Following the directions of the Captain we rolled a tallow candle in soft clay and sticking it on to the front of our hats, picked our way over the rocks to the shaft house, and entered the shaft through a hole only just large enough to admit one’s body.

As soon as daylight disappeared the Captain ordered a “halt,” to impart a few instructions necessary to our safety. From the top to the bottom of the mine extended ladders which were securely fastened to the sides of the shaft, and the Captain’s most important warning was that we must never let go our hold of one round of the ladder until we had firmly secured another, else a remarkably sudden trip of twelve hundred feet would be the consequence. Gradually we began the descent, hand over hand, round by round, until we had reached what is called the “first level.” Taking breath, and pushing the clay from the wicks of our candles, which still adhered to our hats, we slipped a few feet to the right and continued downward on another ladder.

On the sides of the rock underneath us ran a rapid stream of water, continually fed by hidden springs, while on all sides the dark damp rocks seemed ready to crush us, so closely did they seem to press, but nothing daunted we continued our downward way. To the left lay another and larger shaft, through which we could see the “skips” filled with copper and rock passing and repassing, to which were fastened copper ropes, running over pulleys and operated by an engine up above at the entrance of the mine. By this time we were decidedly cold, and our hands and wrists all covered with soft sticky clay, which made it extremely difficult to retain our hold on the ladder, but hold we must. Down and farther down, until. the bottom of the mine is reached, 1,200 feet below the surface, while removing our candle from its exalted position on our hats and shading it from the air, we groped our way along in the “level,” expecting every moment to make some unlucky step. The blasts in other parts of the mine sounded like distant thunder as they echoed along the gallery.

Away up in one part of the rock men were “stopping” or following a vein of copper, the musical “chinck, chinck” of their hammers and drills falling faintly on our ears, but immediately turning aside we passed through the “level” and entered a large room where, supporting the rocks overhead, were massive timbers some three feet in diameter. Here, we were Informed, a few years ago was taken, out a mass of copper which weighed six hundred tons and which required eighty barrels of powder to blast it and thirty men over a year to cut it up and raise it from the mine. Soon we were obliged to lie flat upon the ground, and by means of our hands and elbows, work ourselves through a small hole in the rock; and in that manner we entered another room or cave where eight miners were engaged at their work.

Quitting this noisy place, the Captain taking the lead, we followed him to another gallery, to which we must needs pass over a shaft 500 feet deep, on one of the most slippery logs that ever mortal traveled. We had hardly reached the other side before our ears were nearly deafen'ed by another tremendous blast much nearer than the last, and the room was immediately filled with smoke, so we could hardly see, much less breathe, but feeling our way along, with the help of the Captain’s hand, we passed over a great ledge of rocks and up into a better atmosphere.

The Captain now took from his pocket a curious looking brown parcel and asked if we would like some “crib,” or what a miner calls dinner. Crib is a composition of meat, potatoes, bread and other compounds mixed, seasoned and baked into a pie—not a very tempting morsel certainly, but our appetites were sharpened by hard exercise, and remembering the proverb, “When you are in Rome do as the Romans do,” we accepted the offered “crib” with thanks.

While thus engaged we had time to gaze around us, and what a sight met our eyes. The roof over our heads was one mass of glittering ore and rock. Great veins of bright copper seamed the grey rock, while here and there were traces of silver and masses of snow-white quartz, which, sparkling in the light of our candles, suggested to our minds a fairy grotto. We sat some time enjoying this picture and absorbed in wonder, until the cold damp atmosphere of the place warned us of the danger of delay, so crawling along over still larger holders until this means of progression became exceedingly painful, we entered another rock bound chamber. Here we found the greatest number of miners we had yet seen, men down on their knees holding long drills, while above them others swinging the huge hammers. On the sides of the rock they had fastened their candles, whose fitful glare, lighting up the huge cave, combined with the tremendous noise of the hammers, made the place seem like a perfect Pandemonium.

Leaving the men at their work we passed along a dark gallery and by a deal of climbing reached a ledge of rocks, where, through a small opening, we obtained our first ray of sunlight, and by means of a rope drew ourselves hand over hand out of the mine. Oh! how delightful seemed the “blessed sunlight,” and although the day was cool, how hot the air seemed in comparison with the dampness of the mine. We drew in long draughts of the fresh pure air and sat for a long time enjoying the bright sunlight, while we congratulated one another upon the success of our novel expedition. Then a “happy thought” suggested itself and we at once repaired to a neighboring “photograph cart,” where, with pick in hand, candles on our hats and mining clothes covered with clay, we made a picture which we have carefully preserved as a souvenir and which has proved to our friends a great source of amusement ever since.