Sunday, August 25, 2013

Story of Brockway Mountain -- now part of Keweenaw Coastal Wildlife Corridor

Gina Nicholas, fourth from left, Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District chairperson, and other partners who helped with the Michigan Natural Trust Fund grant and fundraising for the purchase of 320 acres of property including the summit of Brockway Mountain, participate in the Aug. 13, 2013, dedication of the parcel, which adds to the Keweenaw Coastal Wildlife Corridor for conservation and recreational access. Also pictured are, from left, Dana Richter, Copper Country Audubon; Evan McDonald, Keweenaw Land Trust; Jeff Knoop, The Nature Conservancy; Steve DeBrabander, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Grants Management section supervisor; attorney Jim Tercha; and Eagle Harbor Township Supervisor Rich Probst. (Photo by Nick Wilson and courtesy Gina Nicholas)

Note: The following speech was written and read by Gina Nicholas, Keweenaw County citizen and chairperson of the Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District, speaking on behalf of the core partners at the Brockway Mountain Summit dedication on August 13, 2013. The core partners were Ed Kisiel and later Rich Probst, Eagle Harbor Township supervisors; Doug Sherk, Eagle Harbor Township Parks Committee; Dana Richter, Copper Country Audubon; Evan McDonald, Keweenaw Land Trust; Jeff Knoop, The Nature Conservancy; and Gina Nicholas, Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District.* 

By Gina Nicholas

The Brockway Mountain story combines the ancient tale of Mother Nature’s wondrous creation with the recent one of how farsighted individuals, the community and many working together can serve the needs of society and protect the beauty and integrity of the natural world.

A billion years ago, shifting plates crashed together creating a rift fault with deep cracks in the earth’s crust. A series of lava flows emerged and formed the Lake Superior basin from Isle Royale to the Keweenaw Peninsula. Eons of geologic events, glaciers, time and weather sculpted this coastal ridge of which Brockway Mountain is a part.

This topography of basalt, conglomerate and sandstone is the canvas for the mosaic of native habitats you see from where we stand. Flora and fauna evolved over time and thousands of native plant and animal species call these forests, balds and wetlands home.  The Peninsula’s position as a bony finger of land jutting into Lake Superior also make this Keweenaw Coastal Wildlife Corridor important to migratory species -- raptors, water fowl, passerines, bats and insects.

This osprey is typical of birds observed from Brockway Mountain, which is also a site for the Keweenaw Raptor Survey. (File photo © and courtesy Michael Shupe Photography.**)

Ancient Native Americans, and later the Anishinaabe, used the land lightly for its abundance of wild berries and game. They discovered the red metal copper and used it for tools and trade. Hundreds of years later the United States formed and its pioneers moved beyond the eastern seaboard. Horace Greeley said, "Go west young man, go west." While some thought he meant the California Gold Rush, he was really talking about the UP for Copper. Keweenaw County’s highest mountain visible to the southwest was named for Greeley.

In the 1840s Douglass Houghton and other geologists explored and documented the mineral riches of the Keweenaw. Mt. Houghton, just visible to the southeast, was named after Houghton, Michigan’s first State Geologist.

Miners and settlers followed including Daniel and Lucena Brockway. Brockway was a mine agent at Cliff, a business man, served as a postmaster, road commissioner and opened the first school in Copper Harbor. At that time, Keweenaw County was the heart of the Copper Boom.

By the early 1900s mines at Quincy and Calumet and Hecla had supplanted the earlier mines on the north end.

A new industry -- tourism -- was emerging. The National Park System, urbanization, the loss of wilderness and mass-production of affordable automobiles all contributed to scenic road trips becoming the popular family vacations. Michigan, rich with beautiful natural features, established public beaches, campgrounds and wilderness areas. Landscape architect Warren H. Manning is credited with first suggesting a scenic drive along this ridge in the 1920s.

The Great Depression hit in 1929 and miners and many others were out of work. These men had hungry families to support, and federal efforts to create a safety net were mired in political wrangling.

The Keweenaw County Road Commission -- Ocha Potter, William Hartman and William Bolley and engineer Clem Veale -- took the lead in organizing a local project that would give many productive work and build something of lasting benefit for the community.  Manning’s concept to build a scenic highway along this coastal rocky ridge was resurrected in 1932. Construction began in 1933. This road was built by the manual labor of many men. Road Commission employment increased -- from about 70 to 700 -- to give meaningful work to as many as possible. Although the rock walls came later, the road itself was completed in October 1933 and named "Brockway Mountain Drive." While the builders’ names are long forgotten, their work -- Brockway Mountain Drive -- is here for the benefit of all of us today. Our project was possible only because of theirs.

This view from Brockway Mountain Drive along the Keweenaw Coastal Wildlife Corridor shows Copper Harbor on Lake Superior, at left, and Lake Fanny Hooe, at right. (File photo courtesy Eagle Harbor Township.)

During 1934-35, Harold Wescoat purchased the 320-acre summit and built the original "Skytop Inn." Brockway Mountain has been in the Wescoat family for three, going on four, generations, and, although private land, has always been open to the public.

Clyde and Lloyd Wescoat had foresight and realized how important Brockway Mountain was to the community and the environment. In 2010, rather than sell to developers who would subdivide and alter the land, Clyde called The Nature Conservancy. TNC knew this should be a local project, so Jeff Knoop called together the locals -- a.k.a core team: Eagle Harbor Township, Keweenaw Land Trust, Copper Country Audubon and the Houghton Keweenaw Conservation District -- to find a way to permanently protect Brockway Mountain. 

The Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Grant was identified. Ed Kisiel, former township supervisor, led the successful grant proposal effort.**

However, the Trust Fund grant required a 25 percent local match. The core team, with help from Houghton to Copper Harbor and across the State, got the word out that donations were needed to Save Brockway Mountain. Hundreds and hundreds of people -- from local areas, Michigan, most states and even foreign countries -- sent donations, wrote articles, told friends, penned thank you notes, filled out forms, documented history and geology, took photographs, did the legal work pro bono and made contributions in uncountable ways. The project started in late 2010 and Brockway Mountain summit was acquired by Eagle Harbor Township in February 2013.

On the summit of Brockway Mountain, before cutting the ribbon on the sign, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (standing left of sign) speaks at the Aug. 13, 2013, dedication of the Brockway Mountain parcel, now part of Eagle Harbor Township -- protected for conservation and open to the public for recreation. (Photo courtesy Bonnie Hay, Gratiot Lake Conservancy executive director.)

Just like the many that built Brockway Mountain Drive 80 years ago this year, we also worked together and got the job done. The summit of Brockway Mountain is permanently protected. Our names may be forgotten, but our work will stand for future generations to enjoy thanks to all of you!

My hope is that 80 years from now our grandchildren, great-grandchildren and others will be here to take in the views of Lake Superior and the Keweenaw Coastal Wildlife Corridor, to see the constellations, Milky Way and the Northern Lights in the night sky, to count raptors flying down the valley as they rise on the updrafts, and to enjoy this unique, beautiful and ecologically rich place called Brockway Mountain. I also hope that our heirs continue the Keweenaw legacy of farsighted conservation for the benefit of man and nature.

* Author's Note: Clyde Wescoat, "The Brockway Mountain Drive Story" by Paul Lavanway, geologist Bill Rose, the Keweenaw Coastal Wildlife Corridor proposal prepared by Ed Kisiel, and other online research the author forgot to document were used or contributed oral information for this article. Thanks Everyone!

** Editor's Notes:

Click here for a TV-6 video clip of the ribbon cutting and comments from Lloyd Wescoat, Gina Nicholas and Gov. Snyder at the Brockway Mountain dedication.

View more photos of raptors at www.mjshupephotography.com, the Keweenaw Raptor Survey and the Brockway Mountain Hawk Watch.

See Keweenaw Now's Dec. 9, 2011, article, "Updated: Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board recommends funding for Brockway Mountain parcel in Eagle Harbor Township."

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