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      April 9: The First Boat of the Season

      Marquette Harbor with schooners amidst the ice, June 1873.

      The first freighter of the season came into Marquette a week or so ago. The shipping season officially began on Lake Superior.

      The arrival of the first boat is a passing curiosity in 2013. Back in the pioneer days of the Upper Peninsula, the first boat of the season was a significant community event. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft considered the arrival of the first vessel up the St. Marys River on May 15, 1823 the end of Sault Ste. Marieâ??s â??incarceration.â?? It had been four-and-a-half months since the last boat headed down to the Lower Great Lakes for the winter. The frontier community finally received a shipment of supplies and a â??carnivalâ?? of letters. Schoolcraft spent the rest of the day â??Reading, reading, reading, big and small, scraps and all.â??

      Back before ice breakers cleared a path for ships, the first trip up to the U.P. could take a while. Young Peter White was recruited by Robert Gravereat from Mackinac Island to work in one of the earliest iron mines in the central Upper Peninsula. White recalled years later how the steamer Tecumseh â??got inside the Detour (into the St. Marys River off Lake Huron) and there met with solid ice, two to three feet thick.â?? The party bound for the Iron Mountains came up against the remains of the long, hard winter of 1848-49.

      â??The boat was run about half her length into the ice,â?? said White, â??when some passengers debarked and ran up it in all directions.â?? A suggestion was made to chop a canal through the ice with saws and axes. That idea was abandoned after it was realized the ice would probably melt faster than they could cut through it. The next day the steamer backed up and took another channel through the Straits. Instead of twelve hours, it took ten days for the little boat to hammer her way to the Sault. During the long, tortuous trip there was â??a bread riot, an insurrection, and once the boat sank to her deck, full of water.â?? Tecumseh might have gone down were it not for the skills of a strange old man the passengers and crew had christened â??Old Saleratus.â?? It turned out the eccentric fellow was a ship carpenter. After the boat was unloaded and bailed, the carpenter found the leak and repaired it with a new plank. Tecumseh and her cargo and crew finally limped into the Sault with the greater part of her journey still ahead.

      Sometimes the arrival of the first ship meant life or death. An early spring may have averted disaster in 1851. An inventory taken at mining camps from the Keweenaw Peninsula to Ontonagon in March 1851 showed precariously low food stores at all locations. The winter had started cold back in December but turned progressively warmer. In Minnesota, February ended nearly 5 degrees warmer than the long-term average. The frontier newspaper Pioneer commented: â??We have had days like Aprilâ??too fine, in fact, for February. The snow has nearly disappeared and the winter is dissolving into the lap of spring.â?? March came in nearly 10 degrees above average. Ducks arrived in the North Country by the 10th. The rivers opened on the 21st. Farther northeast, food was being rationed but great suffering was averted. The unseasonably mild weather allowed a vessel to arrive early with needed supplies for Copper Country pioneers.

      Marquette pioneer and weather observer L.P. Crary recalled that the first arrival at Marquette Harbor was a cause for celebration. â??The coming of the first boat was something that was the sole topic of conversation for days,â?? he remembered. â??No man ever had more than one eye on his work after the ice began to go out, as the other eye was turned lakeward in the hopes of seeing a sail.â?? Finally, as the first boat made port, bells rang, whistles blew and everyone made as much noise as possible.

      â??When the first boat arrived,â?? explained Crary, â??it was considered excusable to get â??loadedâ?? and nearly everyone availed themselves of the privilege.â?? He went on to recall that the small boats of the bygone years carried less weight, so there were more of them. â??I have seen as many as sixty or seventy little craft in Marquette Harbor at one time. That brought lots of sailors and made things lively on occasions.â??

      While the first boat hardly deserves a mention at Lake Superior ports these days, itâ??s still a sign, like peepers that spring is here. It is an initial, early sign this year. Peepers will not be heard for quite a while this spring.