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Michigan State University Press
On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century

On the Brink: The Great Lakes in the 21st Century

by Dave Dempsey


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780870137051
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 04/12/2004
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Dave Dempsey won the 2009 Michigan Author Award and has served as an environmental and policy advisor for many years. He lives in Rosemount, Minnesota.

Read an Excerpt

On the Brink

The Great Lakes in the 21st Century

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2004 Michigan Environmental Council
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87013-705-1

Chapter One

Dreams of Wealth and Glory

In November 1873 three men visited Grassy Island in the Detroit River, within sight of both the Canadian and U.S. shores, for the demonstration of a new technology. A man named Nelson W. Clark carried a large wooden box enclosing a zinc can about thirteen inches square and twenty-two inches deep. Inside the zinc can were ten trays containing fifty-four small boxes each.

At the island, George Clark furnished "the most perfect arrangements" for obtaining whitefish spawn. He placed two tanks, each about five feet in diameter, by the shore and filled them halfway with water. The two Clarks pulled whitefish from a net removed from the river and dumped them into the tanks. One of the men lifted the fish out of the tanks with a dip net while the other snatched the fish from the net and held them over an impregnation pan. One of the Clarks manipulated the abdomen of the fish. Applying a light pressure behind the pectoral fins to ripe females, he squeezed out eggs, which poured into the pan in a steady, liquid stream. A "pressure in the vicinity of the anus" inspired male fish to issue their milt into the water in one to three jets.

The men let the eggs in the pan and milt in the water stand for about half an hour. Then they poured off the milt and water, rinsing the eggs with several changes of water. As U.S. commissioner of fish and fisheries representative James W. Milner watched, the other men dipped a tablespoon into the eggs and counted about a thousand. After further lengthy preparations, the men put the eggs in the small boxes, the boxes in the trays, added a small quantity of water to the contents, and turned the case over to a baggage master for transport to a hatchery in Clarkston, Michigan, about thirty-five miles away. Milner guessed that about 1,330,000 eggs were thus put into the hatchery's troughs.

"The success attained by these persevering experiments is now complete, and the white-fish may be restored by artificial propagation, to the same extent as the salmon, or the brook-trout, or the shad," Milner reported. "The obstruction of streams is no obstacle in the way of their multiplication, because they have no necessity of ascending them, and unlike the trout and the salmon, they cannot be suspected of eating each other."

It was then only about twenty-five years after commercial fishing had begun in earnest on the Great Lakes, but whitefish populations were plummeting to such an extent that a federal fisheries inspector had come to make a report. Ontario and the Great Lakes states were passing laws and devoting unprecedented attention to the condition of the suffering resource—and "artificial propagation" was becoming an accepted, even indispensable means of addressing a gap caused by overharvesting. For the first but not the last time in history, the seeming limitlessness of the Great Lakes was colliding with the actual limitlessness of human appetites.

For over two centuries, the Europeans who explored the lakes region, colonized it, and settled it had been dreaming about the possibilities of the great chain of freshwater seas that dwarfed the lakes of their homelands. Contemplating the open water horizon the way American and Canadian settlers of the 1800s contemplated the vastness of sky and land called the Great Plains region, these early visitors would project onto the lakes their hopes for wealth and glory. In this they tailored a pattern that has shaped the history of the Great Lakes to the present day.

Before the Europeans arrived, native cultures had inhabited the region after the retreat of the glaciers about twelve thousand years ago, leaving traces of their civilization but not fundamentally altering the environment. By about seven thousand years ago, a people of the Old Copper Culture were in place and continued to live across a wide part of the region for over three thousand years, developing the birchbark canoe, rudimentary agriculture, and small communal settlements. Their name derives from the assumption that they were the first miners of the Lake Superior region's abundant deposits of nearly pure copper. For thousands of years, early Americans mined copper from dozens of locations in the Lake Superior Basin, leaving behind tools and traces of campsites. Copper weapons and jewelry fashioned during this period have been found not only in the lakes region, but also at great distances east and south, implying they were part of a continental trade.

About three thousand years ago, people of the Woodland Culture began to dominate the Great Lakes. Developing agriculture in the region extensively for the first time, they crafted pottery and constructed mounds, a few of which survive today. Despite the crops they cultivated, they subsisted to a large extent on fish and game. Their skill in fishing was the finest in aboriginal North America, said one researcher. While the Copper Culture peoples relied on spearing and gaffing from weirs, those of the Woodland period developed great expertise at netting fish, including the deployment of gill nets in deep water. "The northern Great Lakes fishery was unique in North America and a vitally important subsistence enterprise in the region," said historian Charles Cleland.

Native population never grew much beyond fifty thousand throughout the Great Lakes. By the sixteenth century notable tribes around the Great Lakes included people now called the Odawa (Ottawa), Potawatomi, and Ojibwa (Chippewa or Anishinabek). Though meeting the Europeans with mixed feelings of wonder, fear, and mistrust, the natives of the Great Lakes often cooperated with the new arrivals in satisfying their curiosity about the region's geography and resources.

Etienne Brule, a scout for Samuel de Champlain, is generally thought to have been the first modern European to behold one of the lakes in approximately 1610. Brule spent over twenty years among the native peoples that he had befriended while pursuing France's commercial ambitions for the lakes before they killed him as a traitor. Yet, he left no record of his thoughts or impressions on encountering Lake Huron's Georgian Bay. Nor did his master, Champlain, "the first important white man in history to view" the waters of one of the lakes, turn lyrical when he looked out over the same bay in 1615:

Champlain went into no ecstasies; he recorded no visions of the future; he erected no cross and emblazoned no arms. He only said that the blueberries and strawberries were plentiful, that his savages gathered some squashes, and that they came in handy because these improvident tribesmen, though eating but one meal a day, had as usual gorged all their food and were already facing want in this long journey. It is disappointing. The Royal Geographer, looking for the first time upon one of the mighty lakes of the earth, upon the central waterway of what was to be the richest and busiest region of the world, wrote in his journal that he had found—squashes!

But others would soon compensate for Champlain's lack of grandiosity. While not always articulating their expansive visions, the French and English who swarmed over the Great Lakes region later in the century began to people it with their restless wants and ambitions.

At first the grail they sought was a passage from the farthest end of the lakes to the exotic land of Cathay. Much like twenty-first-century Western capitalists who are rejoicing at the thought of selling to the world's greatest market, almost two billion Chinese, these men sought the Northwest Passage to a land of fabulous potential commerce and profit.

As far back as the 1520s the French had sought a navigable waterway to Asia. Giovanni da Verrazano had instead blundered into the Atlantic Coast of North America. But the dream didn't die. In 1634 Jean Nicolet, another of Champlain's young braves, floated west through the Straits of Mackinac to Green Bay, disembarking from his canoe in a mandarin's robe, expecting to meet the dignitaries of Cathay instead of the Winnebago people that he actually encountered.

In about 1669, still hoping to pinpoint the mythical passage, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers sneaked out of the colony at Trois-Rivières, Quebec, and traveled to Lake Superior by way of the Ottawa River, northern Lake Huron, and the St. Mary's River. After spending a brutally cold winter among the natives, they found no water route to Asia but instead a robust population of beaver. They returned to Montreal in the late summer of 1661 with approximately three hundred canoes loaded with beaver pelts, the largest such shipment until that time. Briefly jailed by the French authorities for violating a law against fur trading without a license, the two men went on in anger to open the Hudson Bay region to the fur trade in the name of England. But they had started a rush among the Great Lakes they left behind.

In 1750 the Frenchman Saint-Pierre departed Quebec "to achieve the discovery of the Western Sea." In 1766 Englishman Jonathan Carver traveled the lakes from Oswego to Detroit and through the Straits of Mackinac to Green Bay, and thence to today's Grand Portage, Minnesota, hoping to "discover" a major river leading west to the Pacific from the center of North America, providing a route for commercial fortune and glory for himself and His Majesty the King. But the bulk of the effort among both French and English alike in the lakes region had shifted to the attainment of another object: the riches of fur.

Although the fur trade would span the continent, reaching from northern California to the Arctic, "the center of this immense, far-flung industry—its soul and throbbing heart—was always the Great Lakes Basin. Geography guaranteed that." Providing a convenient route to the center of the continent at a time when land roads were primitive and railroads nonexistent, the lakes were not so much the source of wealth as the necessary avenue to reach it. In this sense they served the interests of capital the way they would serve, in a later age, as a highway for the shipment of grain and iron ore or as a receptacle for manufacturing's most noxious by-products—as a tool rather than a home.

Lasting from the latter decades of the 1600s through the first decades of the 1800s, the Great Lakes fur-trading era is remembered with romanticism. There is plenty of it in the tales of the voyageurs, the small but powerful men who paddled the canoes that retrieved the pelts from the far West and returned them to Quebec, from where they were shipped to Europe:

Read the diaries of the Montreal fur-traders and the books of travelers on the St. Lawrence, the Saskatchewan, and the Great Lakes in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From their pages peal the laughter of a gay-hearted, irrepressible race; over night waters floats the plaintive song of canoe-men, swelled periodically in the chorus by the voices of his lusty mates; portage path and campfire, foaming rapids and placid fur-fringed lake; shallow winding stream and broad expanse of inland sea.

But while the lifeways of the voyageur have long enchanted historians, the growing hunger of the industry he served consumed most of the natural wealth it sought to transform into money. The beaver population was nearly wiped out over a vast region that included and transcended the lakes. Its decline was hastened by the single-minded ingenuity of businessmen such as John Jacob Astor, "the paradigm of the classic American tycoon."

Born in Germany in 1763, Astor migrated to New York City in 1784. He opened a fur shop in the city several years after his arrival, soon turning his eyes to the bounty of the Northwest. He sought furs in upstate New York and later traveled to Montreal to purchase furs. Finally, sensing the potential of the trade, in 1794 he joined the voyageurs on their eighteen-hundred-mile paddle nearly to the headwaters of Lake Superior, at today's Grand Portage, Minnesota. Learning there of the abundant furs available in the wild lands of western North America beyond, he determined to make his fortune. In 1808, when he formed the American Fur Company, extending his reach to the coast of Oregon explored by Lewis and Clark only five years earlier, Astor sought to dominate the industry. He failed in his Pacific Northwest adventure, ultimately concentrating his energies in the Great Lakes trade. After the War of 1812, Mackinac Island became a regional fur capital, as tens of thousands of furs traveled through the post there. Astor died in 1848 worth an estimated $20 million, making him the richest man in the United States.

But Astor left another kind of imprint. "An arrant individualist, selfish, narrow-minded, quite blandly antisocial, he went after whatever he sought and took it by fair means or foul," said one observer. His dominating company also depleted the wildlife on which it depended and wrecked the native cultures that had been drawn into the trade, supplying first the French, then the English, and then the Americans with the resource they desired.

Far from an exercise in free market economics, the trade flourished in large part because of the support of monarchs, statesmen, and their governments. National military might was exercised to claim the commercial capacity of the inland seas. King Louis XIV backed the French trade by building and enlarging forts and establishing settlements, including Detroit. Rival colonial power England went to war to control the Great Lakes transportation route, leading to a military confrontation that culminated in a British victory at Quebec City in 1759. England's American colonies went to war with the mother country in 1776, and the new United States fought pitched battles with England throughout the lakes region in the War of 1812. The result of the latter conflict was the division of four of the five Great Lakes roughly down the middle, separating the United States and Canada just as the fur trade ceased to be the impetus for the region's economy. But government intervention in and support for exploitation of Great Lakes resources was just beginning.

In the United States, there was the matter of which states would get access to the Great Lakes, not because of their beauty, but because of the value of their shores as potential avenues of commerce. To accommodate the dreams of boosters hoping to turn natural harbors into great ports, the existing and would-be states clawed at the Great Lakes like rock climbers grasping for handholds. To claim access to Lake Erie, Pennsylvania paid the national government $151,640.25 in 1792, acquiring the so-called Erie Triangle, including the harbor of Presque Isle. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had defined the bottom tip of Lake Michigan as the southern boundary of the northern states to be carved out of the land of the Old Northwest. But before admission to the Union in 1816, Indiana insisted on claiming forty-five miles of Lake Michigan shoreline from Michigan Territory, helping foster one hundred fifty years of determined effort to construct a world-class commercial port. The border of Illinois was adjusted forty-one miles northward before its statehood in 1818, giving it possession of Fort Dearborn, today's Chicago. The final dispute over Great Lakes access between the states erupted in 1835, when Michigan and Ohio nearly went to combat over the "Toledo strip." A surveyor's error had incorrectly placed a line running directly east from the southern tip of Lake Michigan north of Toledo when it should have run south of the harbor. The error shorted Michigan of four hundred sixty-eight square miles of land to which it thought it had rights. But to win admission to the Union in 1836, Michigan ceded its claim to the strip, receiving extensive lands in the western Upper Peninsula as compensation.

Settlers quickly began to crowd into the region. European settlement accelerated first in today's Ontario. American colonists still loyal to the Crown fled the United States in the 1780s and 1790s to settle along Lakes Ontario and Erie. The provincial governor settled over six thousand refugees and soldiers along the two lakes in 1783 and 1784 with free land grants ranging from one hundred acres for a civilian head of family to one thousand acres for commissioned officers. Six Nations natives, allies of the new Canadians, got a reservation along the Grand River. When the British Parliament divided old Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe of Upper Canada speeded the settling process. Free land continued to be the enticement to lure settlers; after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, English immigration to Upper Canada mushroomed. Between 1830 and 1833 its population in doubled.


Excerpted from On the Brink by DAVE DEMPSEY Copyright © 2004 by Michigan Environmental Council. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


PROLOGUE A Day at the Shore....................9
CHAPTER 1 Dreams of Wealth and Glory....................23
CHAPTER 2 Failing the Fish....................37
CHAPTER 3 Protecting a New Home....................59
CHAPTER 4 Degradation....................95
CHAPTER 5 Indignation....................113
CHAPTER 6 Manipulating the Lakes....................133
CHAPTER 7 The Comeback....................161
CHAPTER 8 Losing the Lakes?....................195
CHAPTER 9 A Future in Peril....................227
CHAPTER 10 Hope for Home....................259

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