Fayette Historic State Park

Loreen Niewenhuis highlights a unique part of Michigan history by detailing a great Michigan state park, where nature and industry collided along the limestone cliffs of the UP.

While most of Michigan’s lakeshore parks preserve a slice of wilderness, Fayette Historic State Park contains a slice of 19th-century life along with evidence and artifacts of the Chippewa tribes that inhabited the area long before iron ore was ever extracted from the heart of the mountains.

Limestone cliff at Snail Harbor at Fayette Historic State Park. (photo credit: Phil Rugel)

There are large deposits of iron ore in the UP in three Iron Ranges of mountains: the Gogebic, Marquette, and Menominee. Before the Civil War, raw iron ore was transported from the mines in the UP and upper Minnesota to the refineries at the south end of Lake Michigan. This ore was refined to remove the oxygen and silica to produce usable iron. The iron companies were spending a lot of money transporting the impurities (up to 40 percent of the weight of the ore).

They came up with this idea: instead of transporting 10 tons of ore south where it would be refined to 6 tons of iron, why not refine the ore near the mines, then transport only the refined product south?

The Jackson Iron Company sent a fellow named Fayette Brown into the UP to find a location for a refinery. The site had to have several things: a large deposit of limestone, large stands of hardwoods, and a deep harbor. The town of Fayette was named after the man, and it swelled to a population of almost 500 people dedicated to working in this iron-smelting operation.

To put this into historical perspective, this was an era of using charcoal to smelt ore. While we now think of charcoal as briquettes in a bag, at that time it was made by roasting hardwood in a kiln. Think about what’s left in your fireplace after the fire dies. That’s wood charcoal, and they were able to produce it in large quantities by loading tall, brick kilns with several cords of wood, and then roasting it over many hours.

Slag on beach at Fayette Historic State Park. These stones have been tumbled for over a hundred years. (photo credit: Phil Rugel)

Large swaths of forest were felled to feed these kilns, and the charcoal in turn fed the blast furnaces. It took about an acre of woods to smelt two tons of iron. Limestone, a very hard form called dolomite, was added to the melting ore. The calcium in the limestone binds to the silicate impurities in the ore. The byproduct of this reaction, called slag, floats to the top of the molten ore. The purified iron can then be drained out of the bottom of the furnace and cooled into bars in depressions in the sand. These bars are called pig iron because of the way they line up in the sand along a central trough.

The town of Fayette had shops, hotels and restaurants, and workers’ cabins clustered near the shoreline. The town thrived from 1867 to 1891. During this time, Fayette produced a quarter million tons of pig iron.

Now, the place has been restored as a historic town site and state park. For over a century, waves have tumbled the slag that was dumped into the lake. The once-jagged shards are now smooth, rounded rocks in colors ranging from turquoise to purples to swirled, milky blues. The shoreline there is piled with these bluish rocks, making it look like they are reflecting the very colors of the vast sky.

In 2009, Loreen Niewenhuis walked completely around Lake Michigan. Her book, A 1000-MILE WALK ON THE BEACH, chronicles that journey around the world’s fifth-largest lake. The book is available now wherever books are sold. She lives in Battle Creek with her family, but gets out to the lake as often as possible.