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The Keweenaw Waterway: Alternative Military Action


Similar to the Panama Canal or Cross Florida Greenway is the smaller, and less known Keweenaw Waterway. An artificially produced cross peninsula body of water constructed in part by the Army Corps of Engineers. Located in Michigan, the canal bolstered commerce for the better part of a century in a partnership between the private sector and military.  Industrialization of the region in relation to the partnership has resulted in environmental decay of the waterway and Lake Superior, an unaccounted for side-effect. In response to the crisis, the ACOE in the modern era conducts environmental operations. Examining the implications of the military – private sector partnership, and the shift toward environmentalism in military operations, a disruptive counterexample to generally accepted perceptions of military purpose is raised; making the Keweenaw Waterway a worthwhile case study in examining military purpose and how it has changed over time.

Beyond production, development, escalation, and dispersion of violence, the US military in its many forms has served the people to which its pledged in instances without spilling blood. Turning away from destructive agendas to constructive ones in the creation of infrastructure, the military has operated in self-perceived advancement of US interest. However in the majority of military actions, even those not involving deliberate destruction,  motivation to ‘protect’ US interest has produced dismantling forces contradictory to the intended goal. Dismantling forces capable of broad scale catastrophe; some as obvious as nuclear stockpiling, others as subtle as promoting and conducting environmentally damaging activity. As of the end of 2016, the “Doomsday clock”, a measurement of imminent global catastrophe, maintained by The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists since 1947 (the modern clock also accounts for environmental anomalies), nears as close to midnight as it did during the peak of the cold war in 1953 [7]. Even in the act of non-violent construction, the military helps contribute to global catastrophe by escalating  environmental decay, a historically unaccounted for threat.

The military has been responsible for some less controversial, though still environmentally impactful actions of non-violence to the benefit of civilization. The Army Corps of Engineers for example has constructed some important infrastructure beneficial not only to a modern domestic economy such as the Cross Florida Barge Canal, but also to a globalized economy such as the the Panama Canal regardless of actual motivation for these projects [13]. One such, though notable smaller project is the Keweenaw Waterway. The waterway offers an interesting case study in examining the role of alternative military action as the evolution of community and role of the military in the project shift considerable over the course of changing global conditions. The following will attempt to contextualize the story of the waterway to further understand the dynamism of military purpose over the timeline of its operations in the project.

The Keweenaw peninsula, the home of the project, is located in the most northern tip of Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a region developed for its copper deposits. In the modern era the region is largely desolate, however for the better part of a century it was an industrial hotbed, and like most epicenters of economic prosperity, location and navigability served as key points in success. The Keweenaw Waterway acted as such for Keweenaw county, allowing capitalists to conduct efficient industrial activity. From the mid-nineteenth century to WW2 Quincy Mine alone produced 424,000 tons of copper [10, p. 159]. This feat would not have been possible without rigorous expansion and maintenance of the Keweenaw Waterway of which the military, in specific the Army Corps of Engineers, stridently contributed to. Establishing a private sector, public defense interrelationship atypical of expected military pursuits.

Aerial of waterway in 2010 [1]


Before the development of the Keweenaw waterway, the passage as naturally assembled did not allow transport through the peninsula. Portage River at the lower entrance was extremely shallow and narrow, making maneuver of large vessels impossible. On the northeastern end the tips of Portage Lake ended approximately one mile from Lake Superior, just short of a clean bisection [12, p. 4]. Ojibwa natives utilized the waterway as a protective barrier from storms on Lake Superior, navigating its complex features in wooden canoes. Ransom Shelden was the first European to settle the area in 1847 at the lower entry, the start of European control in the region [12, p. 8]. Under European pressures the Chippewa Treaty of 1854 (Treaty of La Pointe) was signed, ceding native land to the US as stated in article 1:“The Chippewas of Lake Superior herby cede to the United States all lands heretofore owned by them in common with the Chippewas” [4]. It also established the L’Anse Reservation 25 miles south of the waterway [4]. The pacification of Chippewa natives in the region marks a micro level event representative of a macro level paradigm. Jacksonian Indian removal policy formally declared by Congress in 1830, and enforced by the military, ceded most Indian land in a War Department push of Manifest Destiny [11, p.126-128]. Three Seminole wars conducted by natives in Illinois from 1817 to the 1850s display aggressive denial of US policy and also ultimate failure [11, p. 126-128]. Though the army may have never officially won a battle against the Ojibwa in particular producing the treaty, by the 50s the Ojibwa likely recognized the hopelessness of resistance looking to their fellow nativist. It is important to note that even in a military non-violent program, there is a provocative/violent root.

Major construction of the waterway was first funded by three men of “Portage Lake and River Improvement company” who invested $1,250,000 of their personal funds to start the project, a completely private enterprise unrelated to the US military [12, p. 14]. Being privately owned and operated, the capitalists invested in the project needed a method to produce revenue supportive of further development. As a result of lobbying by the company, Michigan Legislature gave the rights to the company in 1861 to charge tolls on users for further funding [12, p. 12].  Dredging of the waterway began in 1864 by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company via contract [12, p. 8]. Founded by Edwin J. Hulburt  the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company would remain a prominent copper mining and processing entity in the area for the duration of the “copper rush” [6, p .28-39]. Merging with secondary companies the C&H virtually monopolized the region’s industry by 1923 changing its name to the Calumet and Hecla Consolidated Copper Company [6, p. 177-193]. When first receiving the contract to begin dredging, C&H operated a stamp mill on the edge of Torch Lake within the waterway [12, p. 8], a motivation for development as direct ship access to operation sites would increase efficiency of both imported necessities, and the export of refined copper. Initial construction of the canal involved the removal of 1,048,660 cubic yards of earth and by 1872 all that remained in the way of a complete bisection was 49,000 cubic yards of hardpan located at the western side of the canal [12, p. 16].

Boat on waterway prior to ACOE widening [5].

The Army Engineer Corps Takes Over

In 1891 there was a bill passed in U.S Congress resulting in governmental purchase of the waterway for $350,000, as stated

“For the purchase, of the two canals known as the Portage Lake and River Improvement Company Canal…. To render them available for commerce and navigation….. $350,000, provided, that for the purpose of preserving and continuing the use and navigation of said canals, the Secretary of War, upon the application of the Chief Engineer [United States Corps of Engineers]…. Is hereby authorized to draw his warrant or requisition” [3].

By August, Secretary of War Proctor Charles E. L. B Davis of the U.S Engineer Corps was assigned leadership of the canal and its repairs [12, p. 30]. The ACOE ratified improvements to be made on the waterway, spending $20,000 to complete a dredge in 1892. Major dredging and expansions of the waterway supervised by the ACOE were conducted in 1902 and 1910 as well. In a 1911 report it was stated that the U.S War Department had spent $1,228,431.39 on the waterway since 1891 [12, p. 54]. For perspective, in 1910 cargo worth $20,965,299 and 14,286 passengers traveled through the waterway [12 p, 56]. As of 1981 the ACOE had dredged 20,603,369 cubic yards of sediment from the canal [12, p. 70].

The military adoption of the Keweenaw Waterway introduces a counter-intuitive function to the list of military duties. The relief provided to the corporation controlling the project was entirely to the benefit of a regional economy as it abolished tolls on vessels, a heavy expenditure for shipping companies that had paid a fee based on tonnage of cargo [12, p. 32], and in no direct way provided additional security to the nation, the militaries traditional function. Argument can be made that in some way it ensured a wartime supply of copper, a commodity valuable in military technology and industry, by partly nationalizing copper production. Yet controlling the mode of exportation hardly ensures that mines dependent on the passage will yield appropriate production of materials in the event of war. So if not for security, and if not for a weak attempt at centralizing industrial activity in the event of war, why did the army involve itself with the waterway? One hypothesis is after the Civil War, the closure of the western frontier, and destruction of Indian populations, the military came into an identity crisis, having lost a sense of duty. In the 1890s the militaries workload consisted primarily of strike breaking, a task hardly “edifying” [11, p. 235]. Sensing a lack of workload for the army, civilian contemporaries in Congress assigned duties of questionable designation – exactly what occurred here. Perhaps the acquisition of such an untraditional job was the result of a peaceful period.

Modern Day and the Environment

In the Draft Environmental Impact Statement of 1974 it was reported that little work had been completed on the waterway in 20 years and that there was no foreseeable necessity for expenditure. However in October of the same year, the ACOE conducted an emergency maintenance dredging of Lily Pond, a portion of the waterway near the upper entrance, transporting 3,000 cubic yards of polluted dredge material to a confinement site [12, p. 57]. In 1984 the ACOE planned to construct a confined disposal facility (CDF). Along with the CDF there was a proposal to conduct a ten year dredging project to remove some 308,000 cubic yards of polluted material. Construction of the CDF was completed in 1987. It is reported that 10,000-20,000 cubic yards of polluted material are moved to the facility every ten years [2].

The waterway contains an abundance of fine grained sediments “with elevated levels of arsenic, copper, oil and grease, and zinc”, largely as a result of stamp sands dumped into the water by mills before 1945 [2]. In fact, it is estimated that a “half billion tons of stamp sands were either discharged directly into Lake Superior or into its tributaries from Keweenaw Peninsula milling operations alone.” [8, p. 5]. High levels of these toxins have resulted in a negative impact on wildlife, raising mercury concentration in aquatic life to about .5 µg/g [8, p. 35]. As such, ACOE maintenance of the Keweenaw Waterway has made a shift from promoting expanded industry to pursuing environmental objectives in the current era.

The US military, and all other militaries, traditionally have been designed to fight. In direct relation, the main way militaries have evolved has been in terms of how they fight. The Keweenaw Waterway embellishes a different kind of evolution however, an evolution indicative of a post-military military; one in which its very defining task to fight is absent. The ACOE acting as a nationalized contracting and maintenance labor unit starting in 1891, in no feasible way involved fighting, nor did it improve the militaries ability to fight. In other words, as early as 1891 the ACOE conducted post-military like duties. The concept is even further embellished in the present era, where operations have shifted toward environmentalism, further removing the military from its intended function. The ACOE acting as environmentalist is also supportive of the idea that the military is purely a manifestation of politics. Yet, it’s important to note that such a small sample, that is looking only at an obscure project, in no way creates a strong argument for post-militarism, or a strong conformation of military as a political arm. What can be concluded, is that the US military is not uniformly defined by a single doctrine. Consequently, it cannot be generalized that the Military is strictly a fighting force because the Keweenaw Waterway, regardless of its diminutiveness, offers a point of falsification.

Primary Sources:

  1. “File: Portage Lake on the Keweenaw Waterway, Michigan.jpg”. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation
  2. U.S Army Corps of Engineers Detroit District. 2015. Keweenaw Waterway Confined Disposal Facility.
  3. United States. Cong. 1869. Act to Improve Rivers and Harbors for fiscal year ending June 30, 1869 and 1870, (16 Stat. 44).
  4. United States. Senate. 1855. Treay With The Chippewa, 1854 (10 Stat. 1109).
  5. “Waterway” Stanton Township.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Benedict, C. Harry. 1952. Red Metal: The Calumet and Hecla Story. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan
  2. “Doomsday Dashboard.”. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
  3. Harting, S. L. 1999. Mercury in native ore deposits: An ignored and widespread source of mercury to lake superior sediments. Michigan Technological University.
  4. Kilpela, T. 1995. The Hard Rock Mining Era in the Copper Country.
  5. Lankton, Larry D., and Charles K. Hyde. 1982. Old Reliable: An Illustrated History of the Quincy Mining Company. Hancock, MI: Quincy Mine Hoist Association.
  6. Millett, Allan Reed, Peter Maslowski, and William B. Feis. 2012. For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. 3rd ed. New York: Free Press.
  7. Monette, Clarence J. 1980. The Keweenaw Waterway. Lake Linden, MI: C.J. Monette.
  8. Noll, Steven, and David Tegeder. 2003. From Exploitation to Conservation: A history of the Marjorie Harris Carr Cross Florida Greenway.