Trova il tuo prossimo libro preferito

Abbonati oggi e leggi gratis per 30 giorni
Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography

Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography

Leggi anteprima

Camera Hunter: George Shiras III and the Birth of Wildlife Photography

600 pagine
8 ore
Oct 1, 2019


In 1906 George Shiras III (1859–1942) published a series of remarkable nighttime photographs in National Geographic. Taken with crude equipment, the black-and-white photographs featured leaping whitetail deer, a beaver gnawing on a tree, and a snowy owl perched along the shore of a lake in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The pictures, stunning in detail and composition, celebrated American wildlife at a time when many species were going extinct because of habitat loss and unrestrained hunting. As a congressman and lawyer, Shiras joined forces with his friend Theodore Roosevelt and scientists in Washington, DC, who shaped the conservation movement during the Progressive Era. His legal and legislative efforts culminated with the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

Camera Hunter
recounts Shiras’s life and craft as he traveled to wild country in North America, refined his trail camera techniques, and advocated for the protection of wildlife. This biography serves as an important record of Shiras’s accomplishments as a visual artist, wildlife conservationist, adventurer, and legislator.

Oct 1, 2019

Informazioni sull'autore

James H. McCommons is a professor of journalism at Northern Michigan University. He is the author of Waiting on a Train: The Embattled Future of Passenger Rail Service.

Correlato a Camera Hunter

Libri correlati
Articoli correlati

Anteprima del libro

Camera Hunter - James H. McCommons



One night just before Thanksgiving, I drove deep into the woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and turned off the highway onto a county gravel road, then a seasonal dirt road, and finally a rutted two-track. Hemlock, cedar, and aspen pressed close, their branches raking the sides of the truck.

The headlights illuminated a crude sign nailed to a tree: Camp–30–. To most visitors, it’s nonsensical nomenclature, but I’m a journalist, and dash three zero dash typed at the end of a news story is the traditional way to tell typesetters there’s no more copy coming. The end. Appropriately, the two-track terminated at Camp–30–.

Built in the 1960s by printers at my old newspaper, the camp consisted of a six-bed bunkhouse and a large common room with a linoleum floor, a wood cook stove, and a kitchen area with sink and hand pump. A two-seater privy stood a respectable distance out back.

Chairs and couches ringed the edges of the room, and a penny-ante game of euchre was underway at a wooden table. Crammed into the room were more than twenty men and boys attired in wool pants and camouflage shirts, felt-pac boots, and vests of hunter’s orange. Rifles leaned in the corners, and head-and-shoulder mounts of glassy-eyed deer stared down from the walls. The air hung heavy with humidity and the odor of cooking meat. Steam opaqued the windows. Someone had propped open the back door with a boot to let in a cold breeze.

On the stove, a blue enameled roaster held a haunch of venison ringed by fixings of onions, potatoes, carrots, and rutabaga. The men, unshaven and unwashed, ate from paper plates, wiped the juices with slices of white bread, and drank from cups filled from a quarter-barrel of beer.

It’s a deer feed. It’s hunting camp. Tomorrow morning after they sleep off the beer, most of these guys will drive to town for Thanksgiving dinner with family and then head back to the woods for the final week of deer season.

I’ve been coming here since the early 1980s when I was a young reporter at the Daily Press in Escanaba, but I don’t know many of these guys. The printers are retired, now in their seventies and eighties. A few can no longer hunt, and the camp has gone over to the next generation.

Neither am I a deer hunter, and that too makes me the odd man out. However, I once edited the outdoor page at the newspaper and later got a degree in environmental science and wrote about nature as a freelance magazine writer. I can talk deer, the politics of baiting, and the decline of the whitetail herd in Michigan. In recent years, however, I discovered another conversation starter.

Who’s got a trail cam?

Out came pictures processed at the drugstore or run off on home printers. The younger guys pulled out smartphones and finger-swiped through images.

Trail, or scout, cameras became widespread a decade or so ago. Hunters strap them to trees along a game trail or on a fence post at the edge of a field—places where a buck rubs his antlers, scent-marks territory, or feeds on piles of bait—corn, apples, beets, and carrots.

The images I saw that night weren’t only of deer but porcupines, coyotes, ravens, rabbits, skunks, and turkeys—any critter that came into camera range, tripped a motion detector, and opened the shutter.

From the front pocket of his bib overalls, an unshaven hunter handed me a well-thumbed photograph.

That’s the SOB I’m looking for, he said.

The photograph—time stamped 11-16, 2:32 a.m.—showed a ten- or eleven-point buck standing next to a bait pile. The deer, its head back, eyes glossy and wet nose sniffing, appeared wary, perhaps sensing danger an instant before a flash of light—the camera strobe—took the night away. Had the hunter used an infrared trail camera, there would have been no flash at all.

In the 1890s on Whitefish Lake some sixty miles northeast of Camp–30–, George Shiras 3d invented what he called the camera trap—a box camera holding a glass negative rigged to a chemical flare of magnesium and potassium chlorate powder. When a deer stumbled into a trigger wire, the shutter released and the chemicals exploded with the force of a mortar, flooding the woods with a sizzling, brilliant light.

Bewildered and blinded, deer reared back in alarm and sometimes charged into trees, knocking themselves senseless. Pictures revealed wide-eyed, startled animals, muscles tensed for flight. It was a crude setup, but one that yielded extraordinary images.

Shiras was the first to take nighttime pictures of wildlife and the first photographer to publish wildlife images in National Geographic magazine. He, too, worked out of a deer camp, where he spent his evenings with woolen-clad men eating venison cooked over a wood fire and debating the quality of the hunting, the predation of gray wolves, and the effectiveness of new game laws to halt the decline of the herd.

It was not idle talk. At the turn of the twentieth century, the future of many wildlife species—including whitetail deer—appeared bleak.

After denuding and taming much of the East, loggers and settlers attacked the ancient forests of the Great Lakes. Much of the Upper Peninsula was cutover country, a landscape of stumps and leftover slash that occasionally ignited into huge firestorms in the summer months. Market hunters riding the new railroads killed tens of thousands of deer and millions of passenger pigeons. They packed the meat into barrels and shipped the bounty to the big cities. Refrigerated rail cars, chokebore and breech-loading shotguns, and communication by telegraph enabled pothunters to target, kill, and ship animals as never before.

Ducks were slaughtered on Chesapeake Bay for table fare. Shorebirds in Florida died by the tens of thousands so their feathers could decorate women’s hats. Herring, whitefish, lake trout, and blue pike on the Great Lakes were no longer abundant. On the Great Plains, only the bones of the bison remained—and even these remnants were gathered into mountainous piles, shipped to factories, and ground into fertilizer.

It was not until the coming of the Progressive movement in the early 1900s that a new ethic of conservation and the strong hand of the federal government—wielded largely by Theodore Roosevelt—brought any hope of conserving resources for future generations. George Shiras 3d watched the wilderness of the Upper Peninsula nearly vanish in his lifetime and, along with it, many animals and fishes too. The loss informed his advocacy of conservation.

That night at Camp–30– I stepped outside with Bob, who had left the printing trade years earlier to take a job at the paper mill. We crunched through the snow over to the buck pole where two gutted animals hung by their feet, their bodies frozen, the meat curing.

The bare trees cracked with the cold. Stars blinked between the branches. There was no moon. Just as it was in Shiras’s day, the Upper Peninsula is rural country with vast tracts of state and federal forest and a sky largely unpolluted by artificial light. I pointed out Orion and Cassiopeia, and we silently pondered the great sweep of the Milky Way.

From the woods came the howl of a gray wolf.

That’s no coyote, Bob said.

Wolves had been extirpated from Michigan but made their way back in the 1990s, naturally migrating from Minnesota and Ontario. This time they were protected by the Endangered Species Act and by residents—including hunters—who appreciated the wildness the presence of wolves added to the region.

Still some folks in Camp–30– aren’t fond of wolves, believing the animals were planted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in a conspiratorial plot hatched with environmentalists. George Shiras didn’t like wolves either. They were bad animals to be dispatched in order to improve the prospects for deer—the good animals. That theory of game management—of eliminating predators—was disproved long ago, but some hunters today would not condemn anyone who shot a wolf, shoveled it into the ground, and kept quiet.

Back inside, I didn’t mention the wolf. Neither did Bob, but for a different reason. Hearing a wolf howling out of the blackness of the night is no longer a remarkable occurrence in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

One of the hunters called out, Where have you guys been?

Bob answered, I was showing Jim that six-pointer, and then we were out looking at the stars.

He took a sip of beer and clapped me on the shoulder.

We’re astrologers, you know.

Close enough. I smiled and nodded.

George Shiras was a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, raised in a moneyed family of lawyers and industrialists who could afford private schools and a gentrified life of multiple homes and summers spent in the cool climes of the Great Lakes. The young scion from Pittsburgh courted and married the daughter of one of the richest men in the Upper Peninsula. Though the couple relocated to Pittsburgh and Washington, DC, where George was a lawyer and a congressman, they summered each year in the town of Marquette, visiting family and enjoying the big woods and waters. George was a gentleman sportsman who roughed it out-of-doors but also employed guides to row and sail the boats, set up camp, and prepare the meals. At his father-in-law’s game preserve on Whitefish Lake, he put down the gun to shoot with the camera and adopted a new career of wildlife photographer and faunal naturalist.

I, too, grew up in western Pennsylvania, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, and like Shiras sought out wild country. After college, I wrote for small dailies in Wyoming and spent weekends camping in the mountains and on the sagebrush plains.

Eventually, I felt the need to be closer to home, a day’s drive from family and aging parents. One afternoon at the library, I opened an atlas to the Midwest and examined the cartographic features of the Upper Peninsula, a three-hundred-mile-long sliver of land reaching into the blue of Lakes Superior, Huron, and Michigan. I had never been there, but I visualized deciduous trees, canoes and kayaks, rivers and inland lakes. The map showed lots of blue water and green national forests. It looked like a good place.

Weeks later, I was in the newsroom at the Daily Press in Escanaba. I stayed three years, wrote, photographed, and camped all over the Upper Peninsula—often in the company of a young woman who sold classified ads. We married and moved to the East Coast to pursue more schooling, careers, and eventually a family. Like the Shirases, our summer vacations were spent in the Upper Peninsula.

On one of those trips in the mid-1990s, I peeled away from the kids and in-laws and drove north to Lake Superior for a day of mountain biking on Grand Island, recently purchased from a mining company by the US Forest Service. As I waited for a friend to meet me, I killed time in a used bookstore. In the nature section, I found a heavy, rather plain-covered book: Hunting Wild Life with Camera and Flashlight.

How strange . . . I imagined the author traipsing through the forest waving a battery-powered incandescent lantern. When I examined the book—published in the 1930s by the National Geographic Society—I saw that the monochromatic images were old, and that flashlight referred to a chemical technology prior to flashbulbs and electric strobes.

As I paged through the book, the deer-in-flight photos made me chuckle, but other images displayed an artist’s eye for composition and aesthetic renderings of songbirds, tree leaves, fungi, and Michigan’s north woods. I recognized iconic locations in the Upper Peninsula—waterfalls, rocky shorelines, and sites now protected as national parks and recreation areas.

That day as we pedaled our bikes along the trails and cliffs of Grand Island with the transparent blue of Lake Superior below us, I told my friend all about this Shiras fellow and his nineteenth-century ambush photographs of deer.

A few years later my wife and I—now with three young sons—returned to the Upper Peninsula, this time so I could teach journalism and nature writing at Northern Michigan University.

In our new home of Marquette, the name Shiras was inescapable. In summer, my boys swam in the Shiras municipal pool. We went to sky shows on Monday evenings at the Shiras Planetarium. When the aurora borealis appeared over Lake Superior, we loaded up the minivan and gawked at the lights from Shiras Park. A colleague from school had a home in the Shiras Hills. On its second floor in the Shiras Room, the public library preserves his collection of nature books and displays his images of deer.

Over the years, I came to understand that George Shiras 3d (he preferred the lawyerly 3d to III) was a seminal player in the early conservation movement, a naturalist of national reputation, a pioneer in wildlife photography, a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, and one of the Progressives in the early twentieth century who saved several species of wildlife.

As a congressional representative, Shiras introduced and established the legal foundations for the bill that became the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the most important environmental law for the preservation of wildlife prior to the passage of the Endangered Species Act in 1973. He traveled and photographed for the National Geographic Society and served on its board of managers for thirty years, when the society grew from a few hundred members to one of the world’s most respected science institutions. He discovered a subspecies of moose in the Rocky Mountains, which today is known as the Shiras moose.

But it was the Upper Peninsula and especially the camp at Whitefish Lake that served as his touchstone, the place where he formed his love for wildlife and expressed his passion for photography and wild country. He came home to Marquette to die and is buried in the city cemetery just a block from my house. As compared to his Victorian contemporaries—wealthy mine owners, ship captains, and timber barons—Shiras has a modest marker on his grave. His father-in-law lies beneath a towering obelisk.

One spring, a yearling moose wandered into town. It trotted up the street, scattered my oldest son and friends waiting for the school bus, and set up residence for a few days in Park Cemetery. Each morning, it strode through the gravestones crossing Shiras’s grave to reach an ornamental pond where it breakfasted on lily pads. Townspeople crowded the cemetery holding up cell phones and digital cameras.

Shiras would have enjoyed the spectacle and celebrated the fact that moose—like wolves, peregrine falcons, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes, fishers, mountain lions, bald eagles, and several more species—have returned after being nearly wiped out a century ago. The best monument to Shiras is the restored wildness of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan—the second-growth forests that cover the muscular shoreline around Marquette, the chevrons of Canada geese passing over each fall, and warblers migrating through the cemetery in spring. When I paddle a canoe through the woods, hear loons calling as I lay in my tent at night, or sit with hunters at a deer feed on a cold November day, I consider myself to be living in Shiras country.


THE TWO BOYS trudged through the woods most of the day, following behind Jack La Pete. They were just eleven and ten years old, but George Shiras and his brother Winfield hefted canvas packs, shotguns, bedrolls, and fishing poles.

They had breakfasted on fresh trout caught at the mouth of a river where it emptied into Lake Superior. From there, La Pete led them south and inland along drainages and through valleys where they left behind the surf sounds of the big lake and gained the hush of the forest.

It was an ancient woods of five-hundred-year-old hemlock and white pine interspersed with giant hardwood specimens of beech and maple. The lowest branches of the white pine hung fifty to seventy-five feet overhead. Beneath their feet, the bed of needles packed down nearly five feet thick.

In 1870, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan was still largely untouched by wagon roads and railroad rights-of-way. Professional hunters killing game for city markets and loggers leveling the forests had yet to reach this far north. The tributary streams and near-shore waters of the Great Lakes teemed with spawning fish. Clouds of passenger pigeons darkened the skies spring and fall. Game trails five feet wide and rutted by hundreds of years of deer movement cut across the peninsula as the animals migrated from the heavy snow country around Lake Superior to wintering grounds near Lake Michigan.

To the Shiras boys who lived in the booming and foul-smelling industrial city of Pittsburgh, the Upper Peninsula was uncontaminated, exotic country and Jack La Pete, a French-Indian man, was colorful and enigmatic—the kind of character they’d only read about in their adventure books.

A man of indeterminate years (he was not sure himself), La Pete spent most days in the woods. His face was wrinkled, desiccated from wind and weather. He had a deeply scarred and shriveled arm after being mauled by a black bear that he surprised as it slept between two logs.

He served as a guide and a packer for the boys’ father and grandfather who came north each summer to fish, hunt, and practice the sporting life of gentlemen. La Pete was an affable man and so trusted a guide and friend that he was given charge of the two young boys.

He had come by the hotel where the Shirases were staying in Marquette—then a rough-hewn village on the south shore of Lake Superior—saying he had discovered a lake twenty miles to the southeast where there were many deer. Two years earlier, he guided surveyors laying out a railroad route between Marquette and Lake Michigan—a distance of sixty miles—but they abandoned the route when they encountered a gorge too difficult to bridge. Jack followed the gorge to the south and came to a lake. He hewed a dugout canoe, put up a small cabin, and wintered there trapping beaver, muskrat, and wolves. For meat, he killed whitetail deer coming down to the shore. The boys could kill deer there both day and night, he said.

George and Winfield were keen to go, and they set off with Jack on a buckboard to an Indian cabin where the road ended a few miles south of the village. They slept on the attic floor and in the morning shouldered guns and provisions and worked their way east along the shore of the big lake. They overnighted at the Sand River where Jack had built a lean-to as a halfway point to the lake. The boys were glad for it—tired and amazed, as George recalled, at how heavy an object becomes when it had to be carried for hours. The boys spent the early evening fishing and, to Jack’s surprise, caught a dozen trout on fishing poles and line. La Pete was more inclined to a net in Lake Superior. The near-shore waters were so filled with Mackinac and brook trout and whitefish that the curious white-man habit of using a fishing pole never occurred to most Indians, according to George. Jack cleaned and prepared the fish and brewed tea. He lifted a heavy, flat rock and took from a hole a can of pulverized maple sugar he had concealed from a bear that had been tearing through the lean-to in his absence. That night, they heard bawling and whimpering downstream. Jack informed the boys that it was the sow and her cubs. George gripped his gun, ready to rush out and slay the bear. Jack dramatically rolled up his sleeve and displayed his scarred arm. Best settle down, he said. There would be no bear hunting.

The next morning, they were off early. The guide was untiring on the trail, exceptionally strong and quick on his feet. As they struck inland, they hiked a ridge between swamps and timber falls, following game trails that coalesced into wide deer runways that pointed the way toward the lake. The trails were packed down, impressed with hoof prints.

Early afternoon, they reached a crude log-and-bark cabin on a hillside overlooking the lake. The side walls were made of cedar logs about four feet high. The pitched roof consisted of black ash bark—inches thick and six feet long—cut from giant trees and lashed down by cedar strips. A hole near the top vented the smoke from a fire. The camp was pure woodcraft, constructed by a man skilled in using materials at hand.

After gathering downed wood for a fire and cutting pine boughs for a bed, they went down the hill to see the lake. Years later, George recalled it this way:

About a mile long, heavily forested along the shore with pine and hemlocks, except at the end where rows of reeds backed by cedars and black ash indicated an outlet stream. To the south a beautiful bay, or slough, lay between high hills with reeds, water lilies and sandy beaches at the end through which an inlet stream issued from a gorge filled as far as vision reached with stately elms.

Eventually, he would give the lake its name, Whitefish, and it would become a nature retreat for his family, a place of solace and escape, and a setting to hunt animals and watch birds. Most importantly, Whitefish Lake would be the touchstone for his life’s work as a photographer and conservationist. But all of this was yet to be.

The boys had come to hunt big game. George was the oldest so he went first. From the brush, Jack dragged out his dugout canoe. He positioned the boy in the bow, and they paddled to the opposite end of the lake and into a shallow bay. Jack soon whispered, Put up your paddle. There is a deer ahead.

As the canoe flattened and parted the reeds near the shore, a little buck jerked its head up. For a moment, the deer didn’t move and the boy aimed at the shoulder and let go with load of buckshot. The deer leaped backward and was gone.

After the report echoed from the hills and the smoke cleared, Jack let loose an amused chuckle. Buck fever; the boy had shot wide. George wanted to beach the canoe and search for a blood trail. In the split second after buckshot left the gun, the boy, sighting along the barrel, was certain the deer had jerked and caught some buckshot. Jack shook his head and paddled on. There would be other deer, but they saw no more that day.

As evening fell, it was Winfield’s turn. First, they cooked more trout packed in from Sand River. Again, Jack lifted a rock and took out a can of maple syrup boiled the year before. The elixir looked blackened and a bit unsavory, but it tasted sweet and the boys poured it on their fish and slices of bread. In another tin can, Jack brewed tea.

He stirred the fire and filled a cast-iron skillet with glowing coals. He peeled strips from a white birch tree, wound the resinous bark around a stick of wood, tied it with bark cordage, and then lit the torches so they could see their way to the lake. Winfield got into the front of the dugout and Jack placed the pan of coals on the bow. At Jack’s command, the boy would toss in birch bark, dried pinesap, and hunks of fatwood—the resinous heartwood of a downed pine tree.

They were going fire hunting.

They glided into the lake and arced toward the slough. The black shapes of the hills scalloped the horizon. Stars shined above. George followed the glow in the bow until it faded into the blackness and then he climbed the trail to Jack’s lean-to, tossed more wood onto the fire, and waited. In time, he heard the blast of the shotgun.

When Jack and Winfield came into camp, the guide carried a string of pickerel, or northern pike, which he had taken from a net set up in the slough. Winfield wielded bloodier trophies—the heart and liver of a deer impaled on a stick.

The gutted deer hung from a tree at the lakeshore, a place the boys would come to call Old Jack’s Landing. While the guide roasted the heart and liver over the fire, the boys took a torch and went down to see the deer.

Winfield described how they had heard movement on the water and in the low light saw the shape of a doe grazing on succulent plants in the shallows. As Jack swung the canoe to face the deer, Winfield built up the fire in the skillet. The birch bark curled and ignited. The pinesap and heartwood sizzled and popped. The animal froze, mesmerized by the approaching fiery light. Winfield rose up in the bow, aimed at its chest, and fired. The deer took a step and collapsed on shore.

George was envious. He remembered the deer flinching after his own shot, and he was convinced he had hit it. At daybreak the next morning, he snuck out of camp, trotted down the path, and got into Jack’s dugout canoe. With difficulty, he rowed to the other end the lake. It was a bold act for an eleven-year-old and indicative of his pluckiness.

He entered the bay. When the canoe grounded out, he crawled to the bow and reached out to grab a branch and pull himself ashore. What he grabbed was not a stick but the stiff leg of a deer jutting into the air. So he had killed a deer and done so hours before his brother. He examined the carcass and saw where several big pellets of buckshot had torn into the body. It wasn’t exactly a clean kill—the kind he would learn to accomplish much later—but he had, despite Jack’s derision, slain a deer and done so before his brother.

Nearly fifty years later he wrote, I sank down trembling with emotion and eyed the crumpled body of the little buck. Had a humanitarian witnessed the scene, my action might have appeared to him like evidence of contrition over the destruction of a beautiful and innocent creature.

Actually, he felt only joy and relief. He wrestled the body on board, smearing himself and the dead animal with mud. He rowed back to Jack’s Landing, hollered out, and brought the other two running.

Butchering the deer, they found twelve pellets, one piercing the heart. The deer may have taken a big leap, but it must have died quickly. The next few nights, they fire hunted—Jack in the stern and a boy seated in the bow behind a sizzling skillet with his shotgun in his lap.

Eventually, the practice of fire hunting or jacking a deer—shining a light into its eyes to freeze motion long enough to take a shot—would become illegal and unethical, but in the 1870s, there were no game laws, no limits, no season. George would abandon these old ways, but he never forgot the method; it would make him famous as a camera hunter.


THAT FIRST VISIT to Whitefish Lake occurred during the Gilded Age, a satirical appellation coined by Mark Twain to describe the years from the 1870s to early 1900s. It was a time in America characterized by industrial expansion, mass immigration from Europe, the exploitation of natural resources, and the accumulation of great personal wealth. Nowhere was the promise and the dark side of the era more in evidence than in Pittsburgh.

The city was known as Hell with the lid off, and it was no exaggeration. With the development of the Bessemer converter and the age of blast furnaces, massive steel works were erected in and around the city. The skyline glowed at night. Smoke and smog filled the skies, and soot filtered down so thick that at times it turned the rain gray. Industrial waste and sewage fouled the rivers. Tens of thousands of workers toiled in the factories and mills, typically working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week. They lived in slums or company towns set up by the new czars of steel.

Of his childhood, George 3d recalled, I lived most of my early years beneath a sun often obscured by clouds of smoke. At night that part of the Ohio Valley resembled an inferno from the glare of the blast furnaces, coke ovens, and many standpipes shooting lurid flames far overhead in a wasteful consumption of the natural gas from adjoining oil fields.

Many of the workers were immigrants: Scotch-Irish, Germans, Italians, and later Slovaks, Hungarians, Russians, and Jews. The companies advertised for workers in Europe. As much as they melted pig iron, the furnaces melded cultures and fired passions about labor and unions and robber barons and private armies. Pittsburgh was volatile, a brawling city of strikers, capitalists, anarchists, company thugs, crooked cops and politicians, and the scrum of the proletariat.

The Shirases, however, were atop the social pyramid and, like many wealthy city dwellers, they spent summer—or at least a few weeks—in the cooler, cleaner climes of the Great Lakes.

The family’s relationship with the Pittsburgh region went back a couple of generations when Fort Pitt was an outpost of the United States. The family’s original fortune was earned from brewing beer and doing commerce along the three rivers—the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio.

The Shirases were Scots. Peter Shiras, great-great-grandfather of George 3d, immigrated to America in 1765 and ran a store in Mount Holly, New Jersey. After the American Revolution, his son George joined the militia to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion led by farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania. Living on the edge of the wilderness and accustomed to making their own spirits, these settlers refused to pay excise taxes to the new government.

After negotiations between the groups failed, Henry Light Horse Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and father of Robert E. Lee, led a thirteen-thousand-member militia into the region. Resistance melted away at its approach.

Young George liked the region and convinced his parents and other family members to join him there in 1795. Although there were just a thousand residents in the village, the area was no longer a frontier outpost and relatively safe from warfare between the whites and Native Americans. The Indian wars had moved into Ohio, Indiana, and other parts of the Midwest.

At the confluence of the three rivers, Pittsburgh was a natural crossroads for river traffic and settlers moving overland across the Allegheny Mountains. There was opportunity.

Peter Shiras, who was in his sixties, had capital to invest. With a partner, he purchased from the government the remains of the old Fort Pitt military installation, which was abandoned on the point of land where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers met to form the Ohio. Today, the area is Point State Park at the tip of the city’s Golden Triangle.

He set up a brewery to supply porter, ale, and beer to the growing number of taverns in the town and to the emigrants heading west to take up new land. Son George became manager and master brewer. In 1804, Peter Shiras returned to New Jersey and sold his interest in the brewery to his partner, who sold it again. Through each sale, George remained the manager. That year, George had a son, also named George. This was the grandfather of George Shiras 3d.

Eventually the Shirases took over the entire operation of what became known as the Pittsburgh Point Brewery. They shipped casks as far south as Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans, where their porter beer was especially valued because it did not spoil in the heat.

Pittsburgh thrived and hummed during the summer months with river traffic and settlers. The valleys around the city were rich with coal, iron ore, and timber. Glassworks, flour mills, gun and powder manufacturing, boatyards, and other commerce grew in importance. Raw materials and finished goods moved easily on the river. When Meriwether Lewis outfitted the Corps of Discovery to cross the continent to the Pacific Ocean, his journey began in Pittsburgh, where he bought provisions and the expedition’s keelboat.

In those days, manufacturing beer and liquor or keeping a tavern was a respectable and highly profitable business. The sons and grandsons of Peter Shiras stayed in the brewing business for the next forty years. In 1837, when the brewery relocated from the point to Penn Street on the Allegheny River, it produced six thousand barrels of porter, ale, and beer. Brewing made the family rich and influential in civic affairs. Shirases served on the common council and helped raise money to build piers and other structures to protect the city from flooding.

They were leaders in the Presbyterian Church. George Sr., the 3d’s grandfather, married Elizabeth Herron, the daughter of the foremost minister in the city. They had three sons: George Jr., Oliver, and Frank.

George Sr. was able to retire at age thirty-six and for the rest of his life lived off a share of the brewery profits and his other investments, which included banking and real estate.

Preferring the country life where he could raise his sons, farm, fish, and hunt, George Sr. in 1840 moved the family twenty miles north to the east bank of the Ohio River near what is now the town of Baden. He purchased a hundred-acre farm with fine springs of clear water and called it Crow Bottom. George Sr. grew apples, pears, and peaches in orchards bordered on one side by the Ohio River and on the other by wooded hills.

His oldest son, George Jr., born in 1832, loved the farm as a boy. There were Indian arrowheads and artifacts along the river. Deer and bear prowled the nearby wooded valleys. Each spring and fall, tens of thousands of red and gray squirrels swam across the river. Sometimes a steamboat paddled past, creating a wake that wet the squirrels’ tails and impeded their passage. Dozens would drown at a time. Farmers cleared the land of mast trees—beech, hickory, and walnut—and mercilessly shot the squirrels to protect the grain in their fields.

Settlers also destroyed the flocks of passenger pigeons that swept through the valley in prodigious migration flights. Wherever the birds roosted, they were set upon with guns, clubs, stones, poles, traps, and nets. People ate pigeons, particularly the young squabs, but the birds also provided feed for hogs.

George Shiras Sr. and his boys fished the Ohio River for black bass, suckers, perch, pickerel, carp, and crappies. In the cooler feeder streams, they found speckled or brook trout. Channel catfish and blue cats were prized for their sweet flesh and sold in markets from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. Although his father preferred trout, George Jr. was content as a boy to take any fish as long as it put up a fight.

In the 1840s, the river was busy with boats: mail packets, freight haulers, and swift passenger boats outfitted with salons, barrooms, chandeliers, and carpets. Steam propulsion was still primitive. Boiler explosions were not uncommon as riverboat captains pushed for speed.

George Sr. commissioned construction of his own sternwheeler, a small pleasure craft for fishing the Ohio River and ferrying him and his family between Crow Bottom and Pittsburgh. He christened the boat the Izaak Walton after the English writer, sportsman, and early proselytizer of fishing with artificial flies. The Shiras boys loved the boat and learned to navigate the river and fish from its decks. They took along fowling pieces to shoot at ducks, geese, and other game birds.

George Sr. had settled into a life as a gentleman farmer and sportsman. In the summer of 1849, he left the family for several weeks and made his first trip to the wilds of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, lured there by Pittsburgh friends who reported that speckled trout (eastern brook trout) weighing up to five pounds were caught easily on flies along the Lake Superior shoreline.

George Sr. took a stagecoach to Cleveland and boarded a steamer to Detroit and then another to Sault Ste. Marie at the northeast end of the Upper Peninsula. Known by its nickname—the Soo—it is the third-oldest city in the United States, founded by the French in 1668. Native Americans, however, had been there at least five hundred years earlier to take advantage of the good fishing on the St. Mary’s River, which carries the outflow from Lake Superior into Lake Huron.

At the Soo, Shiras found a village of about five hundred residents, mostly French but Ojibwa, too. Many were of mixed race. Some Ojibwa fished with dip nets in the rapids and dried whitefish over smoky fires. Others were employed to portage boats around the rapids by pulling vessels with horses and cable and wood rollers across a mile-wide strip of land. The place was full of saloons and, as Louis Agassiz Fuertes, the naturalist, had observed during a visit, Nobody is busy who was there and no one seems to know what he is going to do next.

The St. Mary’s runs about seventy-four river miles between the two big lakes with a fall of twenty-three feet. Its rapids—now bypassed by the Soo Locks—were a destination for sportsmen who needed guides and boats. In 1865, Robert Roosevelt, uncle of the future president and a noted expert on fish, called the Soo Rapids the finest brook trout fishing in the world.

The speckled trout sought by George Sr. was the coaster brook trout, a potamodromous fish that migrates wholly within freshwater. The fish spawned in rivers and on shoals and then spent much of their life in the near-shore waters of the big lake. They could get enormous, partly because of their open-water habits but also because, prior to the European introduction of brown and rainbow trout, the fish had no competition. Today, naturally occurring coaster brook trout in the Great Lakes are rare. Much of their spawning habitat—the rocky cobbles of tributary streams to Lake Superior—was buried under sand and soil in the late nineteenth century when timbermen leveled the forests, drove the logs down to the big lakes, and damaged the river systems.

But in 1849, the tributaries and lakes were unspoiled. Shiras Sr. stayed a few days in the Soo and then took a sailing ship west along the south shore of Lake Superior. It was wild, picturesque country. He was impressed with the Grand Sable sand dunes and tens of miles of three-hundred-foot high cliffs that today are protected as Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. About one hundred miles west of the Soo, the boat entered the protected waters of Munising Bay and berthed at Grand Island, where the American Fur Company had a trading outpost. Between what are now the towns of Munising and Marquette—a stretch of forty miles—Shiras beheld a mature forest of mixed hardwoods with climax species of sugar and hardwood maple as well as yellow birch and oak. It was a forest more advantageous to moose and woodland caribou—which were the top ungulates—than white-tail deer. Black bears, wolves, beaver, and grouse were common. Shiras also noted enormous flocks of passenger pigeons.

Tributary streams ran copper brown, a hue reminiscent of tea or beer, because they carried in solution tannins, or decayed organic matter leached from cedar swamps and the detritus of the great forests. At river mouths and over rocky reefs, Shiras caught scores of speckled trout on artificial flies often no more intricate than a piece of red ribbon knotted onto a hook.

He traveled two hundred miles to the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, where the village of Copper Harbor and Fort Wilkins, a military outpost, had been established to accommodate miners and settlers moving into the region to extract its copper. Native Americans had been finding chunks—even boulders of nearly pure metal—in the region for thousands of years and had hammered the copper into amulets, axes, knives, and other tools. Fortunes lay in these hills for the whites, and the mining rush to the Keweenaw had been underway for nearly five years. However, when Shiras arrived at Fort Wilkins, gold had just been discovered at Sutter’s Mill, and many miners were leaving for California.

He stayed a few days and then made his way back to the Soo, stopping and fishing several good trout streams near a settlement called Worcester that was being hacked out of the wilderness around a quiet bay ringed by hills heavy with white pine. The settlers were building a forge and dock—not for copper but for iron ore.

Five years earlier, William Burt, a surveyor for the federal government, was running a section line thirteen miles inland from Worcester when his compass began spinning wildly. The variation in the magnetic field led the team to outcroppings of iron ore.

When word got out, entrepreneurs organized mining companies, including two investors from Worcester, Massachusetts. An eighteen-year-old boy named Peter White came to the site with the first settlers to help build a town. Legend has it that White came ashore and cut down the first tree in the new settlement. In the coming decades, White’s fortunes would grow with the town, and he would become the richest, most influential man in the Upper Peninsula. Eventually his family would become linked with the Shirases from Pittsburgh.

George Sr. didn’t meet White on that first trip, but he liked the rawness of the town, the determination of the settlers, and the superb fishing. He determined to come back.

That fall, the Shiras boys—George Jr. and Oliver—went off to college at Ohio University in Athens. Brother Frank moved to Pittsburgh to work. George Sr. sold the farm at Crow Bottom. He and Elizabeth moved into a hotel run by the Harmony Society in the town of Economy.

The Harmonites had come from Germany in 1804, led by their spiritual founder Johan George Rapp, who had run into trouble with Lutheran authorities when he and his followers refused to accept communion and would not attend church. They began to separate themselves from society and many immigrated to the New World.

In America, they built three different communities, the last being Economy, Pennsylvania, on a thousand-acre tract along the Ohio River. The Harmony Society was run as a cooperative, along socialistic and religious tenets. The group anticipated the second coming of Jesus Christ at any moment and adopted celibacy to purify

Hai raggiunto la fine di questa anteprima. Registrati per continuare a leggere!
Pagina 1 di 1


Cosa pensano gli utenti di Camera Hunter

0 valutazioni / 0 Recensioni
Cosa ne pensi?
Valutazione: 0 su 5 stelle

Recensioni dei lettori