All posts by Richard Fidler

Richard Fidler taught biology in the Traverse City Public Schools for 31 years. He is the author of four books about Grand Traverse history, the latest titled, Traverse City, Michigan: A Historical Narrative, 1850-2013. When he is not exploring wild places nearby, he is enjoying his favorite places in Traverse City.

Sudden Flooding Along the Bay: Are We Due for Another Seiche?

Map of Grand Traverse Bay, courtesy of WikiMiniAtlas.

How many times has it happened?   Along East Bay, usually at night or early morning, the water surges up, rising four feet or more from its normal level, only to subside within minutes.  In the past, roads have been flooded, docks floated away, and debris swept into the water.  Houses and cottages have been flooded and cars damaged by the flooding such that they had to be towed away for repair.  West Bay gets them, too, but East Bay, especially at the south end, from Five Mile road west to the Birchwood area of Traverse City have been especially hard-hit.

The 1950’s experienced a number of these events, not just locally, but throughout all the Great Lakes.  At first, no one knew what to make of them: newspapers called them “Tidal Waves,” often using quotation marks since everyone knew they had nothing to do with the tides.  The only similarity is that the water rose somewhat gradually, and not with an abrupt crash of giant waves on the shore.  In 1952, the Traverse City Record Eagle declared no one knew what caused them, but that observation was soon to change: a surge of water with immense waves swept up on the Chicago shore on June 26, 1954, causing the deaths of ten persons.  That tragedy sparked interest among scientists studying the phenomenon.  They would soon uncover the causes.

First in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

Gordon E. Dunn, Meteorologist-in-charge of the Chicago office, realized that, on past occasions, the surges always occurred after the arrival of a pressure increase associated with a rapidly moving storm front coming from the north.  On July 6, 1954, just ten days after the devastating surge described above, conditions looked nearly identical to those of that day.  Based upon his understanding of the event, Dunn issued the first seiche warning. Somewhat to his surprise given his scant knowledge, a moderate seiche did strike Chicago, one that caused little damage, much to the relief of all.

Since those early times, we have learned much more about seiches.  They are associated with fast-moving storm lines, especially those moving faster than 50km/hr.  There must be a significant pressure rise associated with those lines, with a long fetch of water covering the entire width of a body of water—Lake Michigan or Grand Traverse Bay–making for more the most dramatic events.  One factor Dunn did not understand was the most fundamental thing of all: storm surges bounce off shores and send reflected waves outward to interact with those coming in.  It is like a basin of water with a water disturbance that reflects off the sides, sometimes building into surges that are magnified by the coming together of different waves.  Surges and the receding of water can go on for days as waves interact, just as water in a basin takes time to settle if it is disturbed.  All of this happens during seiches.

Second in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

East Bay presents another aspect of seiches.  It has vast shoals—shallow areas—that extend from the south and west shores.  When rising water strikes them, waves grow taller, driving farther inland.  One of the descriptions of a seiche claims that the water rushed 30 to 40 feet inland from its usual position, but only in areas at the base of the Bay.  This “shoaling” effect is known to increase the severity of seiches.

East Bay also presents an obstructed range of open water (a “fetch”) that enables waves free travel down its length.  By contrast, West Bay has a narrowing at Lee’s Point on the west side and Bower’s Harbor on the east, after which it widens at the south end.  Contours of the land also affect the severity of seiches, and East Bay seems especially suited to maximize high water surges.

Third in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

This is not to say West Bay has not experienced them.  On April 1, 1946, a resident of Bay Street in Traverse City reported the water level rose two feet before subsiding.  An older story is told that in March, 1891, the city had been withdrawing water from West Bay for household use by means of an intake pipe that extended two hundred feet from the shore under twenty feet of water.  When the pumps started racing one morning, it was realized that no water was being moved at all.  Upon breaking the ice that covered the intake, it was discovered that the water had receded to the point that the mouth of the pipe wasn’t in the water at all.  Soon after, water levels rose, and residents were able to get water for their morning coffee.  The peculiarity of this event—occurring when the Bay was frozen—sets one to wondering if some factor besides a seiche wasn’t operating.

East Bay experienced three significant seiches in the two years 1952-53.  The May 5, 1952 seiche is interesting because we have access to hour-by-hour data about wind speed and direction.  Hour-by-hour after midnight the wind direction changed: 1:00 AM: out of the East at 7 mph; 2:00 AM: out of the west at 7 mph; 3:00 AM: out of the south at 10 mph: 4:00 AM: out of the west at 8 mph; 5:00 AM: out of the north at 12 mph.  The wind direction stayed out of the north after that time for the rest of the day.   Note the time of day: after midnight and early morning.  For reasons not completely understood, the biggest surges of water tend to happen in early morning up to noon.  Also note that the wind direction jumps from one direction to another, finally ending with a strong wind out of the north.  The effect is to pile up water on one side of the Bay, only to have it rush in from the north.  Given the contours of that body of water, that is exactly what you would expect in order for the biggest surge of water to occur at the southern end.

Fourth in a series of photographs documenting a seiche in East Bay, 5 May 1952, from the Traverse City “Record-Eagle” (used with permission).

Residents on the south shore of East Bay notified the sheriff of the flooding shortly after 4:00 AM, a time fairly consistent with the wind change out of the north.  After the first surge, water rose again and again, but never reached the high water mark of the first rush.  That behavior goes along with our present understanding of seiches as disturbances in a closed basin with waves that reinforce each other at times.

When will the next seiche be?  Who can say?  We should beware when a fast-moving storm line moves in from the north associated with rapidly rising air pressure.  The National Weather Service now issues warnings when conditions are favorable for water surges and high waves, and persons living in vulnerable places should take precautions to protect their lives and property.   It has been some time since the last big one and it is easy to become complacent in the absence of memory.  After all, Nature acts whether we are ready or not for what she gives us.

Transformations of Boardman Lake: A Place to Work, A Place to Play, A Place to Live

If we could take snapshots of Boardman Lake over the past 160 years, we would see not just one lake, but many of them, each serving a different purpose for the community.  In this collection of photographs taken from the Historical Society’s collection at the Traverse Area District Library, we can explore the transformations of this body of water over time right up to the present day.

Fisherman on Boardman Lake

The lake has always been fished, even before the arrival of white settlers.  One of the first accounts of ice fishing was presented in the Grand Traverse Herald nearly 150 years ago:

The Indians are now engaged in fishing for them [lake trout].  They cut a hole through the ice, cover it with evergreen boughs, throw in an artificial decoy fish attached to a line, throw themselves flat upon their faces, and, with spear in hand, watch the approach of the unsuspecting trout to the decoy, when, quick as lightning, the spear is thrust, and a ten or twenty pound trout is floundering on the ice.

Map showing Boardman Lake in relation to the city of Traverse City

The lake is not an artifact of dam building, but is a natural feature of the land.  It was drawn onto the earliest surveyors’ maps, though was somewhat smaller than it presently is today.  The Union Street dam, constructed in 1869, raised its level about three feet.  Because a river runs through it, plumb bobs don’t drop perpendicularly to the bottom to measure depth.  Perhaps that is why it was considered literally bottomless by early settlers.  In fact, at its deepest, it is only about 70 feet deep, though who can tell how much sedimentation has occurred since its depth was first measured?

The first transformation of the lake occurred with the advent of logging.  Logs were piled along the banks in winter to await the thaw.  When the ice had melted, they were rolled into the water to proceed downriver to the waiting sawmill at the river’s mouth on West Bay.  Located on the west side of the lake, this “rollaway” was one of many along northern Michigan rivers.

Rollaway for logs at Boardman Lake


Another view of logs at Boardman Lake. They will be sent downstream to the river’s mouth to be milled for lumber.

Next, industry transformed the lake.  The Oval Wood Dish Company was the largest factory to be located on the lake: in fact, during its existence, it was the largest employer in town, hiring more than 600 workers at its peak.  Besides oval wood dishes (used in packaging meats and other products), it made clothespins, wood flooring, and all kinds of items made from hardwood.  Because local hardwoods had mostly been logged off, it moved to the state of New York in 1917 in order to take advantage of forests in that state.  Other factories along the lake sawed wood for lumber, made chairs, fruit baskets, hardwood flooring, and, somewhat later, automobiles.  The Napolean auto company, located at the far north end, manufactured small cars and trucks for a few years in the 1920’s.  The industrial nature of the area was reinforced when the city determined that the sewage treatment plant would be located at the far north end, this facility constructed in 1931.

View of the Oval Wood Dish company, early 1900’s. The Eighth Street bridge can be seen in the distance.
The Fulghum factory, maker of hardwood flooring. In the twenties, the Napolean auto company would occupy this location.
The Beitner sawmill and chair factory was located at the north end of the lake.
A wagon load of fruit baskets manufactured by the Wells Higman company


Recent view of the Traverse City sewage treatment plant

At the same time industrialization was changing Boardman lake, townspeople began to see it as a place to play.  Poplar point was picnic area located well south of the present library.  It could be reached by launch on summer days in the early 1900’s, the boarding point being near the intersection of Boardman Avenue and Eighth Street.  In the winter, the lake froze solid, so that skaters could get out and enjoy the ice—which formed earlier than that on the Bay and was usually smoother, better for skating.  Bicycling, the rage in the 1890’s, still attracts hundreds of those using bike paths.  Hull Park has become a major recreation center for the area with its sailing club, children’s garden at the public library, picnic areas, and scenic spots perfect for fishing or contemplation. 

Orson W. Peck postcard of Poplar Point, popular recreation area in the early 20th century
A launch on Boardman Lake, early 20th century


Skaters on Boardman Lake. Note the stacks of the Oval Wood Dish company in the background.
A woman bicyclist photographed at Boardman Lake at the turn of the twentieth century
Recent photograph of the Children’s Garden, located at the Traverse Area Public Library on Woodmere Avenue


Pedestrian walking bridge at the outlet to Boardman Lake, 2017

Before refrigeration had caught on—and even afterwards—ice was cut out of the lake to be preserved in sawdust until summer.  Up to the 1940’s it was sawn into blocks and kept in icehouses along the shore to wait the hot days of July.

Cutting ice on Boardman Lake
Ice house on the shore of the lake

Finally, in recent years the lake has become a place to live.  Condos and assisted living facilities stand on both the east and west side of the lake.  More such developments are planned along the edge of the lake along with a walking/bike path that circles the body of water entirely.  The lake is being transformed as we watch, and will, no doubt, transform itself again–as it always has.

Newly constructed condos on the West side of Boardman Lake
Assisted living facilities are found in several locations on the lake.


Godzilla vs. Spongilla: A Contrast in Life Styles

A sponge is the antithesis of a super hero.  It stays in place, sifting out plankton (microscopic algae and animals) from the water that passes through its body.  Its body is not of great interest, lacking appendages altogether, not even possessing tentacles that might enwrap evildoers and others that would do it harm.  Its personality is not engaging, either, since it does not have a brain. 

To get its food, it has many small openings that take in its tiny prey, and a few larger ones that expel the water it has cleansed.  The pumping system that carries on the circulation is primitive: cells with tiny whip-like appendages (flagella) line passageways, setting up the current.  There are no robust hearts in sponges.

A simple animal reproduces simply.  In some species of sponge, balls of cells (gemmules) form in mid- to late summer that can break off from the parent animal and grow into a new sponge somewhere else.  This asexual form of reproduction is perhaps the most common means of making new sponges.   However, sperms and eggs can be made inside its body, those fertilizing each other in a display that has nothing to do with affection.  You wonder, without courtship, without males showing off what they’ve got, what is the point of reproduction like that?

Sponges do have a skeleton of sorts, however.  In the ocean, some of them have a soft one made up of spongin, a substance that becomes flexible and absorbent upon being rehydrated.  Those sponges have been used for hundreds of years in the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere for scrubbing everything from floors to human bodies.  Mostly replaced by plastic substitutes, they are occasionally used today.

Many years ago I took a course in invertebrates at the University of Michigan’s Biological Station at Pellston, Michigan, and was surprised to learn that we have a freshwater sponge that inhabits our lakes: Spongilla lacustris (a few other species can be found here, too).  As I observed it, its body most often was in the form of a greenish blob attached to sticks or pondweed–the green color, I found out, came from algae inhabiting the animal.  It was not at all gooey or gelatinous, but felt rough to the touch and a bit like glassy bits stuck together when dried.  Unlike its ocean brethren with its spongin, it had a skeleton made of crystal-like tiny elements made of silica, the same stuff that comprises most of our sand in Northern Michigan.

At least one animal appreciates Spongilla–but not for its appearance or life habits.  Spongilla fly larvae feed on it with zest, later pupating to become small flies we are certain to ignore among the multitude of other flies that hatch in lakes and ponds.  No life form–not even the sponge–is too humble to escape predators.

Spongilla is very particular about where it lives: it must have the cleanest, purest water around.  For that reason, it is considered to be an indicator of pristine, unpolluted lakes.  Far from being a pestilence, freshwater sponges are a gift.  We should not condemn them for what they are not—gifted superheroes of the animal world.  They are not delicious, not cute, not pretty, but they do constitute a component of our most treasured biological communities, the clear lakes that grace our landscape in Northern Michigan.  Let us rejoice in their presence here.

A Handsome Animal That Does Not Milk Cows: the Milk Snake

Milk snakes do not milk cows, contrary to legend.  They do hang around barns and other structures–sometimes houses.  Someone I know shares her dwelling with occasional milk snake intruders which apparently enjoy living in the crevices of the foundation.  It does little good to let her know that they are only looking for rodents and other small varmints—she does not like them.  To her credit, they have become only an occasional nuisance, and are only evicted from the premises rather than summarily decapitated, a common response of humans.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

I saw one quite recently, three feet of torpid elegance stretched across a bike path near where I live.  Fearing for its life–since it nearly blocked the right-of-way of bicycles–I stamped on the ground to get its attention.  With apparent nonchalance, it moved to one side and then into the tall grasses beside the river, its tongue flicking out every few seconds as snakes do.

Indeed, why do they do that?  Reference books tell me that this is their sense of smell, but that statement is not quite accurate, since the actual organ of smell is inside their mouths.  The tongue only samples the air outside.  Since they don’t bring air directly past their olfactory membranes, then they can only smell whatever comes to them on the wind, a strange mechanism at least from our point of view, since we can sniff.  What smells would they be sensitive to?  Rodents, one might guess, and other milk snakes, females especially–if a male snake is the prime actor.

Milk snakes are harmless, but that does not mean they will not attempt to discourage those who would cause it irritation.  Like many of its relatives, it will coil, hiss, and strike to incite fear in the hearts of its perceived enemies.  It should be forgiven for that behavior, not beheaded.

These creatures are most commonly seen in spring and fall.  They go after their prey after nightfall, seeking out mice with their flicking tongues, ready to wrap themselves around them in an instant, squeezing them so they cannot breathe.  That is what constrictors do.

The triangle on the head of this eastern milk snake is very distinct. Image courtesy of the Virginia Herpetological Society.

Milk snakes are given the name Lampropeltis triangulum triangulum, the “triangulum” element referring to a triangle or Y-shaped marking at the top of its head.  In larger snakes dull red bands decorate its body, but smaller ones will have brighter red stripes bordered with black, all set upon a creamy white background.

After your initial surprise at seeing one, you will have to admire this animal for its stunning appearance.  As so many snakes and reptiles are disappearing because of habitat disruption, they are to be treasured all the more.  Let us live in peace with them.

Want more on snakes? Check out these TADL books about snakes

  • Holman, J. Alan, Harding, James H., Hensley, Marvin M., and Dudderar, Glenn R., Michigan Snakes, Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1993, 2006.
  • Holman, J. Alan, The Amphibians and Reptiles of Michigan: A Quaternary and Recent Faunal Adventure, Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012.

Richard Fidler is co-editor of Grand Traverse Journal.

Will it be “Close, but No Cigar,” for this month’s mystery?

Where is this building, stamped, “Traverse City Cigar Box Company 1920?”

We expect all our readers will get this one, so here’s some extra credit: What do you know about the cigar industry in Traverse City? When did it flourish? How many companies and employees were there? What kinds of people worked for the industry?

You might not win a cigar for your answer, but you’ll certainly go down as a legend amongst Grand Traverse Journal readers!

Chivalry in the Aviation Age: the Rennie Airplane Tragedy of 1933

Thursday, June 22, 1933, Traverse City, Michigan: The Journey Begins

James (“Timber”) Gillette, George (“Pete”) Keller, Charles (“Chick”) Rennie and his wife, Margaret walked briskly towards the airplane that would take them to Milwaukee.  It would be a good day to fly: the day was partly cloudy, not too warm, a welcome change from the blistering 96-degree weather that assaulted them only two days before.  That heat wave had broken records all over the Midwest, but now, all that remained to remind locals of its unpleasantness was a touch of humidity.  A high in the seventies was expected, perhaps a little cooler near the water. 

The pilot of the aircraft, Timber, was also its owner.  He had purchased it a year previous and had flown it as a charter for many customers—Chick, chief among them.   Having five years experience as a pilot, Timber felt confident he could take anyone anywhere they wanted to go—provided flying conditions were right.  Aviators had a certain mystique that charmed the nation in the late twenties and early thirties.  Charles Lindberg had crossed the Atlantic solo only six years before, and the exploits of pilot Wiley Post were regularly printed in newspapers across the land.  The previous year, Amelia Earhart had flown across the Atlantic solo, duplicating Lindberg’s achievement.  Flight was for the young and the adventuresome—and that described Timber.

Image from the “Manitowoc Herald-Times,” June 1933.

Pete was a mechanic hired by Timber, entrusted with keeping the airplane in top flying shape.  To this end, he had undergone training in the maintenance of the aircraft in Detroit, Michigan.  He knew autos, too, having operated a service station in his hometown of Frankfort, Michigan, for several years.  Married with two young children, he was in transition, moving from Frankfort to Traverse City, now living in what was called a “house car” at the time at East Bay State Park (known in recent times as the Traverse City State Park).

“Pete” (Ferris) Rennie, standing in the foreground, on the pontoons of an aircraft. His brother “Chick” (Charles) is in the background. This was not the aircraft that was in the accident, according to daughter Halcyon.

Chick was Timber’s nephew, though the two hardly differed in age.  Like Timber, he loved to fly: frequently he and Timber would travel to relatively nearby cities to conduct business for the Rennie Oil Company, the business started by his father, Charles Rennie, in 1923.  Chick was only 28 years old, yet was already a vice president, carrying out company business as a seasoned veteran would.  Today’s trip was to secure permission for a fuel unloading dock to be built at Greilickville, the settlement just north of the city limits in Leelanau County.  The trip should not take long: Lake Michigan was only seventy miles wide, so the total time of transit could not take much more than a couple of hours.

Margaret Rennie, about 29 years old. Image courtesy of her daughter, Halcyon.

Margaret Rennie was not a frequent flyer—in fact, years later, her daughter Halcyon said that this might have been her first flight.  She decided to come along as a passenger, taking the place of the loading dock’s contractor, Ben Samuelson.  Margaret and Chick went to the same school, Central High School in Traverse City, Chick graduating in 1923 when Margaret was a junior.  While the school yearbook tells us little about Chick, it tells more about Margaret.  She was lead actor in a popular school play at the time, Daddy Long Legs, and appeared in other productions at the school.  As a junior, she was nominated as “most beautiful,” though she apparently did not win the title.  A flamboyant description under portrait in her senior year declaimed,  “Thy beauty is like the pearls of the ocean.”  Indeed, with her smile and her light brown hair, she does stand out among her classmates.

Chick and Margaret married right after high school at ages 20 and 19 respectively.  They had three young children already, John, Halcyon, and Martha Jean, ages eight, five, and three.  In 1930 they lived in a pleasant house along East Bay.  With Chick as an executive in a growing company, the family was moderately wealthy—a live-in maid served their needs.

The plane they approached on this day was a Stinson Junior model aircraft fitted with pontoons for landing on water.   It was a four-seat model, with a large overhead wing supported by struts on either side.  The cabin was completely enclosed, a fairly recent innovation in aircraft design.  Timber had purchased it a year before, happy to pilot the most advanced machine he could get.  Its top speed was 125 mph, fast enough to make the trip to Milwaukee in an hour-and-half or less if the weather cooperated. 

The plane took off into the morning haze after nine o’clock.  In twenty minutes it was approaching the Lake Michigan coast at Frankfort.  Pete made sure they flew over the house of his family.  They knew it would be him: it was always a joy for them to see his airplane pass overhead.

Below, the foghorns were preparing to sound.  Fog was coming in from the cold waters of the Lake.

Image of the Rennie plane published in the Benzie Banner.

The Plunge into the Lake

The fog was as dense as iron.  Timber looked at his passengers, and said they should land on the lake and taxi back to Frankfort until the fog lifted.  He turned to begin the descent–too rapidly it seemed. With no visual cues to go by, it was impossible to level the flight path: Were they flying parallel to the water they would land on, or at an angle to it?  At the same time, the altimeter could hardly keep up with their descent, the gauge moving faster than Timber had ever seen it.  Fear stole over the cabin of the plane.

The plane hit hard on the water, the impact turning the pontoons backward.  All four passengers were bruised, but not enough to keep them from devising a survival plan.  Preparing to enter the water, they stripped off their heavier clothes and made signaling flags to attach to the plane, but, as water began to fill the cabin, it look as if the airplane would not stay afloat for long.  They moved to the wings, and could look out towards Frankfort, a speck in the sunlight.   The fog had lifted.

The three men began to make a raft out of a gas tank attached to the wing, a metal vessel that measured about four feet on a side and four inches thick.  Lashing two air cushions from the cabin to it, they made a float able to support one person, Margaret.  As she told the story, “I got on the raft and the boys held onto the edge, swimming and trying to propel it toward shore.  They talked back and forth, urging each other to stick to it and “Timber” said to me, “I got you in this and I’ll get you out.”  She was told to lie on the raft to avoid exposure to the chilling water; the others would have to stay immersed since float did not have enough buoyancy for them all.

At 3:30, five hours after they had flown over Frankfort, the plane sank.  They were alone, the four of them, fifteen miles from shore, with the shadows of afternoon beginning to lengthen.  The temperature was in the seventies—at most—but the water was much colder.  Typically, in June it might be as warm as the mid- to upper fifties, and there is no reason to think it would have been warmer.  That year Grand Traverse Bay had frozen later than it ever had—in late March—but it had frozen as it almost always did in that era.   

The human body cannot endure cold water for long.  Survival time in 50-degree water is only one to two hours for a person treading water or holding onto a float.  The symptoms are always the same; you become confused, irrational.  Slowly you sink into semi-consciousness, then losing consciousness entirely.  Various factors shape how long you will survive: body fat, clothing, how much effort you expended over time, and that indefinable quality, the will to live.

The cold could not be bargained with.  At five o’clock Pete started babbling incoherently.  The others tried to rally him, but to no avail.  He had to let go, disappearing under the waves.  Timber was next, rambling on and on the way Pete had before.  Chick and Margaret tried to hold him up onto the raft, but could not maintain a grip.  He, too, slipped beneath the water.

That version, with Pete Keller preceding James Gillette in death, was the version given to local news media, the Traverse City Record Eagle, the Benzie county newspaper, the Benzie Banner, and the Detroit Free Press.  An account given to the Steven’s Point Daily Journal (Steven’s Point, Wisconsin) has James Gillette dying first. This story could have been obtained when Margaret Rennie was first being debriefed on the Wisconsin side of the Lake, where, because of her ordeal, she was likely to be confused.

Chick boarded the raft and stayed with Margaret all night long as they talked and prayed together.  All that time she had to cover a vent on the gas tank to keep more water from entering, her hand aching from the effort.  Ships passed in the night, but too far away to hear their calls, too far away to see them. 

Light was just beginning to illuminate the eastern sky when the cold got to Chick.  He began to lose consciousness just as the others had.  In a moment of awareness before the end, he gave her papers, and money, detached a gold watch–an heirloom from his family–from its chain, and handed it to his wife.  She clutched onto it tightly so that it could not fall into the water and begged him, “Please don’t go, Chick,” but could not hold on to him as he slipped off the raft. 

It overturned as he went under, but Margaret was somehow able to get back on.  She kept her hand over the vent, not allowing water to enter.  Feeling herself drifting into unconsciousness, she jerked herself back to reality, focusing on the sacrifice the three men had made for her as well as on her three children at home who would become orphans upon her death.  The hours of the morning passed–and those of the early afternoon, as she grew weaker and less responsive.  The sun disappeared in the late afternoon and the darkened sky spoke of another night on the raft.  She knew she could not endure that.

Ann Arbor Car Ferry No. 7, just out of Frankfort Harbor, image courtesy of

The Rescue: Ann Arbor Car Ferry Number 7

Ann Arbor Car Ferry Number 7 was barely an hour out of Frankfort, having left in the late afternoon in hazy sunlight, her twin stacks belching black smoke as she hurried along, an awesome sight to persons on small boats near the harbor—or, for that matter, to anyone floating on a flimsy raft in the water.  Three hundred thirty-seven feet long, a beam of 56 feet, and a draft of 19 feet, she was well suited for her job of carrying up to 30 railroad cars from one side of Lake Michigan to the other.  Now she was on her way to Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Two points off the starboard bow, nearly dead ahead, Quartermaster Arthur Johnson, at his position at the wheel, noticed a mysterious floating object and asked the Third Officer, Peter Strom, to have a look through the ship’s glasses.  After a quick glance, he ordered the boat to slow and change course to intercept the object, which by this time—it was clear—was the raft with Margaret crying out for help in the most robust voice she could muster.  Captain Alex Larson, on the main deck, had heard her faint cries, and had a lifeboat sent down to effect the rescue.  With a few pulls on the oars, they approached the makeshift raft made up of a fuel tank lashed to two seat cushions.  Margaret lay on them weakly, barely able to help her rescuers, too exhausted to move.  She was gently lifted aboard the lifeboat which was then raised to the cabin deck.  Helping hands guided her to a warm berth in one of the cabins; the rescue took all of twenty minutes.

Margaret collapsed upon her rescue and was given emergency treatment.   Reviving a short time later, she told her story, exhibiting “stone nerves” in the words of Captain Larson.  Another account remembers her breaking down frequently in recounting the details of her experience, perhaps a more authentic description, given the trauma she had just gone through.  The Stevens Point Journal, published on the Wisconsin side of the Lake, tells us about the anguish she experienced as she recounted the 33 hours that she spent on the raft:

Mrs. Rennie said all of the men were cheerful and reminded her that they were only 15 miles from shore and that they would surely be picked up soon.

“They did not complain,” she related, “although the water was bitterly cold.

“I could see the men weaken as the hours passed.  I lost all count of time but I knew by the position of the sun that many hours must have passed while we were floating around.”

At this point of the story Mrs. Rennie broke down and sobbed hysterically.  Calmed by Captain Larson, she continued.

“Gillette let go the raft first.  He had been growing weaker all the time.  He could not hang on any longer.  I watched helplessly as he let go and disappeared under the water.”

Then Mrs. Rennie’s voice choked again and she was unable to continue for several minutes.

“Keller was the next to go.” She said. “The water was terribly cold and the air was chilly.  Like Gillette, he couldn’t hold on any longer and my husband and I had to watch him as a grip his grip slipped off the raft.  It was terrible.

“Chick (her husband) and I held on through the awful night.  It was so dark and cold and once in a while a stir of wind would lap a small wave over us and it would seem that the next minute would be our last.

“It seemed the night would never pass, but we held on.  Life seemed so dear.  The sun came up and there we were, exhausted and hopeless of being saved.

“Chick encouraged me and I encouraged him.  We thought surely help would arrive.  The day passed slowly and the sun was blisteringly hot.  Chick began weakening like the rest and I was desperate, knowing what had happened to the others.

“I don’t know when it happened, but it couldn’t have been more than a few hours before I was saved that Chick said to me:

“I guess I’m through.  I can’t stand it any longer.” I pleaded with him to hold on, but even though he wanted to, he couldn’t.  He fumbled around in his wet clothes and handed me his watch, papers, and money.

“Here, keep these,” he said.  Then he said ‘goodbye’ and let go.”

The story of the drowning of her husband was too much for Mrs. Rennie and she broke down again.

They proceeded to Kenosha where a physician, upon examination, declared that she was out of danger.  Exhausted, lips parched, blistered red by the sun during her ordeal, she was fundamentally undamaged by her 33 hours adrift on Lake Michigan.  She was determined to tell her family and dictated the following message to the ship’s telegrapher:

Plane crash, stop.  Pete and Jim drowned Thursday night, stop.  Chick drowned Friday morning, stop. I was picked up Friday night, be sure to tell mother I am all right.

The stark facts given in the transmission pierced the hearts of all who read them.

Car Ferry No. 7 returned immediately to Frankfort, arriving at 5:50 in the morning.  Met there by friends and family, she returned to Traverse City to stay at the home of Chick’s parents.

The Aftermath

The news of the disaster broke on Friday evening, June 24, at 8:45 with radio transmissions from Margaret and Captain Larsen aboard the car ferry.  The captain reported that three lives had been lost, and that the plane had gone down at 10:45 on Thursday, the 22nd.  Before those broadcasts, no one in the Traverse area knew about the tragedy, everyone guessing the flight had arrived safely in Milwaukee.  Word spread rapidly among friends and relatives by phone and word-of-mouth as many decided to drive to Frankfort to meet Margaret.

The accident had a dramatic effect on the Traverse community.  The Rennies were a well-known family, a pioneer family, and a family of some wealth and with prospects for much more, given the vigor of the oil industry at that time.  Rennie Oil Company became a major distributor of petroleum products since its founding in 1923, reaching its peak in the 50’s and 60’s.  Charles Rennie, the father of “Chick” who died in the crash, was founder and president until his son Ferris (called “Pete”) took over in later years.  Like his brother Chick, Pete was to perish in an accident,  drowning as his propeller-driven sled plunged under icy Grand Traverse Bay in 1965.

It was not just the prominence of the family that captured people’s attention at the time.  The ordeal—the crash, the attempts at survival, the sacrifice of the men—made the story come alive, not just locally, but in newspapers all over the United States. The Traverse City Record Eagle announced the event with bold headlines, four columns on page one, four more on page two, with pictures of all four young people, Margaret in double size.  Picked up by the Associated Press and United Press International, the story was carried nationally in all the big city newspapers from coast to coast. In particular, the Detroit Free Press offered an especially detailed account of the event.

Honoring the dead did not wait for a formal funeral.  While the tragedy was being played out, the Michigan Press Association was conducting a convention in Frankfort. Moved by what had happened, on Saturday, the day after Margaret was picked up, its members boarded a vessel to pay their respects.  Stopping at the approximate location where the plane had gone down, they dipped the ship’s flag, sounded bugles, and laid flowers on the waves.  The Reverend H. M. Smart offered solemn prayers for those who had perished as 300 stood at attention.

A formal memorial was held for the three victims on July 17th at the First Congregational Church.  Dr. Demas Cochlin delivered the eulogy: “They met their deaths bravely and well as heroes through the ages have met death.  They were young men who had established themselves successfully in their home communities through diligence and ability and their untimely deaths were community losses.”  Besides family and friends, all employees of the Rennie Oil Company attended the service.  Margaret, having recovered from the ordeal, was also in attendance.

Scant details about George (Pete) Keller were printed in the Record Eagle edition on the Saturday the story broke.  Until a month before the accident, he operated a gas station in Frankfort.  Only recently had he become a mechanic and assistant for James Gillette.  At the time of the accident he was living in a “house car” in East Bay State Park (currently known as Traverse City State Park).  He had two children at the time of his death.

Pete is neglected in accounts of the crash, perhaps because of his lower socioeconomic status in the community.  But, within the events that transpired on that awful day, his role could have been pivotal.  As a trained mechanic, he was able to imagine separating the fuel tank from the aircraft to make a raft—and able to make it happen on an airplane rapidly filling with water.   Certainly his skills—and confidence in his own ability—would have inspired hope that an improvised raft might save them all.

According to Pete’s father, he had a premonition something was going to happen.  In a Detroit Free Press article describing the accident he said, “Two weeks ago he told me he had a premonition: ‘he was about due.’  He had been flying seven years and that was about the average life of an aviator.  He said he would continue to care for the plane, but was about through flying in it.” 

The bodies of Charles “Chick” Rennie, James “Timber” Gillette, and George Keller were never found.  That summer, a tweed jacket was uncovered on the beach near Glen Arbor, an article of clothing exactly like that Timber was wearing at the time of the accident.  Two months later, other articles of clothing washed up on South Manitou Island, those also presumably belonging to the young men who had stripped off their heavier clothing after the plane impacted the water.

Many Questions, Few Answers

The Rennie accident inspired many questions, both among those responsible for safe air travel and the public generally.   Some centered on personal blame: Did the pilot err in leaving Traverse City in the first place?  Did he make the right decision in turning back after 15 miles over Lake Michigan?  Was he experienced in dealing with situations like that encountered beyond Frankfort?  Pilot error is almost always involved in airplane accidents.

Other questions probed the airplane, itself.  One news account claimed it lacked a radio, an instrument that could have alerted authorities on shore that the pilot would attempt a forced landing on the Lake.  A search for the airplane could have begun sooner with that information.  Another question related to the safety equipment on board: Could the pilot and passengers have been saved if the plane was equipped with proper flotation devices?  Inflatable rafts had been invented before 1933; in fact, one had saved Richard E. Byrd, an aviator who attempted a trans-Atlantic flight in 1925.  After his plane had run out of fuel a mile off the French coast, he paddled to shore in one kept for just such an emergency.

Finally, there were questions that we can ask now in light of our present knowledge about flying.  How detailed and reliable were weather reports available to aviators at the time?  Would James Gillette have set out that Thursday if he knew banks of fog lay off Frankfort? Communication between airports was quite primitive at the time, sometimes relying on telephone.  Did the Milwaukee airport realize the plane failed to arrive on time, and, if so, why didn’t it set up an alarm?  The wife of James Gillette phoned Milwaukee and was told erroneously that Rennie had already conducted his business.  Only later on Friday after she telephoned the airport, did she learn they had never arrived, but by then it was too late: Within a few hours upon learning this news, she was told about the crash and the death of her husband.

Surely, all of these questions must have entered the mind of Albert Meyers, inspector for the Department of Commerce, the agency for aviation safety at the time.  He attempted to interview Margaret Rennie soon after the accident, but found she was too distraught at that time, and presumably had to return later.  We know he wondered why, when the plane left Traverse City at 9:10, it plunged into Lake Michigan more than an hour-and-a-half later, the time elapsed longer than it would have taken to complete the journey.  A possible answer to that question was printed in the Traverse City Record-Eagle, the Monday following the rescue. 

Chick Rennie’s friend, Jack G. Fleckenstein, reported that he had received a telegraph from Rennie dated Thursday, June 22nd at 9:50 that he was planning a trip to Canada in coming days.  The stamped time on the telegram confirmed that the plane had not departed at 9:10 as erroneously indicated.  Fleckenstein went on to confirm his friend’s experience and skill as a pilot: he often refused to fly if the weather looked doubtful.

Unfortunately, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. has been unable to locate Meyer’s report—if it exists at all.  Perhaps, the findings were wrapped into general summaries of airplane accidents at the time.  Without it, researchers must deal only with newspapers and statements on the public record, a means of getting at the truth that leaves us with speculations, not conclusions.

Newspaper weather forecasts for June 22, 1933 indicate a day expected to be mostly fair, temperature in the 70’s with scattered clouds.  At a time before weather satellites and weather radar, that sort of forecast was the best that could be offered.  There were no storms in the vicinity, no expectation of fog banks obscuring visibility.  James Gillette was probably not at fault for attempting the journey on that day—at least as far as the weather was concerned.

Jack Fleckenstein speculated that Rennie had flown directly to the Lake Michigan coast from Traverse City, then went due south to Frankfort to begin the cross-lake segment of the trip.  Ordinarily, Chick would fly at 1200 feet, an altitude insufficient to climb above the fog bank.  Fleckenstein noted that his friend distrusted altimeters, assuming they were off by as much as 400 feet.  That distrust of his instruments could have been a factor in the crash.

It is incredibly difficult to fly in clouds or fog, relying solely on instruments.  Pilots must learn to ignore signals from their own balance system and constantly check the altimeter, airspeed indicator, magnetic compass, and any other instruments available to them (quite possibly the Stimson Junior had nothing else).  To achieve instrument rating today requires many hours of training and experience: a pilot attempting to fly into clouds and fog without that experience survives by luck.  However skillful James Gillette may have been, he was not prepared to encounter dense fog over Lake Michigan.

Today, pilots training under Visual Flight Rules are instructed in the bare rudiments of instrument flying.  For example, they are taught how to execute a 180 degree turn to fly out of a cloud, something that Gillette may have attempted as he descended to land on the water.  We do not know if he received this kind of instruction when he was trained in the late 1920’s.

In 1933 airport radar had not appeared in the form it has taken today.  Airport workers did not have screens showing the movement of aircraft miles away: there were no blips that suddenly disappeared as in the case of an accident.  At the same time, there was no weather radar to describe atmospheric conditions.  A fogbank over Lake Michigan would have been reported to meteorologists elsewhere by telegraph, if at all.  Given the technology of the time, James Gilette made do with the best forecast he could get upon his departure.  His judgment was not faulty in this regard.

The deaths of three persons in the Rennie crash could be attributed to many factors.  Pilot error was a part of it: James Gillette failed to respond in a manner that could have saved his aircraft and the lives of his passengers.  At the same time, the airplane itself had its shortcomings including the absence of an inflatable raft and communication devices (if, indeed, it had no radio).  Weather forecasters had not yet come up with reliable descriptions of local weather conditions, including that off-shore fog building over a frigid lake.  Finally, rescue efforts were not begun in time to save lives due to poor communication between airports and other individuals on the ground.  The technology and protocols had not developed by 1933.

Dawning of a New Era

In the twenties and thirties, aviation stirred the public as rockets did in the sixties and seventies.  Aviators were the astronauts of their time, risking their lives to accomplish unbelievable things.  While an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic would take four days at best, Charles Lindberg could accomplish the feat in 30 hours.  Trains required three days to cross the continent in 1933.  Roscoe Turner flew that distance in eleven-and-a-half hours. 

In the Traverse City area, Cherry Festival queens had arrived by airplane with much fanfare—in fact, James Gillette had piloted them to the city twice before.  He was scheduled to perform the same duty for the festival the year he died.  Airshows had become an exciting Festival event, much as the Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron today excites visitors in Cherry Festival performances before audiences numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

For all the hoopla, flying was a dangerous business.  Every six months the Commerce Department published the Air Commerce Bulletin, a report that summarized data concerning air safety.  In the period that included the Rennie tragedy, 128 persons died in crashes, with more than 90 severely injured.  One accident occurred for every 42 thousand miles traveled with one fatality for every 409 thousand miles.  Seeing enormous opportunity for economic growth in the fledgling airline business, the government had an interest in improving safety.  Passengers would not fly unless they were convinced they would arrive safely at their destinations.

The Commerce Department analyzed the causes of airplane accidents in the Bulletin.  Pilot error (called Personnel) was blamed for the greatest share of accidents–as it is today—accounting for 51 percent of all accidents.  It was broken down into several categories including judgment, technique, and negligence.  Would James Gillette have been faulted for going out when he should have (judgment)?  It seems unlikely.  Would he have been accused of not operating the airplane skillfully (technique)?  Perhaps.  He failed to execute a 180-degree turn to get out of the fog, and then to descend to the Lake.  We do not know how the government inspector decided as to the cause of the Rennie accident.  No doubt his subjective opinion determined what he wrote in his evaluation.

Beyond pilot error, three other causes of accidents were highlighted in the Commerce Department report: engine failures, airplane failures, and a general category that captured such things as bad weather, darkness, and airport terrain.  Fully twenty percent of accidents were caused by engines that stopped working in flight.  Ten percent of them happened when the aircraft presumably lost an important component, a rudder, a section of wing, etc.  The third category, natural causes outside the airplane, was responsible for 18 percent of crashes.  Could the 1933 accident be blamed on the weather?  Perhaps.  It is a judgment call.

Aircraft safety measures have made accidents like the Rennie tragedy exceedingly rare, even as flight hours have increased many times over.  General aviation data from 1938 shows that the accident rate was 125.9 accidents per 100,000 flight hours.  In 2009 the figure was 7.2.  Nowadays, airplane engines rarely stop running in flight, essential parts do not fall off, weather reports are accurate so that pilots can make sound judgments about when to fly.  If a plane does go down, a variety of mechanisms come into play: radio communication with flight control personnel and radar pinpoint the location.  Today, a small aircraft regularly flying over Lake Michigan would have an inflatable raft able to hold five persons, an accessory desperately needed in the Rennie crash.  Search-and-rescue teams aboard helicopters spring into action upon hearing a distress call.  Since the thirties, it is no wonder that fatalities per 100,000 flight hours have decreased more rapidly than the accident rate for small aircraft. 

Three persons lost their lives, one survived on June 22, 1933 as a small plane plunged into Lake Michigan.  The story of the heroic efforts of three men to save Margaret Rennie moved people in the Traverse area, the states of Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as the entire nation.  Those efforts were seen as acts of chivalry in the Aviation Age, not different from those a hundred years previous in the Age of Sailing Ships—or even, for that matter, those of the Medieval Age before that.  Beyond that symbolism, the Rennie accident did accomplish a more practical goal: through examining the causes and acting upon that information, it set the stage for protecting lives in the future from airplane crashes that could be prevented—or, if they did happen–made less tragic.  That legacy lives with us today.


Margaret Rennie remarried two years after the crash.  She lived a relatively quiet life, bringing up her three children, John, Halcyon, and Martha Jean, in the Traverse area.  According to a family member, she rarely discussed what happened to her: it was not something she wanted to relive.  Throughout her life she kept rooms dark in the summer, drawing the blinds to keep the sun out.  Was that because of the awful memories of sun and wind so long ago?  Certainly the effects of that experience would color her days to the end of her life—and in ways she, herself, might be unaware of.  Margaret died in 1972 at age 67.  She was interred in the Omena Cemetery in Northern Michigan.

The Most Dreaded Wild Plant: Poison Ivy and Its Relatives

Poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak: the three poisons we have to take care not to touch.  The third doesn’t grow here, so we don’t need to worry about it.  Somewhat rare in Northern Michigan, Poison sumac is a tall shrub that grows in wet places—I have seen it in the Platt River valley, locally.  Ed Voss’s magnificent floral guide Michigan Flora shows a cluster of counties with the species: Benzie, Grand Traverse, Leelanau, and Antrim.  It is much more common downstate.

Image courtesy Joshua Mayer, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Poison sumac will not be confused with other sumacs, the staghorn sumac, for example.  That plant has red berries and grows along fields and edges of hardwoods.  As a teacher, I sometimes had to quell students’ fears that they would break out from touching staghorn sumac.  Unlike that familiar shrub, poison sumac grows in places where you get your feet wet.  If it has berries at all, they are white.   The leaves have the shiny look of poison ivy, but have 7-11 leaflets.  Persons in search of pretty autumn color for their homes may be surprised to learn they brought it into the house.

Poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) is closely related to an Asian plant (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) which is used to make lacquer in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.  While serving in Japan, a dermatologist friend told me that patients came to him with a rash similar to that of poison ivy on the backs of their thighs.  The cause turned out to be toilet seats covered with the offending lacquer.

Image courtesy of, CC-BY-NC-SA

Poison ivy grows in a variety of plant communities: sand dunes, banks, shores, and along roadsides and railroad tracks.  In the north, it does not climb trees, but remains as a small shrub, scarcely growing taller than two feet.  Its shiny green leaves are, indeed, in threes (“leaves of three, let them be”), but that characteristic is not at all helpful since strawberry leaves come in threes, too.   In contrast to the shrub form, it frequently takes on the growth habit of a vine in Southern Michigan, climbing a variety of trees, often to great height.  Manistee county, according to Voss, is the farthest north this variety is to be found.

Image courtesy of BlueRidgeKitties/

Are two such radically different varieties—one a shrub and the other a vine—really the same species?  In most characteristics—leaf position and shape, length of leaf stems, inflorescence (arrangement of flowers on the stem), number of flowers, fruit size—they are similar, but not identical.  The vine form has aerial rootlets to cling onto tree trunks, while the shrub form has none.  If they are the same species, they should form intermediate forms upon crossing the two.  Have they been crossed to see what the offspring look like?

Unfortunately, my source—William T. Gillis’s article in the Michigan Botanist, Vol. 1, 1962—talks only about one failed attempt.  An early frost killed the buds on the growing hybrids.  Gillis did attempt to bring the northern rydbergii form to southern Michigan to see if they would begin to take on southern characteristics.  They did not.

Let us leave the subject to say that poison ivy is a highly variable plant.  One characteristic that all forms have is that they possess urushiol, the offending substance that causes the skin reaction in some persons.  It is not volatile, so you cannot get the rash from merely standing close to plants: you must break the resin canals in the leaves in order to be exposed.  Once exposed, it may take one or two days to react, or—in some cases—only a few hours, depending on the sensitivity of the person afflicted.  Dogs and cats can carry the allergen on their fur, and smoke from burning leaves can cause serious trouble.  It can even be carried on water—at least in the case of poison sumac, the species that loves to grow with roots in the water.

Rash caused by contact with Poison ivy, image courtesy of WebMD, CC-BY-NA.

Not everyone is sensitive.  Some persons can handle leaves and fruit with impunity.  However, you cannot always count on previous insensitivity to avoid the rash.  Sensitivity can change over time, and in either direction.  Steroidal creams and lotions ease the suffering of those afflicted, and the itching and angry blisters will disappear over time.  Still, a person will not want to suffer this assault every year.  So much the better to learn these plants and avoid them.

Who Founded Traverse City? 

Historians love it when they find a new source of information that sheds light upon a subject they are interested in.  So it was when, after idle searching on the internet, I came across Industrial Chicago, Volume 6, Logging Interests, a book that offered plentiful information about Perry Hannah, Albert T. Lay, and the Hannah Lay company, the firm responsible for the building of Traverse City.  Reading the book in the comfort of my home, I learned about the company not from the limited perspective of local history sources, but from Chicago-based ones.  In addition to information about the company itself, the narrator told anecdotes about founders of the company, Hannah and Lay, stories that had lain untold so far in the telling of our history.

Some information simply confirmed what we thought we knew.  Did the lumber taken from Northern Michigan help rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871, the fire allegedly started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow?  Indeed it did.  We are told that the Hannah and Lay yard lay south of the fire’s devastation.  The company was well positioned to supply lumber for the rebuilding process.

Exactly how profitable was Hannah Lay?  The reader of Industrial Chicago is given figures about board feet of lumber produced at mills of the Hannah Lay empire, but these are difficult to interpret.  How much is a billion board-feet after all?  A better indicator is this: In 1895, the year of publication of the book, the company owned the Chamber of Commerce building at the corner of LaSalle and Washington outright.  It was valued at the time at three million dollars, a sum in today’s money that would total closer to 35 million.  A postcard from the time shows its magnificence: fourteen floors with astounding ornaments—a palace, which has been replaced, sadly, by the Chicago Board of Trade building.

Perry Hannah.

What does Industrial Chicago tell us about the founders of the company?  About Perry Hannah, it revealed not much that we didn’t know.  I found it interesting that he obtained a Common School education probably consisting of ‘reading, ‘writing, and ‘rithmetic, before he moved to the Port Huron area with his father at the age of 13.  There he learned the art of rafting logs to be sent down the St. Claire river to sawmills to be sawn into lumber.  His roots were close to the working class, unlike his partner Albert T. Lay.

Lay was educated in private schools until the age of 16, presumably a more rigorous education than the public schools at the time.  His father was a legislator to the US House of Representatives for the state of New York.  Is this why young Lay’s signature appears bold and competent, in contrast to Hannah’s—that reading and writing were activities he had spent much time doing?  At first, he stayed in Traverse City to set the new mill near the mouth of the Boardman River to working properly, but five years after arriving at the rude settlement carved out there, he and Hannah resolved to change places.  Perry Hannah would stay in Traverse City and Lay would handle the Chicago operations.  Lay, perhaps because of his superior education, would be involved in the more intricate dealings with suppliers and major customers.

Tracy A. Lay.

Albert T. Lay’s early years in Traverse City have not been described by previous historians.  We know that in 1853 he ran against James Strang, the Mormon leader at Beaver Island, and lost that election to the Michigan legislature.  He oversaw the construction of a steam-powered sawmill at edge of Grand Traverse Bay.  He probably approved the building of the first Hannah Lay store, just 16 x 20 feet, the ledgers of which still remain at the Bentley Historical Library in Ann Arbor. 

Lay named Traverse City.  In 1853, seeking a postal route for the settlement, he presented the name “Grand Traverse” before officials in Washington, D.C., later accepting their suggestion to strike out the “Grand.”  It would be Traverse City, the “City” element added later.

What does one do to found a city?  In the past, Harry Boardman and his son Horace were given credit for founding Traverse City.  They bought land here, built a sawmill in 1847, and began the production of lumber at that early date.  A hundred years later, in 1947, historians convinced city leaders that the centennial celebration should occur in that year.  The settlement began with Boardman’s acquisition of land and the subsequent logging of the trees on the property—no matter that the Boardmans never put down roots here.  They bought the land and sold it soon after. 

The whole question of who founded the City–and when–seems silly to Native Americans who had set up camps here from prehistoric times.  Still, there is something in a name.  Whoever names a place deserves credit for that act.  By that rule, Albert T. Lay founded the City.

One story about the rude, uncivilized nature of the Traverse area tells about Lay and a judge friend from Manistee who had come north to visit the logging operation at the foot of Grand Traverse Bay.  The judge promptly identified a man in the sawmill crew as a run-away criminal wanted for the murder of his own daughter.  Quickly, he made Lay the deputy sheriff of the new region, and then named him deputy county clerk, deputy county treasurer, and deputy school inspector.  In short, Albert T. Lay temporarily held all the offices for the soon-to-be Grand Traverse county.  After the sawmill was stopped to secure men for a jury, the trial proceeded apace, the defendant declared guilty.  He was tied to a post at the mill (since there was no jail), and was sent downstate to serve a life sentence in prison there.  Justice was done with the aid of the young owner of the sawmill at the mouth of the Boardman.

In praising Lay, I do not want to disparage Perry Hannah’s contribution to Traverse City.  After all, he did stay at this ramshackle outpost for 47 years, keeping away from the enticements of a grand city—Chicago—only a day away by railroad or steamer.  He pushed to have the Northern Michigan Asylum located in Traverse City and personally guaranteed support to the Carnegie library, thereby assuring it would be built on Sixth Street, opposite his home.  He donated land to churches and generally treated people fairly and with generosity.  When Traverse City was a small settlement, he—and his company—ruled the town, but for all that, he was a benevolent despot.  We could have done much worse.

At the same time, we should not neglect the other founder of Traverse City, Albert T. Lay.  A small park on Union Street bears his name, but few persons remember what he did for the community.  There is no statue, as there is of Perry Hannah across Union street, though a plaque is mounted on a boulder that reads: Lay Park: To commemorate Albert Tracy Lay, pioneer lumberman, who, with Perry Hannah, in 1851 founded the first permanent settlement on the site of Traverse City.”  What elegant simplicity!  The two together founded the city.

Why Do Some Trees Leaf Out Sooner Than Others?

Why are some trees species eager to leaf out early in spring while others stay dormant until much later?  Poplars and maples break dormancy quite early, sometimes before the last frost, while black locust, oaks, and catalpa bide their time, often waiting until late May.  Certainly, as with most things in nature, many factors explain the difference, but here I would like to concentrate on one of them: the kind of wood trees make.

Longitudinal view of tracheid cells in wood.

Wood is the water-conducting tissue of a plant.  Under the microscope it appears to be made up of long, torpedo-shaped cells liberally sprinkled with holes to let water pass through.  Wood is mostly made of these cells–called tracheids.  Pine trees have no other specialized cells to carry water up the tree, but broadleaf trees do, vessels.

Vessels are not torpedo-shaped at all, but resemble soda straws.  You need a microscope to see them, but they are quite large as cells go, and that size can be a drawback.  If air bubbles form inside them or ice crystals form in a late spring frost, they can be damaged so that no water goes up to service the expanding leaves.

Trees with large vessels are especially at risk.  Just when buds need water from the roots, none is forthcoming.  The solution, for such trees as black locust and oaks, is to manufacture a ring of vessels early in spring to carry the water up.  The trouble is, it takes time to do so, time which the tree yields to other species that do not have to form a fresh layer of vessels, maples and poplars.  That means those species get the jump on those working to make new vessels.  Trees that make vessels lose out for a time in the battle for sunlight.

Cross-section of ring-porous wood. The large cells are vessels. The lines represent boundaries of growth rings.

For all that, they are quite successful.  Black locusts are “weed trees,” growing rapidly like weeds, whole groves of them joined together with underground rhizomes.  A white oak takes a different pathway, putting its energy into growing a single individual.  Both trees have a ring of vessels laid down in early spring, a ring clearly visible in the wood’s annual growth rings.  They will serve as the major plumbing system until dormancy in the fall. 

However, some ring porous trees leaf out early.  The explanation, according to one researcher, is evolution: they simply evolved in a warmer climate, spreading later to the North.  Science is never straightforward in the answers to questions it provides.

Shrubs leaf out early for a different reason.  They need to get as much sun as possible before the large trees expand a dense canopy of leaves above.  This year, see if that is not so: Do smaller native shrubs leaf out before the trees of the canopy overhead?

Image taken from the educational materials at

The time of leafing out—budburst some call it—varies according to the year, the habitat, the species, and the weather.  Naturally, a warm spring hastens the process, while days of frost inhibit it.  In these days of climate change, trees spread their canopies earlier on average than they used to.  They flower sooner, too, and they change color later in the fall.  In recent decades southern species do better than before in northern climates: Will pecans enjoy the newly changed winters of Northern Michigan?

One project —budburst—seeks to enlist amateur scientists in charting the leaf-out times for different tree species.  If readers wish to join this year’s study, they can sign up this year at

All plates taken from; Mauseth, James D. “Plant Anatomy.” Benjamin/Cumming Publishing Company, Inc.: Menlo Park, California, 1988.