February 15, 2020

FTV: Time and Tide


     Of course, the full statement teased in the title is, “Time and tide wait for no one,” but even the shorter version will suffice for our purposes here.  Having recently finished the second hiking book provided to me by the WOAS West Coast Bureau in Eugene (William Sullivan’s Hiking Oregon’s History – Navillus Press – 2017), it popped into my head how similar some of the pioneering stories about Oregon and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are.  Yes, the differences would seem to belie this statement (ocean vs lake, real mountains vs the foothills that pass for mountains here), but let us first compare the formation of these two areas in the geologic time frame.  We can then look at the timeline in terms of the human occupation of these same areas. Both Oregon and Upper Michigan were built, if you will, by a series of geologic happenings that occurred over eons of time, yet it only took humans a couple of generations to mess things up.  Perhaps the title could be amended into a paraphrase of that old advertising slogan (forgive me for not remembering the product being sold): “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature” but in this case, insert “fight” in place of “fool”.

     Sullivan’s book is filled with stories about the pioneers who came to Oregon and the effort needed for them to settle the state.  He contrasts the pioneer stories with the Native people’s history and myths (rooted in their earlier migration into the same territory).  From stories about adventurers, farmers, and gold miners to archeological digs of Native sites, Oregon is littered with clues that one can use to illustrate the impact humans have had on the landscape.  The one that put me on the track of comparing Oregon and the U.P. was the story of the ocean side community of Bayocean. To understand the Bayocean story, one must revisit the distant geological past of the Oregon coast line.

     Most people take it for granted that the mountainous western regions of the United States have always been there.  The marine sediments and fossils found high up in some of these mountain ranges tell a different story. As the giant piece of Earth’s crust upon which the North America continent rides moved slowly but surely to the west, it began running into strings of volcanic islands that had formed in the Pacific Ocean.  Picture the Hawaian Islands being rammed by a continent and you will have a pretty good mental picture of the process. These volcanic islands were there because the westward movement of the North American plate was causing older (and thinner) oceanic crust to be pushed down into the Earth’s mantle. The oceanic crust melted in the upper mantle, making it less dense than the surrounding rock.  This molten rock made its way to the surface not unlike a hot air balloon rising because the expanding mass of hot air inside it is less dense than the surrounding air. Thus, strings of volcanic peaks were formed and they were eventually gobbled up by the westward moving North American plate.  

     In more recent times, thousands of feet of lava flowed across the state from the Idaho – Oregon border region. This complex structure of mountains (caused by the crumpling of the western edge of the North American plate) capped with lava flows was then weathered and eroded into the landscape we see today.  The rugged Oregon coast has been sculpted by the relentless action of the Pacific Ocean wearing away the continent’s edge forming features like haystack rocks, headlands, and estuaries. Bayocean was a thriving town built on a spit of beach and headland that separated the Pacific Ocean from Tillamook Bay along the northwestern coast of Oregon.  The community of Bayocean was the brainchild of Kansas City real estate promoter T.B. Potter who became smitten with the peninsula on a 1906 hunting expedition. He envisioned what he called the “Atlantic City of the West” and began selling the 1600 lots he platted there. Potter provided a three story hotel, a dance hall and a natatorium featuring the largest salt water swimming pool in the west replete with an artificial surf machine.  

     Early amenities like roads connecting Bayocean to the rest of Oregon and a freshwater source plagued the new coastal community.  Water pressure in the pipeline from a spring at nearby Cape Meares was too low. The telephone and road systems were first rate, but they didn’t connect to the outside world.  Indeed, most of the visitors to Bayocean arrived on Potter’s own steamship, the SS Bayocean.  The problems eventually drove Potter mad.  His wife reported that, “her husband had gone violently insane (and) ran out of their Bayocean home and was never seen again.”  Of the laundry list of problems that drove poor Mr. Potter over the edge, securing a safe passage over the Tillamook Bay sandbar proved to be the catastrophic event that began to unravel his Bayocean dream.

     Potter and other local business owners petitioned the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build two jetties across the sandbar at the mouth of Tillamook Bay.  When informed that they would have to raise half of the $2.2 million dollar project locally, the residents of Bayocean meekly suggested that perhaps a cheaper single jetty would suffice.  By the time the single jetty was begun in the summer of 1917, steamship service was already giving way to the cheaper rail service that had opened between Portland and Tillamook in 1911. The completed jetty changed the wave patterns along the four-mile long beach front and between 1920 and 1925, the beach began to disappear. 

      By 1932, the beach front natatorium was destroyed by the ocean, soon followed by the hotel. Over the next six years, street after street disappeared.  By 1939, storm driven waves began to wash over the southern end of the peninsula eventually creating a new mile wide channel that was deep enough for the local fishing fleet to cross.  Sand swept into Tillamook Bay began to cover the oyster beds and the salinity of the Bay began to rise. Locals rightly feared these changes would collapse the estuary’s fish population.  Bayocean became a stranded island and it took a new breakwater dike across the afflicted area to close the southern breech (at a cost of $1.75 million dollars in 1956). Construction of the second jetty at the Bay mouth in 1973 finally saw the Bayocean beaches begin to rebuild themselves.  Ironically, the Army Corps had warned the people of Bayocean that a single jetty might have catastrophic effects on the peninsula, but they chose the path of least expense in opting for the single jetty. In the end, Mother Nature (with a little help from the Corps of Engineers) got her sandy peninsula back.  The loss of Bayocean to the sands of time was hastened by that all too human practice of choosing a cheap fix in the face of warnings about the potential dire effects of squeezing nickles instead of spending dimes.

     “Okay, how does this sad turn of events sound similar to Upper Michigan?” you ask.  Geologically speaking, the Lake Superior basin was also formed by the accumulation of thousands of feet of lava flows.  In fact, the lava output in this area (for a time) was greater than any other volcanic event of its kind on this planet.  The major difference here was one of subsidence. While the Oregon flows piled up into the feature now known as the Oregon Plateau, the Lake Superior basin’s thick lava flows depressed the Earth’s crust as they piled more weight on it.  There are thousands of feet of lava flows here, but they sagged downward leaving a vast river valley system between mountains that rivalled the height of the Rocky Mountains. Weathering and erosion wore the mountains down and the basins that would eventually become the Great Lakes were finally carved out by the continental glaciers that covered a good chunk of North America during the last Ice Age.  

     Lake Superior has been free of glacial ice for a mere 10,000 years, but we are still feeling the after effects.  The great weight of the glaciers added to the massive lava flows pushed the crust even further down into the mantle.  When the ice finally retreated, the crust began rebounding to its original shape. Because the north shore of the lake was pushed further down than the south shore, it has rebounded more there than in the south.  The net effect is similar to holding a wash basin of water: if you tilt the far side of the basin upward, the water level on the side closest to you will rise and eventually spill over. There are areas on the north shore of Lake Superior where the shoreline is now twenty feet higher than it was a century ago.  This means there are areas along the south shore where the water levels have risen because our side of the basin has not rebounded as far as the north shore.

     As for human impact, one need only look as far east as Grand Marais, Michigan.  The harbor at Grand Marais is one of the few safe havens along the eastern U.P. shoreline.  Human logic dictated that the mouth of the bay there needed to be maintained with a jetty and the channel dredged so the safe harbor would be accessible to those traveling the waters of Lake Superior.  In 1896, a plan was devised to build two parallel jetties across the western sand spit that formed a natural break from Lake Superior’s northerly gales. With occasional dredging, the two jetties kept a deep channel entrance to Grand Marais Harbor for the next half century.  From the eastern jetty, a wooden pile dike was created across the natural harbor mouth to keep this large deep-water embayment calm even in the worst Lake Superior storms. Maintenance of this timber-pile breakwater was discontinued during World War II and never resumed. As the dike decayed and slowly fell apart, sediments began entering the harbor from the newly reopened natural harbor mouth. 

     During my college years, we spent much time in NMU’s Geography Department (both formally in classes and informally in the coffee lounge) discussing various real world geographical problems.  When talk would turn toward local (ie: Upper Peninsula) problems, Grand Marais Harbor would enter into the discussion. The source of the problem was obvious and there were many ideas in the hopper about fixing it.  All this lip service took place in the early 1970s, but an actual plan was not put forth by the Corps of Engineers until 2003. Funds were finally authorized in 2005 with the new harbor mouth breakwall being constructed between November of 2006 and April of 2008.  Note that it took human intervention to ruin and then repair this natural harbor that Mother Nature created over several millennia.

     Marquette will soon be embarking on a repair project along Presque Isle Avenue.  The problem they will be trying to fix has a similar ‘human’ origin. When the 1,216 foot breakwall at Presque Isle Park and Marina was built between 1897 and 1902, it changed the wave patterns coming around Presque Isle.  Waves tend to bend when they encounter the shore, so the new breakwall changed the bending point causing the waves to strike the shore at a different angle. As a result, the beach along Lakeshore Drive from Fair Avenue (near Picnic Rocks) to the mouth of the Dead River near the ore docks had naturally been resculpted to form  a smooth, arching curve. When the breakwall was extended another 1600 feet between 1939 and 1941, the change in the angle of the waves caused by the new extension began another period of beach erosion in that area. How do I know? When my buddy Jim’s mom was young, she told us they used to walk out to Picnic Rocks on a spit of sand and swim from the rocks.  By the time we were swimming there in the late 1960s, it was a waist to neck deep wade the length of a football field to get to the first rock. These days, the channel is so deep and dangerous, they discourage people from even trying to reach the rocks without a boat. This is not being overly cautious as the currents that now flow through this channel have been responsible for too many accidental drownings.  Again, the lake’s stable shoreline was changed by human activity and Mother Nature set out to fix it her way.  

     The cost of remediating the shoreline along Presque Isle (which is now a twenty foot high wall of boulders built to protect the roadway) will be in the neighborhood of $5 million in total.  The current plan favored by the City of Marquette is to move this section of Lakeshore Boulevard 300 feet inland. This phase one relocation is expected to begin in 2020 with funds being sought for phase two:  another resculpting of the shoreline in that section to form a new stable beach engineered by humans, not Mother Nature. Why did this problem arise in the first place? To protect the first ore dock built in the area that was destroyed by wave action.  The extension that caused the current problem was demanded by the iron companies and railroad to protect their ship loading facility that replaced the damaged one. That dock is fine, the beach is not.

     “Time and tide wait for no one” indeed.   In Part 2 of this FTV, we will look at what the record high water levels have done to the beach front properties in Ontonagon County.  We will also examine the potential ‘fixes’ for County Road 107 in the area of Union Bay.

Top Piece Video:  Not making light of a serious subject . . . just searching for music about high water!  This live Blondie taken from THE NIGHT OF PROMS in the Netherlands.