June 12, 2021

FTV: The Sturgeonaba River


     The Sturgeonaba River?  If you have never heard of this Upper Peninsula waterway, that is okay because I made the name up.  This ancient river may have occupied the valley systems that now host the northward flowing Sturgeon River and the southward flowing Escanaba River.  When Fred Rydholm first told me his theory involving these two rivers, he referred to them by their modern names.  I thought if the names were combined, it might make it easier to explain the whole affair without mixing up the current drainage systems with the ancient one.  If I have managed to confuse or confound you with my reinvention of U.P. geography, let me try and unravel the mystery.

     Back in the latter half of the 1950s, Fred Rydholm was one of the youngest members serving on the Board of Directors of the Marquette County Historical Society.  Waiting for his turn to make a presentation at one of the society’s meetings, he found himself staring at an odd triangular stone sitting on the table in front of him.  There were two rows of markings that appeared to have been etched into the flat side of the rock.  Joel Kela, a history teacher from Gwinn, was the other presenter that evening.  During Kela’s talk, he described the markings as ‘runes’.  Near the end of Kela’s presentation, he slammed his fist down on the table and declared, “And I believe the gentlemen (referring to the Vikings) were here!”  Joe Kela wasn’t the only person interested in connecting the Vikings to the Great Lakes Region.  Back then, the famed Kensington Runestone researcher Hjalmar Holand had recently released a book on the topic.  As a consequence, many like Kela had ‘Viking fever’ and in this case, Joel felt he had proof.

     The Kela Stone (now referred to as the Escanaba River Stone) was found by some boys from Gwinn.  They were working on State Highway M-35 during the summer.  One hot day, they had eaten their lunch down by a branch of the Escanaba River and decided to take a little dip to cool off before returning to work.  As Fred explains, “Just on an impulse, one of the boys retrieved the stone from the river bottom in about four feet of water.  They noticed what looked like some strange writing and threw it up on the bank.  They brought up a few more flat stones, but none with any markings.  At school that fall, the boys told Joel about the marked stone.  Kela said he would like to see it and within a few weeks time, they brought it in.”  Intrigued with the markings, Kela had the boys show him the spot where they discovered the stone.  Despite the chilly mid-October temperatures and a light snow in the air, Kela took a few dips in the river at that spot.  The stones he found had none of the peculiar markings as the one the boys had found.

     After the historical society meeting, Fred approached Kela and said, “This isn’t runic writing.”  Angered by the statement, Joel growled, “What do you know about it?”  Fred replied, “I don’t claim to know a lot about it, but I sure know Norse runes when I see them.  They’re like letters similar to ours and those aren’t anything like runes.”  Fred’s mentor at the Historical Society calmed the (now) very angry Joel Kela by suggesting the stone be photographed.  The pictures could then be sent to authorities on Norse culture to get their opinions.  It is a good thing that the stone was photographed as Kela later divorced and moved to Florida.  After Kela passed away, Fred happened to have Joe’s daughter in a college class he was teaching.  She scoured the family camp to see if it was still there, but the stone was never seen again.  The experts all agreed;  the scratches were not Norse runes.  Fred was convinced the stone had some form of writing on it.  At the least, he felt these markings were made by the hand of man, “back in the darkness of time whose history was not yet known.”

     After his first encounter with the Kela Stone, Fred began looking into the possibility of a Viking presence in North America.  Such explorations would have taken place long before the age of European ‘discovery’ of the new world.   He studied the work of Arlington Mallery, an engineer by training who took over his family business, Oswego Bridge Company.  In the 1920s, Mallery was supervising a job in Quebec building the first steel arch bridge he had ever designed.  He was impressed by the Scandinavian appearance of the men working on the high steel beams.  He found out they were all full-blooded Mohawk Indians who belonged to a bridgeman’s union which only allowed Iroquois Indians to join.  The discovery set him on a life-long search for a connection between many of the northeast Indian tribes and the possibility that Viking and Irish immigrants may have been melded into their culture.  Later examination of pre-Columbian iron smelting furnaces in Ohio convinced Mallory they were the same type used during the Viking period in Norway and Ireland.  Mallory would explore more suspected furnace sites and authored many articles on the subject.  He was less than careful in his diggings (often using a bulldozer to unearth mounds that he felt contained old smelting pits) and thus did not endear himself to others trying to unravel the same mysteries.

       The Kensington Rune Stone, dismissed by many as a fraud, also fascinated Rydholm.  Believers said it proved the Minnesota NFL football team wasn’t named ‘The Vikings’ by accident.  Non-believers pointed out the near impossibility of Vikings navigating past Niagara Falls to get into the Great Lakes.  Fred began researching written accounts about Norse Sagas and found an interesting pattern in the translations.  The sagas talked of sailing west from Greenland into a large body of water which brought them to northward flowing rivers.  To get to Vinland (purportedly L’anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland where a confirmed ancient Viking settlement was unearthed), they would have had to first sail to the southwest.  If they had gone west into Hudson Bay, then south, the Vikings would have had the Red River system to follow into the heartland of North America.  The Vikings didn’t need to sail the length of the Great Lakes to get to Minnesota after all.  This is all well and good (and largely discounted by many experts in the field of North American history), but the Vikings were Johnny-come-latelies compared to the ancient copper miners of the Great Lakes region.  The artifacts deposited by the Norse were but a fraction of the evidence left behind by the ancient copper miners, yet both of these historical periods tend to be ignored by traditional historians who prefer the less messy, ‘Columbus discovered North America’ dogma.

     As Fred pondered the mystery of the Kela Stone, he remembered a story he had heard from an elderly woodsman and friend, Curt Stone.  Stone told Fred a story he had heard from his friend Al Saari from Champion, Michigan:  “It was over in the hills around Champion.  Caves are rare or nonexistent in the local granite formations and anything similar to one should draw suspicion that [the cave Saari had discovered] was man made.  This cave, according to those who saw it, had to have been manmade.  It was said to have a huge flat stone over its opening to form a doorway.”  Stone and Fred spent some time searching for this cave:  “[Stone’s] idea was that it was constructed when the water was high and the place where it was located may have been an island.  He told me the cave, facing north, opened onto a spruce bog.”

     Fred Rydholm was a great story teller, a skill he developed because of an uncanny ability to listen and absorb stories he heard from others.  As he stated in his book Michigan Copper:  The Untold Story (2006, Winter Cabin Books), “By the mid-1960s, I had a little collection of these unexplained oddities in my mind.  They all seemed related in some way to Charles Whittlesey’s statement, ‘An ancient people of whom history gives no account . . .’  This was the only credible explanation:  evidence of a race or tribe of people whose history was lost in time.  There were the ancient copper diggings, the mystery stone, the Soper tablets, the Newberry stone, and Joel Kela’s stone, all enigmas, or declared fake by the authorities.  As far as I was concerned, none had a satisfactory explanation.  If the Kensington Stone is authentic, then the Norse would have been here too, but that would have been a few thousand years too late for the ancient mining that took place 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.” 

      In the 1960s, after hearing a presentation by Dr. George Cameron from the University of Michigan, Fred’s interest in the Escanaba River stone was revived.  Dr. Cameron gave a talk about his work decipering Persian stone tablets that were carved and used like checks or reminders that the holder was owed money.  Rydholm gave Dr. Cameron a picture of the Kela Stone.  A year later, Cameron said, “Those lines are caused by the sun drying clay,” and he gave the name for such a process.  When Fred pointed out that there were two distinct lines of writing on a rock that had been found under four feet of water, Cameron’s reply was, “That may be so, but the sun caused it.”  Sending pictures of the stone to other experts got similar results with one source saying the lines were caused by the salt used on highways to melt ice.  Yet another claimed the two lines of script were caused by the rock tumbling in a fast moving stream.

    Just when it seemed no one would ever seriously consider the lines on the Kela Stone as writing, a copy of the picture was sent to Dr. Barry Fell.  A professor of Oceanography at Harvard, Fell’s hobby was epigraphy, the study of ancient alphabets.  When Fred sent him a picture of the stone, Fell sent it back with a note.  According to Fell, the scratches were indeed ‘writing’ in an ancient script called ‘Ogam Consaine’ that was commonly used by Celtic people in Europe.  He also transcribed the writing on the stone.  Fell explained it was a mariner’s prayer asking the god Baal to keep them safe as they traveled upon the waters.  It took years to find the right resource, but when this new piece of information was planted in Fred’s brain, it sprouted a new theory.  A theory that would help answer some of those nagging questions brought up every time someone wanted to dismiss the ancient copper mine workings found throughout the Upper Peninsula’s Copper Country.  These questions are always along the lines of, “Okay, smart guy, if they removed that much copper back in the olden days, how did they move it and where did it go?”  The simplest answer for me is the river system with the new name I coined earlier from Fred’s musings:  The Sturgeonaba River.  

     The first time I heard Fred explain this theory, he pointed out that the great Quincy Mine was established on an ancient miner’s pit.  When discovered, the pit was filled with hand wrought copper ingots stacked as if they were awaiting shipment (how, by whom, and to where were questions that would linger for decades).  Recalling the ‘cave’ he had been told about in the hills hear Champion, Fred examined a topographic map of the U.P. and discovered the headwaters of both the Sturgeon and Escanaba Rivers were separated by less than a quarter of a mile just west of Champion near Clarksburg.  Examining the large valley that runs the length of both these river systems, it suddenly dawned on Rydholm:  the ancient copper miners were able to transport their loads down the combined Sturgeon – Escanaba River system.  At the close of the last ice age, the Earth’s crust had been pushed down by the weight of the continental glacier.  With the land depressed and the water levels (in the forming Great Lakes) high, the Sturgeon River would have flowed south from Portage Lake toward the headwaters of the Escanaba River system.  After passing through the Gwinn area (remember the Celtic mariner’s prayer on the Escanaba River stone?), the combined Sturgeonaba River would have emptied into Lake Michigan at Big Bay de Noc. 

     The whipped cream and cherry on the sundae here comes from Garden and Beaver Islands, both located just north of  Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  When a stone calendar circle and raised garden beds were found on these islands, there was much speculation about when they were created (and by whom).  Those not in favor of the ‘ancient miners visiting the Copper Country’ theory often point out the lack of evidence showing the ancient miners had spent winters in the copper mining region.  Could they have used Garden and Beaver Island as a winter home or transport hub?  Surely a society capable of sailing across an ocean would also be able to navigate the post-glacial rivers and lakes that dominated this area 5,000 years ago.

     The last time Fred and I talked, he was ruminating:  how would one study the Sturgeonaba River system to find any lost copper shipments?  Fred said, “No matter how good these mariners were, surely they would have lost a shipment at some point.  Imagine finding a load of copper ingots buried along this river network.  Wouldn’t that be something?  It would also be hard for the nay-sayers to ignore.”  We discussed the possibility of having an organization like NASA conduct some form of enhanced scan of this area from orbit to see if anything popped up.  Unfortunately, the Space Shuttle program was soon terminated and Fred passed away.  If there was a way to make the connections to get this kind of survey done, Fred would have found a way.  If someone ever does manage to do a detailed orbital scan of the Sturgeonaba River and find any compelling evidence, I hope they remember to credit Fred Rydholm with the idea. 

Top Piece Video:  The best example of a mining song I can think of – Joe B’s live version from Albert Hall….