Collections from Michigan National Parks

National Park Service, Centennial One Object Exhibit

In celebration of the National Park Service Centennial in 2016, this exhibit showcases one object from every national park museum collection in Michigan. We invite you to explore museum collections from Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

This copper knife is from the Archaic period, which saw the earliest human use of Isle Royale. It was found during a 2013 excavation along the Isle Royale's ancient Nipissing shoreline, which peaked near 5,000 years ago. Radiocarbon methods have dated this site to approximately 3730 years before present (ybp) making it the oldest known occupation site on Isle Royale. Older Archaic dates, ca.4500 ybp, have been identified on Isle Royale. These are associated with mining pits where indigenous people extracted native copper from bedrock fissures found island-wide. In all likelihood, the knife was produced from copper gathered from one of these sources. In 2014 the copper knife was submitted for protein residue analysis, which resulted in evidence that the knife was once used to kill or process animals related to the order rodentia (beaver/squirrel) or possibly the canidae order (fox/coyote/wolf).

Native copper is found on both Isle Royale and the nearby Keweenaw Peninsula which are both part of the same geologic formation. Although glacially transported copper, such as float copper, is found elsewhere in the Lake Superior basin, reliable sources are much harder to come by. Isle Royale has bedrock fissures that provide an extractable source of copper. Native American peoples recognized the inherent value of copper, its qualities and potential. As early as 4500 ybp they took great risk crossing in canoes from the mainland's north shore to Isle Royale. They travelled to the island seasonally, and returned in canoes laden with copper, to be utilized and traded as a commodity among indigenous cultures.

Isle Royale National Park, IRSO 8370

The last pour of the Quincy Mining Company’s Walker Casting Machine produced this brightly colored copper ingot in 1970. The smelter workers who cast it-- and who had cast thousands before it-- were the children and grandchildren of immigrants who had come to Michigan’s Copper Country in the 1800s and early 1900s. They toiled one last time in the light and heat radiating from the smelter’s 2500°F reverberatory furnace, enveloped in the steam billowing from the water baths cooling the freshly cast metal. Then this ingot was placed in the company office’s walk-in safe, where it and the other ingots from the last cast remained until Keweenaw National Historical Park acquired the building in 2001.


Industrialists financed Michigan’s copper mines for over 120 years, from the 1840s through the 1960s. During that time, over 10 billion pounds of native copper was refined and cast into different shapes and shipped to markets around the world. In many ways, this ingot represents the end of the mining and smelting industry in the Keweenaw. Yet copper still defines the region: first mined and used thousands of years ago by early American Indians, Keweenaw copper eventually ended up in Civil War ships and cannon, cross-country telegraph wire and transatlantic cable, and sculptors’ studios across the world. It may be a utilitarian metal, but this ingot represents not only a unique natural resource, but also pride, hard work, and the hopes and dreams of investor and immigrant alike.

Keweenaw National Historical Park, KEWE 3379

From before the American Civil War through World War II, sail and steam-powered lake freighters transported copper, iron, grain, and other commodities, by the wild shorelines of present-day Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Storms, fogs, reefs, icy waters, and uninhabited cliffs, forests, and dunes posed real dangers to the sailors and passengers of those vessels. This French-manufactured 3rd-order Fresnel lens shone a steady light over Lake Superior for over 80 years, warning ships away from the dangerous reefs of Au Sable Point. Lit by a succession of lighthouse keepers and their families, their lonely and isolated service can still be sensed in this place: in the lack of modern sounds, in the starry skies, and in the many moods of the world's largest freshwater lake, Lake Superior. This lens represents the close connection between land and lake and the people bold enough to live lives on these wild and wonderful shorelines.

The lens' service ended when advances in shipboard radio communication and radar made navigating Lake Superior's dark nights and stormy weather safer and independent of lighthouse lights. In 1958 it was determined that the Au Sable Light should be automated; the 3rd-order lens was disassembled and shipped to district U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Cleveland. A battery powered optic was installed on the light tower's gallery railing.

On January 12, 1968, the station reservation and buildings were incorporated into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Arrangements were made to return the 3rd-order lens from Cleveland, and in June, 1996, after years of being displayed in Munising and then Grand Marais, the lens was returned to Au Sable, reassembled in the light tower's lantern room, where it can still be seen to this day.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, PIRO 13

Four year old Ruth Baker remembered waking up on a late October morning in 1917 to find her family’s kitchen full of strange, bearded men. The night before the steamer SS Rising Sun had grounded off nearby Pyramid Point when its Captain lost his bearings in a Lake Michigan snow squall. The 133-foot Rising Sun, launched in 1884, was owned by a religious sect, the House of David. It was carrying a load of farmers and farm produce south.

The shipwrecked crew and passengers either swam through rough and icy waters to reach shore or were rescued by the crew of the US Coast Guard Station at Sleeping Bear Point, the nearest mainland life-saving station. They then found shelter with farmers in the nearby community of Port Oneida. The next morning, an elderly man who had slept through the disaster was spied wandering the deck and also rescued. The boat’s cargo of potatoes and turnips was said to have covered the beach for miles. Today the rusty remains of the Rising Sun’s boiler still lie just below the waves of Lake Michigan and can be seen from atop Pyramid Point, now within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Once attached to the pilot house of the SS Rising Sun, the oversize letters on this name board identified the vessel from a distance. This name board, itself, tells a story of utility typical of Great Lakes shipping artifacts. On the reverse side is carved the boat’s former name Minnie M. Underneath the silver and gold applied wooden letters seen here are the remnants of painted letters spelling ”Rising Sun.”


Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, SLBE 466

Credits: Story

Park museum staff from: Isle Royale National Park, Keweenaw National Historical Park, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

National Park Service, Museum Management Program Staff: Amber Dumler, Stephen Damm, Ron Wilson, and Joan Bacharach

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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