Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series of articles looking at Keweenaw National Historical Park, celebrating its 20th anniversary this week.
CALUMET - In 1986, a conversation overheard by Steve Albee became the impetus for the creation of what would eventually become Keweenaw National Historical Park.
Albee, a current member of the KNHP Advisory Commission, said in 1986, he was in Kalamazoo at a governor's convention on tourism representing the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region when he heard a couple of people from Houghton talking to a representative of the Michigan Department of Transportation, who at one point during a discussion about Calumet said the only thing that would save the community is the creation of a national park.
Gazette file photo
The Keweenaw National Historical Park headquarters building is seen in Calumet Township. The park is celebrating its 20th anniversary this week.
That comment got him thinking, Albee said, and he took the idea back to the U.P.
"I was kind of pumped up about it," he said.
Albee said he presented the idea of creating a national park in the Calumet area to John Sullivan of U.P. Engineers & Architects.
"He said, 'That's kind of an interesting idea,'" Albee said.
However, after several months, Albee said he asked Sullivan what reaction the idea got from people he talked to, and Sullivan said it was met with indifference.
"I couldn't believe that," Albee said. "I said 'I'm going to try it.'"
The response he got to the idea was about the same as Sullivan got, Albee said.
"People weren't doing back flips," he said. "The idea I didn't think was going anywhere."
After several more months of indifferent responses to the idea of creating a national park, Albee said he got a call about it from a Daily Mining Gazette reporter, who said Sullivan had called Cyndi Perkins, the managing editor of the paper.
"She kind of liked the idea," Albee said.
The first article about the nascent national park plan ran on Feb. 14, 1987, Albee said.
"That story gave legs to that idea," he said.
Albee said although he was unaware of it at the time, there were some Calumet residents working on the idea of a national park in the area, also. There were several public meetings about the idea at the Calumet Theatre, and eventually, then-congressman Bob Davis, who represented Calumet in the 110th Congressional District, heard about it, and he liked the idea, also.
"It just sort of slowly grew from that," Albee said. "A lot of people did some heavy lifting on this thing."
Since the 1990s, Sen, Carl Levin, D-Detroit, has been active, also, with getting federal funding for the park.
Scott See, KNHP Advisory Commission executive director, said the legislation creating the park was signed into law on Oct. 27, 1992.
See said many people in the Calumet area thought having a national park would help improve the local economy.
"Property values were depressed," he said. "There was a desire for community revitalization."
The Calumet Downtown Development Authority got involved with the idea of a national park, also, See said.
"They formed a national park committee," he said.
The DDA contacted Davis, who asked the National Park Service to do a historical features survey, and that went well, See said.
"Not only did they find historical significance (in Calumet), but they found the Quincy Mine," he said.
As a result of that survey, See said in 1989, the Calumet National Historical Landmark and Quincy National Historical Landmark were created. That was the first step toward creating the park.
See said the legislation to create the park had to come from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, so Davis and Levin were involved with that process.
"There were several years of trying to decide what the park should look like," he said.
The first superintendent of KNHP was Bill Fink, who said the industrial concept for the park wasn't unique, but it was in limited company.
"This was fairly new," he said. "The model for Keweenaw was based on Lowell (National Historical Park)."
Lowell was an industrial town in Massachusetts, which was at the center of the industrial revolution in New England. When the textile mills closed, the area became economically depressed.
Lowell National Historical Park was at the forefront of the NPS effort to be about more than forests and natural features, Fink said.
"Lowell was part of the transition from just trees to the fabric of America," he said.
Fink said he was the first permanent employee at Friendship Hill National Historical Site in southwest Pennsylvania. After that, he was superintendent at Isle Royale National Park from 1990 until he became superintendent at KNHP in 1992.
After getting the assignment to KNHP, Fink said he didn't even have an office, but he busied himself finding one.
"I rooted around and came up with the doctors," he said.
What he found was a doctor's office in the former Calumet & Hecla Mine Company headquarters building on Red Jacket Road in Calumet Township. One of the doctors in the office, Dave Gilbert, worked with rangers on Isle Royale as a medical advisor for emergencies, and he offered Fink some vacant space on the second floor for his office.
"He, along with other people, recognized the importance of the park to the Keweenaw and he wanted to help," Fink said.
The former doctor's office is now the KNHP headquarters building.
Fink said he eventually hired two part time staff. Ed Yarbrough, who was manager of the Quincy Mine Hoist, and Lynn Bjorkman, both of whom worked on creating a cultural landscape inventory of the area.
Fink said he's not surprised KNHP has reached its 20-year anniversary.
"At the time (the park was created), I said it's going to take a long time until it looks like a park," he said. "What we are now, 20 years later, is about what I expected."