My family and I have enjoyed a week in my hometown of Caspian, Michigan and getting back in touch with family, friends and my roots in my beloved Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I wish my mom and dad were alive to see their grandchildren and us. Jimmer, Andy and I took a photo in the doorway of our house, the first time all three of us have been together in a long time.
This is the first time we’ve been back in over 5 years and the visit reminded me how beautiful, quiet and remote the region is. For those non-Michiganders reading this post, the state is divided into two peninsulas, with most of almost 10 million people located in the southern, mitten-shaped peninsula. The northern or Upper Peninsula is the size of the states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire combined. The population of the entire peninsula is 303,181. That is a lot of land for few people, which, after living in Osaka, Japan, is a welcome change.
I am concerned with the declining economy and population of the Upper Peninsula, especially the six western counties. The “boom time” for the region was from 1870 to 1920 when iron ore and copper mining were at its peak. It has been a slow decline since then. The 2010 census population of 82,668 is almost 50% less than the peak of 153,674 in 1920 of the six western counties. Overall, the UP has gone from 332,556 in 1920 to an estimated 303,181 in 2016, a 9% decrease. Only the city of Marquette has seen significant increases and has a population of over 20,000 people today. You can really see and feel it in many of the smaller towns, with main streets mostly shuttered buildings or vacant lots and abandoned houses dotting neighborhoods. With not much economic opportunities, young people move to more populated areas of Chicago, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Detroit, etc. and do not come back. The death rate is also higher than the birth rate, with many retirees coming back due to the outdoor beauty, scenic outdoors and low cost of living, but not young families coming in. I see a continued slow, steady decline in the short and long term future. A few small towns will be fine. Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie and Houghton will thrive due to universities and hospitals being located in them. Menominee will also be OK due to its proximity to Green Bay, Wisconsin and the Fox River Valley.
However, I am still optimistic about the Upper Peninsula. Because there are so many forests, lakes and snow to support outdoor activities, tourism will grow. I also think that technology will keep getting better and allow people to be more flexible in where they live. Although there are places with more dramatic wilderness areas in the American west, the outdoors of UP is just as refreshing to the soul for me and I guess many others. I am concerned about the role of climate change. What will the great lakes and the many smaller lakes and rivers become with increased temperatures?
I am glad to have been born and raised in a place so distant from major metropolitan areas. Thinking back to the pre-internet and pre-cable television area, it was even more distant culturally, from the rest of the USA. Hopefully, I will always maintain a connection to the Upper Peninsula.