The young village of Calumet – then known as Red Jacket – begun as a small community huddled around the Calumet and Hecla mines. As the neighboring mines grew and prospered, the small community found itself at the center of a mass influx of people looking for work and prosperity. Along with those workers came an assortment of entrepreneurs and merchants in search of riches of their own providing goods and services to the village’s burgeoning population. In a time when most people travelled by foot alone, these businesses set up shop as close to the mine and its workers as it could; along a narrow street originally known as 5th Street. Not only was 5th street close to the mine’s property, it was on the same street on which the mine’s main offices were located. The street would quickly become lined with business after business, becoming the villages center of commerce and de-factor main street.
But by the late 1880’s 5th Street’s role as Red Jackets commercial center would become challenged by a young and eager cross-street named after the grand trees that once graced the surrounding landscape. The street in question was Oak, and its claim to fame would be its home for the village’s first rail depots. These stations would be positioned just outside the village limits on either end of Oak Street, one built by the Hancock and Calumet railroad and the other by the Mineral Range. These railroads were the region’s pioneers, and the first to connect Red Jacket to the rest of the outside world. Before the arrival of these railroads, all visitors to Red Jacket had to arrive by the neighboring military road, which connected to the south end of 5th street via Red Jacket Road. But now most new arrivals to the community would step off of a passenger train – and right onto Oak Street.
These depots – and the large numbers of new customers they represented – attracted a whole new group of merchants and businessmen to Oak Street. As visitors stepped off arriving trains they would be immediately greeted by a wide selection of boarding options, including the Anglo-American, German American, and Provincial Boarding Houses. Later these proletariat establishments would be replaced by grander and more luxurious hotels including the Arlington and Hotel Michigan. These transient housing options were augmented with the erection of several new tenements and apartment blocks, providing more permanent living arrangements for the droves of people that begun to arrive to the village.
With such large numbers of potential customers now within walking distance, several new stores opened up shop along the once residentially dominated street including druggists, confectionaries, grocers, barbers, and a large general store started by a pair of Austrian immigrants with the last name of Vertin. In addition to the hotels, apartments, and businesses that had lined up along the bustling street, Oak would end up attracting the interest of yet another transportation giant when the Houghton County Traction Company brought its interurban line down Oak to meet up with the Mineral Range’s depot. The year was 1901, and Oak Street had become the convergence point for all transportation routes into the thriving village. What was once only a simple side street had grown to become Red Jacket’s commercial center. Oak Street was the new main street.
During the dawning years of the new century, Oak Street’s rise to power was strengthened by the construction of several new large impressive business blocks along its length, including the massive four story Bollman block, the 31,000 square foot Vertin Department Store, and the three story Calumet State Bank. More impressive was the erection of the village’s largest and most elaborate church – the twin-spired $100,000 St. Joseph Church – at the street’s western end. These beautiful structures served as the opulent backdrop for every visitor arriving to the village – a powerful display of Red Jacket’s modern and metropolitan character. The rise from secluded mining town to great American metropolis was complete, and Oak Street was at the center of it all.
More then a century past the village’s grandest moment, Oak Street continues to provide a fading glimpse of old Calumet’s more metropolitan past. Though some of its largest buildings are long gone, there’s still a grand enough collection of old business blocks still standing along the street to impress any visitor that walks along its length still today. The sheer breadth and scope of the street defies any small town characterization, and can only be explained by the once great metropolis that once existed here. And for those wishing to take an even closer look, the old street holds a great deal more remnants of its illustrious past. Its that closer look that we’ll be taking starting tomorrow, a block by block tour of Oak Street as it exists today and as it once existed a century ago. A trip through time down Main Street Red Jacket.
To Be Continued…