Before the arrival of the railroad, travel across the sprawling mining lands of the Keweenaw was an arduous affair. For a time only a hodgepodge of trails and rough roads connected one mine to the next, most routes often impassible during the winter or spring months. It wasn’t until 1861 that the region would receive its first official stagecoach road – a project proposed and funded by the state to connect the Portage Lake mines and communities to the Keweenaw mines to the north. Known as the Mineral Range State Road this north-south wagon road provided direct access to the major points of interest all along the rugged mining lands of the peninsula.
Wider, straighter, and better maintained then most other roads in the region at the time, the Mineral Range State Road would become the de-facto route for travel for anyone traversing the region. The conveyance of choice at that time was the stagecoach, an enclosed wagons that carry about nine passengers along with a collection of luggage, mail, and other freight stored on its top or within a pair of “boots” found at the carriage’s front and back. A driver and armed companion (in the “shotgun seat no less) sat up front while a team of 4 to 6 horses powered the coach at a speed of about 5 miles an hour. Though cradled atop a pair of leather straps the ride was not ideal, and was more rough and tumble than smooth and comfortable. Additionally the beasts of burden that powered them could not do so forever and required daily periods of rest. In fact a typical stagecoach team could only travel about 15 miles before needing to either be rested for several hours or swapped out with a fresh team. Its a good thing too, as by then even the stagecoach’s human occupants were ready for a rest themselves.
This fact was known all to well to John Phillips, a contractor and hotel proprietor who owned a hotel in Eagle River. Mr. Phillips would end up purchasing 40 acres of land alongside the Mineral Range State Road shortly after its completion. The location of this 40 acres of land wasn’t randomly chosen, however, as it resided roughly 15 miles from Hancock. This was a spot Phillips knew those stagecoaches running the Mineral Road would have to stop to rest or change out their horses. To serve those stagecoaches Mr. Phillips went to work erecting a sprawling roadside “rest stop” complete with a hotel, restaurant and stables. The complex would become known simply as the “Halfway House”, a term traditionally used for such stagecoach route stops but also happened to describe the hotel’s location halfway between Hancock and Phillips other hotel found in Eagle River. For many years the Halfway house would be a popular spot for Keweenaw travelers, that is until the arrival of the Interurban railway after the turn of the century. The arrival of the railroad meant a trip that once took hours could be done in just 20 minutes – an advancement that would quickly force the Phillips’ Halfway house out of business.
Though the Halfway House no longer had purpose, the 40 acres of land on which it sat was still highly desirable. Turns out the neighboring Ahmeek Mine had recently discovered the copper rich Kearsarge Lode on its property, a discovery which had elevated the small mine’s status. As a result a massive influx of new workers soon followed. Those workers required housing and businesses to serve them, prompting enterprising individuals and businesses to buy up large swaths of land and plat it up for new homes and businesses. One of those entities was the Faucett Bros. & Guck Co., an insurance and real estate firm previously responsible for the establishment of the neighboring village of Ahmeek. Buoyed by the success of that endeavor the company quickly went to work finding another large swath of land to plat and sell off to eager arrivals – their sights settling upon the old Phillips’ lands found just up the hill. Thus in 1910 the Village of Phillips was born.
As originally platted the village consisted of six blocks of land bordered by a collection of six roads blazed through the marshy landscape neighboring Slaughterhouse Creek. To the east the village was bordered by the old Mineral Range State Road – now known as US41. To the west the Interurban Railway grazed past, providing future connections to points all across the region. Yet even with such transportation veins within reach the village never managed to grow past just a dozen or so homes and businesses. The reason for the village’s failure is not clear, though its location was far closer to the Kearsarge Mine than the Ahmeek. No matter the reason upon the arrival of the Great Depression the village had reached its peak its footprint looking like what can be seen above in an aerial image taken at the time. Here only a half dozen homes had taken root, and the numerous cross streets of the town had begun to fade away as nature reclaimed them. At the time only two of those original compliment of roads had remained in use.
Though the sprawling collection of homes never arrived, the small village did end up supporting a small collection of businesses. Those businesses can clearly be seen above, all standing alongside the neighboring highway. These businesses included a tavern, general store, and gas station. Also present was the massive bulk of the old Halfway House, a building that looks to have been a rather massive structure if the elongated shadow in the aerial image is any indication. By this time, however, the building had become abandoned and was no longer serving travelers. That job had been taken up by the newest business in the village – the Phillipsville gas station.
The Phillipsville gas station can be seen here in the 1940s era photograph, the village itself sitting behind the snow fence seen in the background. By now the Village of Phillips had become known colloquially as simply “Phillipsville”, a name that the gas station had coopted for its own as noted upon the large sign found on its roof. It was fitting that a village which began as a rest stop for travelers would continue to serve such a role, though this time it was automobiles and not carriages that stopped at its door. The station was built at some point in the late 1920s or early 1930s and would come under the ownership of various individuals over its lifespan. In the 1940s it was operated by John and Mary Abe. In the 1950s it would come under the ownership of Matt Brulla and later Bill Kivela. The station would eventually close its doors sometime in the late 1950s.
Today the station continues to stand, though it looks quite different then it had in its youth. After its closure the station’s covered pumping bay was enclosed and the entire building used primarily for storage. Later it would come under the ownership of the Keweenaw Country Historical Society, which uses the structure for a similar purpose along with serving as a highly visible billboard for the Eagle Harbor Lighthouse. Recently the old Phillipsville sign at its peak has been returned, once again marking the location of the old village for those passing by.
Around the corner can be found the station’s main service area, its old garage door sill in place. Another automobile door can also be found within the now enclosed front portico of the building, probably used to bring large items in and out of the building. A modern looking dormer can also be seen peeking out from the roof.
A closer look at that original gas pump portico reveals very little detail, except for the white posts supporting the roof. Gone are the rest of the building’s eclectic architectural details, including the series of globe lights which once ran along the roof’s perimeter. Its a shame, but the fact that the old station continues to stand at all is impressive none-the-less. Perhaps some day it can be returned to its former glory and used once again to great travelers as they make their way across the old mining lands.
The old gas station isn’t the only Phillipsville structure to remain standing today. Perhaps more famous is the next building on our tour – this crimson concrete block beauty that looks like it stepped right out of the 1930s. Today the building serves as an artist studio, but decades ago it was home to Phillipsville only tavern – a drinking establishment known as Edna’s. Edna was one of the Phillips’ daughters, and was well known for both her singing voice and her ability to keep the rough and tumble miners that frequented her establishment in line. The tavern would operated up to the 1950s, closing down around the same time as the neighboring gas station.
Today the old tavern is more famous for the massive white letters plastered on its southward facing facade – letters that note the building as “The Last Place on Earth”. This was the name of the old antique shop that ended up taking residence within the structure for many decades, though today it serves more as a way-marker denoting a traveler’s entrance in the Keweenaw’s northern reaches.
Though the gas station and the old tavern remains standing, the village of Phillips’ main attraction does not – the old Phillips Halfway house. The old building would continue to stand for several decades before disappearing from the landscape in the 1960s. All that remains of the massive hotel today is a large stone foundation half buried in the brush alongside the road – just across the road from the old tavern. I’ve seen those ruins many times, but never took the opportunity to photograph them. Luckily a few other old buildings do remain from the largely forgotten village, keeping Phillipsville on the map even today long after it had served as a rest stop along the Keweenaw’s central stagecoach road.