"Hemingway in Seney"
Michigan History (November/December 1990)
By Jack Jobst
The hot August sun hovered directly overhead as twenty-year-old Ernest Miller Hemingway stepped carefully down from the train at Seney, Michigan. It was 1919. He walked slowly, favoring his right leg, towards the small wooden depot on the south side of the tracks. While his leg hurt each time he put weight on it, he was proud of his wounds and he could handle it. After all, he was one of the first Americans wounded in Italy during the Great War and he enjoyed talking about the Austrian mortar shell that had put him in a Milan, Italy, hospital for several months. Still, the pride would come more easily if he was wearing his fancy Italian officer’s uniform. He cringed as he recalled the brakeman’s cruel remark: “Hold her up,” the man yelled to the engineer. “There’s a cripple and he needs time to get his stuff down.”
The trip from the Hemingway summer home on Walloon Lake had been long but enjoyable. From the moment they stepped aboard the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad (GR & I) train in Petoskey early that day, Hemingway and his two friends—Jack Pentecost, his high school classmate from Illinois, and Al Walker—had looked forward to visiting Seney.
This excursion was to be the last great fishing trip of the summer. The short trip to Mackinaw City had been enjoyable enough, but the boys watched with greater interest when they reached the straits. Their train car was loaded onto the Chief Wawatam for the hour-long ferry ride across the straits. The engine remained behind as the ferry took the train cars across the five miles to St. Ignace, where they hooked up to a Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic (DSS & A) engine for the remainder of the trip to Seney.
The train stopped often that late August morning as it steamed through the swamp and cutover country of the eastern Upper Peninsula. They passed a number of locations, some with accompanying towns, some merely loading docks. But the names were interesting. Allenville, Moran, Ozark, Trout Lake and Hendrik. At Soo Junction, the tracks split for those travelers going northeast to the Soo and Canada. The boys’ train turned west, and they soon passed through Newberry, Dollarville and McMillan before reaching Seney.
This trip was nothing more than a fishing excursion for three young men, but the visit would also make Seney famous once again—from this experience Ernest Hemingway wrote one of his most well-known short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River.” While the exploits of this tiny village disappeared into dusty history books, Hemingway’s story continued in countless editions of the author’s short stories, attracting visitors to the little town to ask about the famous author.
Seney first gained fame in the 1880s, when it was called as “tough, [and] two-fisted a town as any on earth.” A major part of the population were poor lumberjacks, paid only $1.75 a day. When they had money in their pockets, they were anxious to spend it on anything to blot out their exhausting, dangerous and frustratingly celibate life in bleak camps and lonely pine woods. They found what they wanted in Seney. One chronicler was probably correct when he wrote that no one could truthfully “see how any place in the pineries could have come closer to hell than Seney.”
In 1882, the Alger Smith company began logging the virgin pines that flourished in the sandy soil of the eastern Upper Peninsula. The lumber industry—like any other industry—depended on transportation for moving products and personnel, and Seney secured its place in history through the railroad. No major highways existed into the area, not even when Hemingway visited. The town’s name thus seems appropriate: it came from one of the major investors in the railroad, George Ingraham Seney, a New York banker who invested his own money and that of his bank in this venture. Seney’s investment went sour. Although the railroad survived—after being bought out by the DSS & A—the bank was forced to close because of the losses. Nevertheless, the banker kept faith in his stock and was able to realize a profit years later. When Seney died in 1893 he was important enough for the New York Times to print his obituary on the front page.
Next to George Seney, Phil Grondin is the best-known name in early Seney. He was a Canadian from the Lower Peninsula who arrived to work as a lumberjack cook in 1882. He remembered the town as “a cluster of buildings along the railroad tracks, with mud and water in the wretched streets . . . and only one boardinghouse.” The town overcame its meager beginnings, however, reaching its peak eight years later when it boasted fifteen logging companies and a population of three thousand. As many as three thousand more lumberjacks arrived each spring from the fifteen or more area lumber camps, with full wallets and a strong thirst.
To service these people, Seney offered ten hotels, a dozen saloons, several blind pigs (unlicensed bars), two large “hoodlums” (a local euphemism for bawdy houses) and numerous smaller ones, a Catholic church, a school, two large general merchandise stores, several drug stores, meat markets and jewelry stores.
Seney could have been a wild west town, with its collection of rare inhabitants with such colorful names as Tea Pot Kelly, Protestant Bob McGuire and a man named Old Light Heart, who allegedly slept in two sugar barrels and subsisted on raw beef livers. As a legendary drinker and colorful personality, no one compares to P.K. Small, a lumberjack who, for a drink, bit the heads off small animals, such as snakes, toads, frogs, and even geese. He also ate live mice, chomping through the middle of the unfortunate animal, with the tail dangling from the side of the man’s cheek.
Leon Czolgasz was a less colorful Seney-area resident, but provided a greater influence on history. A loner, this one-time laborer on the Manistique Railroad became infamous when he traveled to Buffalo, New York, in 1901 and fatally shot President William McKinley.
Seney changed from a small group of outbuildings to a flourishing town, and Grondin’s fortunes grew along with them. He built his first hotel in 1884, then a retail store and bar, but it burned down in 1891. He rebuilt, and this also burned. At the turn of the century, the keyword in effective firefighting was not extinguish, but contain. Everyone helped to insure that the fire would not burn everything. Insurance rates, not surprisingly, were exorbitant.
Forest fires were also common, especially after the pine ran out in the 1890s. Occasionally one reached Seney itself. Chroniclers differ on how often this occurred, but most agree that it was unusual, perhaps happening only once, around the turn of the century. In his story, “Big Two-Hearted River,” Hemingway’s narrator, Nick Adams, tells of a fire that destroyed the town, but this never happened. By 1919 the countless acres of pine were gone and the town had shrunk to only a few buildings. Only one building was burned, although not because of a forest fire.
Although not destroyed, historic Seney indeed disappeared, but the railroad still brought travelers like Hemingway to town because it had found a new product to ship. When the lumber crews clearcut the pine they left behind slightly blemished trees and miles of cull wood or the tops and branches of trees too misshapen or small for lumber. These burned readily, and when forest fires swept across the swampy land and sandy high ground, the resulting deep piles of ash became a perfect growing medium for bracken ferns and blueberries. After harvesting, the ferns were packed into one-hundred pound bales and shipped to flower shops and funeral parlors across the country.
The Hemingway family had never visited Seney, but they had traveled to the Upper Peninsula. Although from Chicago, Ernest’s father, a physician, and Uncle George occasionally journeyed north from their summer homes near Petoskey and fished Brevoort Lake, northwest of St. Ignace. Ernest, like his father and uncle, loved fishing. And he loved traveling to exotic places. Seney, with its rich, colorful history and promise of great fishing provided the perfect vacation for Hemingway.
Hemingway may have known of Seney’s reputation before he visited. He could have heard about the town while growing up in Chicago, for during Seney’s heyday, a woman reporter (or temperance leader, according to one version) from Detroit was gulled into believing a number of tall tales, all generated by local pranksters. Detroit readers subsequently read that Seney was a center for white slavery and of shanghaied men brought in on box cars and forced to sleep in shifts because of overcrowded work compounds similar to prison camps. Such a sensational story, not surprisingly, made all the major newspapers across the country. Almost assuredly it would have appeared in Chicago papers.
In late August 1919, with the summer coming to a close, Hemingway invited some friends on the last great fishing trip of the summer. Not all his thoughts, however, were on fishing. If his youth was not over, it was certainly dwindling down to the final days, just like the summer itself. He was twenty and unemployed. Worse, he lived at home, and this was becoming intolerable. His parents, initially concerned with his leg wound, were now transferring that concern to his life as an adult. What did he want out of life? What could he do besides fish?
As Hemingway watched the train pull away from the Seney station, moving west towards Marquette, the young man could look north across the tracks at the little village. He had been hoping that some of Seney’s wildness remained, but he was greatly disappointed. There were no bawdy houses, no wild west-style saloons, only some abandoned frame buildings and grass growing on the back streets. While not quite a ghost town, Seney was nothing like its reputation.
Hemingway stepped across the railroad tracks onto Main Street East (present-day Railroad Street) and inspected the burned foundation of an old hotel. In “Big Two-Hearted River,” Nick refers to the Mansion House Hotel, which some scholars believe was the Hotel White House, built and owned by the railroad company, the only hotel that did not serve alcohol. Hemingway may have heard of this hotel from friends or relatives, but he was looking at the foundation of the Grondin Hotel, which had burned down just the summer before. According to local lore, the fire began when a drunk was carried from the first floor bar to the third floor to sleep off his inebriation either in a bed or in the “ram pasture,” a euphemism for the floor. One man apparently selected a bed and—if the stories are true—dozed off and set his mattress afire. Soon the wood-frame building was entirely ablaze, and Seney entrepreneur Phil Grondin watched his last hotel burn to the ground.
Hemingway returned to the depot and scanned the boxes, crates and other items unloaded from the freight car and placed on the platform for sorting and claiming. Jack Riordan, the twenty-five-year-old telegraph operator and assistant train agent, stood there with a clipboard and pencil. Hemingway pointed towards his pack and fishing gear. “That’s mine,” he said, and hefted it over his shoulder.
The narrator of “Big Two-Hearted River” walks west down the tracks towards the Fox River. The steel railroad bridge described in the story remains just as it was then. The walk is about one hundred yards from where the depot once stood, on the south side of the racks, just west of a pulp mill. The Fox River is narrow here and flows quickly southeast. During the days when pine was king, logs moved down this narrow channel to the mills in Manistique.
After admiring the river and thinking what lay ahead on their fishing trip, Hemingway and his friends turned north from the bridge, probably figuring that fishing (and certainly camping) would be better outside of town. According to local lore, the boys followed the abandoned railroad tracks, a spur line running north alongside present-day M-77, towards Grand Marais. The tracks had been taken up the year before, but the embankment and ties remained. The Fox runs alongside until the edge of town, then veers to the west about a mile.
This description is consistent with the narrator’s discussion in “Big Two-Hearted River.” Nick Adams describes walking north “along the road that paralleled the railway track” towards Grand Marais and Lake Superior, while “far off to the left was the line of the river . . . He knew he could strike the river by turning off to his left. It could not be more than a mile away. But he kept on toward the north to hit the river as far upstream as he could go in one day’s walking.”
At least the first day, Hemingway probably camped two miles above Seney, where the East Branch of the Fox cuts across the railroad embankment. While the bridge is long gone, remnants of railroad ties remain in the high weeds. This river is probably what Hemingway referred to in his letter to a friend as the “little Fox.” Local storytellers say that a large group of workers camped on the highground there, just above the river. They were berry pickers from Grand Marais, and they welcomed the young man and his friends, who set up their tent in the larger camp. While Nick Adams spent his Seney trip alone, Hemingway was not a solitary person, preferring the company of others on his travels.
The rest of the week was spent fishing north of Seney, occasionally in the swampy area between the two Fox rivers, and perhaps shooting at some deer that happened by. Hemingway mentions in a letter that he hit one twice with a .22, but the caliber was too small, and the animal did not drop They had more luck with their primary sport, claiming “over 200 fish caught” although the boys had no photographs to prove their success.
An author of fiction frequently changes the landscape to suit a story’s mood or theme, and to some degree that is what Hemingway did. After he completed his story in 1924 he excitedly wrote to Gertrude Stein about the Seney countryside: “The country is swell, I made it all up, so I see it all and part of it comes out the way it ought to.” Yet not all is fabricated, for the general layout remains accurate.
The boys stayed a week before returning to the Lower Peninsula. They never fished the Two-Hearted River (forty-five miles northeast of Seney), as others have pointed out. Hemingway said he used the name for his story, “not from ignorance nor carelessness but because [the name] Big Two-Hearted River is poetry.”
The author never returned to the Upper Peninsula, but his memories of the journey in 1919 made a lasting impression on him, spawning more than the single short story.
The trip formed the basis for two fishing essays he published in the Toronto Star Weekly, and a reference in a poem he wrote in 1922 while he and his wife occupied a shabby room in Paris. Hemingway called the poem “Along With Youth,” and it may reflect a view that his childhood had ended when he was eighteen or nineteen, using his Seney visit as a metaphor: “The Year of the big storm/When the hotel burned down/At Seney, Michigan.” The trip to Seney occurred during a critical time in his life, when he had to decide where his life would lead him next. Back in Petoskey, his family packed up their summer belongings and returned to the Chicago area, but Hemingway remained behind. Living that winter in a boardinghouse, Ernest Miller Hemingway began developing his writing talent. Several years passed before he began publishing the works that would make him famous, but he kept the memories of his trip to Seney, reflecting more than once on his visit to that little U.P. town