Lake Superior Journal: The Island of Aunt Peg’s Dreams
A faded old photo shows the Silver Islet family home, the second from the left, of Margaret Mary Purcell.
It started with Aunt Peg’s story, became a mystery that cast me and my cousin as family sleuths and ended in a stranger’s home on a storied Ontario peninsula.
No, actually, the whole thing began in Ireland. Let me explain.
From childhood, I enjoyed the fascinating stories told by Aunt Peg, wife of my maternal Uncle Jim. As I grew up, she and I often exchanged ideas on good books to read.
One day, Aunt Peg showed me an essay she’d written for her travel club on the subject, “The Island of My Dreams.” Instead of weaving a tale about some imagined south sea paradise, Peg wrote about an island in Lake Superior that had vanished beneath the Great Lake. It was the story of Silver Islet on Sibley Peninsula, where Peg’s mother, for whom she had been named, lived as a child after their family first emigrated from Ireland.
They moved there because Margaret Mary Purcell’s father, a miner in Ireland, had gotten wind of a great “silver rush” near present-day Thunder Bay. How he heard about the mine is lost in the pages of history, but somehow the Purcell family arrived in time to join the excitement of finding silver on this small island.
Peg recalled her mother’s stories of growing up in a house on the mainland a short distance from the islet. Peg’s mother raved about skating on the frozen Lake in winter and rowing a boat along the rocky shores in summer. During the school year, Margaret Mary was sent to a boarding school in Fort William. She enjoyed school, but cherished her summer vacations at home near Silver Islet.
I should probably note here a brief history of the Silver Islet mine. Alexander Sibley (for whom the peninsula is named) began a silver mining operation in 1870 on barely a sliver of land surrounded by Lake Superior. His company built breakwaters and used water pumps to expand the islet to 10 times its size, and over 16 years mined nearly $3.25 million in silver before disaster struck.
As it was told to Aunt Peg, the end came when a captain hired to bring fuel to the islet for winter stopped to party instead. He awoke the next day to a frozen Lake Superior – too late to bring fuel for the pumps until spring and too late for the survival of the mine and the miners’ jobs. Lake Superior consumed the mine before the thaw.
With her dad unemployed, Margaret Mary’s family journeyed to western Minnesota as part of James J. Hill’s and Archbishop John Ireland’s plan to settle Irish immigrants along the route of the Great Northern Railway in Minnesota – but that’s another story.
I was not the only one intrigued by Aunt Peg’s tales. Her son (my cousin) Jim craved more insight into his family’s history. After reading Peg’s essay, Jim made a decision. “It’s really time to try to find the home where my grandmother lived near Silver Islet.”
He and Aunt Peg invited me to join their search.
“Why not?” I agreed. I’d started my career as a high school history teacher, and this search for history would mean a lot for our family.
With that, we planned a visit to where Aunt Peg’s grandparents had expected to make their fortune. Like the great Gold Rush in California, the Superior Silver Rush must have given immigrant families a vision of fresh starts and secure financial futures. We would seek a different kind of treasure – our family’s past on the island of Aunt Peg’s dreams.
Just as in the PBS show, “History Detectives,” we started with an artifact. Aunt Peg had a faded photo of the house where her mother had lived. We had no idea what the house looked like now, or if it still existed, but the photo gave us a place to start.
On the appointed day, we left the Twin Cities by noon. We booked into Thunder Bay’s Prince Arthur Hotel, named for one of Queen Victoria’s sons. Back then, its vintage furnishings set us in the right mood for a history quest. An added bonus: Our third-floor windows had a view of the Sleeping Giant, where we’d pick up the trail the next day.
We retired to our rooms early to get a good start, but I tossed and turned all night, worried about finding the right house the next day.
Lake Superior Journal: The Island of Aunt Peg’s Dreams
Aunt Peg and Jim Kalaher pose by the Silver Islet family home Jim’s great-grandparents lived in.
Jim woke me up with a knock on my door and a cheery, “Time for breakfast.” I rolled over, calling, “Be down in half an hour!”
Before heading out, we got advice from our friends in Thunder Bay, John and Cindy Friday. They told us to take Highway 587 along Sibley Peninsula, assuring us that the road ended at the village of Silver Islet. They also suggested that we take a boat tour to the former mine, now just a submerged skeleton of its former scaffold. Interesting as that might be, we agreed that on this visit the focus was finding the former family home.
As promised, at the conclusion of a lovely drive surrounded by woods, we arrived in Silver Islet. With high hopes, we set out on the hamlet’s very few streets with our old photo in hand. Surveying cottages along the beach, we found one with the same basic structure as in our photo house.
With trepidation and anticipation, Jim knocked on the door.
Would the current residents let us peek inside? Would they mind strangers on a history hunt? Would they even be home?
A gentleman answered. Much to our surprise and delight, he was more than welcoming and invited us inside. After hearing Aunt Peg’s story, he even showed us a video on the rise and fall of Silver Islet. The documentary described a history similar to Peg’s, with additional factors at play in the final closing of the mine in 1884.
Although it was the tale of the captain’s failure that always caught my imagination, I discovered the mine had already begun to fade by then. That truth didn’t alter my interest.
As for Aunt Peg, she was thrilled with the results of the trip, finding both the house and a warm reception.
For the three of us, there would never be a place quite like Silver Islet. We were thrilled to visit this portion of the long journey that Peg’s mother and grandparents undertook to a better life. For me, I got to see one of Aunt Peg’s stories come to life … and to count myself as a successful “History Detective.” We delighted in sharing the adventure with Jim’s sister, Mary, who came all the way from Berkeley, California, to see what we had discovered.
After Aunt Peg’s passing, Jim and I traveled to the peninsula several times, taking in the refurbished general store, strolling among the summer cottages and even getting in that boat tour to see the submerged remnants of the drowned mine.
To remind Jim of our first visit, the Fridays gave him a watercolor painting called “Silver Islet Cottage” by the award-winning Thunder Bay artist Greg Zelinski. In the painting, a tidy white cottage surrounded by spectacular fall foliage sits beside the Big Lake. It’s not our “family” cottage, but it brings warm memories.
Jim has since died, too, and I inherited all the bits of the family’s Silver Islet history and our modern-day adventure, including that painting. I still visit there when I can. Each trip reminds me of that special summer vacation when an old photo and my aunt’s stories brought us to the end of the Ontario peninsula that was the beginning of a family’s new world adventure.
Now it’s the island of my dreams, too.
Mary Jo Richardson received her doctorate in education from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and held several positions of leadership in the Minnesota Department of Education before retiring. She currently consults for nonprofit organizations. She has written about her family connections in Minnesota for the Ramsey County Historical Quarterly.