Charles Kropp Sr

Information for this story was provided by Marc Bartnik and Kathy (Kropp) Bartnik and is dedicated in Kathy’s memory. Kathy was the great-great-granddaughter of Charles Kropp Sr. Additional information about North Unity and Good Harbor was taken from Good Harbor, Michigan – The Story and The People, 1850-1931 by Norbert Bufka. I highly recommend this book for those looking for more detail on the history of these towns than I could include in this story. The book is available at local bookstores.

Few stories remain that describe life in the wilderness of Northern Michigan in the last half of the 19th century. This account of one of the earliest settlers to this region provides details of the hardships and successes experienced by those who carved an existence out of the hardwood forests along the Lake Michigan coast. History of the region comes alive when we learn the details of daily life of early settlers like Charles Kropp as he worked hard to make a better life for himself, his family, and friends.

Young Charles Kropp

Charles was born in Hanover, Germany, on May 12, 1834. His given name was Karl, but he changed it to Charles shortly after arriving in America. He was one of three brothers (Charles, Henry, & George) whose mother died when they were young. Their stepmother married into the family with children of her own, and gave preference to her children. Family discord and a desire to escape Europe, which was in the midst of continual wars, drove the brothers to take a big risk and travel by steamship across the Atlantic to America — the Land of Opportunity.

Initially, the brothers journeyed to Chicago, and migrated to the area near downtown, now known as the “Loop”, where many other emigrants from Central Europe had settled. They joined a social group of fellow emigrants from Germany, Bohemia, and Czechoslovakia called the Verein (German for “club” or “society”).

These hardy immigrants had heard stories of beautiful, fertile land in northern Michigan. There was a lot of commercial traffic on the Great Lakes from Chicago to Buffalo, NY and the Erie Canal in those days, so finding passage north was relatively easy. Poor sanitary conditions in Chicago contributed to a typhoid epidemic, which broke out in Chicago shortly after they arrived and, to escape this deadly disease, the Verein decided to take their chances and sailed north in the fall of 1855.

As they passed Pyramid Point, the land looked so much like their homeland in Europe that they decided this was where they would settle. They had very little time before winter set in to build much in the way of shelter, so they chose a site near the mouth of what is now known as Shalda Creek (named for Joseph Shalda, one of those first settlers, who built a grist mill on the creek in 1859). Most families banded together to build a single rough barracks, about 150 feet long by 20 feet wide, which were partitioned so each family would have some private space. A few built their own huts of hemlock bows and branches that were barely big enough to stand up inside. All of these buildings were intended to be used only during the first winter, and would be replaced by more permanent log cabins the following spring. They called their village North Unity.

Charles Kropp Sr Family

As you can imagine, their first winter was very difficult. In addition to living in the temporary shelters, they had brought only minimal food provisions. They supplemented their food with whatever game they could trap or shoot, but as winter progressed the group found themselves desperately short of food. The nearest settlements were in Northport and on the Manitou Islands. Charles and several other men from the group, walked across the frozen Manitou Passage to South Manitou Island, where the nearest settlement was located. They brought with them sleds, which they pulled by hand, to haul a few bushels of potatoes back to their settlement. The return across the ice to their families proved very dangerous, as the warming temperatures caused the ice on Lake Michigan to crack and shift and the men nearly fell through the ice into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan before they could reach the mainland. But they succeeded and the community survived that first difficult winter in the Northern Michigan wilderness.

The next few winters were difficult as well. Each fall the small community tried to prepare for the harsh winter conditions by stocking up before the lake froze. In order to avoid making the dangerous passage to South Manitou Island, they traveled with snowshoes or by foot to bring supplies from Northport. The walk between Pyramid Point and Northport is difficult (over 20 miles through the wilderness with no roads), but it would have been particularly brutal to make the trip while carrying supplies through deep snow in winter temperatures.

One of the other families in the Verein was the Jacob Lietzau family, including Amelia (Mollie). She was 17 years old in the autumn of 1855 when they left Chicago to establish North Unity in the wilderness of Northern Michigan. Charles Kropp and Amalia married and began a family, which eventually included 9 children (5 boys and 4 girls). The Kropp family purchased some land and carved out a farm near the village of Good Harbor on M-22 just north of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Charles gave the land where St. Paul’s church and cemetery are located to the church. Their farmstead was situated near the church. The old smokehouse and granary still stand on the ridge above the church, and the family house is just north of the church.

There is some question about where the Kropp family and Lietzau family were in 1860 because they were not noted in the census in Good Harbor. Jacob and Anna Lietzau were in North Unity in 1858 based on tax records. Charles Jr. was born in 1861. It is likely that Charles Sr. relocated to Fort Rhodes, Canada, where Millie was born in 1865. The family probably moved back to Good Harbor after the Civil War was over. Charles’ bad experience with war in Germany likely motivated him to avoid conscription in the Union army.

In 1871, North Unity was destroyed by fire and the villagers moved inland to Shalda Corners on the corner of Bohemian Road (CR-669) and M-22. The village was no longer known as North Unity but was known as the Bohemian Settlement. Besides North Unity, other fires  in October of 1871 that devastated cities and villages include: Chicago, IL; Peshtigo, WI, Holland, MI; Manistee, MI; Glen Haven, MI.

Logging was the main economic driver. Michigan hardwood forests provided raw material for cordwood used by the passing steamships. Later, sawmills produced dimensional lumber, which was shipped to the growing cities of Chicago and Milwaukee. As the land was logged, it was cleared for agriculture, and the people who originally settled North Unity moved into farming communities based on their nationality and religious preferences. The Bohemians, who were mostly Catholic stayed in the North Unity or Shalda Corners (M-22 and CR-669) area. The Germans, who were mostly Lutheran, moved a few miles north to establish Good Harbor (Good Harbor Bay at CR-651), and the Swedes and Norwegians moved a few miles north of Good Harbor. Generally, the different cultural groups got along and eventually assimilated with each other.

Good Harbor Sawmill and Dock

Charles Kropp, Sr. and his sons started to build the large dock at Good Harbor in the winter of 1882-1883. When it was completed in August of 1883, it was about 52 feet wide and 550 feet long and could accommodate 4 schooners at one time. Initially, they sold cordwood for fuel to passing steamships from the dock. Eventually, Charles sold a half interest in the dock and logging operation to Schomberg Hardwood & Lumber Co. of Milwaukee, WI. A sawmill was built in Good Harbor and the logging business boomed, bringing more settlers to Good Harbor. At one time about 300 people lived in the village and, in its heyday, the sawmill produced up to 8,000,000 board feet of lumber per year.

The logs were brought to the sawmill by teams of horses from as far away as Maple City, a 15-mile journey on rough dirt roads through the wilderness. At the height of the lumber operations, 70 teams of horses and the hearty teamsters who drove them would start their day about 4:00 AM. Teams that stayed at Good Harbor would drive to the logging camps, and teams that stayed at the logging camp would load up with logs and head to the dock. The first teams would arrive at the dock about 4:30 PM and the last ones to get there would not come in until about 11:00 PM. Five teams stayed at William Kropp’s and five at Charles Kropp’s. Some teams stayed on the beach. These long days were filled with hard work! Logging was done six days a week during the winter, and in the summer, many of the loggers went to work as farmers on the cleared land. The sawmill was active when the weather warmed up and the ice melted, so ships could navigate Lake Michigan.

Eventually, the steamships converted to burning coal for fuel and the sawmills were converted from cordwood to dimensional lumber. The lumber produced at Good Harbor was hardwood – maple, beech, ash, etc. – was shipped to markets in Chicago and Milwaukee for building supplies. Most of the wood was used for making flooring, cabinets and furniture.

Charles Kropp Sr. and his brother Henry built a log blacksmith shop southwest of the church in 1869, and in 1883 they built a store to sell general merchandise and groceries.

The first school in Good Harbor was built from logs and measured 16 feet by 24 feet. Desks and seats were made out of rough-sawn lumber. They were arranged in two rows and a center isle with the teacher’s desk in the front and center. This school burned down, and a second school was built in January of 1881. This second school burned down the following summer. A third school was built – this time as a wood frame building. It was used until 1938 when the school was consolidated with Leland schools.

On October 28, 1887, Charles Kropp Sr. boarded the Propeller Vernon (wood fired steamship) at Good Harbor to make a trip to Milwaukee to obtain supplies for his store. This turned out to be an ill-fated decision. Later that terrible night, in what is to this day considered by many to be the most infamous shipwreck on Lake Michigan, the Vernon went down in a fierce storm off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The waves were reportedly so huge that they washed 15 feet above the top of the Two Rivers lighthouse. Two days later, to the astonishment of seasoned mariners, a sole survivor was rescued from a battered lifeboat tossing about in the cold waters of Lake Michigan. The Swedish deckhand, who had been near death when found, told a scandalous tale of the captain’s incompetence. Several of the bodies of crew and passengers were recovered, but Charles Kropp Sr. was never identified among the recovered victims. To this day, there is an empty space next to the headstone of his wife, Amalia, at St. Paul’s cemetery in Good Harbor. A summary of the sinking of the Vernon is included at the end of this story.

Charles Kropp Jr in his Blacksmith Shop at Good Harbor

After the death of Charles Sr., Charles Jr. took over the blacksmith shop and became known throughout the area as an expert craftsman. The Kropp brothers also drove water wells for area residents. There are still wells found in the area that were installed by the Kropps – including the well at the Kelderhouse farm in Port Oneida.

After Charles Sr. died, Amelia Kropp sold her share of the family lumber operation to Schomberg. She kept boarders in her home to earn a meager living. Amelia remained in Good Harbor until her death and, as noted above, is buried together with her descendants, in St. Paul’s cemetery.

Charles Kropp Sr. Family – Good Harbor, Michigan

  • Charles Jr. Born March 29, 1861, died age 94
  • Herman: Born June 3, 1863, died age 94
  • Millie: Born September 24, 1865, died age 93
  • William: Born March 2, 1867, died age 91
  • Carrie: Born May 17, 1869, died age 97
  • John: Born December 28, 1873, died age 73
  • August: Born July 11, 1875, died age 93
  • Emma: Born October 26, 1879, died ??
  • Anna: Born March 21, 1881, died age 89

A hand-drawn map sketched from memory by one of Charles Kropp’s sons of the village of Good Harbor, as it appeared around the year 1900.

Good Harbor Map circa 1900

Postscript: In August of 2015, Charles Kropp was symbolically brought home to rest at St. Paul’s cemetery, 128 years after he was lost at sea. In a shared journey of discovery that began in 2006 but was interrupted by“life” and never concluded before Kathy passed away in July of 2015, Marc located the common grave of the unidentified victims of the Vernon at Pioneers Rest cemetery in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Charles, who was 53 when he died, was subsequently positively identified from a coroner’s photograph taken at the time of the sinking (as was the custom of the day) using two photos of Charles from the Kropp family archives. It was Kathy’s last request that if her great, great grandfather was somehow found, that a handful of dirt from his grave be brought back and scattered next to his wife, Amalia, at the family grave-site.

The Vernon Disaster of 1887
By Steve Harold

After six years of service, the Northern Michigan Line had definitely found a niche in the commercial transportation business of Lake Michigan by 1887. Following the burning of the CHAMPLAIN on June 16, the line’s other boat, the LAWRENCE found it impossible to keep up with the volume of freight received for shipment. Within a month an almost new steamer, the VERNON, was chartered from the Booth Packing Company.

Vernon under power circa 1887

The VERNON had been built the preceding summer at Chicago by James P Smith for the Booths. The steamer measured nearly 160 feet in length with a beam of just over 25 feet and featured 18 beautiful staterooms. From the start, the VERNON was known to have an unusual, perhaps defective, hull design. Even when empty, she had an extreme draft and sat very low in the water. Some people later declared it was even unsafe for her to carry significant amounts of cargo because she was then dangerously low in the water. In any case after she was chartered by the Northern Michigan Line, they experienced some problems in getting to their docks because of the excessive depth of water she required.

On October 28, 1887, the VERNON departed her dock in Cheboygan for the run to Chicago. As was the custom of the Line, she stopped at all the docks between there and Frankfort picking up any cargo that was offered. At St. Ignace she took on pig iron; at St. James, many fish boxes, and at other ports including Good Harbor and Glen Haven, apples, potatoes, wooden bowls, and barrel staves. The VERNON departed Frankfort, MI about 7:00 PM on October 28, 1887. She was headed across Lake Michigan to the Wisconsin shore. About half hour after departing, a severe storm came up. The following morning when six miles off the Wisconsin shore, the VERNON foundered in the heavy weather.

The Vernon at Dock circa 1887

Many of the crew and passengers escaped the wreckage as the boat went down. Unfortunately the storm which wrecked the VERNON continued unabated for several days. At least three schooners and the steamer SUPERIOR passed through the wreckage and reported sighting bodies and survivors. However all decided the weather was too severe to make any attempt at rescue nor did they report the accident to the Life-Saving Service. This was considered one of the darkest days in Lake Michigan maritime history because captains and their sailors almost always go to extreme lengths to rescue fellow sailors.

Forty-eight hours after the VERNON sank, the schooner S B POMEROY bumped into something when running up the Lake under full sail. Upon examination, they found it to be a life raft with Axel Stone, a 23 year old watchman from the VERNON on it, along with the body of a man known only as Bill. After he was recovered, Stone insisted the VERNON had been severely overloaded, claiming it had started across Lake Michigan with only and inch and half of free board. He also said the upper half of the gangway hatches had been left open and there was so much freight on board no one could get to them to close them. Stone went on to accuse Captain Thorpe of alcoholism, a charge refuted by virtually everyone who knew the Captain.

The wreck of the VERNON was found in 210 feet of water by divers in 1969 near Two Rivers, Wisconsin and it has been visited frequently since that date. Most importantly, all visitors to the wreck report the hold full of freight and the upper gangway hatches are all locked in an open position with freight packed tightly around them in support of Stone’s charges.

Eventually a total of 19 bodies were found. For purposes of identification and examination, the recovered corpses were laid out in a temporary morgue at the Two Rivers fire station. They were able to identify seven crewmembers including Captain Thorpe. Two passengers from Milwaukee were also identified.

With the exception of Axel Stone, all of the ships officers and crew were lost in addition to about 20 passengers. One of the passengers was Charles Kropp Sr. Other passengers lost when the VERNON went down included three Gallagher sisters from Beaver Island: Catherine (24 years old), Mary (23 years old), and Bridget (28 years old) who was married to John Green. The bodies of Catherine and Mary were found with their long, red hair tied together. They are buried on Beaver Island. Also lost was Hannah Molloy (20 years old) who was on her way to Chicago to get married.

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