Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: The British Connection

Just seven miles north of Escanaba in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula sits a little town with a very big name. More than a hundred years after the death of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, the town’s namesake, it’s unlikely that many of Gladstone, Michigan’s 5,000 residents could tell you much about the man. But he is widely considered to be one of the greatest statesmen of the 19th century.

The town of Gladstone was originally christened “Minnewasca,” the Sioux Indian word for “white water,” in 1887. But local businessman William D. Washburn pushed to rename the town after Gladstone because a nearby railroad was partially funded by British capital. Area residents wanted to show their appreciation for the resulting economic development. 

Stay Engaged

Receive our weekly emails!

It should be noted that the Upper Peninsula, or “UP” as we Michiganians affectionally call this northern, thickly-forested portion of our state, was an important battleground in the 18th century wars between Britain and France.  Parts of the territory changed hands between the French and British more than once, and local history is rich with remnants of decades of rivalry between these two European powers.

Just what kind of man was William Ewart Gladstone? We are told that he read 20,000 books in his lifetime and could speak Greek, Latin, Italian, and French as well as English. Biographer Philip Magnus wrote that “at the time of his death [in 1898] he was . . . the most venerated and influential statesman in the world.” Another biographer, who currently sits in Britain’s House of Lords, Roy Jenkins, declares that Gladstone “stamped the Victorian age even more than did [Queen] Victoria herself, and represented it almost as much.”

No individual in history had a longer or more distinguished career in the British government. Gladstone served 61 years in the House of Commons, was in charge of the nation’s finances as Chancellor of the Exchequer for 14 budgets in four administrations, and was also leader of a major political party for almost 40 years. Four times he was elected Prime Minister, serving in this capacity for a total of 12 years. He was 84 when he retired as Prime Minister in 1894, the oldest PM in British history.  Hailed affectionately as the “Grand Old Man” for his influence and stature, Gladstone also was known as “England’s Great Commoner” because he had not a drop of royal blood and refused to accept any titles of nobility. When he died, a quarter of a million citizens attended his funeral.

What made this son of Scottish parents both great and memorable, however, was not simply a long career in government. Indeed, as a devoutly religious man he always put service to God ahead of service to country and felt that what he did as a politician should be unequivocally faithful to both. What made Gladstone great and memorable was what he actually accomplished while he served in government. Biographer Magnus says Gladstone “achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions.”

Today, when a citizen is elected with a mandate to cut the government down to size, but ends up moderating his positions while in power, conventional wisdom credits him with having “grown in office.” Gladstone “grew” but in precisely the opposite direction. When he entered Parliament at age 22 in 1832, Gladstone was a protectionist on trade, a defender of the state-subsidized Church of England, an opponent of reform and a protector of the status quo. By 1850, he had become an ardent advocate of free trade and by 1890 had reduced Britain’s tariffs from 1,200 to just 12.

Gladstone slashed government spending, taxes, and regulations. He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland. He pushed through reforms that allowed Jews and Catholics to serve in Parliament and that extended the vote to millions of taxpaying workers who had previously been denied the franchise. He extolled the virtues of self-help and private charity. And he lived what he preached. Even as prime minister, Gladstone was so moved by the degraded plight of London prostitutes that he would search the streets of London to talk them out of their destructive occupation.

Gladstone even urged the British people to look to the ideas of America’s Founding Fathers for inspiration. “I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty; I learned to believe in it,” he told a friend in 1891.

Today, a portrait of Gladstone hangs in the town’s city hall. The residents there should be proud that their town pays tribute to the Grand Old Man.

Meanwhile, Michigan’s British connection involves more than just Gladstone.  Two other Upper Peninsula towns with different names a hundred miles apart are both named for another famous Brit—though he never set foot in either one.  The towns are Kipling and Rudyard, and the man was Rudyard Kipling.  (The town of Kipling, believe it or not, is a “suburb” of adjacent Gladstone).

Born a British subject in Bombay, India, in 1865, Rudyard Kipling is remembered mainly for his significant contributions to English literature.  His novels, short stories and poetry earned him an immense following and in 1907, a Nobel Prize in Literature.  Before the age of 40, he was acclaimed the world over for his Jungle Books, poems like Recessional and Barracks Room Ballads, and his masterpiece novel about life in India, Kim.  He was an unofficial Poet Laureate of Great Britain—unofficial only because he could have had the title but declined it.  His professional writing spanned 50 years until his death in 1936.

It was in the 1890s, before Kipling was even 30 years of age, when his fame was enough to prompt one Frederick D. Underwood to name two stations on a railroad route through the U.P. after his favorite author.  As General Manager of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad (known as the “Soo Line”), Underwood certainly had that right, but local townspeople enthusiastically approved.  The tiny settlement at the head of Green Bay on the northern end of Lake Michigan became the town of Kipling.  About 30 miles south of America’s third oldest city, Sault Ste, Marie, the hamlet of Pine River was changed to Rudyard.

When the esteemed author learned of the honor, he immediately wrote to Underwood to thank him.  In his letter, he said “. . . I write to beg you to send me a photograph if possible, of either Rudyard or Kipling or preferentially both.  I shall take a deep interest in their little welfares.”   He may have appreciated the irony of the town of Kipling being situated next to the larger city of Gladstone, named for a famous British Prime Minister of the late 19th Century.  Kipling the author didn’t much care for Gladstone the politician.  The former was an unabashed advocate of British imperialism while the latter worked to scale back the costly reaches of the British empire.

Rudyard Kipling’s outspoken views on the foreign and domestic policies of his day made him some powerful enemies and sometimes rattled his friends.  He coined the phrase, “white man’s burden,” when he urged the U.S. to take a more active role in civilizing backward regions of the world.  He so vehemently criticized America’s “belated” entry into World War I that the governments of Britain and France publicly disavowed his remarks.  He opposed compulsory military service but argued that a man who had never enlisted should lose the right to vote.  When his beloved cousin Stanley Baldwin became Prime Minister of Great Britain, Kipling chastised him as “a socialist at heart.”

His views on labor unions were forever colored by an experience he had while on a visit to Australia.  The purchase of superior lifeboats made in Britain was rejected there in favor of buying inferior ones made in Australia.  Kipling saw this as unions sacrificing the safety of the larger community.   Thereafter, he regarded the well-paid leadership of organized labor as self-serving and irresponsible.

Both towns of Rudyard and Kipling remain small today, with a few hundred residents in each.  But named as they are for a man of large stature and notable accomplishments, they should be proud their very existence helps keep his memory alive.

British roots in Michigan run deep, but perhaps the most public evidence of them are these three towns that bear the names of two very illustrious British subjects.

# # #

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan.