Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: The British Connection

(Portions of this essay have been published before by the Mackinac Center.)

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

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His name was given to the town when local businessman William D. Washburn pushed to rename it for Gladstone after a nearby railroad was partially funded by British capital. The town was originally christened "Minnewasca" (the Sioux Indian word for "white water"), but area residents wanted to show their appreciation for the resulting economic development.

It should be noted that the Upper Peninsula 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." Roy Jenkins, another biographer and a member of Britain’s House of Lords, declares that Gladstone "stamped the Victorian age even more than did [Queen] Victoria herself, and represented it almost as much."

No one 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 prime minister 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 no royal blood and refused to accept 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. 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.

But the Upper Peninsula’s British connection involves more than just Gladstone. Two U.P. towns one hundred miles apart are both named for another famous Brit, though he never set foot in either one. The towns are Rudyard and Kipling.

Rudyard Kipling, born a British subject in Bombay, India, in 1865, is remembered mainly for his significant contributions to English literature. His novels, short stories and poetry earned him an immense following and a Nobel Prize in Literature. Before the age of 40, he was acclaimed worldwide for his "Jungle Books"; his poems, such as "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 declined the title. His professional writing spanned 50 years, lasting until his death in 1936.

In the 1890s, before Kipling was even 30, 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. Underwood was general manager of the Minneapolis, St. Paul and Sault Ste. Marie Railroad (known as the "Soo Line"), so he 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 wrote, "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. Kipling didn’t much care for Gladstone. 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 United States 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, when superior lifeboats made in Britain were rejected in favor of inferior ones made in Australia. Kipling saw this as the unions willfully endangering the 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 that they help 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 illustrious British subjects.


Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.