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Hemingway’s 1919 Trip Through the Straits to Seney

By Dianna Stampfler, Board Member – Michigan Hemingway Society

One hundred years ago, on a hot August day in 1919, a 20-year-old Ernest Hemingway and his two friends, Jack Pentecost and Al Walker, boarded the Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad in Petoskey set out for the Seney in the central Upper Peninsula for the last great fishing trip of the summer.

They arrived in Mackinaw City at the tip of the Lower Peninsula and waited as their rail car was loaded aboard the SS Chief Wawatam (for which Wawatam Park on East Etherington Street is named). It was then an hour-long ferry ride across the Straits, where they hooked up to the Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic (DSS & A) engine for the remainder of the trip to Seney. At just over 90 miles from Mackinaw City, Seney is located at the junction of M-28 and M-77 in Schoolcraft County.

Historic Seney began as a railroad stop in 1881 and quickly became a logging hub as the white pine forests were harvested and shipped off throughout the Great Lakes and beyond. The town’s population grew to over 3,000 but within a couple decades the forests were depleted and the residents left to find new jobs elsewhere. Today, fewer than 200 people live in the unincorporated community. Early on, tourism and recreation were popular activities here with the abundance of natural resources including the Fox River.

Among the town’s most noted “claim to fame” was its inclusion in Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two Hearted River” which was first published in 1925 in the collection “In Our Time” and is also included in “The Nick Adams Stories” (published posthumously in 1972), based on his visit that summer of 1919.

In 2013, the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association dedicated a Michigan Heritage Memorial at adjacent to the State Forest Campground on the east Branch of the Fox River, seven miles north of Seney on M-77, which commemorates that significant trip. Bearing a photo of a young Hemingway in his Red Cross ambulance driver’s uniform from World War I, affixed to a 24-inch by 32-inch limestone slab which reads:

“Author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), then 20 years old, and two friends camped and fished for trout near here on the East Branch of the Fox River in August 1919. They arrived at Seney by rail and then walked north to their campsite. Hemingway still favored his right leg as a result of being one of the first Americans wounded in Italy in World War I. The fishing trip allowed him to take his mind off the horrors of war and formed the basis for his famous short story, “Big Two-Hearted River.” He said he borrowed the name of another Upper Peninsula river for the title because it had more poetry.”

In addition to his time spent on the Fox River, Hemingway made numerous references to both the Black River (eastern Pigeon River Country, just 65 miles south of Mackinaw City) and Horton Creek near Walloon Lake, 45 miles southwest of the Straits of Mackinac. The city of Petoskey also features several historic Hemingway sites, including a statue in downtown Pennsylvania Park which was erected in the summer of 2017. For more information, check out the Michigan Hemingway Society.

For more about Hemingway in Seney, check out the article “Hemingway in Seney” by Jack Jobst which appeared in the November/December 1990 issue of Michigan History Magazine.