Finding Founding Fathers for a Quasquicentennial
by Erik Nordberg
The year 2010 marks Michigan Technological University's 125th anniversary. The dictionary app for my handy iPhone indicates that the correct word for such an auspicious event is "quasquicentennial," where quasqui means "one and a quarter."
I'm not sure that Michigan Tech will undertake elaborate quasquicentennial events—or even use the word quasquicentennial. In fact, I think I've just decided never to use it again myself. Yet it is a good time to consider the history of this august institution. I will start with someone who is probably unknown to you, John Parke Channing. But before I begin, I'd like to note that there are many stories that shed light on Michigan Tech's history, including your own, and you are invited to share your memories at www.mtu.edu/125.
People often ask about the founding fathers of Michigan Tech, expecting us to recount early college presidents and the corporate mining men who served on the Board of Control. But I prefer to start with Channing, after whom no campus building is named but a man who left an indelible mark on Michigan Tech.
A native of New York state, Channing graduated from Columbia University with an engineer of mines degree in 1883. He came to the Copper Country initially as a draftsman for a foundry but quickly immersed himself in the local professional mining community.
While gathering statistics about Keweenaw copper mines for the 1884 Michigan Mineral Statistics report, Channing visited most of the established companies in the region. The question of technical education was frequently discussed. Although a relatively new academic discipline, college-based study in geology and mining engineering was becoming increasingly respected and desirable.
The state had actually passed legislation in 1861 to establish a mining school in Houghton County, the first such formal program in the country. But a lack of funding and the start of the American Civil War delayed implementation.
Following the war, a school of mines was established at the University of Michigan and began granting degrees in 1867. Yet only forty-one mining engineers completed the program over ten years, and funding was cut in 1877.
For Channing, the Copper Country of the mid-1880s was ripe for action. Placing a mining school in close proximity to active mining seemed logical for traditional students who might relocate to the region. But he also saw "a crying demand for men working in UP mines to find some means of studying the science of mining outside their normal working hours."
On January 7, 1885, a letter written by Channing was published in the Marquette Mining Journal calling for state government to establish "free technical schools of a limited scope in which the rising generation could be trained in the fundamental branches of engineering." He envisioned schools in both Houghton and Ishpeming "in which the young man who works all day or all night underground and may have a few hours' daily instruction in mathematics, machinery, drawing, primary chemistry and other branches."
Channing proposed that such a system "would be much more satisfactory than establishing a single large mining school in Ann Arbor . . . What we want are small schools where the practical [student] can be educated to a better knowledge and appreciation of his work where he can be so instructed that he can impart to others the knowledge he has practically obtained."
A copy of the article made its way to Jay A. Hubbell, Houghton resident, former US congressman, and then-state senator representing the Upper Peninsula. Hubbell was a wealthy and respected civic leader who also wanted to see a mining school started in Houghton. Hubbell requested Channing's assistance in marshaling the necessary forces, and within months they were pressing the state legislature. On May 1, 1885, the state passed a new act establishing the Michigan Mining School.
The politician Hubbell is rightly called the father of Michigan Tech. His legislative prowess secured the vital initial appropriation of $15,000 for the new school, which convened its first classes in rented space above the Houghton fire hall in 1886. Perhaps as important, Hubbell donated five city lots that he owned on the eastern outskirts of Houghton for a new campus. The school's first building was named in Hubbell's honor, and several subsequent award programs have borne his name.
Although there is no Channing Building, this lesser-known founding father went on to achieve great repute in the mining industry, resulting in the naming of the town of Channing, southwest of Marquette.
During his international career, he returned to the Copper Country regularly, consulting on projects with Calumet & Hecla and looking at development opportunities. Throughout his life he was an honored guest at the college and often spoke at dinners organized on his behalf. Channing worked well into his seventies and died in Los Angeles in 1942.
So as we begin the 125 celebrations, let's light some candles in honor of J. Parke Channing and Jay Hubbell.
Happy quasquicentennial, Michigan Tech! (Sorry, I couldn't help myself.)
You are part of Michigan Tech's history.
Help keep it alive with your stories.
During Michigan Tech's quasquicentennial, it's easy to think that history is very important stuff that happened 125 years ago. That's only partly true. History is drawn from everyone's experiences.
If you have a story to tell about Michigan Tech, now is the time to share it. The University has set up a website, www.mtu.edu/125, where you can post your recollections about anything from broomball to your favorite professors. While you are there, you can also read other people's memories about Michigan Tech.
Do it for fun, for old friends, and for posterity. Because in another
125 years, all those great stories really will be history.