A Shadowy Saga of Seney

When Nellie Bly, a famed and outspoken journalist of the late 1800’s, was told chilling tales of wickedness–barroom brawls, slavery and murder–in Seney, Michigan, she came herself to see if they were true. What she discovered were saloons brimming with booze, gambling and “ladies of the night.”

Nellie, searching out the source of rumors which had erupted from the somewhere within the city, believed she had witnessed slavery. No one knows for sure just exactly how this occurred, but its believed the plot to trick her was brewed over a couple of beers, a little bravado and a brash desire to give the New Yorker the scare of her life. She was told to seek out and investigate certain hotel lobbies to see the depths of depravity in the town. Here she discovered armed guards watching over men lying stretched out side by side like cordwood. What nobody told her was that these men, on “spring break” from the thirty or so lumber camps in the outlying forests, had been given permission to sleep eight-hour shifts in the hotel lobby. The “armed guards” were there to insure the lumberjacks, sleeping off the effects of a big night on the town, didn’t get into more trouble and didn’t overstay their welcome.

The old adage, “don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see” should have been applied in this case, but Nelly Bly hastily made her retreat, returned to New York and wrote a scathing report of sin and scandal in the shameful city of Seney, labeling the booming log town a tough, treacherous, terrible place. Her on-the-scene story shocked the nation, putting Seney on the map. Her words, traveling ’round the world, created a reputation for the town that would live long into the future. Seney was not a safe place.

But today, the once notorious Seney, sits quietly along Highway 77, boasting only of its peacefulness and calm.

Warming himself by the antique pot-bellied stove in the Incredible Seney Museum, Lorn Fletcher’s eyes shine with pleasure when he states how much he loves living in the quiet, somewhat secluded town.

Lorn looks around the room and breaks into a broad smile. “When I used to come to Seney summers for vacations with the family, I thought about moving here after I retired. Then when I finally did retire from Federal Screw Works in Chelsea, Michigan in 1982, I decided to take the plunge. We left the frantic life behind and came to enjoy the beautiful lakes in the area. My dream was to move back here one day permanently. I haven’t been sorry for a minute. It’s like the place has always been home.”

Summer family vacations–he has four children–have been spent in the Seney area for many years. The wonder of the beautiful and quiet wilderness kept them coming back year after year, until they finally made it their home.

At first, the family had a little difficulty adjusting to getting along without having access to shopping malls, fast food service and large medical facilities nearby, but they soon adjusted. They enjoyed being able to visit the Seney National Wildlife refuge stocked with over 200 species of birds and 50 species of animals; the nearby park which boasts a free flowing well, electricity and free camping; and the restaurants, party stores and grocery stores–all within walking distance.

The peaceful, quiet and friendly community soon became a cherished home. While the children traveled daily to Newberry schools twenty-six miles away, Lorn got involved in local politics and became the Township Treasurer.

“The best part of living here,” he says, “is the feeling of enjoyment and relaxation that comes with the peace and quiet. I love to go on long rides on my bike.” On his bike each day in summer, Lorn rides from his home to the Incredible Seney Museum just a couple of blocks south of M28 where he opens the doors to travelers and locals who stop by for a slice of juicy history. He shares his love of people and interest in history each day June 27 through August 22 keeping the doors open from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. He enjoys welcoming guests to come in and view the town’s treasures.

It was only natural that his entertainment of museum visitors led him to study, learn and share even more about the history of the Seney and its colorful past.

Standing wistfully amidst the rose floral mustache mugs in the display cases, photos of long ago lumberjacks and stuffed wolverines he is drawn back to the drama of the past–never far away from his thoughts when he is there.

“It’s such an interesting place,” he states, eyes twinkling as he talks, displaying his obvious love of Seney. “There used to be board walks all around town. There were over twenty saloons, half a dozen blind pigs and some brothels. When the lumberjacks and river men came to town there was more crime and lawlessness than in any other small town in the Midwest. They worked hard and they played even harder.”

Feisty, fearless lumberjacks, weary of woods, wilderness and a lack of women came to town to enjoy life–have some fun. They drank, caroused and fought with the same raw vengeance they used to beat, batter and blaze logging trails through the U.P. Daily they faced danger, long grueling hours in the elements and hard labor. No law was going to dictate to them on their time off–not in this country. They’d had enough of that in their homelands back across the sea. The result was upheaval in the small town of Seney, Michigan. Uproar. Raucous remarks led to riots and sometimes even revenge.

Rough and crude, the “jacks” were having a “heckuva” good time, but physical violence lurked day and night for those who lived the wild life. Many a boisterous bout of boasting, gambling and fisticuffs turned sour and blood was spilled. For most loggers and river men, it was all in a day’s living. But sometimes the bloodletting was fatal.

The feud between Dan Dunn, the “Upper Peninsula Terror,” and the Harcourt brothers lasted for nearly a decade. Dunn and the Harcourt’s migrated to the U.P. from Roscommon where both operated saloons. In Seney, the Harcourts opened the White House Hotel and Dunn opened a bawdy house. Hard-hitting rivals in Lower Michigan, their hatred of each other grew even worse when they moved north.

Dunn, who took what he wanted when he wanted, borrowed money from a Seney pharmacist with promises of repayment. Though there was no proof until years later of the crime, Dunn shot and killed the man when he demanded his money back.

Killing became second nature to the local villain. Tempted by greed, he was determined to rid himself of the Harcourt’s and their competitive business once and for all. He hired “Silver Jack” Driscoll, his bartender to get rid of the bunch.

But when a quarrel over a game of poker erupted between “Silver Jack” and one of the younger Harcourt boys, Luke and he was actually accused of working as Dunn’s henchman, he quit on the spot and hightailed it out of town.

Left to fend for himself with the Harcourt’s, Dan Dunn, who’d been rumored to shoot more than one man in cold blood, threatened to shoot to kill if any one of the “boys” came into his saloon. Well, Steve Harcourt, another of the younger Harcourt boys just couldn’t resist the dare of drifting into Dunn’s place and demanding a drink. He slapped open the doors, walked up to the bar and ordered a whiskey.

Dunn didn’t just refuse to serve him; he grabbed a whiskey bottle, wielded it in the air and smashed it over Steve Harcourt’s head. But that wasn’t enough–he reached under the bar, pulled out a pistol and shot the lad in the jaw.

The younger man had trouble getting his own gun out of his pocket and when he did the shot he sent out went astray, ricocheting off the mirrored back wall of the bar. Dunn shot again, this time hitting him in the side, sending the youth struggling out into the street. Three days later, Steve Harcourt died of gunshot wounds.

But the sly Dunn, who’d been buying off the “right people” for years, was found not guilty by a questionable jury. “Self defense,” they called it.

Driven by rage, the Harcourt boys called a family meeting and set out to even the odds–settle the feud once and for all. Revenge raced through their minds. It had to be done right away. They sat around a table in the White Hotel and drew straws. Jim Harcourt won the draw.

On June 25, 1891, at Jack Nevens’ saloon, Jim Harcourt sat in wait. Though Dunn had been warned not to enter, he swaggered in, sought out Jim Harcourt and reached for his gun.

Within seconds Jim Harcourt fired four shots into Dunn’s body, striking him right through the heart.

Harcourt turned himself in to the sheriff and was bound over for trial in Sault Ste. Marie, but though the people throughout the U.P. felt he had done the world a real service, the judge thought differently. Harcourt was sentenced to eight years in Marquette State Prison.

Seney, saddened by the sentencing of Harcourt who they considered to be a “good man,” turned out in full force for a victory celebration the day he was released from prison after serving only three years. Jim who was honored to be home, who had once taken the law into his own hands, now took into his hands the responsibility of protecting the townsfolk. He was made sheriff and stood proudly and honorably behind the badge.

Not long after he took office, a man came forward with facts about the death of the Seney pharmacist, an earlier murder Dunn was suspected of committing. He led Jim Harcourt directly to the remains of the victim, solving once and for all the disappearance of the local man.

The bodies of fallen men, mostly lumberjacks, some strangers who had come to town merely to have a good time, almost always anonymous–both young and old–were taken to the outside of Seney to a small designated hill in the forest and laid quietly to rest with other victims of street fights and logging accidents.

Boot Hill, a haven in Seney Michigan’s wilderness, solemnly harbors in its hold the ghosts of these nameless men. Today, under the peaceful pines, one mile south of town on Seney Avenue off M-28, the rugged worn wood crafted markers symbolize a saga of unknown souls, who toiled in the wilderness, danced the light fantastic and fell upon the cold dark earth to sleep and dream no more.

The Incredible Seney museum is a home to many an old newspaper account of the grit and glory and pure “guts” of pioneering men and women of the community. Many of the tales are rough, tough and true. They are a reminder of a shadowy saga of love, laughter and heartache in long ago Seney.

Lorn Fletcher will tell you that after the lumberjack era died out in the late 1800’s land developers took to turning a quick dollar at the expense of yet another kind of victim.

“Years ago, around the turn of the century, when land developers were trying to get people to move here, they recruited in the Chicago area, in particular newcomers to the states who were trying to find a decent place to live off the land.”

The “get-rich-quick” operators promised riches, good fertile soil and a happy prosperous place to live. These folks unused to plenty and desperate to succeed in their new land, the United States, spent nearly every last penny buying the useless farmland and moving to Seney. They planted crops that couldn’t grow in the hard forest soil. Then, unprepared for the long cold winter, without knowledge of how to exist under such stark conditions, nearly all died. It was a sad state of events. One by one they either expired or left the area in even greater poverty than when they’d arrived. Not long after, Seney became a kind of ghost town.

Ghost town or not Lorn has found his U.P. dream home. “There is no place in the world I would rather live!” he exclaims, the spirit of his smile as fervent as the flames leaping inside the grate of the old Magnificent Windsor pot bellied stove.

By Coralie Cederna Johnson and reprinted from Peninsula People Magazine.

Comments

  1. Rev. Dr. Terry Seney says:

    As a person with the same name as the town, I’m intrigued by its history. I’ve stayed in Seney, MI, on several occasions. I’d guess more than a few towns were ‘wild and woolly’ at that time in history.

  2. mr k w harcourt says:

    very interesting m dad talked about the place

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