Leland Blue Stones
Gabrielle Grobbel – Fishtown Preservation
I spent countless summer days as a child exploring rock beaches around Michigan’s coastline. If it was colorful or had an interesting pattern, I added it to my collection. I loved finding bits of frosted sea glass as well, each one a small treasure. It wasn’t until I came to Leland that I discovered a whole new type of rock to search for and to add to my collection, the Leland Blue Stone!
Curious about their origin and locality, I researched a little deeper into their history and how they fit into Fishtown’s past.
The History of Leland Iron Works
Leland became the Lake Michigan port for an iron smelting furnace in 1870. Chosen for its proximity to the iron port of Escanaba and abundance of hardwood, Leland altered drastically during the construction of the new furnace. It was located on the north side of the Leland River, then known as the Carp River. A sawmill sat in Fishtown’s current location, next to the Leland Dam, with the furnace itself where the Leland Habor building and its parking lot are today. As workers flooded the area, the village of Leland needed to expand in order to accommodate the industry and growing population.
Leland Iron Works was overseen by four different corporations from 1870 to 1885, each ultimately running into financial issues. While there were high hopes for its success, the staggering operational costs in combination with the lack of a suitable harbor in Leland became the source of the Iron Work’s premature downfall.
During operations, the iron smelting furnace burned charcoal to smelt iron ore. The smelting process created a waste product called slag, better known today as Leland Blue Stone.
Mined iron ore consists of iron and oxygen. To remove the oxygen, a chemical reaction must take place. Charcoal is burned producing heat, allowing the carbon within it to combine with the oxygen from the ore to produce carbon dioxide, leaving the desired iron free. Limestone was used as a flux in the smelting process to combine with the impurities within the ore. Along with heat, this would produce liquid slag and it would flow off the iron as a waste product.
This waste product solidified into Leland Blue, the beloved stone characteristic to the Leland area. The slag, deemed worthless back in its day of production, was used as landfill. The excess was unceremoniously dumped into Lake Michigan, gradually returning to the shore over the years on local beaches.
Leland Blue Stone Today
Locals and visitors alike comb the sand in the hopes of finding rocks in a striking shade of blue throughout all seasons of the year. The stones are found in various shapes and sizes, often pockmarked and full of crevices left behind from the cooling process. While blue shades are the most common, they can also be gray, green, and even purple.
When visiting Fishtown, head to Van’s Beach to practice your rock-hunting skills, or stop by one of the jewelry stores in town to find a handcrafted piece of local art. Beautiful pendants, earrings, and rings of blue stone can be found in Tampico Imports on Main St. or in the Bead Hut on the river in Fishtown.
Fragments of history, Leland Blue Stones are a reminder of what the Leelanau landscape used to hold. Lush green expanses and clear waters are a stark contrast to the smoke and ash that used to define this industrial area. All that is left is the lasting blue stone slag, representative of the beauty that arises with time and historical preservation.
Gabrielle Grobbel is the Fishtown Preservation Society Intern for the summer of 2021. She is a marine science student at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina and is happy to be returning to her home state of Michigan and for the opportunity to learn more about the historical and beloved site of Fishtown and the life of the Great Lakes.