2019-02-09 / Columnists

A Look at History

LaChance Fought Civil War, Helped Mackinac Island’s Economy
BY FRANK STRAUS

Benoni LaChance

Sad news was printed in the St. Ignace Enterprise 100 years ago in the newspaper’s issue of January 30, 1919. “The death of Judge Benoni LaChance . . . has caused universal sorrow throughout the entire county, as he was known to nearly every resident of Mackinac and was a welcome visitor wherever he chose to stop.”

The Quebec-born LaChance had seen a lot of history, both here on Mackinac Island and nationwide. Like many other French Canadians, he came to the Upper Great Lakes in the mid-1800s. The farm-able land of the St. Lawrence River Valley had filled up with people, and many young Quebecois (Quebeckers) had to find new lives elsewhere. At age 16, in 1857, and already an apprentice shoemaker, LaChance came to Mackinac Island, made and sold shoes, and studied English in the harbor-front school. Working in and around the Island in the late 1850s, he helped to dig the first Soo Canal. In the spring of 1861, still a teenager, he became one of the first Michigan enlistees on the Union side in the Civil War. His term of enlistment was for three years, and his unit was Company F of the Seventh Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment, one of the first units to join the colors in response to President Lincoln’s call for men.

The men of the 7th Michigan climbed aboard a train at Monroe, in Michigan’s southeast corner, and headed for the nation’s capital. They were folded into the new Army of the Potomac, so called because it was the army’s duty to defend the Potomac River from the “rebels” on the Virginia riverbank. The regiment, and LaChance, saw some of the hardest fighting of the war, including Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg. At Appomattox in April 1865, the regiment, which had been organized with 1,000 men, had suffered 397 combat-related and non-combat related deaths. By 1865, however, Sergeant LaChance was already home. He had signed up for three years’ service, and in 1864 his enlistment expired and he was allowed to go back to Mackinac. Almost immediately, in September of that year the Union veteran married a local girl, Mary Metivier, and set to work making a living and building a family. As a combat veteran, he asked for and got a job as keeper of the nearby lighthouse at Point De- Tour. Soon his oldest son, Eugene LaChance, was born on the Island.

For the sociable LaChance, working alone in a lighthouse was only a stepping-stone. He borrowed books and read law under the sponsorship of a local lawyer, which is something one could do in those days, and was admitted to the Michigan Bar. He opened a title-abstract office in 1879; his neighbors elected him to be the clerk of what was then Mackinac Island’s island government, Holmes Township, and also chose him to be village president. He became a probate judge and a justice of the peace, which is how he got his title, “Judge LaChance.” Legal work and government fees may not have paid enough, however, to support the family’s 11 children. As an expert man of the lakes, LaChance turned to one of the most dangerous trades on Mackinac Island: the harvesting of block ice.

The 1870s were the decade that saw the summit of freshwater fishing in and around Mackinac Island. Huge schools of fish lived in northern Lakes Huron and Michigan in those days, but in the days before electric refrigeration the commodity’s value in cash was ruthlessly limited to the ability of Island shippers to get the fishy flesh south by steamboat, salted in barrels or iced in crates. The Mackinac Island ice house, a thick, wooden-walled structure, needed enough great blocks of frozen water to be able to ship fish throughout the hot summer season.

Gangs of men, with LaChance as their boss and foreman, trudged out into Mackinac Island’s harbor in each set of winter months to attack the frozen sheets with ropes and saws. Loaded onto horse-drawn wagons from the frosty holes from which they had been sawn and dug, the block ice could be carried to the icehouse. As every minute of this labor involved active, slippery labor around a place of very cold water, the risk of the work can be easily imagined. In the 1880s, the economy of Mackinac Island got a major addition: the construction of Grand Hotel, which opened in 1887. The guests of the hotel wanted iced drinks and desserts, and Grand Hotel hired LaChance to recruit an ice team. LaChance was still leading the ice-cutters in 1891, when he was 50 years old.

As time passed, LaChance became a leader of the Island’s community of Civil War veterans enrolled in the Grand Army of the Republic. In the 1910s, Americans throughout what were then the 48 states became aware that the G.A.R. men were passing from the scene. Mackinac Island’s taxpayers supported a major encampment of Civil War veterans on the Island in June 1914. Fort Mackinac was now a quiet state museum, but its walls and buildings were a standing reminder to these old men of the atmosphere of Army life in the times when they had served.

Benoni LaChance, as a lay trustee of the Ste. Anne’s parish church and grandfather of many, had become one of the patriarchs of the Island. He was now related by marriage not only to the Metiviers, whose name is marked by today’s Metivier Inn, but by the Chambers family into which at least three of his children married and joined. Our Island leader of the 20th and 21st centuries, Dr. Bill Chambers, is Benoni LaChance’s great-grandson.

The big blue cottage with stacked porches that is part of the Harbour View Inn, the LaChance Cottage, is another reminder of the LaChance name and family on Mackinac Island.

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