Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum: a story about risk taking going wrong

Petar Djajkovski
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Lake Superior is located in North America and is shared between multiple states: Minnesota to the west, Wisconsin and Michigan to the south, and the Canadian province of Ontario to the north. It is by far the largest lake in North America by both surface area and volume.

Its role in human history began 10,000 years ago when people began to settle there after the last ice age. Much later, it served as part of a very important route for transporting various goods, including iron ore. A peculiar large concrete structure lies abandoned just 20 yards from the shoreline. It is nicknamed Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum.

Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum – Author: sawdust_media – CC BY 2.0

There are many theories about the intended purpose of the structure. Some suggest it was used as a prohibition-era off-land gambling house; others say it was a prohibition-era alcohol distillery.

The nickname is the result of another theory that suggests that it is the tomb of Uncle Harvey, one of the Harvey brothers. Together, William A. Whitney and E. Harvey Whitney of Superior owned and led the Whitney Brothers Rock Crushing Business, a sand and gravel processing business.

Although the structure doesn’t house Uncle Harvey’s remains, there is some truth in the name as it actually became a tomb to his business.

Outside of the Duluth Shipping Canal is a concrete structure known as “The Cribs” or “Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum” – Author: Pete Markham – CC BY 2.0

The company was exploiting sand and gravel from the many islands in Lake Superior – mainly Apostle Island – and bringing it back to land. Although this operation proved largely successful, certain obstacles existed.

The biggest was the overwhelming water traffic on the lake, especially between Apostle Island, Madeline Island, Basswood Island, Oak Island, and the shores of Minnesota. The ships carrying gravel and sand often had to wait for a long time for the traffic to clear so they could pass to the shore. The brothers had an idea to combat this problem and took some great risks to carry it out.

“The Cribs,” or Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum, in winter with the Superior Lake around it in ice – Author: Pete Markham – CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1919, they put almost all the capital they had into building the “mausoleum.” The idea was for it to serve as a big container known as a hopper. Their ships wouldn’t have to cross the busy canals; instead, they would only have to get to the hopper and dump their cargo inside.

There was a tunnel that ran from it to Minnesota Point that was equipped with a steam-powered moving belt line to transport the materials straight to the main shore. The idea seemed at first to be a revelation; however, with all their money invested into this new way of doing business, they had no money left.

The Whitney brothers were counting on selling the materials needed for the construction of a new outer-harbor breakwater that the city of Duluth had promised to build. Unfortunately for them, the port was never built and their gamble did not pay off: all was lost.

Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum or The Cribs, Duluth US – Author: Stew Dean – CC BY 2.0

What they also hadn’t anticipated, or perhaps gambled against, were the effects of the elements of nature and the force behind Lake Superior’s huge volume of water. Big waves were constantly banging against the hopper and often pieces were chipped off. Repairs had to be carried out frequently after each storm.

The Whitney Brothers’ operation shut down and the hopper was abandoned in 1922, just three years after it was built.

Uncle Harvey’s Mausoleum – Author: Joe Passe – CC BY 2.0

Lake Superior is a powerful colossus and has caused many troubles for those that traverse its waters. According to shipwreck historian Frederick Stonehouse, the area between Whitefish Point and Grand Marais is known as “The Graveyard of the Great Lakes” as more ships have been wrecked and lost around this area than anywhere else in Lake Superior. These wrecks, along with Uncle Harvey’s mausoleum, are visited regularly today by scuba divers and adventure seekers.