The hot August sun hovered directly overhead as twenty-year-old Ernest Miller Hemingway stepped carefully down from the train at Seney, Michigan. It was 1919. He walked slowly, favoring his right leg, towards the small wooden depot on the south side of the tracks. While his leg hurt each time he put weight on it, he was proud of his wounds and he could handle it. After all, he was one of the first Americans wounded in Italy during the Great War and he enjoyed talking about the Austrian mortar shell that had put him in a Milan, Italy, hospital for several months. Still, the pride would come more easily if he was wearing his fancy Italian officer’s uniform. He cringed as he recalled the brakeman’s cruel remark: “Hold her up,” the man yelled to the engineer. “There’s a cripple and he needs time to get his stuff down.”
The trip from the Hemingway summer home on Walloon Lake had been long but enjoyable. From the moment they stepped aboard the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad (GR & I) train in Petoskey early that day, Hemingway and his two friends—Jack Pentecost, his high school classmate from Illinois, and Al Walker—had looked forward to visiting Seney.
This excursion was to be the last great fishing trip of the summer. The short trip to Mackinaw City had been enjoyable enough, but the boys watched with greater interest when they reached the straits. Their train car was loaded onto the Chief Wawatam for the hour-long ferry ride across the straits. The engine remained behind as the ferry took the train cars across the five miles to St. Ignace, where they hooked up to a Duluth, South Shore and Atlantic (DSS & A) engine for the remainder of the trip to Seney.
The train stopped often that late August morning as it steamed through the swamp and cutover country of the eastern Upper Peninsula. They passed a number of locations, some with accompanying towns, some merely loading docks. But the names were interesting. Allenville, Moran, Ozark, Trout Lake and Hendrik. At Soo Junction, the tracks split for those travelers going northeast to the Soo and Canada. The boys’ train turned west, and they soon passed through Newberry, Dollarville and McMillan before reaching Seney.
This trip was nothing more than a fishing excursion for three young men, but the visit would also make Seney famous once again—from this experience Ernest Hemingway wrote one of his most well-known short stories, “Big Two-Hearted River.” While the exploits of this tiny village disappeared into dusty history books, Hemingway’s story continued in countless editions of the author’s short stories, attracting visitors to the little town to ask about the famous author.
Seney first gained fame in the 1880s, when it was called as “tough, [and] two-fisted a town as any on earth.” A major part of the population were poor lumberjacks, paid only $1.75 a day. When they had money in their pockets, they were anxious to spend it on anything to blot out their exhausting, dangerous and frustratingly celibate life in bleak camps and lonely pine woods. They found what they wanted in Seney. One chronicler was probably correct when he wrote that no one could truthfully “see how any place in the pineries could have come closer to hell than Seney.”
In 1882, the Alger Smith company began logging the virgin pines that flourished in the sandy soil of the eastern Upper Peninsula. The lumber industry—like any other industry—depended on transportation for moving products and personnel, and Seney secured its place in history through the railroad. No major highways existed into the area, not even when Hemingway visited. The town’s name thus seems appropriate: it came from one of the major investors in the railroad, George Ingraham Seney, a New York banker who invested his own money and that of his bank in this venture. Seney’s investment went sour. Although the railroad survived—after being bought out by the DSS & A—the bank was forced to close because of the…