McCommons Named Peter White Scholar
NMU’s 2011 Peter White Scholar, James McCommons (English), is using the $17,500 award to research and write a historical biography of George Shiras III (1859-1942). The book will combine elements of nature writing with a narrative of Shiras’ accomplishments as one of the pioneers of wildlife photography, father of the Migratory Bird Act and influential figure of the early 20th century conservation movement.
“After moving to Marquette several years ago and seeing the pool, planetarium and other things named for him, I was curious to learn more about Shiras,” said McCommons. “Then I realized I had previously seen his book Hunting Wildlife with Camera and Flashlight years earlier while vacationing in the area. His photos were among the first to appear in National Geographic and brought him to the attention of Teddy Roosevelt, who was also an outdoor sportsman and championed the U.S. Forest Service. The two became friends.”
Shiras was one of the first to use flash photography, which in the late 1800s involved magnesium flash powder and alcohol lamps. He also invented the “trip wire” technique, where he ran a shutter string across a trail so animals coming in contact with it would fire the flash, essentially snapping their own photos.
Shiras hailed from Pennsylvania, but adopted Marquette as his hometown. He had hunted and fished with his father at Peter White’s camp on Whitefish Lake and later married White’s daughter, Frances. The family summered in Marquette, maintaining a home on Ridge Street, but was based in Pittsburgh, where Shiras practiced law and became a rising political star. As a member of the U.S. House of Representatives and Public Lands Committee, he introduced the Migratory Bird Act.
“He worked out the legal framework for the act, which instituted federal jurisdiction over birds that move between state lines,” said McCommons. “He got the idea from the feds’ jurisdiction over waterways. When pollution was being dumped in Pittsburgh, people living along the Ohio River started coming down with typhoid. It was ruled that you can’t pollute a river in one state that flows into another. Roosevelt put his weight behind the bill and it took several years to pass, but it’s as important as the Endangered Species Act. For Shiras, that legislation might be a greater legacy than his photography.”
Despite his avid interest in wildlife, Shiras had no biological training. McCommons describes him as more of a “keen observational naturalist” who spent a lot of time in the woods becoming familiar with the habits of animals. During several expeditions to Yellowstone Park, Shiras found and photographed dozens of moose, which were rare in the Rocky Mountains at that time. The moose were later found to be a distinct subspecies and named after him. Shiras also used his legal expertise to help form some of Michigan’s first hunting laws. In 1912, he hosted Roosevelt when the former president came to Marquette to sue an Ishpeming newspaper publisher for libel.
McCommons has done research in Washington, D.C., at the National Geographic Archives, to which Shiras willed all of his images. He also discovered the University of Pittsburgh had three boxes of Shiras’ personal papers in a suburban warehouse. The papers included an unfinished autobiography and letters from Roosevelt and his widow, Edith. They were not even catalogued and have since been donated to the NMU Archives. McCommons plans future research trips to Yellowstone, Shiras’ former winter home in Florida and to his favorite spots in the Lake Superior region.
“I teach nature writing and always incorporate Shiras into that class,” he said. “I take students to an area of Whitefish Lake managed by the Nature Conservancy. They built the George Shiras Discovery Trail and we take a guided hike down that. This project is a good fit for me and there is plenty of material to write a book. Shiras generates a lot of local interest, but he was also a figure of national significance on many levels.”