Legendary Contractor an Example of Professionalism

Charles W. CaskeyToday’s blog is by Steve Maxwell.  Steve lives on Manitoulin Island, Ontario and visits Mackinac with his wife and family whenever he can. Visit him online at SteveMaxwell.ca

Some contractors rightfully get a bad reputation because they take longer than promised to complete their projects, and they charge more than they say they will, but it doesn’t have to be this way. And to prove the point, I want you to meet a remarkable contractor from yesteryear named Charles Caskey.  Until the fall of 1886,35 year-old Caskey had only built cottages. But that didn’t stop him from bidding on construction of a 210-room, 625-foot for summer tourists. To make the challenge of this project steeper, the building site was on a small rural islandcalled Mackinac, 7 miles from the shore of a remote part of the northern Great Lakes. Then there was the building schedule. This new hotel had to be open and ready to accept guests by the summer of 1887, less than a year away. It absolutely had to be done because rooms had already been sold.

Caskey closed his cottage-building business for a year, he borrowed huge amounts of money, made timeline promises to wealthy financial barons, and assembled a crew of 600 men to live in a tent village set up in the snows and mud of Mackinac Island on March 1887. Similar monster projects around the northeast had depleted the labour supply to the point where Caskey had to pay double wages to get the workforce he needed. Lumber was sledded to the island across the ice with horses day and night over the winter of 1886/87, until the pile was large enough to see from the mainland. Locals called the project “Caskey’s Folly”.

When construction began in March 1887, three shifts of tradesmen would eventually be pressed into service, working around the clock by lantern and candlelight. But before that even began to happen, labour unrest flared. Troublemakers learned about the tight building schedule, so they demanded triple wages. “If we don’t get them, we don’t work and you go down.” Caskey stood his ground: “Double wages is what we agreed on, and double wages is what you get. And if you don’t like it, you can leave the camp and make your own way back to the mainland. You’re not eating any of my food, you’re not sleeping in any of my tents and you’re not leaving on any of my boats if you quit. The next public boat doesn’t get here for three weeks.” After that bit of head butting, the men got down to what must have been an awesome work pace. The most amazing part of Caskey as contractor is not just that he pulled off the job with a crew living and working under conditions primitive enough that modern labour inspectors would shut the site down today. It’s not even that all the work happened without electricity, power tools, compressed air or an army of sub-trades ready to swoop in with specialized gear. The truly stunning thing is that the place actually did get done at all.

Lawn Games 1890

The first rich and privileged hotel guests stepped off the luxury steam liner that tied up on Mackinac Island, they walked into the lobby of the hotel and checked in on July 10, 1887. Only 93 days earlier the place was nothing more than a mud hole next to a towering pile of white pine lumber. Similar hotels took nearly a year to build at the time. The hotel Caskey built is still in business today, it’s an awesome place and considered one of the top 25 hotels in the world – none of which would have happened if it weren’t for one spunky 35 year old contractor who kept to his schedule, his budget and his word. It’s the way good contractors do things and you can expect the same today from real pros.

24 thoughts on “Legendary Contractor an Example of Professionalism

  1. Awesome!!!! Love the Grand Hotel!!!!

  2. I understood that a bonus was to be paid to Caskey and the workers found out about it. They (workers) found out that the bonus was was tied to a deadline and they wanted part of it. Caskey refused and they came up short of the time and Caskey did not receive the bonus. Rumor, myth or truth?

    • They actually did come up short of making the deadline by three days and Caskey did not receive the bonus.

  3. Great article! July 10 was the birthday of my great grandfather, John Oliver Plank, who was the hotel’s first proprietor and one quarter investor. He opened a similar large resort on the shores of Lake Michigan in St. Joseph, MI in July 6, 1889. Sadly it burned down in nine years. However, thanks to the efforts of the Woodfill/ Musser family owners, Grand Hotel continues to flourish, improve each year, and continue the grand tradition originated by Caskey and Plank.

    • We are definitely grateful for the efforts of Mr. Plank! Thank you for sharing a bit of your history with us John.

  4. My grandfather, Frank Russell Rounds, came from New York in answer to an ad for carpenters to work on the Grand Hotel. He helped build the great porch. He also built the Round Island Lighthouse and hauled the stones for the construction of The Little Stone Church. No electric tools in those days.

    • The men such as your grandfather built this great country and we are so thankful for their efforts in the Mackinac area.

      • I’m a granddaughter to Frank Russell Rounds as well. I’m taking my daughter there for the first time this year to show her where my father spent his childhood.

  5. This is a great story, whether in synopsis, as above,or in detail, as told by the Grand Hotel historian. Mr. Caskey is a man to be reckoned with – and emulated. Thanks for bringing back his story; it bears retelling often! The dormers look great. Have a good season, and stay thankful to God for his favor on the Grand family and your work.

    Bob, a well satisfied guest in 2013

  6. I never knew this magnificent hotel was built in just 93 days. That amazes me, I was very intrigued to read about this amazing contractor. I’m looking forward to again admiring this hotel in person with the new mind set that it was constructed in just 93 days. That puts a whole new spin on things. Thank you again. Steven.

    • The 93 day construction period definitely puts a whole new spin on some of the quirkiness of the hotel Steven. If you ever have the opportunity to listen to one of Bob’s History Lectures please do! Bob shares a bit more of this story in a way that only Bob can tell it.

      • The first time I walked through the doors of the Grand Hotel, I thought to myself, WOW! I was amazed at it’s beauty and the feel of the place. It was like I could feel all of the guests that came before me. To now know it was built in just 93 days is another WOW! I love this hotel and will come to visit every year that I can. Thank you to the builders and all the people who have kept it going all of these years. It is my most favorite place in the world.

        • Thank you Janice. We look forward to seeing you for many seasons to come!

  7. I have stayed at The Grand Hotel many times over the past 40 years and each time it was a special and unique experience. It is an amasing structure and a place I can never get enough of. It is truly somewhere in time.

  8. My grandmother Pauline was very proud of her grandfather. My mother born Joann continued the stories of her great grandfather building the Gand Hotel. I am the great great granddaughter of Charles Caskey and last year as my oldest grandson and I road bikes through the Island I had to pay just to get my grandsons picture with the sign still in front with Charles Caskey name on it. But at least the stories are still making it to this next generation through articles like this. Thank you.

    • Thank you for sharing you’re history with us Valerie! How fascinating!

  9. Charles Caskey was my great-great grandfather.

  10. To Valerie Siver, my grandmother, Helen, was your mother’s sister.

  11. My mother only had one sister that I’m aware of and her name is Pauline but goes by Paula. She also had one brother frank. I think Helen was a Steiner and was my mother’s aunt. ??

  12. Charles Caskey was my great great uncle. I grew up hearing stories about him from my grandmother, Harriet Lavina Caskey, who was born and raised in Harbor Springs. Every time we visit Mackinaw Island I am proud that one of my relatives built the magnificent Grand Hotel! Charles must have been a very special man.

  13. Just visited for the first time for our 50th anniversary. The Grand is certainly grand in every respect. Not only the premises, the support folks are so well trained and attentive to every detail. Truly a magical three days.

  14. I, too, am a proud descendant of Charles Caskey! He was my 3x great-grandfather! My parents honeymooned in the Grand Hotel, and then returned with several of us family members for their 50th anniversary in 2013. We have always felt a special connection to the island, and especially to the hotel. Thank you for such an awesome remembrance of Charles!

  15. I am also a great-great granddaughter to Charles Caskey. My dad’s name was Frank Caskey Meer. His mother was Pauline nee Caskey Meer Hutchinson. Pauline’s sister was Helen Eva nee Caskey Gumbrecht. Pauline and Helen Eva’s mother, Joanna was married to Charles Casky’s son, George in Seattle. WA. George Caskey died at a very young age and Joanne moved back to Detroit, MI with her two daughters. So we lost connection with the Caskey family after that. But, I’m wondering if we have Spencer and or Buttermore relatives that have posted in this blog??

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