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'On The Map' looks at a creative genius, and his locomotive design

When traveling to Harbor Springs you might see a unique hexagon shaped house with a red roof. Whether or not you know it, the designer, and owner of that house left a legacy not only on Harbor Springs but on the world with a revolutionary invention.

The Hexagon house was built in 1892 by Civil War veteran, lumberjack, and railroad tycoon Ephraim Shay.

When the director of the Harbor Springs Historical Society, Mary Cummings, took me in I knew I was entering someplace special. Made by someone with a special mind.

When you walk into the house you know right away, Shay loved metal. The whole house is coated in stamped steel plates.

“So the stamped steel continues inside it's just got a different pattern. It's just more floral for the interior. The exterior as I mentioned has the brick pattern. If one had a magnet everything’s magnetic”.

Cummings said besides the fact Shay liked metal, the house says very little about his life.

“We have no interior pictures of the building. We don't know how they lived in it. We don't know where the kitchen was. We don't know exactly how the rooms were laid out or what kinds of furnishings they had. We learned from the national historic places application was that he had a billiard room and a den in the basement so we think that Ephraim had the original man cave. We’re not sure, but...”

Shay lived much of his life in the Cadillac area, but he retired to Harbor Springs to live out the later years of his life.  

“Although he didn't act very retired. He was busy. He was very busy”.

Cummings said Shay designed and built a water system for Harbor Springs which he then sold to them. He also designed and built a steel yacht called the A-Ha. The historic society calls it their rusty relic.

“We suppose that it was called the A-Ha because it actually floated. You know a yacht of steel is probably not your typical design. Particularly in Lake Michigan”.  

“Primarily he designed it for logging. He was a logger among other things. A very creative person”.

Ron Kurtz is an expert on railroad history. He said in his retirement Shay built a railroad near Harbor Springs to do a little bit of hobby logging to stay busy.

“And on the weekends he would take passengers on picnic rides up towards Stutsmanville. They would pack a lunch and head up there. Men and woman dressed in their best Sunday clothes boarding the open coaches to go for a picnic up near stutsmanville”.  

To really learn about Shay though, you have to go back to 1877 to Haring, a former logging town north of Cadillac, where Shay operated a logging company.  

“Shay invented a way to move heavy material in less than ideal conditions”.

Kurtz said Shay made his fortune when he invented a gear drive locomotive that could pull more weight and go through more rugged conditions than any engine before its time.

“In the technology of the day it was the best way to pull logs out of the woods rather than having to skid them over the dirt or pull them by horses in a sled”.

Tom Toth, another historian, said he believes the 20th century was fueled by Shay’s locomotive.

“Shays made everything accessible. Where you can go into the woods you can go up the mountain. It made grades easier too. You couldn't do it with some of the horses and that. You didn't have to feed them”.

Shay sold his patent to the Lima Locomotive company which manufactured over twenty-six hundred shay locomotives and sold them around the globe.

Shay locomotives continued to be made well into the 1960’s. Today there are still some in operation as tourist trains mainly in West Virginia.

After Shay’s death in 1916 Cummings said the Hexagon House has been used for a number of things.

“The past thirty years it's been privately owned and the owner took wonderful care of it and then donated it to us, which was a huge gift. There was a major restoration of the building that was completed in 1990 and so it's in relatively good shape”.

Cummings said it's unknown what happened to Shay’s fortune.

Even though Ephraim Shay didn't leave much of a family legacy, his legacy on Harbor Springs and the world remains apparent today.


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