With the 2014 Winter Olympics having come to a close, the entire world stands amazed at the athleticism and ingenuity of modern sports. One of the most popular of winter sports—speed skating—has a direct tie to a rather unsuspecting Detroiter with an amusing and intriguing history.
John Miner was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1831; his family moved to Detroit soon after in 1834. Young John became a carpenter’s apprentice and by the age of fourteen he went to work on Great Lakes cargo ships. At age 20 he combined these two skills and began building his own boats—his first being the sloop Sweeper. Miner would continue to design, build, own, and command more than a dozen vessels throughout his life, including a bark that would bear his name.
Miner’s reputation as a true gentleman has been well noted throughout the historic record. A man of fair business dealings in every sense, he was known for his infrequent use of alcohol, tobacco, and other social vices. In the more than 50 years of sailing on the Great Lakes, Miner had never lost a crew member due to an accident.
While building and sailing ships was a lucrative occupation for Miner, his true passion in life rested in the winter recreational sport of ice skating. Miner was known to spend as much time as possible on the ice as soon as the winter cold froze area ponds and lakes. He was apparently quite a marvel at speed, acrobatics, and agility. Miner submitted a patent in 1897 for an innovative skate runner designed to greatly increase speed. Having won numerous prizes and medals, his biggest self-accomplishment was a solo performance before England’s Queen Victoria. One of Miner’s more fanciful and entertaining feats was the use of his “stilt-skates” which elevated him an astonishing two feet off the ice while performing unbelievable maneuvers.
John Miner’s entrepreneurial spirit, hard work ethic, gentlemanly persona, and innovative mindset make him one of the lesser known, yet highly regarded, Detroiters represented in the collections of the Detroit Historical Society.