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Mackinac Island, Michigan

Story by Janet Webb Farnsworth   October 1, 2009


Here’s your trivia question for the day: If Yellowstone, established in 1872, was the nation’s first national park, which one was America’s second national park? Hint: It’s not Yosemite and it’s not in the West. Answer: Mackinac Island, Michigan wins the honor.

  FortMackinac   Fort Mackinac cannon firing  
Fort Mackinac (courtesy photo)
Fort Mackinac cannon firing (courtesy photo)

With a flourish of his pen, President Ulysses S. Grant turned Mackinac Island (pronounced Mack-in-aw) into a national park in 1875. Located in the Straits of Mackinac that connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the scenic and historic region was a popular summer retreat in danger of being destroyed. National Park status and Army administration protected the area until 1895 when it became Michigan’s first state park.

Michigan Senator Thomas W. Ferry, worried that Mackinac’s historic treasures would come into private hands, campaigned vigorously for national park status, but it took him two years to convince Congress.  Senator Morgan C. Hamilton of Texas couldn’t catch the vision of preserving lands. He said Mackinac “would be but a sinkhole to waste money in.” Fortunately, the island lacked both timber and minerals and wasn’t a good location for either agricultural or industrial development so there was little opposition to the park. Plus, the government already owned most of land and the troops stationed at Fort Mackinac could conveniently manage the park. When money didn’t appear to be a problem, the bill was passed and Mackinac Island National Park came into existence.

Mackinac Island shoreline
  Mackinac Island biking  
  Mackinac Island shorline (courtesy photo)  
Mackinac Island bicyclists (courtesy photo)

Even though Mackinac is no longer a national park, this unique island deserves a visit. Arriving by ferry, I feel like I’ve stepped back into the 1880s. There are no automobiles on the island because in 1898 the residents decided the new-fangled contraptions were noisy, smelly and scared the horses so they banned them. This could possibly be one of the best things that ever happened to the island. The result is a village of narrow streets among quaint homes, exhaust -free air and no noisy traffic. 

The lack of automobiles doesn’t seem to bother anyone. A horse-drawn carriage picks me up at the ferry landing and transports me to the Grand Hotel. The gentle clip-clop of the horses on the rock-paved streets sets the mood for what is to come.

Mackinac Island horseless carriage
Mackinac Island horseless carriage
Mackinac Island public transportation (courtesy photo)
Mackinac Island horse & carriage (courtesy photo)

The Grand Hotel is simply that – Grand. The large, elegant, white hotel was built in 1887 on a bluff overlooking Lake Huron. The area, touted as a health resort perfect for hay fever sufferers, drew wealthy visitors who stayed all summer  enjoying the cool breezes. The 600-foot long front porch is the longest front porch in the world. In the 19th century, the hotel was hailed as the “Gem of the Great Lakes” and visitors dressed for tea then promenaded on the porch. I find the white rocking chairs and the 26 flower boxes overflowing with red geraniums more to my liking than a promenade. The hotel offers a Modified American Plan that includes a full breakfast and five-course dinner. Guests “dress” for dinner. There are other hotels in town that are less formal, but the Grand Hotel is listed as one of the best family resorts in the U.S.  

Mackinac Island Grand Hotel
  Mackinac Island Grand Hotel porch  
Grand Hotel (courtesy photo)
Grand Hotel (courtesy photo)

I can tell right off that flowers are an important part of Mackinac Island. They are everywhere. The Grand Hotel alone plants 125,000 bedding plants including 2,500 red geraniums, its trademark flower. One ton of bulbs are planted so more than 25,000 tulips and 15,000 daffodils bloom every spring. The rest of the island is just as colorful. The ten day Lilac Festival is held every June when the hundreds of lilac bushes burst into bloom (June 4-13, 2010.) One of the largest “All Horse Hitch” parades is the highlight of the festival.

Before I make my itinerary, I decide to take the carriage tour of the island to see just what is available. Joining a group in a horse-drawn carriage, I listen to a narrated history of the island and learn that over 80% of the island is within Mackinac Island State Park. There are more than 70 miles of roads, trails and footpaths so hiking and biking will be on my agenda. I notice several shops that rent bicycles and one that rents electric carts for the disabled.

The geology here is also interesting. In ancient times, Lake Algonquin covered all but the center of the island. Left behind by the receding ocean are limestone formations like Arch Rock and Sugar Loaf along with Devil’s Kitchen, a large sea cave formation.

The Great Lakes American Indians considered the hump-shaped island to be a sacred place. According to their legends, Mackinac Island was the first piece of land to appear after the Great Flood. The shape reminded them of a turtle’s back and they named the island, Michilimackinac meaning “Land of the Great Turtle.” Explorers, fur traders, fisherman, and soldiers struggled with the tongue-twisting name until by the 1820s it was shortened to Mackinac.

It’s close to dinner time when I return to the Grand Hotel. I’m going to “dress” for dinner tonight and enjoy a sumptuous meal. Then tomorrow I’ll explore Fort Mackinac and the village. 

The next morning I catch a horse-drawn taxi to the fort. I love history and this fort contains plenty of it. Fort Mackinac sits high on bluff 150 feet above the Straits of Mackinac offering a commanding presence. With white painted rock foundations topped by gray, weathered pointed logs, it looks much as it did in the 1880s. The fort was originally built by the English in 1780 during the American Revolution. By 1796, it was safely in American hands only to be re-claimed by the British in the first land engagement of the War of 1812. After the British defeat, Fort Mackinac again became American property. The buildings are original to the fort and the Officer’s Stone Quarters is part of the old fort built nearly 230 years ago.

Kids love the fort with its hands-on history. They can listen to soldiers and ladies in period costumes telling stories, or dance to a 19th century tune or even come to attention when the bugle sounds. With a stiff wind blowing in from the lake, kids and adults gather around for the firing of the cannon. Even though I knew the sound was coming, I still jumped at the loud noise.  

Fort Mackinac drummer & child
Fort Mackinac Tea Room
Fort Mackinac drummers (courtesy photo)
Fort Mackinac Tea Room (courtesy photo)

When Mackinac Island became a national park, the Army Commanding Officer took over as Park Superintendent and soldiers maintained the park. In 1895, Mackinac Island National Park became Michigan’s first state park and the Army’s long tenure on Mackinac Island ended. 

After several hours of exploring the fort, I can’t resist temptation any longer and catch another horse-drawn ride down to the village. I spotted the fudge shops on yesterday’s carriage tour. The smell of chocolate haunted me all night and now I’m going to give in to my cravings. Fudge shops became a Mackinac Island attraction when the first one was built in the late 1880s. Visitors fell in love with the sweet candy so much that locals dubbed tourists “fudgies.” I follow tradition and buy two boxes of fudge – one to eat now and one to take home.

You need to do some advance planning to visit this lovely island. Most visitors come to Mackinac during the summer. Ferries from Mackinaw City or St. Ignace make scheduled runs from May through October. Only 500 people stay on the island all winter, but you still can visit for great cross-country skiing. Arnold Line Ferry offers a limited boat schedule through January 2nd and then the ferries stop for the winter. You can get to the island by Great Lakes Air that flies a 6-seater plane year around. 

Winter in Mackinac sounds fantastic, but cold. Usually the water between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace freezes in February. When this happens, some lucky – or unlucky – persons venture out on the ice to test its thickness. If they arrive in St. Ignace safely, they call back and the residents mark a road. All the old Christmas trees are piled at British Landing and the villagers “plant” these on the ice along the safe route outlining an “ice bridge.” Snowmobiles come and go as long as the ice bridge lasts. This can be from four days to up to two months. The ferries usually start up limited service in mid-April; a sure sign that spring is on the way.

In 1847 Horace Greeley said, “A stroll at Mackinac is worth a day in any man’s life.” I agree with old Greeley except I think Mackinac deserves several days. After all, a place that was named America’s second national park, rates a first class visit.   

For information:  1-888-784-7328  1-906-847-3783


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