|A guide gives free 25-minute tours of Fayette, an industrial ghost town where blast furnaces produced high quality pig-iron during the Civil War.|
This picturesque industrial company town of the 1870s has been preserved as part of the Michigan State Park system and interpreted by History, Arts and Letters. At its heart are the great limestone furnaces and beehive kilns of a high-grade charcoal pig-iron operation started in 1867. The town curves from pretty Snail Shell Harbor (where the furnaces are) out onto on a bit of land jutting out into the bay. From the main road and visitor center, visitors take an asphalt path down to the historic townsite. (Watch out for luxuriant poison ivy by the walkway and elsewhere.) Most of the remaining frame buildings have been left silvery and weathered. Limestone bluffs by the harbor were quarried for building material and for flux used to remove impurities in the iron smelting process.
Fayette is a peaceful place today, all green with leaves and grass. It's a far cry from its productive years in the 1870s and 1880s, when soot and smoke, noise, mud, horrible smells, and stockpiles of materials made one visitor compare Fayette unfavorably to Cleveland's worst slums. Imagine those quaint cabins surrounded by soot-covered children breathing air so dirty wives couldn't hang wash out to dry. (Managers' homes were thoughtfully located away from the soot and smoke.)
The town boomed after demand for high-quality iron escalated during and after the Civil War. It's named after Fayette Brown, general manager of the Jackson Iron Company, the pioneer of Upper Peninsula iron mining, based in Cleveland, Ohio. Brown studied how to reduce the tremendous cost of shipping bulk iron ore to foundries on the lower lakes. He chose this place for a new blast furnace because the site had limestone to purify high-quality pig iron, and abundant hardwood forests to fuel the furnaces. Iron ore was shipped by rail from the Marquette Range to Escanaba. From there steamships took it 25 miles to Fayette's iron furnaces.
Fayette set production records during its heyday. But by the mid-1880s, nearby forests were depleted. Improved methods of producing coke, iron, and steel were making charcoal iron too expensive to produce. The smelting operation here closed down in 1891. The hotel continued on as a resort for many decades. Fayette wasn't really a ghost town, strictly speaking, until it became part of the park. It survived for decades as a fishing village and summer place.
You have to plan a visit for Fayette to be a real highlight. There can be lot of walking here, so plan what to see if your energy is limited. The scenery won't automatically carry the day, though it is a beautiful view across the harbor to the exposed limestone bluffs, especially at dusk. More information is online at www.michgan.gov/fayettetownsite (about history) and www.michigan.gov/fayette (about the park).
- Stop at the visitor center. A big three-dimensional model and five-minute audio orient you to the village down the hill with a five-minute audio orientation.
- Get a free townsite map and consider buying the 48-page book Fayette Historic Townsite at the visitors' center's museum store. In its revised and improved version, it's now a pricey $10. The beautifully laid-out book contains an illustrated walking tour of the village, essays on iron-making and archaeology at Fayette, plus a piece about children growing up at this remote company town. You could sit and read, and plan your visit. There can be a lot of walking, so it's nice to take a break.
- Wander around and look inside the buildings. Sophisticated, honest interpretive displays in the village are based on careful historical and archaeological research. The hotel, the town hall with its interesting music hall and shops, the superintendent's house, and one supervisor's home are furnished with satisfying period accuracy and detail, down to the suitcases of traveling salesmen. You really can have that window-in-time feeling if conditions are right and you have learned enough from the exhibits to flesh out your imagination.
- Newer additions are a reconstructed laborer's cabin that replicates a typical lower-income Fayette home, down to the foodin the root cellar. (Workers depended on home gardens for food.) A restored middle-class house shows construction details uncovered during the five-year restoration, done in partnership with Eastern Michigan University's Graduate Program in Historic Preservation. Restoration techniques are shown, too.
- Some other buildings, like the office, have many interesting and detailed exhibit panels. Read them to learn about subjects as diverse as the butcher business, medicine before the acceptance of antiseptics, ladies' entertainments, traveling shows, passenger steamers and excursion boats, and labor history. (When orders for iron were slow, workers didn't get paid – sometimes for weeks on end!) A display about Fayette's children and what they did is in a building across from the town hall.
- After 11 a.m. the village will likely be filling up with tourists. You can take a worthwhile 25-minute free guided tour of Fayette's main street. The competent, college-age guides may well be descended from Fayette's laborers and commercial fishermen. That personal dimension makes history more vivid. These tours depend on park staffing and funding. They're offered in July and August, through Labor Day if possible.
- The interesting archaeological investigations of the area reveal much about workers' lives and daily activities that hasn't been recorded in surviving letters and diaries.
- Scenic walks are another attractive aspect of Fayette. The cedar forest by the superintendent's house feels like the forest primeval, a dark canopy offering occasional peeks at the lake. In fog the effect is eerie. Sounds of the unseen bell buoy are made louder by the fog. Big old apple trees behind some houses bear edible fruit by mid-August. You can walk inside the massive stone furnace walls by the harbor. Don't miss the hiking trail along the limestone bluffs east of the harbor. It's 1/4 mile each way. Four spots on the bluff offer beautiful views of the village, looking west clear across Big Bay de Noc to the Stonington Peninsula. (The state park has five miles of hiking trails in all.)
- Come early or late in the day, when the slanted light is dramatic and there aren't many people. Sometimes a morning mist rising off the harbor gives a soft, romantic, ghostly look to the place. Sunsets are spectacular, seen from any place along Big Bay de Noc, in the village or the beach. Points along the bluffs (reached by a trail) also have sunset views over distant water. Seen from the village itself, the limestone bluffs glow with reflected light near twilight.
- Snail Shell Harbor offers a transient marina (there's no pump-out station but it is a scenic setting for overnights), a boat ramp, and fishing for perch and smallmouth bass. It's a beautiful place at twilight.
Heritage Day, held on the second Saturday of August, reenacts a Sunday afternoon here in the 1870s or 1880s, with costumes. Events could be a baseball game, bands concert, a traveling medicine show, and more.
Though the buildings are closed in mid-October, visitors are welcome to look around the village on foot, or on skis or snowshoes.
Fayette Historic State Park is on M-183 17 miles south from Garden Corners and U.S. 2. (906) 644-2603. A Michigan State Park sticker is required: $6/day for Michigan residents, $8/day for others. A yearly sticker is $24 for state residents, $29 for others. Hours for the visitor center and townsite: mid-May through mid-June: 9-5. Mid-June through Labor Day 9 to dusk. Labor Day through mid-Oct: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wheelchair and handicap access: 5 buildings have been ramped for accessibility. All roads have been re-graveled for a smoother surface.
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POINTS OF INTEREST
Fayette Townsite. The museum-like "ghost town" is the remains of a company town around a charcoal pig-iron smelter serving Union arms manufacturers during the Civil War. The town curves around pretty Snail Shell Harbor on Lake Michigan ... more
Portage Bay Beach and Ninga Aki Pathway/Lake Superior State Forest. Low sand dunes, mature pines, spring wildflowers, and a secluded, sandy beach make these two short loops wonderful walks. Signs tell about 15 important plants in traditional Ojibwa life. ... more
Marygrove Retreat Center and bookstore. Since its beginnings the Catholic Church has had a robust tradition of spiritual retreats – stepping away from the busyness of life. This one is open to anyone interested in taking time away from the bustle of modern life ... more