MANY ERAS OF GREAT LAKES HISTORY are fascinatingly layered on this beautiful 3-mile-long island at the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. When waterways were superhighways, the Straits were at the center of trade and transportation. Mackinac Island is part of the creation myths of native people, who long gathered here in spring to trade and celebrate. The island has
♦ an imposing 18th century fort
♦ a charming harbor
♦ a main street dating from the Astor fur trade of the 1830s
♦ a Victorian tourist town with amusing shops
♦ a legendary resort, the Grand Hotel
♦ many inns, hotels, and restaurants
♦ grand summer homes
♦ a grand bicycle path around the entire island
♦ lots of famous historical sites
|The bustling commercial center of Mackinac Island—lots of places to spend money.|
All of this on an island virtually without motor vehicles, where horses and bicycles are used as much for everyday work as for recreation. Eighty percent of the island's over 2,000 acres is part of a special state park which greatly limits and controls development.
No wonder Mackinac Island, despite its pricey lodgings, is Michigan's most popular overnight travel destination. There's nothing else like it in the United States. Autos have been banned ever since 1898, when a doctor's car spooked horses and caused several carriage accidents. The island does have a very few year-round motor vehicles that are kept out of view: ambulances, fire trucks, and maintenance vehicles such as a cherrypicker. And in winter, snowmobiles become important transportation for permanent residents who use them on the island and to zip across the ice bridge marked by bales of hay to St. Ignace.
|The lawn by the state of Father Marquette beneath Fort Mackinac is a favorite place to meet and to relax.) It’s quite a hike up to the fort’s front entrance. The popular carriage tour ends by dropping visitors off at the fort's rear entrance on top of the bluff.|
Children and teens are fascinated by Mackinac's transportation. Almost everything depends on boats, horses, walking, and bikes. Most families visit imposing Fort Mackinac, high atop a limestone bluff, with its cannon that still fires and dramatic thick walls, blockhouses with grand views and palisades, parade ground, and uniformed soldiers. The islands premier lodgings, Grand Hotel and Mission Point Resort, both cater to children. Shops with toys and fudge abound. A reasonably fit child of seven can even manage bicycling 8.2 miles entirely around the island's paved perimeter road, mostly flat to gently rolling.
In 1979 the popular romantic movie Somewhere in Time was filmed on Mackinac Island with Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. It has grown into a cult classic celebrated each year in a special late October weekend at the Grand Hotel, a prominent location in the movie. The Somewhere in Time phenomenon coincided with a nouveau Victorian building boom on the island. Simple, well worn, authentic Victorian hotels were transformed after the movie came out into luxurious pastel fantasies. A few new structures with ever more luxurious rooms and exaggerated Victorian details have also been built.
As a result, romance has become another Mackinac Island niche, from romantic getaway weekends at luxury lodgings to picturebook weddings at island churches such as Ste. Anne's Catholic Church. Built in 1829, it's the oldest remaining church building in Michigan). Other charming churches on the island were built for wealthy summer people. Mackinac State Historic Parks and the Mackinac Island Chamber of Commerce even have wedding coordinators, and the chamber publishes a wedding guide.
History. Mackinac Island history is about the six Fs — faith, fur, forts, fishing, fun, and fudge, in that order, explains an exhibit at Fort Mackinac's Soldiers' Barracks.
|The island is a great place for bicycle rides. Bike rentals are plentiful. The ride around the entire perimeter of the island is flat and easy even for novices. The hilly interior has many interesting views and destinations.|
Faith came first. Before Jesuit missionaries introduced Catholicism to the native peoples involved in the fur trade, the island was a spiritual place for many native peoples (Ojibwa, Odawa, Huron, Iroquois, and earlier people). Each spring they gathered on Mackinac to trade with other tribes and also to bury their especially honored dead. Father Marquette brought Catholicism to the area with his Jesuit mission, established at St. Ignace in 1671. It later moved to the island along with the fort, which became the fur trade's center.
|Desire for soft beaver fur used in hats throughout the 17th and 18th centuries led French-Canadian traders to establish supply networks. Mackinac Island was its center from 1780 into the 1830s, when the fur trade waned. This display is part of “Mackinac, an Island Famous in These Regions,” the centerpiece exhibit at Fort Mackinac.|
Then came fur. Luxuries, not commodities, fueled the first global trading networks. The soft inner fur of beaver pelt was prized for making broad-brimmed hats that came into fashion in the court of France's Louis XIV (1643-1715). French fur traders eagerly met the demand, superimposing their own fur-trading system on preexisting Native American trading networks. The fur trade continued into the 1830s under John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, with Mackinac Island as its center.
Forts were built to protect the fur trade and to make sure the government kept its place in the trade and shared in its profits. There have been two important forts here at the Straits of Mackinac. Michilimackinac (1715-1780) was the French-Canadian stockade fort around the trading village, just west of the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge. The buildings have been meticulously reconstructed as Colonial Michilimackinac.
The British took over the fort after the great British victory at Montreal in 1760 secured their dominance in North America. They moved it in 1780 to Mackinac Island, where high limestone bluffs above the good harbor made for better defense. Some of the buildings on the island's Market Street today may have been moved across the ice when they moved the fort here. Other construction materials came from the sawmill at Mill Creek, another reconstructed visitor sight near Mackinaw City.
Abundant fishing in the Straits area had for many centuries attracted large populations of Indians to the region. Commercial fishing later located at Mackinac Island after the beaver had been over-hunted and the fur trade declined during the 1830s. As long as transportation depended on ships more than railroads, fisheries were best located on islands.
Fun — tourism — began before the Civil War and took off afterwards. The old fort was a visitor attraction. The war economy, which bolstered industry and trade, had made some Midwestern families rich. Prosperous families could tour the Great Lakes by steamer, stay in Mackinac's hotels and tourist homes, and even build summer houses on the island, admiring the unspoiled nature as their own factories smoked and polluted the central cities in which their industries were based. In 1895, when the army completely withdrew from Fort Mackinac, hotel owners and shopkeepers pressured politicians and army officials to preserve the fort and island national park as the first Michigan state park.
Fudge — a result of mass tourism — goes back to around 1900. The island's competitive fudge history is engagingly surveyed in Phil Porter's Fudge: Mackinac's Sweet Souvenir ($10), available at Island Bookstore and Mackinac State Historic Park Visitor Center. There remain multiple fudge shops with windows to allow passers-by a view fudge-makers at work.
"Politics" could be added to the six "F"s in describing what the island is about. The Grand Hotel has long been a gathering spot of the powerful, and its political get-togethers are very important. In recent decades the Mackinac Policy Conference of the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, held in early June, has become the state's biggest networking event and the source of many news stories. The chamber invites every Michigan legislator at the state and federal level — that's every congressman and both U.S. senators, plus each representative in the state house and senate — and puts them up at the Grand Hotel at the chamber's expense. Many come. The governor is always there, along with the mayor of Detroit and many other lobbyists and power-brokers. Access during the event to Michigan movers and shakers in public and private sectors can't be beat. Anyone can come, if they register immediately after February 1 and pay some $1,500, not including meals and lodging. Visit www.detroitchamber.com/
Mackinac Island and its fort have played a special role in Michigan tourism. For over 75 years select Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have been honored with two-week positions as fort guides and other jobs. The island's summer workforce has become quite international, as college costs have led more homegrown college students to find more remunerative summer employment than tourism. In 2004, 54 countries were represented among island workers. Jamaicans are the largest contingent.
The Grand Hotel's Jamaicans are the aristocrats of island wait staff. (Winters they work at leading Caribbean resorts.) Visitors can hear Jamaican reggae Sunday nights at Patrick Sinclair's Irish Pub, mid-days at the French Outpost, and Tuesday nights at the very long Jamaican religious service at Ste. Anne's.
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