Region: Pictured Rocks/Munising/Au Train
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Ringed by dramatic steep and forested hills, Munising (population 2,355), the county seat of Alger County, looks out on Grand Island across Munising Bay, sometimes sparkling blue, sometimes shrouded in mist. Munising has one of the most beautiful settings of any Michigan town, though motorists may not readily see its beauty. From the east, travelers approach on M-28 along a strip of commercial sprawl. Then as Lake Superior comes into view and they turn left and pass through town, just a block from Munising Bay on their right, much of the striking bay view is blocked.
Look back to see the steep forests that ring the town. Across the bay looms huge, forested Grand Island. Just out of sight along the shoreline to the east is one of Michigan's most famous sights, the Pictured Rocks,its 200 foot sandstone bluffs sculpted by waves, stained various colors by mineral seepage.
The city's picnic tables and benches here at Bayshore Park, up from the marina, are a good place to take a break and enjoy the fine view of the harbor, Grand Island, and the misty interplay of light, clouds, and water.
Grand Island helps protect Munising's harbor from Lake Superior storms. For thousands of years a hunting and fishing site of local Indians, the 13,000-acre island is now a federally protected national recreational area, well suited to lounging on its beaches, hiking, mountain biking and kayaking.
For another fine view of the island, there's a Grand Island scenic lookout on a mainland hilltop off M-28 just west of Munising.
Groups of Ojibwe long made use of sheltered Munising Bay as a summer camping ground. The 1940 Writers' Project Michigan: A Guide to the Wolverine State recounts, "The splendor of [the Pictured Rocks] cliffs and the thunder of the waves in the caverns filled the Indians with awe; the Chippewa, who controlled most of the Upper Peninsula and camped here each summer, believed that the gods of thunder and lightning lurked in the resounding caverns. They believed Paupukkeewis [mischievious spirits] lived among the crags in the form of eagles; and that many of the cliffs housed evil spirits that had to be propitiated at stated intervals. Hiawatha, their hero, hunted in these woods, stalked game along these cliffs, and waded past the palisades, indenting them frequently with his fist in its magic mitten."
In a small, stable town like Munising, Ojibwe history is alive and told by descendants, who may be bankers and lawyers, paper mill workers and casino employees. Before Munising was settled on the mainland, Grand Island became a fur-trading outpost, steamship fueling station, and destination for adventurous tourists. Abraham Williams and family, the area's first white settlers, ran a hotel on Grand Island, also supplying cordwood to steamships. An iron blast furnace attracted permanent settlers to Munising in the 1870s. Then came sawmills, a tannery, a paper mill, and in 1911 the Munising Woodenware Company, whose wide array of household products are displayed in the local museum. Its wooden bowls are still for sale locally.
The scenic sandstone cliffs of Pictured Rocks and Grand Island contributed to the large number of shipwrecks here. Winds off the cliffs sometimes caused ships to sink or run aground, often as they sought refuge in Munising's safe harbor. The waters off Munising are now the ALGER UNDERWATER PRESERVE, with eight major wrecks within its 113 square miles. Unusually clear waters and eroded underwater "caves" are other diving attractions. Dives are easily arranged through Captain Pete Lindquist's Munising-based Grand Island Charters (906-387-4477). His shipwreck cruise lets sightseers peer down through glass windows at three wrecks.
Like most Upper Peninsula towns without universities, Munising has been steadily losing population. From over 4,400 in 1940 to 3,000 in 1980, 2,783 in 1990, and 2,355 in 2010. (Alger County, however, has grown some in the past 20 years.) Munising took a step to refocus itself on its natural beauty with Bayfront Park, a point of civic pride. Downtown has been spiffed up. "Welcome" signs, directional signs, and coordinated street signs are in place.
A big boost to the local economy occurred in 1990 when the Alger Correctional Facility was built south of town. Civic leaders had courted it. It's one of the state's higher security prisons (IV), with gun towers, rzor wire, and double fences. Alger has about 270 employees and 900 prisoners.
Other major employers are:
■ The Kewadin Casino in Christmas, part of the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians' gambling empire.
■ Munising's large Neenah paper mill, begun in 1903, now with around 250 workers (down from 460 not too long ago). The plant uses softwood to make some hundreds of specialty papers. In the past these included the brown patch on the back of Levi's jeans, the little label on Chiquita bananas, the labels on Elmer's glue bottles, the base paper for sandpaper, and heat transfer paper for T shirts.
■ A big sawmill now owned by Oregon's Timber Products Company operates on M-28 six miles east of Munising. Around 25 workers saw 45,000 board feet of maple a day. The best lumber is used by furniture- and cabinetmakers. Kitchen cabinetmakers are important customers. Lower grades are sold to pallet-makers and now, increasingly, for railroad ties. Next to the sawmill, Timber Products' planer mill had, around 2010, some two dozen workers, and its veneer mill nearly 100 workers. They use precision machines to peel off strips 1/36 of an inch thick from top-grade maple, beech, and birch. Veneer is used in furniture, plywood doors, kitchen cabinets, musical instruments, baskets, and much more. The resource department and procurement foresters make the connections between customers' requirements and the trees in the field.
Return to Pictured Rocks/Munising/Au Train
BEST MUNISING PLACES TO:
Eat Sleep Camp