Hunts' Guide to The Upper Peninsula



Region: Manistique and the Garden Peninsula

Nahma tower
The lumber company’s incinerator, a landmark to boaters, towers behind the boat launch.

The Sturgeon River between Rapid River and Manistique has created the short, marshy Nahma Peninsula—a delta, really—where it empties into Lake Michigan. (It's one of four Sturgeon Rivers in Michigan. Pronounced "NAY-muh," Nahma is an English corruption of the Ojibwe word for "sturgeon.")

Nahma is between the longer Stonington and Garden peninsulas with their higher elevations. It became an important pine and hardwood lumber center from 1881 until 1951, when the last lumber camp closed. Today the basis for a relaxed getaway continues to be formed Nahma's history: an old hotel with lively restaurant and bar, a resort in the lumber mill, two golf courses, and riverside natural areas (excellent for birding) on 100,000 acres of natural area sold by the Bay de Noc Lumber Company to the Hiawatha National Forest. Greater Nahma, population about 500, consists of St. Jacques (pronounced "Saint Jakes," strategically located on the railroad and highway) and Isabella, a significant farming town. The, with its outstanding photographs and history section "What Do You Know about That?," is an excellent source of information about local recreation. A dive trail to local shipwrecks is one new project.

Nahma train
The steam engine used by Bay de Noc Lumber Company can now be seen in a park in town.

The Sturgeon River is easily accessible, because County Road 497 runs generally alongside it, south from U.S. 2 at Nahma Junction. The Sturgeon is a beautiful, often productive, overlooked trout stream. Fish habitat improvements are making fishing even better in the future. The Sturgeon has been designated a Wild-Scenic River. The tucked-away Flowing Well picnic area and campground north of U.S. 2 is a pretty place for enjoying the river.

Upstream on the Sturgeon River there's good fishing where there's no sterility-inducing sand, said Tom Huggler in his Fish Michigan: 50 More Rivers. Wildlife abounds in the area, not only waterfowl and fish but mammals.
The National Forest does not maintain the Sturgeon River as a canoe trail, but it can generally be canoed up to U.S. 2, thanks to local people who keep it clear. North of U.S. 2 is a different matter. Canoes to carry on your car top, to go on the Sturgeon south of U.S. 2, can be rented at the Upper Peninsula Golf & Lake Resort, formerly the No-Nah-Ma Resort (906-644-2728). It's on the old mill site at the west end of the boulevard in the village of Nahma. It also rents bicycles, jet skis, and paddleboats. And it has a sandy beach. In 2010 the resort opened its extremely challenging 9-hole Eagle's Nest golf course. The DNR boat launch behind the Nahma Inn gives access to Big Bay de Noc, with its excellent fishing.

In 1848 the young man who cruised the timber and lined up a first option to buy (for $1.25/acre!) in the land office in Sault Ste. Marie was none other than a talented teenage logger from New Brunswick, Canada, the orphaned Isaac Stephenson. Based in Marinette, he became one of the Great Lakes' wealthiest lumberman and a U.S. senator from Wisconsin.

Much later, in 1881, the Bay de Noquet Lumber Company (later "Bay de Noc Lumber Company") bought the 200,000, extending almost to Lake Superior, and set up logging and sawmill operations. Pronunciations are Bay de Noquet ("no-KAY') and Bay de Noc ("nock'). Its principal owner, based in Oconto, Wisconsin, was Vermonter George Farnsworth. Having logged much of the pine around Oconto, he sought uncut Upper Peninsula acreage.

The Bay de Noc Lumber Company proved willing to invest in the area. It relocated and rebuilt the town in 1899 after fire destroyed it. Pine was the most profitable timber, easy to trim and float.

When the pine was gone and many lumber camps closed, Nahma residents worried that the town would die. But the Bay de Noc Lumber Company invested in the Nahma & Northern Railroad—65 miles of track, several locomotives, a hundred log cars, and more. The railroad could transport hardwood logs—much heavier than pine—out of the woods and swamps to Bay de Noc Lumber's Lake Michigan port at Nahma.

The company thrived, employing 1,200 men at its height. It remained committed to logging railroads when most others had switched to "rubber tire logging" by truck. Engine No. 5 was used up to 1948, almost the very end of Nahma logging, to haul logs out of the woods to the mill. It can be seen under shelter by the playground at the Township Park toward the west end of Main Street.

By 1910 or so, Nahma had the trim, tidy look of a well-planned company town. Public buildings lined a rather grand boulevard with a median strip of lawn, leading to the cluster of mill buildings where the rail line neared Lake Michigan and slips where lumber could be loaded.

As in some other well-planned company towns, there was a clubhouse for all workers, with a social area, soda fountain, barbershop, library, bowling, basketball (the high school used the gym, too), occasions like weddings, and even a bar. The clubhouse was where the Township Park now is. The golf course was a different organization. There were a public beach, a baseball field, tennis courts, and walking trails.

By 1951, when the last logging camp closed and the last barge was loaded up with lumber, the Bay de Noc Lumber Company "launched a national campaign to find a buyer for Nahma who could provide jobs," according to Theodore Karamanski in Deep Woods Frontier. "Sold: One Town" read the headline of a Life magazine article back then. Seven hundred fifty people lived in Nahma then. (The Life piece can be seen by looking carefully on the site in the "Did You Know about That?" section.) In 2012 the Bonifas Arts Center and Delta College in Escanaba are producing an exhibit based on the Life article, using interviews, photos, and art to illuminate Nahma's 1940-1950 years.

An Indiana playground manufacturer bought most of the town of Nahma for $250,000, with big plans to turn it into a resort. However, the playground company didn't keep up with changes in play equipment, so it lacked funds to develop the resort. Many buildings caved in. The clubhouse was removed around 1980.

But Nahma is not a ghost town today. Residents are a mix of summer people, retirees, and local people, some of whom seem to live on very low incomes. Each year, proceeds from the big Labor Day celebration and the new Music Festival are used on civic fix-up projects.

In 1994 the three Groleau brothers, Warren, Pat, and Ron, who grew up here, joined up to buy half of the attractive nine-hole lakeside golf course. They renovated the 1910 Nahma Hotel, revived its restaurant, and sold ice cream in the company store where millworkers had been forced to shop. Only that store had accepted the scrip they were paid with. The hotel was a quaint getaway in a natural area. Then the Grouleaus moved on to other things. Now Charlie and Laurie MacIntosh have bought the hotel and made its restaurant a popular area gathering place. "Nahma has come back to life," says one booster. "Charlie and Laurie at the Nahma Inn are wonderful. They've brought a lot of people into Nahma. Comedy nights and Wii bowling are big. Some natives don't like the change. But Nahma was going to die."

GETTING TO NAHMA FROM U.S. 2: The blacktop on scenic CR 497 has been resurfaced. It's the most direct route. Other roads are along the lakeshore: County Roads 495 (from Isabella) and 499 (from St. Jacques—the local pronunciation is Saint Jake's). They pass cottages lining most of Nahma Peninsula's shoreline. In places the lake is so shallow that land and water seem to merge.

Return to Manistique and the Garden Peninsula

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