Region: St. Ignace & U.S. 2 to Naubinway
|Tucked away from the flow of northbound traffic over the Bridge, St. Ignace's main attraction is the ferry docks to Mackinaw Island. Here's the line waiting for the Arnold Ferry.|
This shoreline town of 2,400 overlooks crescent-shaped Moran Bay, an ideal harbor. St. Ignace is directly northwest of Mackinac Island, 4 miles out in the Straits. It is the closest mainland town to that immensely popular resort island. In summer, passenger ferries shuttle passengers from St. Ignace docks to the island, several times an hour. All freight for the island is shipped from St. Ignace on the Arnold Line. Most island residents feel much more closely connected with St. Ignace (it has a pharmacy, a large supermarket, and other vital services) than seasonal Mackinaw City.
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State Street, the town's main thoroughfare, can look like four miles of tourist-oriented establishments. Today St. Ignace's major livelihood is its role as a point of embarkation for Mackinac Island. But it is also the Mackinac County seat. St. Ignace and Newberry, essentially the same size, are the eastern U.P.'s second largest cities, after Sault Ste. Marie.
For Mackinac-bound visitors, St. Ignace has some real advantages over Mackinaw City. First, its lodgings are far less expensive. And it's more of a real town. In recent years Mackinaw City has been slicked up and refashioned according to the Disney and Branson modes of tourism, resulting in better service but quite an arttificial veneer. Year-round St. Ignace has a pleasant harborfront boardwalk, a big Glen's supermarket, and other useful services including Sunrise Kennels (906-643-7726), which can board dogs for Mackinac Island visitors. From St. Ignace, sand beaches, dunes, and other natural areas are close at hand. It's hard to find a native of Mackinaw City, while St. Ignace has a tremendous sense of rootedness.
|The St. Ignace shorefront on an old postcard from back when travelers to the U.P. had to take a ferry from Lower Michigan.|
To motorists, downtown St. Ignace gets lost in a jumble. Churches, schools, and the courthouse are up above the harbor in a trim, tidy neighborhood on the bluff. Go up along Portage, or along Goudreau just north of the Municipal Building, and you'll find the hidden town. The 1920s brick Tudor house on Portage, the biggest house in town, was built by attorney Prentiss Brown for his large family shortly after he became involved in managing and soon purchasing the Arnold Ferry Line from the widow of a founding owner. Later Brown, a Democrat, became a U.S. congressman and senator. Later still, he was one of the three key figures in selling the state of Michigan on the idea of building and financing the Mackinac Bridge a very expensive project far from centers of population or commerce.
On the south end of downtown, Spring Street climbs the hill to the big red brick St. Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church at Spring and Church. The beautiful new St. Ignace Public Library (643-8318) is of interest to visitors for checking their e-mail and using the local history collection. It's at 110 Spruce, just up from State on the Bus. I-75 curve into town. Open weekdays 10 to 5, Wed. & Thurs. to 8, Sat. to 3. Wheelchair-accessible. (A free wi-fi internet zone is around the marina.)
|The pleasant gazebo, garden, and picnic area at Kiwanis Beach, across from Marquette Mission Park and Ojibwa museum, form the north end of the St. Ignace boardwalk overlooking the harbor.|
The Catholic cemetery is an interesting place for its numerous old Irish monuments, its French, Irish, and Ojibwa names, and its many angels, Blessed Virgin Marys, and little American flags. To find it, turn south from Spring onto Chambers at the athletic field, "Home of the Saints" and go south a few blocks.
Once St. Ignace played a more important role in American history. After Jesuit Father Jacques Marquette built a mission here in 1671, the French established a St. Ignace fort and trading post (in 1681) to control the fur trade at the Straits. Fort DeBaude remained active until 1701, when the French vacated it and deliberately burned it to the ground. In that year the fort commander left to build a fort far to the south, at the narrows of the river connecting Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair. It would, the French expected, control the entrance to the upper Great Lakes.
That fort and community was Detroit "le ville d'etroit" or "city at the narrows." The commander, Antoine Launet, an ambitious man of modest means, had appropriated the name and coat of arms of a French noble in the region he came from. Launet became known as "Cadillac," and the crest he borrowed has been on Cadillac automobiles for years and years. For Cadillac, Detroit was a promising land deal, too. He stood to benefit if many French-Canadian habitants (small farmers) settled outside the fort. But few did.
In the 1700s, the forts at Michilimackinac (at today's Mackinaw City) and at Mackinac Island (1780) protected the Straits fur trade, operated by the French and (after 1761 and the fall of Montreat) by the British fur trade.
St. Ignace's commercial fishing started in the 1800s. Many fishing families were French-Canadians who moved west from Canada as their homes in the St. Lawrence River valley became overpopulated due to their high fertility rate. Lumber also built up the local economy. Though St. Ignace was not at the mouth of any long logging river, it was near the mouth of the Carp River. Pine logs floated down the Carp were contained in booms on Moran Bay. Fishing remained important into the 1930s, when two million pounds a year of whitefish and trout were still being shipped.
In 1881 the rail line arrived that connected St. Ignace with Wisconsin to the west and with the Lower Peninsula (linked by rail car ferry) to the south. A year later St. Ignace became the seat of Mackinac County.
|A Star Line hydro-jet leaves its St. Ignace dock for Mackinac Island.|
But until the Mackinac Bridge was completed in 1957, St. Ignace remained quite isolated. It was the last place in Michigan to have three-digit phone numbers. Well into the 1950s it received only a few hours of television each night. A Coast Guard retiree who likes St. Ignace so well he retired here comments, "If Alaska is 30 years behind the times, as my wife says, St. Ignace is 50 years behind." He believes the people on city council today have the same names you read in histories from the 1700s.
|This faded ancient quonset hut sits on prime downtown St. Ignace property. It's a symbol of how the city, despite being the gateway to the U.P., has languished over the decades.|
A transplant who married a local man says, "I joke with my husband that it's a good thing he married me. They needed a little fresh blood in their blood line."
At the same time, St. Ignace has benefitted from residents who first came to the area on vacation. For instance, St. Ignace News owes its editorial principles and high standards to its longtime publisher, the late Wesley Maurer, Sr. He headed the University of Michigan journalism department for many years before getting into two Straits-area newspapering as later-life projects. First he bought the Mackinac Island Town Crier in 1957 and turned it into a training laboratory for journalism students. In 1975, years after his retirement from the U-M faculty, he fulfilled his lifelong dream of publishing a year-round newspaper. He bought the St. Ignace News and ran it with his son and daughter-in-law. They continue to publish it today. On the News's masthead are its principles, adapted from the words over the entrance to the Detroit News building on Fort Street in downtown Detroit: "Upbuilder of the Home - Nourisher of the Community Spirit - Arts, Letters and Science of the Common People."
Shipping lanes in the Straits of Mackinac have historically been busy with freight from the Lake Superior iron and copper ranges and wheat from Duluth, all bound for Chicago. Not surprisingly, the Straits have seen many shipwrecks, and many lighthouses and other navigational aids were built as a result. For info on scheduled summer lighthouse tours. see "points of interest" in the Mackinaw City section.
St. Ignace is at the accessible center of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve www.michigan.gov/deq/ , then search for "underwater preserves"). Some 14 wrecks are buoyed for divers, and another 11 can be found with sonar. Still more are described in the interesting Shipwrecks of the Straits of Mackinac by Charles E. Feltner and Jeri Feltner. Divers regard it as a landmark book worthy of emulation by other authors. For a dive brochure, call the tourism office at (906) 643-6950. For extensive info on area dive sites and for reservations on a 42-foot dive boat, visit Straits Scuba Center at www.straitsscuba.com or call 810-240-4320 year-round. In season the center's dive shop with air tanks is open at the Star Line main dock, 587 N. State, across from the Driftwood. Details on other Straits and U.P. diving centers and trips can be found in our introduction. For into on all Michigan Underwater Preserves (7 of 12 are in the Upper Peninsula) can be found by searching "Michigan Underwater Preserves System" and choosing the mi.gov/
A motel north of town has been transformed into the Kewadin Shores Casino, owned by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa, the Upper Peninsula's masters of economic development through gambling. It's nowhere as big or fancy as the Sault Ste. Marie casino and convention center. But a new expansion is bringing an indoor concert venue that will add to St. Ignace's attractions. The casino complex is at 3039 Mackinac Trail, just east of I-75 exit 352. (906) 643-7071. Following the huge success of the tribe's Little Bear Ice Arena in Sault Ste. Marie as a center for area hockey teams, the tribe funded "Little Bear East" Ice Arena & Conference Center in downtown St. Ignace behind Marquette Mission Park. It changes into a conference center when it's not skating season. Call the St. Ignace Rec Department (643-8676) for public skate times.
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