- Historic Sites
Three Flags At Mackinac
For more than two centuries, this tiny island fortress was both “the key and the door” to empire
August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
After a survey of the national park, certain lands went on sale for summer residents. The first summer houses were built in the 1880’s. With six, eight, or ten bedrooms, broad verandas, and airy balconies, these “cottages” offered escape from the summer heat of Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Descendants of Mackinac fur traders became maids, gardeners, and hostlers for the Midwestern gentry.
In 1885 workmen began felling timber from the slope beyond the government pasture which lay west of the village and above it. For two years the woods were noisy with the cries of teamsters, the thud and clang of ax and saw, the clatter of mallet and hammer. On the hillside rose a huge hotel, with a front porch like an avenue and hundreds of windows facing woods and water. On July 10,1887, the Grand Hotel opened its doors to the public. Built by a combination of the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, the Michigan Central Railroad, and the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company, this hostelry attracted guests from near and far.
The Grand Hotel was a Great Lakes wonder and, in the phrase of one of its owners, an economic monstrosity. Season after season it sank deeper into debt, but it created business for the transportation companies. Now Mackinac Island had a lively traffic. To its busy wharves came daily steamers from Traverse City and Petoskey, and liners on schedule from Chicago and Detroit.
In 1895 the island was transferred to the state of Michigan, to be preserved as a state park, and in that year a remnant of federal troops held their last muster on the Fort Mackinac parade ground. From his quarters a civilian caretaker watched them march down the hill in the autumn sunlight. With a final drumbeat they boarded a steamer for Sault Ste. Marie.
The twentieth century brought hard times to the Grand Hotel. Twice, the discouraged owners planned to raze it, but at the last moment new investors intervened. The hotel had an irresistible charm, and despite financial losses it had a charmed life. Indeed, in the prosperous 1920’s the building was even enlarged, and a spacious swimming pool was set in its terraced gardens.
But then the Depression came. A new owner bought the establishment in March, 1933, when every bank in the nation was closed. On a July day, at the peak of the summer season, he counted eleven paying guests in a hotel with four hundred employees. But he hung on, through Depression and war, and in time he saw convention crowds filling the great halls, dining in the magnificent “Salle àManger” and rocking on the longest porch in the world. Today the Grand Hotel is more handsome, festive, and flourishing than ever. It is the largest summer hotel on earth, and its plumed horses and red-coated coachmen still meet incoming ferryboats.
On November 1, 1957, the first wheeled traffic crossed the Straits of Mackinac under its own power. The great bridge hanging from its twin steel towers is a product of twentieth-century engineering and technology, but its approaches, from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace, are rich in history. A dramatic past is one of the magnets of the north country. In 1958, when the Mackinac Straits Bridge was formally dedicated, the state of Michigan began a program of historical restoration.
Work began on the site of the vanished fort—built in the early eighteenth century by the French and abandoned seventy years later by the British—at Old Mackinaw Point on the southern mainland. Now, after a remarkable collaboration of archaeological and historical research and restoration, Fort Michilimackinac stands, with walls, blockhouses, and a score of buildings, as it did when the Indians massacred the British garrison. After reconstruction the fort buildings were furnished so as to portray their eighteenth-century life. Into the King’s Storehouse went blankets, guns, tobacco, bar lead, bagged and baled goods, jugs of wine and barrels of rum— with life-size figures taking inventory.
At Fort Mackinac on the island the military buildings have been made into a historical museum portraying the post in its active years. Up the long ramp from Marquette Park visitors enter through the South Sally Port. Inside the walls they find themselves in another century.
On an island where every road returns one to the same place, the past accumulates. It cannot get out and away. Island people have memories that began, like an inheritance, before they were born, especially the people on this island, where Michigan law has prohibited the use of motor vehicles. The sounds they hear are the clip-clop of horses’ hooves, the cries of gulls, the whistle of steamers, and the echo of times past.
At Point Aux Pins on the lonely north end of Mackinac Island, the evening wind sighs in the pine woods and water laves the reef. Across the amber strait the bridge lights make a colored arc against the fading sky. “Things stay, we go,” reflected Schoolcraft before there was a roadway in that wilderness. With darkness the wind freshens and the lake grows louder on the shore.