The Straits of Mackinac between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan and the surrounding region have historically been known as Michilimackinac. Some linguists say Michilimackinac means “great turtle” in the Ottawa Nation language and refers to the shape of Mackinac island. But the Ottawa tribe, who settled on Mackinac island before their first contact with Europeans, say they found a small tribe already living on that island and their tribal name was Mi-shi-ne-macki naw-go.
That’s why “Mackinac” is spoken as “Mackinaw,” unless you’re a “fudgie” and unfamiliar with the local pronunciation. today it’s the fudgies dollars spent at the fudge shops and riding on horse drawn wagons around Mackinac island that drive the summer tourist economy from Father’s Day to Labor Day.
This popular great Lakes destination is located at the crossroads of history for the upper Midwest. Michilimackinac has witnessed French Jesuit missionaries and voyageurs, the development of the beaver fur trade and the competition between England and France to be the dominant colonial power in north America. But when did this eight-square-mile island first become a summer resort destination? That occured during the America Victorian Era after the Civil War.
Before the spider web of railroad lines were built in the great Lakes region, the primary mode of transportation for commerce, immigration and business travel were the inland seas themselves and the Erie canal. Steamboat passenger ferries connected the major Great Lake cities of Buffalo, Toronto, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago. As the Gilded Era advanced, so did the luxurious appointments aboard these palatial intercity steamers. As an antidote to living in the big industrial cities during summer in the late 1800s, northern Michigan became a popular getaway for the rich and middle class alike. A ticket aboard a coal-fired steamer from Chicago to Harbor Springs, Michigan was just $5, without meals and a cabin for the 24 hour trip.
The Grand Hotel built in 1887 on Mackinac island, exemplifies tourism developed for those who benefited the industrial revolution and were fortunate enough to have leisure time for a vacation. Perched on a bluff, with sweeping views from its 660-foot-long front porch, the “grand” was designed as a desitination resort by the owners of the Detroit and Cleveland steamship company and the Michigan central railroad. It was an immediate success, and a hundred years later it was designated a national historic Landmark. In fact, all of Mackinac island is now a National Historic Landmark District, which makes it a must visit port of call for Great Lakes cruisers with an interest in history.
The best choice when arriving by boat is to tie up at the dock at Mackinac Island State Harbor. Why is it the best choice? Because it is the only marina on the island! The marina is part of the Michigan State Park system and reservations should be made well in advance either online or by phone. Although there is room to anchor in the harbor, the holding is poor and would be unsafe in a blow. The next best alternatives for dockage is Mackinaw City Marina or Straits State Harbor in Mackinaw city, which is six nautical miles southwest of the island. For sightseeing back on Mackinac island there are ferries, leaving every half hour throughout the day from straits state harbor.
Once ashore on Mackinac island, buy some fresh hand made fudge, rent a bicycle and start your journey back in time by exploring these historical sites:
- Fort Mackinac – Built by the British Army just before the end of the revolutionary War, it was belatedly turned over to the united states many years after the treaty of Paris. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, the British suprised the American garrison and regained possession of this high ground until it was ceded back to the U.S. under the Treaty of Ghent.
- Biddle House – Built about 1780, it was remodeled into a home and fur trading shop by Edward Biddle to allow him to exchange trade goods for beaver, mink and otter pelts.
- Agency House of the American Fur Company – Built in 1820, it served as the local office of John Jacob Astor’s expanding fur company. it is now a museum dedicated to the fur trade.
- McGulpin House – Built before 1780, in the working class French canadian style. in 1819 William and Madeline Mcgulpin purchased it and began baking bread and hardtack to supply fur traders. The house has been restored to its 1820 appearance.
- Mission Church – Built in 1829, this congregational church is the oldest surviving church in the state of Michigan.
- Sainte Anne Church – The current timber-framed roman catholic church was built in 1874, but the original log church on the same site was built 100 years before. There are parish records dating back to 1695 from the founding French Jesuit missionaries.
And there is no better way to end the day on Mackinac island that watching the sunset from the front porch of the grand hotel while relaxing on a rocking chair and imagining what it was like to be a French fur trapper paddling through the straits of Mackinac in a birch bark canoe.
Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht’s fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.