Pencil sketch of a large walrus lounging on a sheet of ice floating in the water.

The Mackinac Walrus

“The one thing on Mackinac Island that keeps stirring my mind is a skull … the uncouth skull of a great beast.”

Lee J. Smits (1931)

 The next time you’re in Ann Arbor, be sure to stop by the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. In the Exploring Michigan gallery, look for the oddly-shaped object shown here. On the label, you may be surprised to read: “Walrus – Recent – Mackinac Island, Michigan.” This specimen is the front portion (rostrum) of a walrus skull, with its tusks missing. Sketches from a History of North American Pinnipeds (1880) and Encyclopaedia Metropolitana (1845) are shown for comparison.

 This raises several questions. When was a walrus skull discovered at Mackinac? What does “recent” mean? Did walruses once swim in Lake Huron? Read on for the amazing story of one of the most unusual objects ever unearthed at the Straits of Mackinac.

The Discovery

A portrait of Frank Kriesche taken on Mackinac Island.

Frank Kriesche on Mackinac Island, by William H. Gardiner

 Franz (Frank) Kriesche (1863-1946) is well remembered for operating an art glass store on Mackinac Island. His shop, founded in the 1890s, offered custom glass engraving for tourists and local residents. Samples of his fine craftsmanship are on display in The Richard & Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum.

 On a date unremembered, Frank visited nearby Round Island, perhaps on a family picnic. Imagine his surprise when he noticed a strange lump protruding from the sand. Unearthing it did little to solve the mystery of what he discovered. At some point, the unidentified item was donated to Fort Mackinac’s first museum. Established in 1915, the exhibit was a rather haphazard collection of relics, mostly displayed in the officer’s stone quarters.

 Lee J. Smits, a columnist for the Detroit Times, visited the museum in July 1931. He wrote, “the one thing on Mackinac Island that keeps stirring my mind is a skull … the uncouth skull of a great beast. Frank Kriesche found the skull on Round Island, close by Mackinac, many years ago. For a long time it was not identified. Lately there have been learned visitors who declare it is the skull of a walrus. It is not fossil, but bone. The tusks are missing. There were no other bones around the skull where it lay on the sand beach, and no one has ever come forward with the slightest clue as how it came to be there.”

Michigan’s Marine Mammals

A portrait of Dr. Russell C. Hussey

Dr. Russell C. Hussey, University of Michigan

 Amazingly, this wasn’t the first marine mammal found in the state. In 1861, a whale vertebra, found in western Michigan, was noted by state geologist Alexander Winchell. In 1914, a walrus bone was unearthed at a gravel pit near Gaylord. And in the late 1920s, a sperm whale vertebra and five whale ribs were excavated at various locations throughout the state.

 During the summer of 1930, Dr. Russell C. Hussey, professor of historical geology at the University of Michigan, conducted fieldwork in the Upper Peninsula. About the same time, he identified Frank’s mystery object as a walrus skull. That same year, Dr. Hussey published a report of Michigan whale bones which received national attention. His theory stated that marine creatures swam inland after the last ice age, when “the Great Lakes were once a gigantic arm of the sea,” connected by ancient river channels.

The Walrus Departs

The Journal of Mammalogy, in which the Mackinac walrus was described.

The Mackinac walrus was described in the Journal of Mammalogy (May 1953)

 While it had been identified, the Mackinac walrus remained at Fort Mackinac for the next two decades, unreported in scientific literature. In May 1953, Charles Handley, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was the first to describe the specimen. He noted that details of its discovery had turned fuzzy over time. He wrote, “R.C. Hussey… was told that the skull had been found many years ago in a beach deposit (Algonquin or Nipissing) on Mackinac Island. The original data was lost in a fire.” While Fort Mackinac’s wooden soldier’s barracks did catch fire in 1951, very little damage occurred. Perhaps the incident served as a convenient smokescreen for years of poor record keeping.

 In 1954, Fort Mackinac’s collection was assessed by Alexis Proust, a curator from the Kalamazoo Public Museum. Proust spent a month on the island, “examining, sorting, and considering the potentialities of the museum.” Objects “not germane to the museum’s purpose” were to be returned to donors or disposed of. As Frank Kreische died in 1946, his walrus skull likely sat in a pile of unwanted and forgotten items. From there, it was recovered by a student and given to Dr. Hussey. In 1955, it was officially donated to the U-M museum by MSHP park superintendent Carl Nordberg.

Untangling the Riddle

 In 1977, Charles Harington, curator at the National Museum of Canada, focused on a special detail of the Mackinac walrus. He wrote, “A series of nearly parallel, commonly long, cut and scratch marks are seen on the smoother parts of the cranial fragment. They are most evident on the right side of the rostrum, where a crosshatched effect is produced. I think these were produced by man … they deserve closer inspection by an archaeologist.”

 Harington doubled down on his assessment in 1988, calling the skull a cultural artifact, not a natural phenomenon. He noted a similar incised pattern was evident on a walrus tusk found near Syracuse, New York. He also reported specimens from New York, Ontario, and Quebec all revealed radiocarbon dates younger than 800 B.P. (before present). As the modern Great Lakes formed about 2,000 years ago, this meant sea creatures could not have swum to Michigan, and their remains were likely transported inland by Native Americans.

 After sitting in museum displays for about 80 years, the Mackinac walrus was finally subjected to radiocarbon dating. In June 1999, an expansive report, “The Late Wisconsinan and Holocene Record of Walrus (Odobenus rosmarus) from North America,” was printed in the journal Arctic. Its authors noted specimens across the U.S. and Canada likely represented long-distance acquisition of walrus ivory. They wrote, “This would also seem to be the only plausible explanation of an even more remote find: the anterior part of a walrus cranium lacking tusks that was recovered from a site on Mackinac Island, Michigan, reportedly from a beach deposit, yielded an age of 975 ± 60 B.P.”

Visit the Walrus

The walrus skull on display today at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

Display of ancient marine mammal bones from Michigan at the U-M museum of Natural History

 Today, the well-traveled and sometimes mysterious Mackinac walrus remains on exhibit at the U-M Natural History Museum. The ancient skull fragment is displayed with a sperm whale vertebra and the rib of a bowhead whale, also found in Michigan. At the straits, new mysteries will be revealed during the 66th season of archaeological excavations at Mackinac State Historic Parks, which begins in June 2024. For more information, visit www.mackinacparks.com/more-info/history/archaeology

U.S. Army Forage Cap and Dress Helmet

Inspection at Fort Mackinac with soldiers in dress uniform.

The public interacts with our interpretive staff every day, asking questions about the island, fort, and the way soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac lived when it was active between the years of 1780-1895. One of the main draws, other than the rifle and cannon demonstrations, are the tours, given by interpreters seen in two types of uniforms: the everyday “undress” uniform and the more elaborate “dress” uniform. One of the unique aspects of Fort Mackinac in the 1880s is the balance between its soldiers serving in both military and public facing capacities, which almost perfectly matches the roles of their different uniforms. A big part of how Mackinac State Historic Parks makes sure to best tell the stories of these uniforms, and the soldiers that wore them, is though our collections. Headgear, especially for the uniforms that are worn at the fort, are vital to the overall story that the park tells the public. Two specific items that embody these uniforms are the forage cap and dress helmet.

Forage Cap

 The forage cap, or the wool, leather brimmed cap with unit brass on the front, is an evolution from the forage cap from the Civil War. Mostly worn by officers until 1872, when the whole army adopted them, these vital pieces of a uniform were more commonly seen used during daily duties in and around the fort. For more formal occasions, such as when the public was let in the fort several times a week, they had a different uniform: the dress uniform. This consisted of a frock coat, white gloves, dress collar, and the dress helmet. This helmet had both Prussian and British influences, with a brass eagle plate on the front, and a spike on top.

Dress Helmet

 Both hats are unique in the way they help portray military life in the 1880s, as well as being some of the most recognizable items when the public comes to the fort. Having these items in our collections, furthermore, establishes the importance of public interaction with museums and their objects. Museum collections are often referenced for research, both public and private, and these hats hold significant value for those who want to learn more about the soldiers at Fort Mackinac. Items so easily identifiable and personal, such as these hats, aid in making that connection from the past to the present day, as these are the physical objects used daily by the people who served in the army in the 1880s.

A work party at Fort Mackinac.

 Fort Mackinac, one of our premier sites, benefits from having several items in our collections pertaining to it and the soldiers that were there. Being able to have physical representations from that era, which visitors see daily, is history translated to the present day. They allow the public to get a look at our collections every day, but in the form of a personal aspect, through our interpreters. This makes the park a living representation of its objects, with the interpreters discussing their importance every day, and sharing their legacy with a wider audience. The kepi and dress headgear are vital to the park to tell these stories, as they are an iconic part of the uniform, fort, and overall encompass a crucial period in the islands’ history.

A view showing Main Street on Mackinac Island looking south.

Preservation: Puzzle Pieces to the Past

Mackinac Island is endearingly cherished among visitors for its placid atmosphere that seemingly evades the changing tides of time. From the Anishinaabek belief that tells the story of Mackinac as Earth’s origin land to the cinematic portrayal of time travel set on Mackinac in Somewhere in Time to horse-drawn drays carrying Amazon packages, the island possesses an unyielding autonomy from the effects of time. Consequently, Mackinac Island demonstrates a unique propensity for preservation and it is the Mackinac State Historic Park’s honored duty to uphold the island’s tradition of conservation. An integral component of this responsibility are the park collections. By preserving artifacts, archives, and material culture, the collection pieces together the past to narrate Mackinac Island’s story. While seemingly trivial to a visitor’s Mackinac experience, the collection is fundamental to ensuring that the island’s treasured history is commemorated for the enjoyment of all for years to come. Yet this commitment to preserve Mackinac Island for generational enjoyment is not a modern concept.

A view showing Main Street on Mackinac Island looking south.

William H. Gardiner’s photo of Main Street on Mackinac Island. 

 In 1896, photographer William H. Gardiner established a “Photo and Art Studio” aimed at penetrating the souvenir market that emerged as a direct result of the island’s burgeoning tourism industry. Gardiner initially set up shop on the corner of Main and Fort Streets until relocating next door above Fenton’s Bazaar; today both studio spaces constitute Doud’s Market. Gardiner captured the essence of Mackinac Island and preserved its visual history through his photography. His products included keepsakes, such as postcards, hand-tinted photos, and portraits, that memorialized a visitor’s time spent on the island. Gardiner’s photos depict the island’s most unique and treasured attractions, such as Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf Rock, and Main Street. Similar to the collection’s commitment to conservation, Gardiner’s images preserve special moments in Mackinac’s history for reminiscing and nostalgic wonder. The collection and Gardiner’s parallel dedication to preservation can be most explicitly seen in one of Gardiner’s downtown depictions.

Fenton's Bazaar on Mackinac Island.

Fenton’s Bazaar, the location of Gardiner’s studio. 

 At the beginning of the twentieth century, Gardiner stepped out on the balcony of his studio and, struck with inspiration from Mackinac’s vivacious downtown, immortalized a buzzing afternoon on Main Street. This image excellently captures the key components to a day on Mackinac, including a car-less atmosphere, military tradition, and bustling businesses. Some of the storefronts highlighted in the image are Fenton’s Bazaar and Bailey’s Drug Store. These businesses were pillars of Mackinac’s economy around the turn of the century. Dr. Bailey, the son of the surgeon general at Fort Mackinac, served his community as the assisting surgeon and pharmacist, ensuring the health and longevity of Mackinac’s people. Fenton’s Bazaar was a one-stop shop for soldiers, islanders, and visitors alike for all the necessities for life on the island; Fenton’s even introduced the island’s first soda fountain! Fortunately, these businesses and their immense impact on Mackinac’s daily life are remembered beyond Gardiner’s image.

Bailey's Drug Store on Mackinac Island.

Bailey’s Drug Store.

 The collection has preserved numerous Bailey’s Drug Store bottles, which represent Dr. Bailey’s committed service and contribution to Mackinac’s medical history. Additionally, the collection possesses an American flag that flew above Fenton’s Bazaar. This flag, which watched over Main Street and witnessed the ebbing and flowing of countless visitors, encapsulates Mackinac’s continued reputation as “America’s Summer Place.” Also in the collection is an image of downtown that is a near copy to Gardiner’s aforementioned photograph. Yet the picture was taken decades after Gardiner’s and is the work of another artist. Taken from the same angle, this picture illustrates a similarly hurried downtown speckled with visitors, carriages, and storefronts. Comparing this image to Gardiner’s, the atmosphere of downtown remains unchanged, yet the storefronts have clearly evolved. For instance, the New Murray stands as the latest addition to the collection of hotels, souvenir shops, and restaurants that line Main Street. Meanwhile, a stroll down Main Street today will still evoke the same timeless ambience found in Gardiner’s image.

Another image of Main Street on Mackinac Island looking south.

Looking down Main Street. 

 Although shop signs have changed, Mackinac’s timeless energy endures. Similar to how Gardiner captured the views of Mackinac to commemorate a visitor’s special experience, the collection plays a crucial role in maintaining Mackinac Island’s abiding charm. Yet preserving history goes far beyond the sweet nostalgia of family vacation postcards. The collection pieces together the past like a puzzle by linking artifacts to moments somewhere in time in order to write the story of the island for the enjoyment of generations to come.

 

A covered cave on Mackinac Island

Mysterious Mackinac Caverns

“It is absolutely beyond my power in a letter like this to give you a proper delineation of the objects seen in this extraordinary cave.” J.M.W.  (July 1855)

An unknown cave in a black and white photo taken on Mackinac Island

Photo of unknown Mackinac cave by C.E. Kelso, named “Hanging Rocks” in Legendary Lore of Mackinac (1901)

 The natural wonders of Mackinac Island have drawn people to its rocky shores for thousands of years. Described as “one mass of limestone,” the island first emerged after the last ice age, about 11,000 years ago. Post-glacial lakes gradually sculpted Mackinac’s durable breccia, forming arches, sea stacks, cliffs, and caves. Features such as Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf, and Skull Cave, have been renowned for centuries and are visited often.

 Just beneath the surface, however, are stories of fantastic discoveries, now long forgotten. While the Musical Well once captivated listeners, its tunes had fallen silent by 1845. Scott’s Cave, where “the giant Goliath might stand erect,” was destroyed in the early 1950s. Fairy Arch has fallen and Wishing Spring no longer invites visitors to its “fragrant, fairy grotto.”

 Most enticing of all are tales of large caverns beneath the island’s surface. In 1892, Harold Corbusier, son of the post surgeon, explored a winding cavern with a small party, including several soldiers. With the aid of ropes, they were lowered about 20 feet, making their way to “a large chamber with branches leading away in different directions.”

“Another Mammoth Cave Discovered”

A painting of Mackinac Island with Fort Mackinac prominently shown.

Cropped portion of “View of the Town of Mackinaw,” first printed in May 1855. Likely drawn by Major Thomas Williams, 4th Artillery Regiment

 The greatest discovery reportedly occurred in July 1855, when sensational news broke of a newly-discovered cavern on Mackinac Island. The original account was penned by J.M.W., a correspondent of the Detroit Tribune. Reprinted in newspapers from coast-to-coast, the find was often compared to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.

 “The day before yesterday, a tremendous storm sprang up,” he wrote, “accompanied by the fiercest thunder and lightning I ever witnessed … Streams ran through the streets, tearing them in ridges; and the little board race at the Garrison gate roared and threw the spray like a young cataract; rocks, stones, and gravel were displaced in quantities from the brow of the bluff.

 The following morning, boys in going along the base of the Fort hill, east of their stables, found that several large masses of rock had been displaced by the rain and rolled down from their original beds. One large one was noticed, having left an opening of some 4 feet by 10. Some of the boldest of the boys immediately explored as far as the light would admit. The report spread far and near and many people soon came and examined the entrance. Finally, a party of gentlemen and ladies was organized to explore the opening the following morning …

 The party of ladies and gentlemen before alluded to, having provided themselves with lights, cords, arms and eatables, entered the new-found opening. The entrance is small, not being over four feet high by ten feet in width, descending gradually after passing through a long and rather narrow alley surrounded on every side by stalactites and small crystals of calcareous spar, which glittered in the torch-lights like diamonds. We after some time entered a dome or amphitheater; we stood transfixed in astonishment. The dome is 350 feet in length by 240 in width, and in most places 180 feet in hight [sic.]; the whole lit up by our numerous torches, yielded a splendor and beauty not to be described … On the parade ground north-east of the fort a cannon was discharged, and a slight tremulous jar was felt, accompanied with a very faint rumbling sound.

A drawing of the entrance of Scott's Cave.

Scott’s Cave entrance, drawn by Alfred Waud in 1853

 After passing through alleys, looking down here and there into a deep abyss, and viewing in haste temples, palaces and chambers, and having also stepped over a small swift stream of cold clear water, we finally, after some slight work, guided by a dim light in front of us, excavated a place large enough for one to pass through, and found ourselves in Capt. Scates’s [Scott’s] Cave; thence we stepped into the beech and maple grove which surrounds that opening; from here we walked to Dousman’s farm-house, where the ladies found carriages for home. The time occupied was five hours, and the computed distance traveled in the cave was a trifle over three miles.

 It is absolutely beyond my power in a letter like this to give you a proper delineation of the objects seen in this extraordinary cave. If the first chamber through which we passed excelled in splendor, beauty and brilliancy of the diamond ornaments, produced by the lights and torches, they were thrown far in the back ground by the superior grandeur and sublimity of the apartments which we subsequently passed after reaching the first amphitheater. More of this when I shall have again the pleasure of seeing you.”

Unsolved Mystery

 Could this cavern of wonders really exist on Mackinac Island? Was this story an accurate account, a fanciful exaggeration, or even fabricated entirely? Elsewhere, J.M.W. noted, “The inhabitants and strangers, as I am informed, say that large caves must and do exist, from the mumbling sounds heard when heavy carriages pass over the island. Scull Cave, [Scott’s] Cave and Devil’s Cave are renowned, which are believed now to be outlets of others of greater magnitude.”

A covered cave on Mackinac Island

Entrance to Mackinac’s underground world

 This theory was supported by Eleanor Bussell in “The Story of Mackinac’s Caves,” from the July 8, 1948, edition of The Island News. One resident she interviewed claimed there were once up to 29 caves on the island. She wrote, “One particular place known as Hell-Hole Cave located on the path along the West Bluff was covered over years ago. If this old story is correct, it must have been the only subterranean cave on the Island.”

 As you explore the island’s wild side, imagine hidden wonders which lie beneath your feet, deep below the rocky surface. Perhaps a future rain storm or winter rock slide will uncover the entrance of a new marvel under the Wonderful Isle, making new headlines in the 21st century.

Family Fun Night at Fort Mackinac

Join us at Fort Mackinac for ice cream, games, and more, then stick around for Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory at dusk! Sponsored by Doud’s Market and Mackinac Associates. This is a free event! Part of the Mackinac Island Fudge Festival. Enter through the Avenue of Flags (rear) entrance. #thisismackinac

Cattle grazing in what is now Marquette Park, in front of Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac Island.

The Cattle of Mackinac Island

“There are more cows in Mackina than in any other place of its size in the known world; and every cow wears at least one bell.”

A painting depicting Fort Street as a dirt road, with Fort Mackinac to the left and grazing horse and cattle to the right.

Cattle & horses are depicted grazing the government pasture in this 1838 scene by French naturalist Francois, comte de Castelnau.

 Much has been written about the Battle of Mackinac Island, which took place between American and British forces on July 18, 1814. Often disregarded, however, are bovine witnesses to the melee which occurred that summer’s day on pasture and woodlots of Michael Dousman’s farm. This is their story.

The King’s Cattle

 During the autumn of 1779, Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair began transferring the British garrison at Fort Michilimackinac to Mackinac Island. At the time, local residents included the “King’s Cattle,” kept for providing fresh beef and dairy products. Construction on the island began that winter, with cattle driven over the frozen straits before spring. On February 15, 1780, Sinclair wrote, “…two Canadians are preparing Post & rail fence to enclose a fine grass Platt of about thirty acres for the King’s Cattle which will be sent to the Island before the Ice breaks up.”

Cattle grazing in what is now Marquette Park, in front of Fort Mackinac, on Mackinac Island.

Cattle grazed the public pasture below Fort Mackinac from 1780 until the early 20th century. Photo by the Detroit Publishing Co. (ca.1900)

 This “fine grass Platt” is a rolling plot of land, west of and below Fort Mackinac. For well over a century, it was known as the government (or public) pasture. In 1901, the Mackinac Island State Park commission leased the parcel to the Grand Hotel for use as a 9-hole golf course.

 In addition to provender, trained cattle served as working oxen. On July 30, 1780, Sinclair complained to his superiors, “… endeavors to secure this Garrison have been retarded for want of working Cattle, Tools, the materials and Rum.” That November, two cows were added to the island’s herd, transported from the mainland aboard the armed sloop, HMS Welcome.

Dousman’s Farm

A cow grazing on Mackinac Island.

A jersey cow poses for the camera of William H. Gardiner (ca.1905-1915)

 American troops took control of Fort Mackinac in 1796. Civilian arrivals included Michael Dousman, who established a large farm on the northeast corner of the island. On July 17, 1812, British troops conscripted Dousman’s oxen to haul their cannon across the island, leading to an American surrender. In 1814, those same oxen presumably bore witness to the bloody battle between American and British forces, which took place on Dousman’s hay fields.

 Michael Dousman filled island contracts for fresh beef, hay, lumber, and firewood for nearly 50 years. Several accounts noted his herd numbered about 20 head of cattle. In 1852, Juliette Starr Dana stopped for a visit, writing, “… we came to a large farm with oxen, outbuildings & everything in New England Style. We went to the house & asked permission to rest, which was which was granted very kindly by the woman of the house who handed each of us a large bowl of rich milk cold as ice, which proved very refreshing.” In 1856, Michael Early bought the property and continued maintaining a dairy farm.

Mackinac’s Meandering Cattle

An 1890 view of Mackinac Island from the East Bluff, showing cattle grazing in the park.

View of town with cattle grazing on the East Bluff,
Photo by Lieut. Benjamin C. Morse Jr. (1890)

 Other local residents also owned cattle, which often roamed at will, grazing as they pleased. In September 1835, Chandler R. Gilman spent a rustic night in a local boarding house. “This morning I waked very early,” he wrote. “At dawn heard the morning gun from the Fort, and soon after a clattering about the house; and the noise of cow-bells under the windows gave us notice that the world was astir … There are more cows in Mackina than in any other place of its size in the known world; and every cow wears at least one bell.”

 Wandering cows posed challenges for decades. Once Mackinac National Park was created in 1875, a new law barred cattle from running loose at night. Two years later, Captain Joseph Bush posted a notice that all stray cows would be put in a pound until reclaimed by their owners. Like most early park regulations, these proved difficult to enforce.

A family posing with their children, dog, cow, and kitten at the Sergeants' Quarters, behind Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.

A family poses with their children, dog, cow, and kitten at the former Sergeants’ Quarters, behind Fort Mackinac. Photo by William H. Gardiner (ca.1905-1915)

 A turnstile was installed at the bottom of Fort Mackinac’s south sally ramp to deter four-legged visitors from sauntering to the top. Fanny Dunbar Corbusier, wife of the post surgeon, arrived in April 1882. She recalled, “People on foot usually climbed the long flight of steps that were the shortest way up to the [officers’] quarters, and a cow once chose this route, climbing until she reached the parade ground, some one hundred and twenty steps up.”

The Cow-Bell Nuisance

 Free-ranging cattle failed to amuse Illinois congressman, William Springer. His family spent the summer of 1884 on the island, contemplating leasing a lot and building a cottage. The following spring, he informed Captain George K. Brady they had decided to spend summers elsewhere. He wrote, “Owing to the ‘cowbell nuisance’ Mrs. Springer did not get the rest desired … and as a result has been in ill health the entire winter.”

A wandering cow grazing near Sugar Loaf rock on Mackinac Island.

A wandering cow grazing near Sugar Loaf

 Arthur Fisk Starr, on the other hand, delighted in the noisy situation. From 1883-1890, the “merry charioteer” ran the most celebrated carriage service of the national park era. Starr’s Chariot led tours across the island, full of “fun, philosophy, and unwritten history.” After stopping at Lover’s Leap, a guest wrote, “No drive could be more beautiful. A pause was made at a point where several roads meet. This is Cow-Bell Point. The drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds … It is said that at Cow-Bell Point the bells can be heard no matter on what part of the island the cows are.”

 Likely, you won’t encounter a single cow on your next Mackinac Island visit. As you wander, imagine a time when lowing “moos” and tinkling cowbells were defining features of the Wonderful Isle. Listen closely, and you just might catch faint echoes from this bygone era.

 

A logo for the 125th anniversary of the Mackinac Island Automobile Ban.

Celebrating 125 Years of Mackinac Island’s Automobile Ban

A logo for the 125th anniversary of the Mackinac Island Automobile Ban.

Celebrating 125 years!

There are so many things that make Mackinac Island special. A cannon blast coming from the Revolutionary War-era fort every morning to wake the island up. The smell of fudge tempting you as walk down Main Street. The natural beauty that is Arch Rock. Lilacs bursting throughout the island in early June.

 However, it’s the distinct lack of something that most people might point to as being the thing that makes the island special.

 “Mackinac Island is famous for many things, but the century and a quarter-old ban on motorized vehicles is truly at the top of why it is such a special place,” said Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Steve Brisson.

 2023 marks the 125th anniversary of the automobile ban on Mackinac Island. As the story goes, in 1898 the first horseless carriage made its way to Mackinac Island via ferry boat and the first encounter between horse and “horseless carriage” was said to be chaotic. In response, businessmen engaged in the carriage industry filed a formal petition with the Village Common Council. They stated that the use of automobiles on Mackinac Island would be a danger to “the lives and property of petitioners and their patrons and to all others who use the streets and roads of this village.” Protection of the island’s historic environment and the carriage businesses serving tourists were a priority for locals and business owners alike. A resolution was made the same day the petition was delivered, effectively banning all automobiles in the Village of Mackinac Island.

 The Mackinac Island State Park Commission followed suit in 1901, banning automobiles within Mackinac Island State Park.

 “The Mackinac Island State Park Commission has been honored to work with and partner with the City of Mackinac Island for more than a century on the ban on automobiles,” Brisson said. “We continue to partner with the city to enforce this ban that is crucial to maintaining the heritage of Mackinac Island.”

An 1886 Benz Motorwagen.

The 1886 Benz Motorwagen. Photo courtesy Gilmore Car Museum.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks is celebrating the occasion with special events the weekend of July 21, complete with an 1886 Benz Motorwagen on the island. It was a vehicle very similar to this that got the wheels in motion (no pun intended) for the ban on automobiles.

 The weekend will begin with a ceremonial “re-banning” of automobiles on Mackinac Island. The Motorwagen will take a short drive down Market Street to Mackinac Island City Council before Brisson and Mackinac Island Mayor Margaret Doud reaffirm the ban. This event will begin at 7:00 p.m.

 The “horseless vehicle” will also be on display outside Fort Mackinac at the Huron Road Pavilion from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Saturday, July 22, and Sunday, July 23. A member of the Gilmore Car Museum will provide interpretation and visitors will be able to take pictures. On the evening of July 22 an invite-only event, presented by Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, will take place at Fort Mackinac officially commemorating the ban on automobiles on Mackinac Island.

 Mackinac State Historic Parks has partnered with the Gilmore Car Museum, located outside Kalamazoo, to being the Motorwagen to the island.

Book cover for Phil Porter's book, "Where Horse is King."

Where Horse is King: Mackinac Island’s Automobile Ban, by Phil Porter.

 Former Mackinac State Historic Parks Director Phil Porter has written a new vignette on the automobile ban: Where Horse is King: Mackinac Island’s Automobile Ban. It provides the complete background on the restriction on automobiles, including efforts over the years to get around the ban or repeal it. The book is available at all Mackinac State Historic Parks museum stores.

 In addition, a special commemorative logo has been developed and can be found on merchandise at Mackinac State Historic Parks museum stores, as well as on the license plates found on carriages throughout the island.

 In addition to Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, the special weekend celebrating Mackinac Island’s ban on automobiles has been made possible by Mackinac Associates, friends preserving and sharing Mackinac’s heritage.

Trekking Through Nature: A Journey Along some of Mackinac Island’s Best Trails

For us, there’s nothing much better than an early morning or evening hike, especially when those hikes take you through the North Woods and feature views overlooking the sparkling waters of the Straits of Mackinac. Welcome to Mackinac Island State Park. Many tourists, travelers and people from all walks of life journey to this timeless island for the food, fudge and historical sites. However, the incredible trail system within and around the island are not to be missed. More than 80% of Mackinac Island is parkland – containing more than 70 miles of incredible hiking and biking trails to explore. Whether you’re an avid outdoor enthusiast, or a novice looking for a pretty view, there is something for you within the park. We’ve compiled a list of five favorites – some very popular, some lesser known. Read on for some inside information to make your visit to Mackinac Island all the more enjoyable!

A sign for Tranquil Bluff Trail on Mackinac Island.

Tranquil Bluff Trail.

A clearing through some trees showing blue sky and blue water on Tranquil Bluff Trail on Mackinac Island.

One of the gorgeous views on Tranquil Bluff Trail.

 The trail you can’t miss:

Tranquil Bluff (~1 hour and 30 minutes)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Moderate

 Tranquil Bluff Trail most certainly lives up to the name. This winding tree covered pathway borders the eastern edge of the island. It’s serene with spectacular views of Lake Huron on your right and a lush forest on your left. Tranquil Bluff is a truly unforgettable experience. We recommend going on the trail in the early hours of the morning, right as the forest wakes up. Listen closely and you’ll hear the singing of chickadees, warblers and the occasional wail of a loon from the lake. For this hike bug spray is recommended, and hiking shoes are a major plus as there are several steeper slopes to traverse.

 

 

Skull Cave on Mackinac Island.

Skull Cave on Mackinac Island.

View of trees, water, and an island from Fort Holmes on Mackinac Island.

One of the views from Mackinac Island.

 For a good workout:

 Fort Holmes Loop (~30 minutes)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Hard

From Fort Mackinac continue onto Garrison Road until you reach Skull Cave. Then make a right and follow signs for Fort Holmes/Point Lookout. You will soon approach a wooden staircase on your left. This is where the workout begins! After climbing several flights of steps catch your breath while enjoying one of the most beautiful views on the island. Fort Holmes is perched atop a hilltop providing a 360-degree view of the surrounding topography (including Round Island and Bois Blanc Island). Hawks and turkey vultures fly close by so make sure to keep an eye out for them! Also take some time to explore Fort Holmes. No ticket is required for entry! After your visit at the fort continue onto Fort Holmes Road until you reach the cemetery. Then make a left and continue back down to the Fort Mackinac!

A set of stairs found on Pontiac's Trail on Mackinac Island.

Pontiac Trail.

Yellow wildflowers along Pontiac Trail on Mackinac Island.

Wildflowers on Pontiac Trail.

Best views of Mackinac Bridge:

Pontiac Trail (~15 minutes)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Easy

Pontiac Trail may be short, but it has the longest panoramic view of Mackinac Bridge. The trail offers a spectacular array of picture-perfect shots. Every angle captures the sparkling water, flowered trees, and gleaming bridge in the distance. You can also spot ferries passing to and from the mainland! If you descend the staircase to the water’s edge, you’ll find one of Mackinac Islands prime sunset watching locations.

 

 

Tall trees on Leslie Avenue.

Tall trees on Leslie Avenue.

A yellow ladyslipper along Leslie Avenue on Mackinac Island.

A ladyslipper found along Leslie Avenue.

Most scenic hike:

Leslie Avenue Loop (~1 hour)
DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Moderate

A local favorite that has a direct connection to Mackinac’s military history! Soldiers cut this trail in the 1870s and named it after Captain Leslie Smith. From Arch Rock look for the wooden sign that says Leslie Avenue and begin your journey. The trail is narrow but paved so no hiking shoes are needed. However, don’t let the paved trail fool you because along this path you are still very much surrounded by nature. Beautiful maple, pine and oak trees create a brilliantly green canopy overhead. White, purple and yellow wildflowers line the trail, and a symphony of birds will make you feel like you are the only one on the island! It’s a hike you cannot miss.

Signs at the beginning of the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail.

Start of the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail.

For the botanists/naturalists:

A White Pine with a sign in front of it located along the Mackinac Island Botanical Trail.

Michigan’s state tree, the White Pine.

Mackinac Island Botanical Trail (~30 minutes)         DIFFICULTY LEVEL: Easy

This hike will take you on a true learning journey! A massive sign reading Mackinac Island Botanical Trail is the start of the trail. As you traverse the path, signs placed throughout will give you insight into the common and scientific names of the trees that grow on the island. Meander along this trail and you’ll eventually reach Arch Rock. From here you have several potential hiking routes. Turning left will lead you onto Leslie Avenue, continuing straight will lead you down a flight of stairs to Lake Shore Boulevard and turning right onto Huron Road will take you to East Bluff. I recommend walking along East Bluff for the most picturesque views of the lake and Round Island’s Lighthouse. From East Bluff you can take a sharp left turn back down to Main Street. You can also continue onto East Bluff until you reach Fort Mackinac.

These are just a few hikes to be found on Mackinac Island. We hope you enjoy them, but always encourage you to find your own favorites –  there is no wrong turn! Happy Trails!

 

A sketch from 1827 showing Ste. Anne's Church on Mackinac Island with Magdelaine LaFromboise's home adjacent to it.

What’s in a Name?

Throughout the summer season, Mackinac Associates, the friend’s group for Mackinac State Historic Parks, hosts several member events. These fun seasonal events bring together people who share a love for preserving and sharing Mackinac’s heritage.

 Mackinac Associates biggest event of the year is the G. Mennen Williams Mackinac Celebration. Since 1989, this event continues one of the premiere happenings on Mackinac Island for Mackinac Associates members. But, why is this event named after G. Mennen Williams?

A photo of Prentiss Brown, G. Mennen Williams, John F. Kennedy, and an unidentified man on the Mackinac Bridge.

Prentiss Brown, G. Mennen Williams, John F. Kennedy and an unidentified man standing on the Mackinac Bridge. Photo from the University of Michigan Library Digital Collections, HS17694

 The G. Mennen Williams Mackinac Celebration is a tribute to Gerhard Mennen Williams, Governor of Michigan from 1949-1960. Sporting his signature green bow tie with white polka dots, Williams developed a solid reputation in politics and a notable love for the Straits of Mackinac. One of his most noteworthy accomplishments during his time as governor was his support for the construction of the Mackinac Bridge. Built to link Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas, the Mackinac Bridge was completed in 1957.

 Just one year later, Governor Williams’ love of historic preservation and Mackinac Island’s rich history inspired the 1958 legislation giving Mackinac Island State Park Commission the authority to finance its historical programs through the sale of revenue bonds. Governor Williams also played a key role in bringing together local leaders, historians, and politicians to support the restoration of Fort Mackinac.

A photo of Brian and James Dunnigan standing next to President Harry Truman and Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams in 1955.

Brian and James Dunnigan with President Harry Truman and Michigan Governor G. Mennen Williams on Mackinac Island in 1955, during President Truman’s fundraising trip for his presidential library. Photo MSHP

 After completing five gubernatorial terms, Williams was later elected to the Michigan Supreme Court in 1970 and he served as Chief Justice from 1983 to 1986. In 1988, G. Mennen Williams passed away on February 2nd in Detroit, Michigan at the age of 76. He was laid to rest in the Protestant Cemetery on Mackinac Island.

 In July, Mackinac Associates hosts a small private event for high-level donors, sponsors and partners, and Legacy Society members called the Laframboise Donor Reception. This reception is named for Magdelaine Laframboise, a woman of Odawa and French-Canadian descent, who played a leading role in the affairs of Mackinac Island during the first half of the 19th century.

 After her husband Joseph was murdered in 1806 while on business in the Grand River region near present-day Lowell, Michigan, Magdelaine took control of the fur trading company and continued its success. For the next 12 years, she wintered in the Grand River Valley, collecting furs from trappers. Each spring, she supervised the transportation of the furs to Mackinac Island. Magdelaine Laframboise successfully influenced the ways of the newly arriving American businessmen, government agents, military and missionaries to the Straits region.

A sketch from 1827 showing Ste. Anne's Church on Mackinac Island with Magdelaine LaFromboise's home adjacent to it.

A sketch of Ste. Anne’s Church adjacent to LaFramboise’s home circa 1827. Photo MSHP

 In 1822 Magdelaine, then 41 years old, decided to retire on the stunning shoreline of Mackinac Island, where she built a very fine home. There she entertained dignitaries, military officers as well as many of her native American friends and family members. On his famed visit to the United States, French aristocrat and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville visited with Magdelaine upon his arrival to Mackinac Island.

An 1880s view of the home of Magdelaine LaFramboise.

This view, ca. 1880, shows Magdelaine LaFramboise’s house with the addition of a small porch. Photo MSHP

 Magdelaine started the first formal school on Mackinac Island, in her home, and encouraged William Ferry to start his mission school. She also assisted Father Mazzuchelli in starting a Catholic school. Her daughter Josephine married a captain at Fort Mackinac, Benjamin Pierce, brother to Franklin Pierce who would become the 14th President of the United States. When Ste. Anne’s Church was looking to relocate on the island, she donated a portion of her land adjacent to her home to the church, and a new Ste. Anne’s Church was constructed there. Magdelaine became known as “The First Lady of Mackinac Island” for her charitable work and the many visitors she welcomed into her home. Magdelaine Laframboise died April 4, 1846, and was buried beneath the altar at St. Anne’s Church on Mackinac Island. The Laframboise home remains on Mackinac Island still today, now known as Harbour View Inn.

A photo of Harbour View Inn on Mackinac Island.

The home of Magdelaine LaFramboise has been renovated and adapted for use as the Harbour View Inn. Photo MSHP

 These special events hosted each year by Mackinac Associates are named for people who shared a desire to protect and preserve the history and culture of the Straits of Mackinac. They bring together dedicated members, friends who share the same passion to protect and preserve this beautiful place. For information on how to join Mackinac Associates and be a part of preserving and sharing Mackinac’s heritage, please visit www.MackinacAssociates.com.

Historic Interpreters at Fort Mackinac loading a bronze cannon.

Opening Fort Mackinac

Soldiers marching on the Parade Ground at Fort Mackinac.

Historic interpreters learning to march during training at Fort Mackinac.

Every year tens of thousands of guests will visit Fort Mackinac and experience the sights and sounds of the fort, from its beautiful views of the harbor and village below to the sounds of rifle and cannon firing demonstrations and the presence of the historical interpreters. Each year these interpreters bring something a little different, not just in their charm or style but sometimes by the way they approach the great history of Fort Mackinac. This year is no different. Our interpretative staff has been hard at work these last few weeks learning not only the classic programs of Fort Mackinac but a few new programs too.

Historic Interpreters at Fort Mackinac preparing to fire rifles.

Training with Springfield 45-70 Rifles.

Before their arrival on Mackinac Island, the interpreters spend many hours reading from various sources to learn the history of Fort Mackinac. Once they arrive, they immediately set to work, using this knowledge in training and practice sessions before working in front of the public. They spend many hours getting acquainted with the Springfield 45-70 Rifle, the focus of our rifle demonstrations, and its importance in the U.S. Army’s evolution to a much more modern military in the late 19th century. They will also spend a few hours marching and drilling on the parade ground, just as the soldiers of the 1880s would have, making sure they can replicate these maneuvers for the many guests participating in our Rifle and Drill Program every afternoon.

Historic Interpreters at Fort Mackinac loading a bronze cannon.

Learning how to load and fire the iconic Fort Mackinac cannon.

The interpreters will also learn how to present our cannon firing demonstrations, speaking to the cannon’s ceremonial role at Fort Mackinac, marking the beginning and end of the soldier’s day. These “salute shots” were also fired for holidays like Memorial Day – known then as Decoration Day – and the Fourth of July. Interpreters will also spend the necessary time learning how to safely load and fire the cannon for our demonstrations, which is a high point for any interpreter, whether new or returning. The interpreters will spend even more time going through our many walking tours and programs, ensuring they can present these programs engagingly and accurately. This is especially important with our new programs, like the Soldier’s Equipment and Quartermaster Storehouse program and, later this season, the Dress Parade Program and Evenings at Fort Mackinac walking tour.

Fort Mackinac staff working in an office space learning about the fort and its history.

A peek behind the scenes – being a Fort Mackinac interpreter isn’t just work at the fort.

For all the time the interpreters spend out in the fort practicing, they spend double the time inside, reading and studying material and learning the best practices of historical interpretation. All of this is done to provide our guests with the best possible experience with the hope that they feel comfortable and engaged and walk away with a feeling that their time at Fort Mackinac, as with any of our sites, was worth it. Public interpretation can lead to a lifetime interest in history and the world. We hope you will be able to join us this year and experience the many programs with offer. Click here to learn about tickets.