Natural Springs of Mackinac Island

Mackinac Island is blessed with a number of natural springs which percolate through limestone bedrock. An 1882 tourist booklet, Mackinac Island, Wave-Washed Tourists’ Paradise of the Unsalted Seas, boasted of “living streams of pure water, cooled down to the temperature of forty-four degrees, gushing from its lime-rock precipices.” A few of these, such as Dwightwood Spring and Croghan Water, are well known by many of today’s visitors. Others, such as Wishing Spring, Wawatam Brook, and La Salle Spring, are less familiar or forgotten. When you do encounter a natural spring, please enjoy the view, but remember untreated water is considered unsafe for drinking.

Sinclair’s map of Mackinac Island, 1779

 A Fine Spring

As the British settled Mackinac Island from 1780-1781, water was viewed as a valuable resource. Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair noted “a fine spring of water” on a map he drew after visiting the island in 1779. He wrote his superiors, “Our Village will be washed on one side by a fine Spring which with some care may be brought to turn a mill at least one day in seven.”

More pressing priorities meant Sinclair never built his water-powered mill on Mackinac Island. The spring he referred to once fed a small trickle of water  named Wawatam Brook for 20th century guidebooks. The brook originated near the Grand Hotel and emptied into a small lake now called Hanks Pond, which serves a water feature on the Jewel Golf Course.

 La Salle Spring

This 1829 survey map shows La Salle Spring

A second natural spring once trickled into Hanks Pond, originating below Fort Mackinac’s West Blockhouse. Eventually christened La Salle Spring, it became a reliable source of water for Island residents and soldiers alike. In his 1895 book, Mackinac, Formerly Michilimackinac, Dr. John R. Bailey noted that log piping was used for feeding water to town, supplying “stores, warehouses, and dwellings of the fur company.”

In 1881, a steam-powered pump was installed which elevated water from the spring through ½ inch lead pipes to a reservoir located in the second story of the North Blockhouse. From this high point, it then flowed through pipes into various fort buildings. In Annals of Fort Mackinac, author Dwight H. Kelton enlightened his readers, “This innovation on the old-time water-wagon was made… in accordance with a plan devised by, and executed under the direction of Lieut. D.H. Kelton, Post Quartermaster. Water was first pumped October 11, 1881.”

 Croghan Water

Croghan Water, 2021

The north-central portion of Mackinac Island once featured the Island’s largest farm. By 1804, Michael Dousman harvested hay, raised cattle, and even built a horse-powered mill and distillery there. In 1814, the Battle of Mackinac Island was fought on Dousman’s hay fields. Today, links of the Wawashkamo Golf Club cover much of the site.

Dousman’s distillery was situated near a flowing spring of cool water. On early maps, it was simply labeled “Cold Spring.”  In 1913, the spring was renamed Croghan Water, in honor Colonel George Croghan, commander of American forces during the 1814 battle.

 Wishing Spring

Wishing Spring, ca. 1910

This spring was the first which became a popular tourist destination. Once located near Devil’s Kitchen, it was also known as Lover’s Rest or Fairy Spring. During her 1872 visit to the site, novelist Constance Fenimore Woolson offered a token knot of ribbon and wished for health during the year.

Rev. Frank O’Brien summarized the site in the 1916 guide, Names and Places of Interest on Mackinac Island, Michigan. He wrote, This Wishing Spring is within a fragrant, fairy grotto. The water, clear as crystal, flows from above, dripping, cool and refreshing. If you drink and wish, and keep the secret for three days, tradition says you will get whatever you wish.”

 Dwightwood Spring

Dwightwood Spring, ca. 1909

This well-known spring is located along Lake Shore Boulevard (M-185), near the southeast corner of Mackinac Island. In 1909, Edwin O. Wood donated funds for a canopy, fountain, and benches in memory of his son, Dwight Hulbert Wood, who perished after his bicycle was struck by a horse-drawn fire engine in Flint, Michigan.

That July, a dedication ceremony was held to christen Dwightwood Spring. During the ceremony, park superintendent Benjamin Franklin Emery noted the site was dedicated “to preserve the work of nature, to make the spring accessible, to prove a shelter in time of storm, to be a resting place for the weary, long to be remembered after leaving the beautiful Island shores.”

 An Invitation

The springs above represent just a few of Mackinac Island’s “living streams of pure water” which bubble up from its limestone bedrock. During your next visit, you’re invited to seek out these peaceful places, enjoy their quiet beauty, and discover special plants and animals that thrive there. Perhaps, like Ms. Woolson, you’ll feel inspired. “Now I am a sensible, middle-aged woman,” she wrote, “but something in the moonlight bewitched me, and I consented, much to the delight of my niece.”

Early Lumbering at the Straits of Mackinac

Robert Campbell constructed a water-powered sawmill at Mill Creek about 1790, being the first of its kind in northern Michigan. Prior to the mill, trees were turned into lumber entirely with hand tools for more than 100 years at the Straits of Mackinac.

An artists depiction of a woodchopper from 1804

Felling a tree with an axe
Traite de l’art du Charpentier (1804)

 British troops constructed Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island from 1779-1781. Some buildings were dismantled at Fort Michilimackinac on the mainland and transported to the island for reconstruction. Without a sawmill nearby, new construction relied on chopping down trees, sawing them into logs, squaring them with axes, and hauling them to a sawpit where boards were produced. A glimpse of this work can be found in the Log Book of His Majesty’s Armed Sloop – Welcome, kept by Captain Alexander Harrow.

 Beginning in 1779, the Welcome sailed between the lower peninsula mainland and Mackinac Island, hauling buildings, supplies, and timber. On November 19, 1780, Captain Harrow wrote, “This morning blowing hard. Discharged our timber and hauled it up along side of the sawpit. This day snowing very hard… All this day snowing very hard.”

 The Welcome remained tied to a wharf on Mackinac Island throughout the winter of 1780-1781. The crew lived on board and worked each day hauling firewood, sawing planks, repairing the ship, and constructing a blockhouse at the fort.

Hewing a log

Hewing a log (1804)

 Turning a tree into lumber by hand is demonstrated each summer at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. After a log is fixed in place, one rounded side is hewed with a felling axe, then flattened with a broad axe. After these actions are repeated on each side, a round log is transformed into square timber. If desired, timbers could be flattened further with an adze to produce a finer surface.

Flatteninga beam of wood with a broad axe

Flattening with a broad axe (1804)

 To fashion planks and boards, a squared timber is either placed over an open sawpit dug into the ground or hoisted overhead on large sawhorses. To cut boards, a pit sawyer climbs into the hole to pull down on a large saw, while a top sawyer balances above, pulling up on the blade and guiding a straight cut. Despite the unforgiving rocky terrain, several saw pits were dug on Mackinac Island during the construction of Fort Mackinac.

A sawyer using a pit saw

Sawyers using a pitsaw
English Book of Trades (1824)

 Captain Harrow noted his men were at work sawing boards on Mackinac Island more than 50 days from November 1780 – April 1781. He specifically mentioned saw pits many times, including,

… put a log on the pit to saw” (Nov. 29)

“…hauling logs to the saw pit” (Dec. 27)

“…hauling plank from the saw pit to the blockhouse” (Dec. 29)

“…making a saw pit in the woods and getting an oak log on it” (Jan. 16)

“…digging and making a new saw pit” (Feb. 20)

 Warm spring weather finally released the icebound sloop and the Welcome set sail on April 24, 1781. One of the crew’s tasks was making trips to “The Pinery,” a camp located about 15 miles north of Saint Ignace, near the mouth of the Pine River. There, a team of men cut logs then rafted them together on Lake Huron. These rafts were towed behind the Welcome to Mackinac Island, where they were broken up, individual logs hauled to sawpits, and sawn into boards.

The reconstructed sawmill at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park in winter

Water-powered sawmill reconstruction at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 A decade after Fort Mackinac was constructed, sawing boards by hand could not keep pace with local demand for lumber. About 1790, Robert Campbell was granted a 640-acre land claim at Mill Creek, the only stream at the Straits powerful enough to operate a water-powered sawmill. Later owned by Michael Dousman, the sawmill at Mill Creek operated for nearly 50 years before closing in 1839.

 When the sawmill at Mill Creek was abandoned, large trees throughout the Straits region had been harvested for nearly 150 years. As young trees grew in their place, they too were eventually cut in subsequent periods of logging. In 1860, William Johnston wrote, “the trees now seen [on Mackinac Island] are the second and third growth.” In a History of Northern Michigan and its People (1912), author Perry Powers detailed extreme clearcutting from the 1860s–1900s in an aptly named section, “Melting of the Pine Forests.” After pine was cut, hardwood harvest followed, with old growth maples and oaks falling under axe and saw. Commercial logging operations took place at Mill Creek through 1923, with the Cadillac Veneer Co. running a portable sawmill to process hardwood logs, pulpwood, cedar, and stove wood.

Stumps at Mill Creek that serve as a reminder of logging done at the site.

Reminders of early logging remain in the forest at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park

 Careful observers can still find centuries’ old stumps scattered through many Michigan forests. While methods and management techniques have changed, lumbering remains an important industry in the state, which is about 54% forested today. After a century of responsible management, replanting, and growth, the Great Lakes State now boasts more than 20 million forested acres which provide homes for wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and renewable natural resources.

 This May 6 – September 4, you’re invited to explore early Michigan lumbering at Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park. Experience the thrill of a water-powered sawmill, make sawdust fly with a pitsaw, and explore a vibrant Michigan forest along three miles of woodland trails. Before you leave, you’re invited to try the Adventure Tour to enter the forest canopy, fly like an eagle, and scale the Treetop Discovery Tower Climbing Wall. For information, visit www.mackinacparks.com.

Winter Arrives at Mackinac

Winter views of Mackinac Island: the Father Marquette statue and stone ramparts of Fort Mackinac.

Winter on Mackinac Island is a special time of year. The sun sets early, temperatures fall, and a crust of ice forms along the lakeshore. By late January or February, perhaps an “ice bridge” will form between the island and Saint Ignace. In the meantime, on a visit to Marquette Park, you’ll find that lilac blooms and bugle calls have been replaced by a bright, snowy stillness. On especially frigid days, your imagination may conjure Father Marquette stepping right off his pedestal, if he could just find a way to thaw out a little.

Seeds inside white spruce cones are an important food source for winter wildlife.

Red crossbills by
Bruce Horsfall (1908).

 Leaving downtown, the winter woods invite you to explore. Some years, the island is visited by flocks of red or white-winged crossbills. As its name implies, this unusual songbird has a highly specialized beak which crosses at the tip. This adaptation equips a crossbill with a perfect tool for slipping between hard, woody scales of spruce and pine cones. Under each scale, the bird finds a single, tiny seed which is quickly removed with a flick of the tongue. Standing under a spruce tree while a flock of crossbills feeds high above is a unique experience. Discarded bits of seed drift to the ground like softly-falling spruce snow.

Snowshoe hare tracks near the airport.

A cottontail rabbit sits alert in the snow.

 While the North Woods are quiet this time of year, lucky explorers may enjoy other animal encounters. Both cottontail rabbits and snowshoe hares live year-round on Mackinac Island. While the fur coat of a cottontail grows a bit thicker, it remains a tawny brown. The winter coat of a larger snowshoe hare, however, turns white to blend with the snow. While they both take shelter in the thickest underbrush, these crafty creatures may flush and scurry past as you glide by on cross-country skis or snowshoes. Look for hares and rabbits along field edges, especially near the Mackinac Island airport. Even if they remain undercover, you still may discover their tracks in the snow.

Staghorn sumac berries add color
to the muted winter landscape.

Cave-of-the-Woods has provided shelter from winter storms for 10,000 years.

 Exploring fields near the airport might leave you wondering if the word “windchill” was invented on Mackinac Island! Return to the trees by following nearby trails and enjoy a visit to Cave-of-the-Woods, one of the island’s oldest limestone formations. Persistent wave action formed this low opening about 10,000 years ago when this rocky outcrop rested on a prehistoric beach of ancient Lake Algonquin. The rounded cave floor was sculpted as the erosive power of water cut through softer material in the limestone mass. Today, this spot lies 140 feet above modern Lake Huron, providing shelter as you watch snowflakes fall and experience the quiet beauty of winter on Mackinac Island.

Early Accounts of Arch Rock

On an island known for awe-inspiring natural wonders, Arch Rock is Mackinac’s most iconic. This seemingly delicate natural bridge “excites the wonder of all beholders” as it defies gravity, rising more than 140 feet above the waters of Lake Huron. Whether you gaze up from the lakeshore or peer down from the adjacent cliffside, the views that your breath away have been enjoyed by visitors for centuries.

  The first known description of Mackinac Island’s geological formations was penned by Dr. Francis LeBaron on October 30, 1802. The doctor recently arrived at Fort Mackinac to assume the duties of post surgeon. In a letter to the editor of Boston’s Columbian Centinel & Massachusetts Federalist, he wrote:

A black and white photo of Dr. Francis LeBaron

Dr. Francis LeBaron

 “The island of Michilimackinac is about three miles long and two wide, situated in the straights that join lake Huron to lake Michigan
The curiosities of this place consist of two natural caves, one of them is formed in the side of a hill, the other in a pyramidical rock of eighty feet in height, and thirty-five feet in diameter at its base, which is situated on a plain and totally detached from any rock or precipice… There are also two natural arches of the Gothic order which appear to have been formed by some convulsions in nature, one is eighty feet in height, the other is forty.”

  Arch Rock received even broader attention in 1812, when a short description appeared in the sixth edition of Reverend Jedidah Morse’s American Universal Geography. Known as the “father of American geography” (also father of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph) his books influenced the educational system of the United States, being widely used in classrooms for decades. In part, his description of Michigan Territory reads:

A color image of Rev. Jedidah Morse

Rev. Jedidiah Morse

An issue of The American Universal Geography from 1812

The American Universal Geography, 1812

 “Islands. The island Michilimackinac lies between Michigan and Huron, and is 7 miles in circumference….The fort is neatly built, and exhibits a beautiful appearance from the water… On the N.E. side of the island, near the shore, and 80 feet above the lake, is an arched rock. The arch is 20 feet in diameter, at the top, and 30 at the base… The island is one mass of limestone, and the soil is very rich. The climate is cold but healthy. The winter lasts for 5 months with unabated rigor.”

A map of the island of Michilimackinac from 1817

Map of the Island of Michilimackinac [Arch Rock Detail], W.S. Eveleth, 1817

  After the War of 1812, American military surveys and inspections produced a flurry of descriptions, sketches, and maps of Mackinac Island. During an 1817 survey, Lieutenant William Sanford Eveleth, U.S. Corps of Engineers, composed a highly detailed map, including miniature drawings of Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf and Skull Cave. One can imagine curious visitors strolling each dotted pathway through the woods, in search of geological wonders.

  While sharing his reflections on the arch, Captain David Bates Douglass later revealed, “Several officers have walked over it, among which are Lieutenant Curtis and Pierce and my lamented friend Evelyth, at the dizzy height of 147 feet. However, I should think it a rash enterprise.” [In October 1818, Lieut. Evelyth tragically drowned in a violent Lake Michigan gale during the wreck of the schooner Hercules with all hands lost.]

The Arched rock, Michillimackina, F.S. Belton, Sep. 1817

  Major Francis Smith Belton completed the first known artistic rendering of Arch Rock in September 1817. Also on a military inspection tour, his view is shown from a boat offshore, rendered wild, exaggerated and fantastical.

Detail of The Arched rock, Michilimackina by F.S. Belton, Sep. 1817

  One of the two tiny figures drawn at the top of Belton’s image may be Judge Advocate Samuel A. Storrow, who was also on the Island that September. His written description of Mackinac Island and Arch Rock was published as a pamphlet entitled, The North-West in 1817: A Contemporary Letter. In part, it reads:

 “On the eastern side, I found one of the most interesting natural curiosities I have ever witnessed. On the edge of the island, where as elsewhere, the banks are perpendicular, you creep cautiously toward the margin, expecting to overlook a precipice; instead of which you find a cavity of about 75 degrees descent, hollowed from the direct line of the banks; and across it on the edge of the precipice… an immense and perfect arch. Its height is 140 feet from the water, which is seen through it… Looking from the interior, the excavation resembles a crater; but, instead of an opposite side, presents an opening, which is surmounted by this magnificent arch… When on the beach below, you see this mighty arch 140 feet above you, half hid in trees, and seemingly suspended in the air… From the Lake it appears like a work of art, and might give birth to a thousand wild and fanciful conjectures.”

  From these early, enthusiastic descriptions it’s clear that Arch Rock has cast a spell upon Mackinac Island visitors for centuries. To learn more about Arch Rock and the Island’s other natural wonders, watch for future blog posts, exhibits and publications and visit mackinacparks.com.

Why are certain things banned on Mackinac Island?

There is so much to explore and enjoy during a visit to Mackinac Island State Park. When you visit the island make sure you bring sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and a camera! However, there are a few things you should leave on the mainland.

  • A site you won’t typically see on Mackinac Island. This was done for an ad.

    Your car – Ask someone what they know about Mackinac Island, and you’ll likely hear that there’s lots of fudge, bicycles, and horses, but no cars. Since 1901, cars have been banned in Mackinac Island State Park. There are numerous accounts of early automobiles causing problems with horses and carriages. The ban was incorporated into state law in 1960. There are few exceptions to the use of motor vehicles regulation, the biggest of which is emergency vehicles. There is one police car, two fire trucks, and an ambulance available on the island. So, when you come for a visit, the ferry services have plenty of parking available on the mainland. Lock up your car and hop on a shuttle to the dock. The lack of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is extremely important to keeping the historic character of this National Landmark alive, and one of the most enduring memories of your visit here.

  • Your e-bike – Speaking of vehicles, e-bikes are also banned within Mackinac Island State Park. The absence of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is uniquely effective in retaining the historic character of this National Historic Landmark. State law currently forbids the use of e-bikes within Mackinac Island State Park and the City of Mackinac Island without authorization from those respective entities. However, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission and City of Mackinac Island do have an exception for the use of Class 1 bicycles in certain situations.
  • Your drone – Yes, aerial pictures are awesome, and Mackinac Island State Park has numerous areas that are breathtaking at and above ground level. However, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) are not allowed in the State Park. Let’s face it, most drones are noisy, can be dangerous around groups of people, and very distracting to horses. Their presence takes away from the natural and historical environments our visitors are coming to experience. Therefore, the commission reviews professional operator requests thoroughly, and, more often than not, does not approve these requests.
  • The old campground in Michilimackinac State Park in Mackinaw City. Camping is now banned throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks to allow for guests to enjoy as much of the natural environment as possible.

    Your tent – While Mackinac Island is a beautiful island with a lot of open spaces, there is no camping permitted in the state park. Great care is taken to balance the amount of land left undeveloped with areas that have amenities like carriage roads and trails. The threat of a wildfire is also a particular concern, so campfires are also not allowed in the park. And what’s camping without roasting a couple marshmallows. For those that want to spend the night under the stars, there is a plethora of campsites to choose from on the mainland.

However, we do have a couple recommendations of a few special things you can bring that can make your visit even more enjoyable.

  • Your bicycle – Since you can’t drive on Mackinac Island, almost everybody gets around by bicycle. There are many bike rental shops on the island, but if you are more comfortable riding your own – bring it along. Mackinac Island State Park has more than 70 miles of natural and paved trails around the perimeter and through the interior of the island. The island is small enough that you can pedal around it at a leisurely pace in an hour and a half. Along the way you’ll come across many incredible scenic spots for photos of the island and Lake Huron. Please be aware there are few requirements for e-bikes and you’ll need to pay for a temporary bicycle license before boarding the ferry.
  • Your pet – Have fun exploring the state park with your dog by your side.  Make sure you have what you need to keep your pet hydrated and don’t forget the doggy bags. While Mackinac’s sanitation department takes care of the horse droppings, you’ll need to pick up after your pooch. Leashed dogs are allowed on all state park trails and within Fort Mackinac. Remember to cover your pup’s ears during the cannon and rifle demonstrations.

The Mackinac Island State Park Commission and Mackinac State Historic Park staff work hard to protect, preserve, and present Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources. We appreciate your help in keeping Mackinac Island State Park a wonderful place to visit.

Summer Birds of Mill Creek

Blackburnian Warbler, Alexander Wilson (1808)

  As spring turns to summer, the woods of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park are alive with birdsong. By mid-June, year-round residents of the park, such as black-capped chickadees, nuthatches, and tufted titmice, have been singing since winter snow gave way to spring wildflowers. Summer residents, many which migrated north for thousands of miles, arrive “finely tuned” and ready to put on a show as they attract mates and defend nesting territories.

  The official wildlife checklist of Mill Creek includes about 130 species of birds, while the list for Mackinac Island contains 190 varieties. Both parks consist of varied habitats, including Lake Huron shoreline, creeks and streams, swamps, open meadows, and forests of conifers and hardwoods.

Robert Ridgeway (1875)

  Finding birds at Mill Creek begins as soon as you step out of your car. Although the tree canopy is filled with green, listen closely for musical notes floating in the breeze. In the pines growing near the visitor’s center, you may hear a “shrill, thin song, which runs up the scale to end in a high z.” If so, pause and search for a blackburnian warbler hunting for insects among the branches. Catching a glimpse of a male’s flame-orange throat may just take your breath away! As they prefer evergreens for nesting, this species was once known as the “hemlock warbler.”

Ernest Thompson Seton (1901)

  Stop for a trail map as you make your way into the park. Next, follow the sound of rushing water and you’ll soon discover Mill Creek. Sitting near the mill pond, patient watchers may enjoy a visit from a belted kingfisher as it scans for brook trout. Kingfishers are memorable birds, with a dry, rattling call that announces their presence long before they fly into view. Occasionally, they even perch on the zip line, as if teasing participants while they glide over the creek. Unlike most birds, female kingfishers are more colorful than males, as they wear a chestnut-brown “necklace” while their mate sports a simple bluish band across their chest.

Thomas G. Gentry (1882)

  As you head into the woods, it’s nearly impossible to avoid an encounter with an American redstart. In 1893, Mackinac Island resident and researcher, Stewart E. White, wrote this was “the most characteristic bird of the island. It occurs in such amazing abundance that it seems as if every tree contained one of these birds.” Thankfully, such words still ring true today as this flashy black, orange and white warbler is still one of our most common summer residents. Plumage of females and immature males consists of light brown tones with yellow highlights.

  Relentlessly persistent, a restart’s repetitive, mellow song begins as soon as they arrive in May and lasts through August. This woodland songster sings for weeks on end, seemingly, as one early 20th century author noted, “to the accompaniment of his own echo.”

  As you continue down the trail, the species of birds you may encounter numbers in the dozens. Almost assuredly, you’ll hear the insistent, rambling song of the red-eyed vireo, the plaintive “peee-weee” call of the eastern wood peewee, and the rapid staccato of “teacher-teacher-TEACHER” from the tiny ovenbird, ringing through the forest. Venture out in the morning or evening for a chance to hear the ethereal, flute-like call of a wood thrush, perhaps the most magical song of the North Woods.

Mark Catesby (1754)

  If you don’t encounter one of our six resident woodpecker species, you’re almost certain to find evidence of their handiwork, hammering trees for insects beneath the bark. Especially watch for huge, rectangular cavities excavated by the crow-sized pileated woodpecker and small, regular rows of “sap wells” chiseled by yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Sapsuckers maintain wells to drink sap that drips out, but more importantly to capture insects that become trapped in sweet liquid that seeps from the tree. Sap wells in dead wood are evidence of a previous season’s efforts.

  No matter where you wander, watch and listen for birds all around you, each of which varies in color, shape, song, size, habits and habitats. Ancestors of many special species found homes in the forest of Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park long before people arrived on the scene. While some are suited to the creek or frequent the shore of a beaver pond, others prefer poking through leaf-litter on the forest floor. Some nearly never leave the tree canopy high above, while others may zip past you on their way to pick a sunflower seed from a bird feeder.

  During your visit, be sure to sit and scan the summer sky. Every day, someone spots a bald eagle floating effortlessly on the wind, high above the forest canopy. As you watch an eagle soar, consider it may also be watching you, with eyesight sharper than its talons. As it finally leaves your view, let your imagination follow into the unknown. At Historic Mill Creek Discovery Park, the feathered residents of Mackinac’s North Woods are waiting. Here you’ll discover ducks on the mill pond, friendly chickadees at the feeder, tiny hummingbirds sipping nectar, and the majestic symbol of our nation soaring over the Great Lakes. We all hope to see you soon.

Dive into the past at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and learn why ‘shipwrecks don’t just happen’

You may know the story of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and quickly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. But did you know that another large ship met a similar fate off Michigan’s coastline just three years earlier?

“We got around to the men struggling in the water as quickly as possible,” the surviving Capt. Timese Lemay reported in the days following the Eber Ward’s sinking. “Some had grabbed the wreckage. Others were holding fast to pieces of the ice floe. We pulled six into our boat. Then I looked for the others. They were gone. Nothing but pieces of wreckage, some ice and a few bubbles showed where they had been.” (Photo credit: Cliff Roberts, Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve)

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse tells the story:

It was April 1909 when the Eber Ward departed Chicago on its first trip of the spring. The wooden freighter picked up a load of corn in Milwaukee and then charted a course up and around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula toward Port Huron.

The day was calm and sunny as the ship neared the present-day location of the Mackinac Bridge. But as is often the case in early spring on the Straits of Mackinac, the thawing water still was quite slushy. And unfortunately, there were large chunks of solid ice, too.

Going too fast for the conditions, the Eber Ward slammed into an ice floe that ripped a hole in the ship’s bow, filling the peaceful morning with a surge of panic among the 16 crewmen. Within 10 minutes, the 213-foot-long freighter had disappeared.

One of two lifeboats safely launched, while the other was capsized by the sinking ship. Eleven men went into the water. Five were never found.

Shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are ‘usually someone’s fault’

  The Eber Ward is one of more than 100 wrecks that remain on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow passage from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron between Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas. Each one has its own incredible story of human tragedy, from the “Sandusky,” an 1850s sailing vessel that was overwhelmed by waves and is the oldest-known shipwreck in the Straits of Mackinac, to the “Cedarville,” a 600-foot modern freighter that went down after a collision in heavy fog in 1965.

  Each of those three wrecks occurred for different reasons. Yet, they illustrate the museum’s overriding theme: “Shipwrecks don’t just happen,” says Craig P. Wilson, chief curator for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s usually someone’s fault.”

  Museum visitors get to see exactly what caused the various shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac. And there are artifacts from the ships on display, including the original figurehead from the Sandusky, kitchenware from the galley of the Eber Ward and, ironically, a paper safety placard from the Cedarville. There’s even a revolver that was recovered from a wooden freighter that was cut by ice and sank in 1894.

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum also features dive footage from the wrecks. You can see the Eber Ward’s damaged hull, which sits upright and intact about 140 feet below the surface, as well as the damaged lifeboat that went down with the ship. And there are three sets of models that show the Sandusky, Eber Ward and Cedarville as they appeared while in service, and how they look now on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

RELATED: See underwater footage of the Sandusky

Plan a visit to the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

  The “Titanic” movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio still ranks among the highest-grossing Hollywood features ever. And just like the Titanic, the shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are fascinating, too.

  Yet, they’re also sobering. In many cases, people lost their lives. As Wilson notes, “there is a real human cost to these events” as people suffered the consequences of their own or other people’s decisions.

  Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum are open daily through Oct. 10 this year. In addition to the museum, the historic site at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City features a “Shipwrecks of the Straits” movie, daily demonstrations of a fog signal whistle and a lighthouse keeper’s quarters with period settings and exhibits about the science of lighthouses and what life was like for the people who lived there.

  The lighthouse tower itself is currently closed.

SS Minneapolis Revolver

On April 4, 1894, the bulk steam freighter Minneapolis sank in the Straits of Mackinac after taking on water due to ice damage. On board the ship was a Smith and Wesson Model No. 1, Second Issue revolver manufactured in 1864. It is a bottom-break revolver that holds seven brass .22 caliber short rimfire cartridges. It was one of the first handguns produced by Smith and Wesson and one of the first to use self-contained brass cartridges. The revolver belonged to one of the 14 crewmembers aboard the ship who may have carried it for numerous reasons.

Firearms were not uncommon amongst Great Lakes sailors. Revolvers provided a form of protection against unwelcome guests aboard a ship and assisted in protection of valuable cargo. Pursers aboard passenger ships were known to carry weapons to protect items entrusted to them by their guests. Officers carried them to protect monies carried on board for payroll and other business. In an emergency, firearms could be used to keep order and act as a signaling device to attract the attention of other vessels and searchers.

The crew of the Minneapolis survived the wreck, being picked up by the San Diego, a consort barge the ship was towing along with the Red Wing. The wreck was located in 1963 and today is approximately 500 feet from the South Tower of the Mackinac Bridge. The revolver was recovered from the shipwreck prior to the 1983 creation of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, which makes it illegal to remove items from shipwrecks today. Along with several other objects, the revolver was donated to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 2013.

Conservation work was done in the winter of 2014 by Inland Seas Institute (ISI) for inclusion of the revolver in the new Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. The revolver was placed into electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity, an electrolyte, and anodes to remove corrosion from metal objects. After just a few hours of treatment, it was noticed that the gun still contained cartridges. Treatment of the revolver continued with the awareness that the gun could still contain black powder and lead bullets.

The revolver is composed of a silver-plated brass frame with a steel barrel, cylinder, cylinder rotating mechanisms, screws, springs and pins and brass cartridges with lead bullets which over time interact with one another causing deterioration via bi-metallic corrosion. Even though the revolver was treated, contact between these metals would continue to cause corrosion over time especially during environmental changes. During a cleaning of the exhibits in 2020, recent corrosion was noticed on the revolver. It was removed from display, examined, and photographed. ISI was contacted and a new proposal was developed to treat the corrosion and attempt to disarm the revolver by removing the cartridges and their bullets.

Electrolysis was performed again to halt the corrosion and once stabilized, the revolver was taken to a gunsmith. The cylinder was removed revealing that the gun had 6 loaded cartridges and an empty cartridge under the hammer possibly to act as a safety. Corrosion in the cylinder prevented the gun from being unloaded once the cylinder was removed, so a plan was developed to melt out the lead bullets, remove the powder, and have safe access to the cartridges for their removal. The cylinder was positioned in a way to safely do this in case the powder was still active after 60+ years underwater.

The lead bullets were melted using a propane torch, which upon contact caused three of the cartridges to go off in a controlled manner for safety. The cartridges were then removed using a specially made brass punch. The screws and pins holding the revolver together were removed so complete treatment of each piece could be performed. Upon completion of conservation the revolver parts will be coated with microcrystalline wax prior to reassembly to prevent future corrosion of the barrel, cylinder and cylinder works. The revolver will be reassembled using carbon fiber screws and Delrin (polymer) pins to minimize future bi-metallic corrosion. The cartridges, screws, and pins will be returned and the revolver will be placed back on display inside the shipwreck museum. We hope you’ll join us at Old Mackinac Point in the near future to see the Minneapolis revolver on display once again.

Shifting Sands

Remains of the lighthouse dock in April 2021.

The high water levels of the Great Lakes in recent years have caused significant erosion along the shoreline, exposing many long-buried landscape features. This year, water levels have fallen slightly, revealing previously-buried or submerged pieces of the past. The dock remains currently visible in front of the Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse are but one example of how the power of the Great Lakes can alternately hide and reveal reminders of our maritime history.

The dock may have been the first element of the light station to be built, as it would have been necessary to receive materials for the construction of the original fog signal building in 1890. According to the 1894 Annual Report, “the landing crib was carried away by ice.” A replacement was completed the following year. It is depicted on a 1907 map as extending 198 feet out into the straits.

Keeper George Marshall greets a lighthouse inspector on the station dock. 

The dock was gone by 1921, when the District Superintendent explained in letter to the Commissioner of Lighthouses that it was not necessary to construct a new dock because “supplies and fuel can be unloaded at a city dock and transported to the Station.”

The remains of the dock you see today are over one hundred years old and fragile. Please do not disturb them. Archaeological remains such as the dock, whether located on land within Michilimackinac State Park or submerged in the waters of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, are protected by state law.

More information about the Old Mackinac Point Light Station can be found in Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse: A History and Pictorial Souvenir by MSHP Director Steve Brisson, available at MSHP museum stores. Visit our website to order a copy, or for more information about visiting Old Mackinac Point.

 

Michilimackinac’s Artillery

Over the past few years the staff at Mackinac State Historic Parks has diligently been adding reproductions of Michilimackinac’s artillery throughout the site to provide visitors an accurate representation of what the site looked like in the 1770s. Join Curator of History Craig Wilson as he takes us for a tour of Michilimackinac and its artillery.