Mackinac Island

by Amanda Bur

Main Street, Mackinac Island.  Photo by Tony Demin

Located east of the Mackinac Bridge in Lake Huron, between the Upper and Lower Peninsula, lies Mackinac Island. It is the jewel of the Great Lakes.  Derived from the Native American language and resembling the shape of a turtle, the Native’s name the island “Michimakinak,” meaning “Big Turtle.”  The French used a version of the original pronunciation “Michilimackinac,” which later was shortened by English to what we call it today, “Mackinac.”  The 8 mile circumference island has retained an 18th and 19th century feel.  Where battlefields once were now stands magnificent resorts and hotels, cottages, restaurants, and gift shops.  The center of fur trade has transformed into a tranquil summer resort are, attracting people from all around the world.

Fort Mackinac.  Photo Credit:  @imagebob | iStock by Getty Images

MOVEMENT OF FORT MACKINAC

Mackinac Island was home to Native Americans before European exploration began in the 17th century.  In the early 1600s, Native Americans resided on the island to fish.  Father Jacques Marquette established a mission to the Huron Indians in 1671.  The mission was then moved to the south side of the Straits (present day Mackinaw City) a year later.  On the south shore of the Straits the French eventually built Fort Michilimackinac.  The fort was a port for fur trade.  The Straits of Mackinac quickly became the main fur trading location.  Following the French and Indian war, Fort Michilimackinac was passed into the hands of the British.  In 1780, during the American Revolution, Major Patrick Sinclair ordered that the fort was to be relocated after receiving a threat that American’s were going to attack.  It was located to the high bluffs of Mackinac Island and renamed Fort Mackinac.  In 1796, Americans took the fort over.  But, at the beginning of the war of 1812, the British recaptured it.  In 1814, Americans fought a bloody battle in attempt to retake Fort Mackinac, but failed.  After the war, Fort Mackinac was returned to the United States and remained active until 1895.

Today, Fort Mackinac is opened as a living history museum.  Reenactments, tours, and antique rifle and cannon firings are scheduled throughout the day, sending visitors back in time to experience what life was like in the 18th and 19th century on Mackinac Island.  Inside the fort lies fourteen restored buildings in which history is showcased with period furnishings that highlight the buildings function or themed exhibit.  Programs at the fort seek to engage all the senses of visitors, rather than them receiving lectures.  The park provides many hands on activities to get people involved.

Stuart House City Museum.  Photo from mightymac.org

FURS TO FISH

In the 1800s, fur trade was Mackinac Island’s primary industry, creating millions of dollars.  Furs were sorted and baled for shipment on Market Street and sent to the east coast and Europe.  Things like beaver pelts were exported by John Jacob Astor’s American Fur company for thirty years.  Commercial fishing replaced fur trade in the middle of the 19th century and the island became an important Great Lakes fishing port.  Each spring, fishermen would prepare fish for packaging and shipped on lake boats to Canadian and New York markets.  In the 1880s, sport fishing became popular, driving more people to the Straits of Mackinac.

Grand Hotel.  Photo by Amanda Bur

THE GRANDEST OF THEM ALL

After the civil war and the expansion of railroad systems and enhanced steam ships, Mackinac Island started to become a popular destination around the 1880s.  The Mackinac Island Hotel Company was formed by The Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company.  These companies built hotels to accommodate tourists, some of which included the Victorian-styled Grand Hotel that opened in 1887.  At the time rates ranged from three to five dollars per night.  Today they can range from $300 to well over $1000.  Famous writer, Mark Twain held lectures in the hotel’s casino in 1895, admission being one dollar.  In 1919, W. Stewart Woodfill was hired as a desk clerk, who later became owner of the Grand Hotel in 1933.  In 1960, the hotel became a State Historical Building.

The 385-room luxury hotel also played a central role in the film “Somewhere in Time,” which was released in 1980.  Every fall, fans of the movie, from all around the world, vacation to the island to dress up and enjoy a weekend of reenactments and screening.In 1989, the Grand Hotel becomes a National Historical Landmark.

Murdicks fudge shop.  Photo from mackinacisland.net

OH FUDGE

As more visitors arrived to explore the beautiful island, residents began opening shops, many of which included fudge shop.  Fudge became the number one souvenir of Mackinac Island by the 1920s after Henry Murdick opened the islands first “Candy Kitchen.”  Henry’s son, Jerome, crafted fudge using his mother’s recipe, making it on marble tables which gave the fudge its texture and provided a stage showing customers how it’s made.  Many other fudge shops opened in the 1920s, however, were shut down after the Great Depression in 1929, except Murdicks.  Business became challenging after the depression, leading Henry to sell his shop in 1940.  Jerome later opened a luncheonette in 1957 and converted it into “Murdick’s Candy Kitchen,” continuing the family fudge making tradition.

Today, Sara Murdick’s recipe is still used, along with the old-fashioned techniques used to make fudge.  Murdicks has expanded to other locations, including Mackinaw City and a bakery in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.

@UWMadison | iStock by Getty Images

HORSEPOWER

Mackinac Island is known for operating under horsepower.  For health and safety reasons, all motorized vehicles, with the exception of emergency and construction vehicles, were banned in the 19th century.  Each summer, over 600 horses arrive to help transport goods to homes and businesses, wastes to composting facilities, and island residents and visitors to their desired destination.  Most people bike around the island, especially on Lake Shore Boulevard.  It is the only state highway that has banned cars from driving on it.  The scenic route takes riders past some of Mackinac Island’s most beautiful attractions, including Arch Rock and British Landing.  The restriction of automobiles has not only provided residents and tourists with cleaner air, but also a more slow-moving, quaint and picturesque environment as horse carriages and bikers travel up and down the streets.

Star Line Mackinac Island Ferry.  Photo by Amanda Bur

MAKE IT MACKINAC

Over half a million people visit Mackinac Island each year.  The Lilac Festival, Chicago to Mackinac Boat Race, Fudge Festival and the Zoo-De-Mack Bike Race are home to Mackinac Island and bring in thousands of visitors throughout the summer.  If you’re not a fan of the summer crowds, Mackinac Island offers winter activities as well.  Trails are groomed for those who enjoy cross country skiing and snowshoeing and snowmobiles are welcomed.  Many participate in Winter Festival, which include fun events like sledding, snow golf, broom hockey, and a bonfire cookout.

If you’re looking for a place to escape the vast changes of time, Mackinac Island may just be the place for you.  Beautiful trails to hike, historic museums to explore, restaurants with good food and live bands, gift shops to buy souvenirs and more; Mackinac Island offers it all.  And, getting there is half the fun!

@MLive.com | Emily Rose Bennett
Photo by Amanda Bur

PHOTOS OF LIFE ON THE ISLAND

Sanders | Photo by Amanda Bur
Pink Pony | Photo by Amanda Bur
Star Line | Photo by Amanda Bur
@MLive.com | Emily Rose Bennett