Friday, March 2, 2012

Little Traverse Bay Exhibit Opening

[editor's note: The Clarke Historical Library will be suspending our Saturday hours for the next two weeks (March 3 and 10) because of CMU's spring break. We will be open our regular Monday through Friday hours during this time and we will resume Saturday hours on March 17.]

Little Traverse Bay Exhibit Opening

by Frank Boles

On February 29, Michael Federspiel spoke at the opening of the Library’s new exhibit, A Delightful Destination: Little Traverse Bay at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. Mr. Federspiel, who curated the exhibit, discussed the remarkable transformation that occurred at Little Traverse Bay between 1875 and 1925.

In the 1870s, Little Traverse Bay, like much of northern Michigan, was cut-over timber land. The Grand Rapids & Indiana Railroad, in exchange for hundreds of thousands of acres of land, was rapidly laying track between Grand Rapids and Petoskey. The railroad’s plan was to make money selling the land to settlers who would engage in farming and need the railroad to both bring in supplies and take out harvested crops. However the GR&I quickly realized this business model had a problem; the land was barren. The sandy, rocky, cut-over timberland was of limited agricultural value. The plan wasn’t going to work.

However, the GR&I, as well as thousands of individual entrepreneurs, invented something to replace it – “Up North.” The land may not have been suitable for agriculture, but it was a tourist’s paradise. The air was clean and crisp. The beaches were lovely. And soon the railroad, as well as steamships, began to bring summer visitors by the thousands, who realized that because of “modern” transportation they could reach this paradise from homes in Chicago, Detroit or even St. Louis in a day or less. In 1906, between June 25 and September 30, 13,000 trains arrived in Petosky, averaging 134 per day, 12 per hour or one every five minutes.

To entertain the thousands of people brought by train and by boat, all sorts of entertainments arose. Some were natural; others were artificially created. One of the most popular natural attractions was the “Inland Water Route," a 35 mile chain of lakes and rivers beginning in Oden and ending at the mouth of the Cheboygan River. By 1900 more than thirty boats made daily trips over the Route, taking tourists on site seeing excursions.

In contrast to the natural wonders of the Inland Route, the GR&I Railroad invented “Wa-Ya-Ma-Gug.” A tourist destination constructed in an unpopulated area along the line’s tracks, Wa-Ya-Ma-Gug offered the usual range of activities, dining, games, swimming and the like, but with a Native American theme. Tourists could sleep in a teepee, watch Native American artisans create handicrafts (and of course purchase the same in the inevitable gift shop). Tourists were much more likely, however, to attend the site’s top attraction, the daily “Hiawatha” play, which featured an all-Native American cast re-enacting a version of Longfellow’s epic poem.

All this tourist activity required the construction and maintenance of an amazing infrastructure. By way of example, while in 1900 Detroit had the largest local transportation infrastructure in the state, second place went to Petoskey and the other communities near Little Traverse Bay.

Up North, and the tourism industry associated with it, was invented in Michigan at the beginning of the twentieth century. Michael Federspiel, and the exhibit he created, tells the story of how it was done. We hope you will take the time to visit the exhibit, which will be open in the Clarke Library through Memorial Day, and then will, like so many others of us, travel north for the summer to be shown at the Harbor Springs History Museum.