2007-08-04 / Columnists

A Look at History

Mackinac Island Offers Several Modern Paved Bicycle Trails
BY FRANK STRAUS

This summer, the state of Michigan is rebuilding the old Michigan Central railroad rightof way from Gaylord to Mackinaw City as a 10-footwide bicycle trail. The 62-milelong right-of-way, which once served as a base for railroad tracks built in 1881 and pulled up beginning in 1991, will be graded and covered with crushed limestone as part of the federally subsidized rails-to-trails program. The right-of-way passes through many towns familiar to Mackinac Islanders, such as Vanderbilt, Indian River, Topinabee, and Cheboygan.

For many miles, the new trail skirts Mullett Lake, part of the Inland Waterway, and bikers will have a beautiful view of the lake. The trail is on the land side of U.S. Highway 23 from Cheboygan to Mackinaw City, and runs right by Mackinac State Historic Parks' Mill Creek.

It is fitting that a new bicycle trail is being built to connect the outside world with the Straits of Mackinac. Only one generation after the construction of this pioneer railroad line, Mackinac Island pioneered in the invention of bicycle trailing. Our Island's Lake Shore Road, built at state expense between 1900 and 1910, has a good claim to be the first modern road-like trail built in the United States built consciously and specifically for non-motorized use. Mackinac Island has banned private cars and motor vehicles since 1898, shortly before construction on Lake Shore Road began. Now M-185, this road hosts hundreds of thousands of bikers every summer. Although it is a state highway, it is much narrower than a road built for cars would be. It has been paved with asphalt since the 1950s.

Cycling on the Shore Road, now M-185. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Cycling on the Shore Road, now M-185. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Almost all of the roads and streets on Mackinac Island make good bike trails, because of the absence of motorized traffic. Horse congestion can be a problem. In the 1970s, the Mackinac Island State Park expanded bikefriendly space on Mackinac Island by building a loop of purpose built bike trails through the southeastern quarter of the Island. The loop begins and ends near the Glenn Allen tennis courts, up above and behind Fort Mackinac. All of this loop is on the high ground that forms the interior of Mackinac Island.

In front of Devil's Kitchen. In front of Devil's Kitchen. The bike trails encourage bicyclists to avoid the road used by heavy Carriage Tours buggies. The section of the loop from Fort Mackinac to Arch Rock goes parallel to the carriage road, and contains more than a dozen signs identifying some of the most magnificent trees on Mackinac Island.

The Mackinac Island State Park bicycle trail is only about 30 years old, but has already moved one of its segments. When Carriage Tours stopped using Sugar Loaf Road in 1980, the bike trail ceased to use a former section of bike trail that ran parallel, and moved itself to the road. This former bike trail's narrow pavement has now disappeared under forest detritus, and the pathway is now a horse and walking trail. Called "Fernway Trail," the former bike trail stretches through one of the most beautiful sections of Mackinac Island, rich in ferns and spring wildflowers.

North of Arch Rock, another section of the Island's State Park bike trail uses part of Leslie Avenue, one of Mackinac Island's oldest pleasure roads. When Mackinac National Park was created in 1875, Congress asked the soldiers serving at Fort Mackinac to operate the park and improve it to make it a more attractive place to visit. In 1889, soldiers cut Leslie Avenue through the woods. Their tools and supplemental fatigue pay were covered with revenues generated from leasing the West Bluff and East Bluff to new Island cottagers. Leslie Avenue was originally a graveled road suitable for horseback and carriage riding, and was not paved as a bike trail until the 1970s.

A fourth section of the bike trail, newly built in the 1970s, forms a link between southern Leslie Avenue and Sugar Loaf. This section crosses the venerable old Crooked Tree Road, the Islanders' route to the old Great Garden forest clearing in northcentral Mackinac Island, and the north-south Blodgett Trail. "Blodgett Trail" commemorates one of the oldest cottager families on Mackinac Island; the patriarch, Delos Blodgett, built "Casa Verano" on the West Bluff. Several of his descendants were fine horsewomen; granddaughter Hope Goodwin, a matriarch of the Mackinac Island Horse Show, comes especially to mind. The Blodgett family helped maintain many of Mackinac Island's trails for many years, and this trail was named in their honor.

Other sights accessible from Mackinac Island's plateau bike trail include the Lime Kiln, the Quarry, and the Forest King. The Lime Kiln is easiest to find because it has an unpaved dirt trail named after it; Lime Kiln Trail intersects the paved bike trail in two places. North of where Lime Kiln Trail and Rock Trail cross each other are the remains of the old kiln, a structure built by Fort Mackinac soldiers sometime in the late 1700s or early 1800s to cook Mackinac Island limestone into lime, an alkaline chemical used for plaster and whitewash.

On nearby Quarry Trail, a ledge bears the faint marks of the metal tools used to harvest the limestone for this purpose.

On Rock Trail stands the Forest King, a single giant white pine tree. This tree is so large and old that it was featured in Edwin O. Wood's "Historic Mackinac," a book published in 1918.

Generations of Islanders have walked to this great tree, whose needles carpet the forest floor around it. Given this tree's size and age, its continued existence is a mystery, because nobody knows why it was not cut down in the late 1700s when almost all of the other great trees on Mackinac Island were leveled for timber and firewood.

Later, the white pine was named the state tree of Michigan, and surviving oldgrowth examples are carefully cherished and preserved all over the state.

These are some of the attractions of Mackinac Island's upland bike trail. Many of my readers may be able to point out others.

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