2008-08-16 / Columnists

Devil's Kitchen Yawns at Passing Parade of Island Visitors

A Look at History

Devil's Kitchen


A small "sea cave," Devil's Kitchen opens two limestone mouths, one atop the other, out upon bikers on Lake Shore Road and passers-by on the ferryboats to and from St. Ignace. This smoke-blackened cave is by far the most accessible of the erosion hollows that mark the bluffs of Mackinac Island. Like many other Island geological formations, it has an interesting history.

Devil's Kitchen's unusual appearance comes from the fact that it was originally two caves, one directly on top of the other. At a time, some hundreds of years ago, when lake levels were about 10 feet higher than they are today, the waters of Lake Huron beat against an exposed shelf of Mackinac Island breccia and eroded what is now the upper half of Devil's Kitchen. Then the waters receded toward their current level, eroding a second cave directly below the first.

The two-cave formation is one of Mackinac Island's youngest geological formations, having been formed within the last few hundred years. In fact, it continues to change to this day. As recently as a century ago, the two caves were separated by a broad shelf of breccia; a Detroit Publishing Company postcard published in 1906 clearly depicts the two-cave formation. Since that time part, of the shelf has crumbled and the two caves have begun to melt into each other, to make one large cave.

The construction of Lake Shore Drive in the early 1900s made Devil's Kitchen more accessible to Islanders and visitors, who could ride bicycles or carriages to the landmark. Many chose to enjoy summer campfires and toasted marshmallows at the site, as Mackinac Island did not yet require permits for open fires. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann)
A local legend, attributed to the Indians, says that this cave was named after a clan of cannibals who supposedly used the cave to cook and eat their loathsome meals. Although this legend has been retold to this day, notably in Dirk Gringhuis's familiar book, "Lore of the Great Turtle," some observers are not sure that this legend is really of Native American origin, nor are they convinced that the name "Devil's Kitchen" truly dates back to Indian times. When federal government land surveyors circumnavigated Mackinac Island in October 1828 and mapped out its coastline, they referred to a large rock formation on the bluff of what was then the Ambrose Davenport farm as "Little Rock." This "Little Rock" was either Devil's Kitchen or, more likely, the formation we now know as Lover's Leap.

Years of disturbance and erosion have changed the view of Devil's Kitchen over time. (Photographs courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann)
In either case, it does not appear that the name "Devil's Kitchen" was in official use in 1828 by explorers of Mackinac Island's shoreline. Soon after this survey, however, as a result of the invention of the passenger steamboat, travelers began to arrive on Mackinac Island in ever-increasing numbers. Many of them recorded how they were told colorful and romantic stories of the Island's Native American past. The name "Devil's Kitchen" appeared at some time in the 1800s, possibly invented by local guides as part of this fund of stories told to visitors.

Throughout the 1800s, visitors who wanted to see Devil's Kitchen had to wade or look at it from a boat. The waters of Lake Huron lapped directly against the toe-stones of Mackinac Island's southwestern bluffs, and during periods of high water, such as 1876, the lake rose up into the base of the cave, continuing and completing the job of erosion that we see today.

The construction of Lake Shore Boulevard, in the first decade of the 1900s, made the cave much more accessible to bicyclists and drive-yourself carriages. Many Mackinac Islanders may remember when open fires were allowed on Mackinac Island without special permits. During much of the last century, many Islanders and summer people would go to Devil's Kitchen to enjoy summer campfires. The guidebook-writer Florence Fuller wrote in 1926 that the cave was "a favorite place for tourists to roast marshmallows." During this time, the cave's stony interior acquired the smoke-blackening, which it has retained to this day. Imaginative visitors can look at the begrimed rock surface and imagine the cannibal fires that supposedly burned here.

A Detroit Publishing Company postcard, printed about 1915, depicts Devil's Kitchen surrounded by large breccia boulders. These boulders were strewn about the base of the mouth of the cave and along the roadside to the east. These boulders east of the cave could have been "toe stones" holding the bluff above in place. Many of the stones have since been removed as part of a series of projects to pave and widen Lake Shore Boulevard into the broad highway that it is today. A 1920s-era whitebordered postcard shows that the road that passes by Devil's Kitchen was much narrower than the current road.

The original, narrow Lake Shore Road was built by hand along a narrow "bench" of gravel surrounding the base of Mackinac Island's bluffs. Construction of the road does not appear to have harmed the stability of the bluffs around Devil's Kitchen. A Curteich postcard of Devil's Kitchen and the bluff toe immediately east of the cave, published in the 1930s, showed a thriving woodscape of cedar trees on the steeply sloping areas and to the east of the cave.

However, a new period of high Lake Huron water in the early 1950s damaged Lake Shore Road. The State Park, led by superintendent Carl Nordberg, brought in heavy machinery - not used much in previous projects on Mackinac Island - to rebuild, widen, and stabilize the highway. Parts of the Island's bluffs were blown up with dynamite and reduced to aggregate to create the required roadbed, and many of the Devil's Kitchen "toe stones" disappeared at this time. Three large slumps followed, gravel slides that killed swathes of the bluffs' white cedar forests.

Fifty years after this period of disturbance and erosion, the Devil's Kitchen area has again become one of the most beautiful spots on Mackinac Island. The cave itself continues to delight tourists to this day. A continuous stream of bicyclists stops here to enjoy the cavernous hollow that stares out into Lake Huron. The State Park has installed signs that describe the history of the cave and its relationship to the geology of Mackinac Island and the Great Lakes.

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