2008-09-06 / Columnists

Mackinac Bridge Spanned Way to New Era at Fort Mackinac

Island Heritage
A Look at History BY FRANK STRAUS

of the Mackinac Bridge in late 1957 created a new challenge for Mackinac Island. This challenge, and opportunity, was much in the minds of Islanders and their friends 50 years ago as the summer of 1958 approached.

Preliminary bridge crossing figures compiled by the Mackinac Bridge Authority in the winter of 1957-58, during the first months that the new span was in operation, indicated that excitement over the bridge's unofficial opening had already begun to translate into higher-than-expected rates of bridge crossings by private motorists. Despite a high fare of $3.75 - equivalent to 15 silver quarters or about $35 in 2008 money - thousands of people were driving across the new span. It was already clear in the spring of 1958 that, if traditional travel patterns continued, hundreds of thousands of American motorists would be driving north to the Straits of Mackinac in the coming summer to see the new bridge and enjoy Michigan's northland. Many of these visitors would want to see Mackinac Island.

This presented a serious problem for the Island. In early 1958, our tourism infrastructure was completely inadequate to handle visitation on the level that was being projected for the summer of 1958. Of the 15 buildings at Fort Mackinac, only one was open to the public. A miscellaneous collection of Indian crafts and keepsakes was displayed in glass cases to visitors stepping into the old Officers' Stone Quarters. The collection, although interesting in and of itself, did not interpret the 1780-81 historic building, and the other structures inside the Fort stood locked and silent.

The State Park and the Island business community decided to increase public investment in Mackinac Island's historic heritage, with Fort Mackinac as the focus. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) The State Park and the Island business community decided to increase public investment in Mackinac Island's historic heritage, with Fort Mackinac as the focus. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Interpretation was an overall problem that was not limited to the immediate grounds of Fort Mackinac. The Fort itself was carefully maintained by a faithful custodial staff, which had looked after the State Park and its resources since the creation of the Park in 1895, but the Park lacked anyone trained in history to describe the Island's story to visitors. The primary task of Island historical interpretation was handed over to private-sector guidebooks, such as Roger Andrews's "Old Fort Mackinac on the Hill of History" (1938) and Robert Benjamin's "Mackinac Island: Three Hundred Years of History" (1952). These were excellent books, and their enthusiasm for Island history has more than stood the test of time since their publication; but not every visitor bought a guidebook.

It was already clear in the spring of 1958 that, if traditional travel patterns continued, hundreds of thousands of American motorists would be driving north to the Straits of Mackinac in the coming summer to see the new bridge and enjoy Michigan's northland. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) It was already clear in the spring of 1958 that, if traditional travel patterns continued, hundreds of thousands of American motorists would be driving north to the Straits of Mackinac in the coming summer to see the new bridge and enjoy Michigan's northland. (Photograph courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) There were almost no installations in public streetscapes on Mackinac Island to give visitors by foot, bicycle, or carriage a sense of the historical contexts at which they were looking. In the 1910s, under the leadership of Island cottager and history buff Edwin O. Wood, about half a dozen unique plaques and memorials had been bolted into place in a scattering of locations, such as Anne's Tablet, Cass Cliff, and Nicolet Watchtower. These memorials tried to remind visitors of various eminent men and women in Island history, but there were far too few of these plaques to provide contextual understanding to the casual eye, and no new memorials had been added since World War I.

The Island's streetscape was itself under threat in the 1950s. The failure of the Astor House hotel during the Great Depression had put three of Market Street's most historic structures, relics of the American Fur Company era of the 1820s and 1830s, at risk. Title to the Stuart House, the Astor Fur Warehouse, and the Clerk's Quarters was transferred to the City of Mackinac Island, which hoped to maintain as much as possible of this complex as a memorial to the "fur trade" era on Mackinac Island. The Stuart House was refitted into the museum which remains open to the public today, and the Fur Warehouse was rebuilt as a community hall. Unfortunately, resources proved inadequate to maintain the historic Clerk's Quarters at the head of the small park leading up to Market Street from the Arnold Dock, and the irreplaceable but dilapidated structure was demolished in 1956- 57. Mackinac Island's inventory of historic buildings was diminishing at the same time as the appearance of signs that demand might soon increase dramatically.

A group of leading Islanders and summer people determined in early 1958 to begin a program to improve the Island's presentation of itself and its history in a context that would help visitors appreciate its unique qualities. A complete list of these local leaders would not be practical to include here, but most such lists would include names such as Jim Dunnigan, W.F. Doyle, and W. Stewart Woodfill. Woodfill, as the owner of Grand Hotel and chairman of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission, was in a unique position to lead a drive to improve the Island's historical interpretation to the general public.

The State Park and the Island business community decided to increase public investment in Mackinac Island's historic heritage, with Fort Mackinac as the focus. By charging an admission to the Fort, the State Park could raise matching funds and justify a request for more money from the state capital in Lansing. Mackinac Island Carriage Tours agreed to change its route in a way that would encourage many of the passengers to get off the buggy at Fort Mackinac. Inside the Fort's walls, the State Park this year hired new individuals, such as Eugene Petersen, to present a growing number of restored building interiors.

Despite the new 50¢ admission charge, visitation to the Fort significantly increased during the summer of 1958; 118,000 adults had paid more than $54,000 to walk down the new Avenue of Flags or up the Front Sally Port ramp. This revenue source could be expected to recur in following years, and could be used as a funding stream to sell bonds and raise capital to restore more Fort buildings. As the tourist season came to a close, key figures, such as Petersen and Woodfill, could look back on success in meeting that year's challenge, and could point to the prospects of further growth in the future.

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