2016-06-25 / Columnists

A Look at History

Village President and Mayor, Preston Helped Make Island What It Is Today
BY FRANK STRAUS

One hundred years ago, the pages of the St. Ignace Enterprise, one of the historic papers affiliated with today’s Town Crier, ran an obituary from Mackinac Island: “Colonel William P. Preston, one of Mackinac Island’s most prominent and most beloved and honored citizens, passed away at 10 o’clock Monday morning (June 19, 1916) of liver trouble after a long illness. . . . The funeral was held from the family home Wednesday afternoon and was one of the largest ever held on the Island. People from all over the state came to pay their respects.”

Behind these decorous words was a man who had helped lead our Island for decades. He had played a significant role in overseeing the transition of Mackinac Island from a fish harbor into a tourist capital of the United States. Who was William P. Preston?

Preston, born in 1845 on the sleepy Eastern Shore of Maryland, joined up with the Fourth Delaware Volunteers at age 16. Delaware saw less action during the Civil War than any other slave state, and the War Department shoved the regiment in with the rest of the Army of the Potomac and sent it to fight battle after battle. When Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 1865, young Preston was there. Aged only 20, he decided to stick with the Army for a while. He was allowed into the regulars as a noncom, which says something, because sergeant’s stripes were tough to come by in the postwar days. Assigned to Fort Mackinac, the company officer decided this would be a good place to muster out. He had found his lifelong home.

Preston made friends on Mackinac Island and was soon called upon to run for local office. He became village president; Mackinac Island was officially a fishing village in those days. His neighbors believed, with some reason, that the former sergeant could use his Army connections to help them in their relations with Fort Mackinac. A crisis came in 1877, when an aggressive widow oversaw the burial of her husband in a gravesite that was slightly outside the established boundary of the Protestant Cemetery at that time. The commander of the Fort, Captain Joseph Bush, saw this interment as an illegal encroachment. The captain, irritated, began steps to withdraw the historic permission of the War Department under which Islanders had been allowed to bury their dead within the boundaries of the military reservation. Bush pointed out, correctly, that most of the reservation (including the cemeteries) had become a National Park two years earlier and deserved intense protection from encroachments and adverse possession. In response, Preston pointed out, correctly, that the Islanders continued to need a place to bury their dead. The village president had the standing to telegraph the Secretary of War and ask for relief. The harassed cabinet official eventually released an official finding that the Department could not authorize the use of National Park land for a private cemetery – but, in a key move, Washington did not follow up this finding with official orders to the Fort to close the Island cemeteries. The civilian places of rest were implicitly saved by this non-action and remained in operation, as they continue to do almost 150 years later.

Behind this outcome was Preston’s growing status behind the scenes as a power broker in Michigan politics. Like many Civil War veterans, he had joined the Grand Army of the Republic, the alliance of ex- Union soldiers that helped run the United States during the decades that had followed the great war. From 1869 until 1901, every Republican present was a Civil War veteran, and the “G.A.R.” was a key element in the flock of door-to-door political activists who elected this string of politicians to the nation’s highest office.

Preston’s place in the G.A.R. was somewhat unusual. As a lifelong Democrat, he was half in and half out of this post-Civil War power structure. This made him a good lobbyist, though. After the bitter presidential election of 1876, the newly elected President Hayes (a veteran) and his Cabinet needed political support from some Democrats. The decision by the War Department, in 1877-1878, to shut its eyes to the then-illegal Mackinac Island cemeteries, may have been a small part of this overall picture.

Col. Preston continued to rise up through the ranks of the G.A.R. in line with nationwide political changes. In 1884 came the first Democratic White House victory since before the Civil War. During Cleveland’s administration, the nation’s two biggest railroads – the Pennsylvania and the New York Central – joined forces to help finance the construction of Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel. After four years out of office, Cleveland came back to the White House, in 1892. As a Democrat, Preston could not achieve the ultimate G.A.R. honor of National Commander in-Chief. His peers made him the Aide-de-Camp to the Commander in Chief in 1894-1895; but it was in this position that he had to watch his president, Grover Cleveland, shut down Fort Mackinac in 1895.

Col. Preston then took steps to lead Mackinac Island in a lobbying effort to take back the ground lost by the local economy when the Fort was declared redundant. During this time of leadership, the state government in Lansing raised the Island’s government from the status of a village to that of an incorporated city, a standing that it retains to this day. The federal government designated the Island’s harbor as the site of a new Coast Guard station, and built what is now the Main Street Visitor Center. Most important of all, perhaps, Washington paid for the construction of two breakwaters – the West Breakwater and one-half of what is now the East Breakwater – to shelter the Island’s water and encourage seasick travelers to think of a Straits of Mackinac ferry boat ticket as a ride to a place that would be a safe harbor. Hundreds of thousands of visitors pass by these breakwaters every summer today.

During the 20 years that followed the closure of Fort Mackinac, Island tourism blossomed under the leadership of Col. Preston and other local leaders. Repeatedly re-elected as village president and then as mayor, he eventually served in the Island’s highest-ranking elected position for 17 years. One hundred years ago in June 1916, he was laid to rest under a gray granite stone in the Protestant Cemetery that he had helped to defend.

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