2017-05-20 / Columnists

A Look at History

Mackinac Island Airport Is More Than 80 Years Old
BY FRANK STRAUS

Airport History

One of Mackinac Island’s largest features, the airport that stretches from Stonecliffe to Crooked Tree Road, is switching over this May from off-season to summer operations. In winter and early spring, the airport is an essential feature of the Island’s community life. On days when boats cannot go back and forth to the mainland, mail for the post office and food for Doud’s Market has to be flown in. In summer, Mackinac Island rolls out the welcome mat. Many Island visitors come in by plane, including light private planes flown by families.

In the earliest days of aviation, tiny light planes used any grassy space they could find. Written records tell of planes taking off from and landing on the Grand Hotel golf course in the 1910s. In the 1920s, professional fliers led by Charles Lindbergh began to call for dedicated spaces for airplanes. At this point, a quirk of Mackinac Island’s geological history asserted itself. Most of the Island consists of sharply-sloping surfaces that are not good for airplanes; but a slowdown in the pattern of rises and falls in the post-Ice Age freshwater level in what would become the Great Lakes created a large, relatively flat space in the north center of the Island. North of this flat space are the hills of what became Wawashkamo Golf Course; just south of this space are the hills of Annex Road. Right next to the Annex Road spur that leads to what would become our airport, the main road runs into a steep slope. But in between these slopes is a flat space, which long ago was a gravel beach on which coldwater waves crashed. It was to this flat space that thousands of fliers and air passengers would one day fly in and out.

In 1934, with Michigan in the grip of the Great Depression, the New Deal sent relief workers to Mackinac Island. With the State Park’s permission, one of the things they did was to clear a small strip of forest land, located between Annex Road and the Crack in the Island in this small plateau. The “Air Strip,” a grassy rectangle, was cut in 1934. It was useful in its early years, but proved inadequate for winter use.

In the 1950s, many Islanders – especially year-rounders – began to lobby for a larger Island airport and paved runway for year-around general aviation. The State Park partnered with the State of Michigan’s aviation bureau, and the “air strip” was sharply enlarged in 1963- 1964. The much larger clearing was a safe footprint for the runway. The runway that was laid down in 1964 was the ancestor to the 3,500-foot runway that serves the Island today.

The airport’s importance as a 12-month resource for the Island was buttressed by the new terminal building that rose in 1969. It was built as a friendly little set of insulated rooms that could be kept warm in winter. Practicalities of this sort made it impossible to stick to Mackinac Island’s architectural heritage.

The creation of the airport changed the Island in other ways. The enlarged clearing was laid out to just miss two landmarks, the Crack in the Island and the Cave in the Woods, which continue to exist picturesquely just north of the airport to this day. However, the forest pathway, Reese Road, that travelers had walked or ridden on until 1964 to visit these two sights was blocked, and ceased to exist. A trail, Gratiot Trail, that once stretched from the north end of Hoban Road/Cadotte Avenue to the south end of State Road, also went out of business. Riders of bikes and horses on nearby Crooked Tree Road found their woodsy experience was cut in two by a large clearing, as the eastern tip of the safety zone surrounding the runway had to cut across the venerable old gravel road. After several years, pleasant northern plants, such as wild strawberries and goldenrod, began to grow in the cleared area.

The airport has been improved in various ways since the 1960s. The paved runway is now bordered by ground lights and signaled by a beacon. A parallel taxiway has been built. Although the ground on which the airport stands is relatively flat, the 1960s runway layout did have some rises and dips in it, and its western end was too close to the steep bluffs that circle almost the entire Island. The state Aeronautics Commission determined that the airport could be made safer by moving the runway 65 feet to the east. In the winter of 2011-2012, the airport temporarily closed and this work was done, producing a flatter runway surrounded by a larger safety area. Work by two Rickleys – Larry Rickley and Larry Rickley, Jr. – was a key part of the project. The rebuilt airport was formally dedicated on July 27, 2012.

Mackinac Island’s airport is the only airport in the United States that is served by horsedrawn taxi. Since 1934, the only way to get to or from the airstrip/airport in the summertime is by foot, bike, or horse. As visitors walk or ride away from the airport up or down Annex Road, the sounds of the air engines that brought them to Mackinac Island begin to fade, and they begin to see and feel that they are in a different place.

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