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The tip of the mitt region in Michigan has long been an important place in the annals of local history. It had always been an important place for the region’s Native Americans, and soon after the arrival of the first European settlers, they too began to establish a presence there. The French (later British) fort of Michilimackinac, built around 1715, was an important trading and military presence at the Straits of Mackinac. It remained on the mainland until 1781, when the fort was relocated to Mackinac Island.
In the mid-19th century, most settlers in the area believed that the area that is now Mackinaw City would one day become a booming metropolis: “If one were to point out, on the map of North America, a site for a great central city in the lake region, it would be in the immediate vicinity of the Straits of Michilimackinac…,” so opined one writer from the time.
The belief that the Mackinaw region was destined for greatness was not lost on investors. In 1857, the area which today makes up Mackinaw City was purchased by five investors who sought to attract settlers to the area and essentially build a city. Edgar Conkling of Cincinnati was the main thrust behind this movement. Fliers were distributed all over the country, telling people of the riches of the land and water and the sure and uncertain fact that soon, very soon, Mackinaw City would be the next Chicago.
But it was not to be. Growth was very slow, most notably because of the lack of a river and that it was as yet too sparsely populated for railroads to come this far north. For the next thirteen years, the carefully platted and recorded “city” was nothing more than a dream, with exactly zero settlers living in the would-be metropolis. (It was named Mackinaw “City” because Conkling took it for granted that very soon it would be a busy city). But finally, in January 1870, George Washington Stimpson of Cheboygan moved here, purchasing four lots from Edgar Conkling. Originally from Maine, Stimpson was a farmer and was looking for a place of promise with cheap land. Once he got to Cheboygan, he set his sights not to farming, but to manufacturing wood products.
Stimpson soon had a contract to get out 20,000 cedar posts and dock timber to Francis M. Sammons who was building a dock in Mackinaw. (Francis Sammons was the son of Jacob Sammons, Cheboygan’s first permanent settler). Stimpson meanwhile built a small house for his men on the jobsite, while building a small cabin for himself on the present site of the Stimpson House building. These were the only buildings in Mackinaw City; thus, if there were any passers-by, it was natural for them to stop at George Stimpson’s house. In fact, his home would soon become the place for pretty much everything; the first church services in Mackinaw City (February 1870) and first school district meeting (July 1871) were held in Stimpson’s home.
By about 1874 there was enough traffic in Mackinaw to warrant the construction of a small hotel. Stimpson put a large addition onto his home, a hotel, and named it the Stimpson House.
It continued to grow, while other hotels challenged its monopoly on local lodging: the Wentworth, Mercier House, Palace Hotel, Mackinaw City House, Olsen House, Campbell House, to name a few. There was also the Exchange Hotel, specifically reserved for African Americans. In the late 1970s the Stimpson House was converted to a series of shops, much as it appears today along Central Avenue.
By 1882 two railroads (the Michigan Central and Grand Rapids and Indiana) had their terminus at Mackinaw, with another connecting the Upper Peninsula via St. Ignace (the Mackinac and Marquette). These railroads formed the Mackinac Transportation Company to haul railroad cars between the peninsulas and complete the transportation link between upper and lower Michigan. Their first ferry was the Algomah, providing scheduled, reliable service and solidifying Mackinaw City’s role as a vital transportation link. With lumber in the Lower Peninsula and lumber, iron and copper in the Upper Peninsula, transportation – and Mackinaw City – was key to the commerce of Michigan.
By the early part of the 20th century, the automobile had revolutionized transportation. With the construction of better roads in the area, car ferries soon became important to link the peninsulas. The Michigan State Highway Department began regular automobile ferry service in 1923, though demand quickly necessitated putting additional vessels into service. They would remain in service until the completion of the Mackinac Bridge in 1957.
Through the years, Mackinaw City has been an important place for military defense, commerce, and vacationers. While the railroads and car ferries may be gone, other ferries carry people to Mackinac Island, and the Mackinac Bridge connects the two peninsulas of Michigan while remaining a symbol of the state itself. Mackinaw has changed, but her place in Michigan’s past and present has not.