Heads up at the Headlands!

The World’s ninth International Dark Sky Park is located in Mackinaw City. With deep dark skies overhead, the vast expanse of Lake Michigan to the west, bustling Mackinaw City to the east, and 600 acres of pristine, old-growth forest, the Headlands Park property is a gem. Its International Dark Sky Park status makes it shine even brighter, a prestigious designation reserved only for the world’s darkest places. In May 2011, the Headlands was named such a park by the International Dark-Sky Association in Tucson, Ariz., after a rigorous application process that involved taking specific measurements of light levels at the park.

Enjoy the New Waterfront Event Center and Observatory. The new facility will include an observatory with a research-grade telescope, an outdoor seating arena, an indoor program area for use by day and night and a living ‘green’ roof! The new Event Center is expected to open by June 1, 2017

So what is a Dark Sky Park? It’s a park or other public land possessing exceptional starry skies and natural nocturnal habitat, where light pollution is mitigated, and natural darkness is valuable as an important educational, cultural, scenic, and natural resource. Just 16 percent of the world’s population lives in an area dark enough to be designated an International Dark Sky Park like the Headlands. Here, amateur and professional astronomers, photographers, and sky-gazers can be assured that a trip into the darkness will present myriad stars and sky-high experiences. Emmet County has owned the Headlands since the early 1990s and has maintained the five miles of trails and two residences (available for rent) on 2+ miles of the Lake Michigan shoreline. The park is accessible to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Museums, Parks, and Historical Sites

Fort Mackinac

Situated on 150-foot bluffs above the Straits of Mackinac, Fort Mackinac is one of the few surviving American Revolutionary War forts and one of the most complete early forts in the country. In 2015, Fort Mackinac celebrated 235 years standing guard over Mackinac Island. Costumed interpreters greet visitors, portray life in the 1880s, answer questions, pose for pictures, and lead tours throughout the day. Some of the “soldiers” carry original 45-70 Springfield Model 1873, the type used at the fort during the 1880s. Others play music or greet and mingle with the crowds of visitors.

Historic Mill Creek

The Mill Creek sawmill was built in 1790 to provide sawn lumber for nearby Mackinac Island.

Operation continued through the 1930s. When it stopped production is unknown. In 1972, the mill was discovered and the site opened in 1984 as a historical state park. Today, visitors can watch the operational reconstructed sawmill and explore the natural history of the site through trails, exhibits and naturalist programs. For the more adventurous, trek though the treetops on the Adventure Tour! This special, guided nature experience takes visitors over the Forest Canopy Bridge, down the 425-foot Eagle’s Flight Zip Line, and up the five-story Treetop Discovery Climbing Wall. A separate ticket and signed waiver are required.

Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

The “Castle of the Straits” has stood guard on the Straits of Mackinac since 1892 joining the fog signal built in 1890, each helping ships navigate through the treacherous waters. Generations of lighthouse keepers lived and worked at this station. Closed in 1957 after the completion of the Mackinac Bridge, the property has been restored to its 1910 condition. Feel free to wander and get lost in history. Guided tours to the top of the lighthouse tower are available.

The Straits Area Has an Intriguing Heritage

The “Tip of the Mitt” area has perhaps some of the richest history in the Midwest. In 1634, French explorer Jean de Nicolet was the first European to see the area, though the Native American presence here goes back far earlier. The area which is today the Straits of Mackinac was particularly important for the Ottawa and Chippewa. The straits area provided ease to transportation and it made sense to set up areas there for trading and commerce. Settlements at present-day Mackinaw City, St. Ignace, Mackinac Island, and Cheboygan all were important to trade long before the arrival of the white man.

Mackinac Island held special importance for the Native Americans of the area. According to tradition, it was the first piece of land to appear after the great flood. The Great Hare, Michibou, retrieved a grain of sand from beneath the water; he blew on it until it grew and became the island we see today. Resembling the shape of a turtle, the island was named Mishi-Mikinaak, meaning “Big Turtle” in Anishinaabe (Ojibwa). It is home to the Great Spirit, Gitche Manitou.

Mackinac Island became a commercial center and regional outpost for the fur trade and army during the first half of the 19th century. As the fur trade waned in the latter decades of the century, it took on a larger role as an important location for tourism. Long renowned for its natural beauty, the Island became even more popular as a destination for those looking to escape everyday life. Wishing to preserve the beauty and historic nature of the Island (and avoid scaring the horses), automobiles were banned in the downtown area in 1898 and Island-wide a few years later.

Living History. Making History

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.

Photo Courtesy of Michigan State Police Photo Lab

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.