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Michigan’s early state parks development


By Casey Warner, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

A horse-drawn carriage is shown on Mackinac Island in 1887. (Courtesy Archives of Michigan)

Michigan is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its Department of Natural Resources-managed state parks system this year.

The celebration is centered around the formation of the Michigan State Park Commission by the state Legislature on May 12, 1919. The commission was given responsibility for overseeing, acquiring and maintaining public lands and establishing Michigan’s state parks system.

However, 25 years before legislation established the state park commission, the federal government gifted the Mackinac Island property it owned to the state in 1895. The island was designated as Michigan’s first state park under the Mackinac State Park Commission.

The Arch Rock at Mackinac Island is shown being visited by a group of sightseers circa 1890. (Mackinac State Historic Parks photo)

“In 1907, the community of Mackinaw City donated to the state a village park, the site of Fort Michilimackinac,” said Steve Brisson, deputy director of the Mackinac State Park Commission. “Two years later, it was declared Michilimackinac State Park, and placed under the Mackinac Island State Park Commission’s care.”

Mackinac Island State Park and Michilimackinac State Park are both official state parks, per their authorizing legislation, but they remain separate from the park system managed by the DNR.

Mackinac Island State Park

Mackinac Island—historically a gathering place for Native people and then French fur traders and missionaries and later the home of soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac—had become a popular tourist destination by the late 19th century.

“By the time of the Civil War, lake boats were bringing visitors to Mackinac to enjoy the ‘healthy air’ or explore the island’s natural wonders,” David A. Armour, who served as deputy director of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission for many years, wrote in his book 100 Years at Mackinac: 1895-1995.

Armour continues: “Such was the growing reputation of Mackinac Island that Thomas W. Ferry, a Mackinac boy who had grown up to become a U.S. Senator, spearheaded a move to have Congress designate the government land on Mackinac Island as a national park. He succeeded, and in 1875, three years after Yellowstone had become the United States’ first national park, Mackinac became the second. Set aside ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,’ the 911 acres outside the 104-acre military reservation were to be maintained by the soldiers who garrisoned Fort Mackinac.”

Almost 20 years later, the U.S. Army decided to close Fort Mackinac. At the time, the National Park Service didn’t exist, and all national parks were under the umbrella of the War Department.

“While Mackinac was a beautiful and pleasant post enjoyed by the soldiers stationed there, it had no remaining military importance, and its troops were needed in Sault Ste. Marie to guard the canal there,” Armour wrote. “Without the troops, who would care for the national park?”

In February 1895, Senator James McMillian—urged on by a group of Mackinac citizens who wanted the island’s government lands kept in public ownership rather than sold—introduced an appropriation bill amendment that would turn the military reservation and the buildings and lands of the national park over to the state of Michigan for use as a state park.

“Congress passed the bill on March 2, with the added stipulation that the land would revert to the United States if it ever ceased to be used for park purposes,” Armour wrote. “Michigan had no state park system, but the state Legislature acted quickly, and by joint resolution on May 31, 1895, created the Mackinac Island State Park Commission to manage Michigan’s first state park.”

The lands of the military reservation, Fort Mackinac and the national park were formally transferred to the state Sept. 16, 1895.

“The state had acquired a treasure,” Armour wrote.

Today, Mackinac Island State Park includes the 14 original buildings of Fort Mackinac, which were built by the British military starting in 1780, as well as several other historic structures and about 1,800 acres of land.

More than 80 percent of Mackinac Island is state park property, managed by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission.

To learn more about Mackinac Island State Park, visit MackinacParks.com.

Next week: Interlochen State Park.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of Showcasing the DNR stories to mark the centennial creation of the Michigan State Park Commission, which was established by the state Legislature on May 12, 1919, paving the way for our state parks system managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. The DNR is celebrating this milestone throughout the year with special events, podcasts, historical stories, videos, geocaching and more. Find more details at Michigan.gov/StateParks100.

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