Exploring Mackinaw City and Mackinaw Island, Michigan

One of the most photographed and recognizable features of Michigan is the Mackinaw Bridge.  The magnificent bridge rises high over the Straits of Mackinaw as it connects the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan.  The idea for a bridge dates back to the 1880’s when Michiganders watched with envy as the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883 and bridged a watery gap similar to theirs.  Northern Michigan was becoming popular with tourists and city planners realized a change was needed to the existing ferry system and started looking into alternatives.  The concept to connect Michigan received favorable support and many ideas were kicked around but there was no funding source.  Despite the United States Army Corps of Engineers and President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsing the project, Congress never appropriated funding and the Great Depression and World War II made securing funding difficult.  In the early 1950’s, the state legislature authorized the sale of $85 million (equivalent to $2.08 billion in 2016) in bonds for bridge construction.  Construction began in 1954 and took three years to complete making it the longest suspension bridge between anchorages in the Western Hemisphere.  Locals affectionately refer to the five-mile bridge as “Mighty Mac” or “Big Mac.” 


Downtown Mackinaw City is really quite tacky and not really our kind of town.  Most of the shops are cheap t-shirts, junky souvenirs, and fudge shops.  In fact, fudge shops are everywhere and the sweet confections have been popular in the city for over a hundred years.  We are not much of fudge eaters so we had a couple of samples and kept on walking.  We popped in and out of  a few shops without anything really interesting to us, when we spotted a building with a big hot dog on top and a sign that said “Weinerlicious”.  We were all in.

Now that we had seen the downtown strip in Mackinaw City and had a bite to eat it was time to move on to more interesting things like the Mackinaw Bridge Museum (which is free).  The museum is located upstairs in Mama Mia’s Pizza.  That may seem like a weird location for a museum but not considering the restaurant owner, J. C. Stilwell, is also the museum’s founder and one of the many iron workers who worked on constructing the bridge.  Soon after Stilwell started the fledgling museum others began donating items and now it houses lots of memorabilia, antiques, news clippings, and a small theater and two small seating areas with videos on continuous loops offering history of the construction of the Mackinaw Bridge.  And if you want to enjoy the museum and movies with a pint of beer, the bar downstairs is the place you want to stop first as they have no problem with that.


Another museum not to miss is the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Mackinaw.  A tour of the ship costs $11/adult but we found it to be well worth it.  Usually on these self-guided tours of ships you wander around reading captions and interpretive signs not really learning a whole lot.  But our experience on the Mackinaw was much different because of the volunteers scattered around the ship.  Down in the engine room was a volunteer who actually served on the ship and was eager to share his knowledge and experiences aboard the icebreaker.  It was so interesting to talk to him and we found ourselves there for a good thirty or forty-five minutes as he explained how the ship functioned and what it was like to break through ten-foot thick chunks of ice in the Great Lakes.  One of the most fascinating tidbits he shared was how loud the sound of the steel ship breaking hard ice was.  “Deafening,” he described it.


The Mackinaw was built as part of the war effort during World War II to meet the heavy demands for the increase in production of war materials.  Tremendous amounts of iron ore, limestone and coal needed to be moved to keep the nation’s steel mills operating.  The Mackinaw was commissioned ten days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and is the largest icebreaker ever built.  It took three years and $10 million to build and she was in service for a remarkable 62 years.  The rounded hull was reinforced with 1 5/8″ thick steel which was key to the operation of the ship.  The boat never got stuck as it had the effective method of rocking side to side and front to back by moving water or fuel in numerous holding tanks in the hull.  According to our volunteer there was no ice too thick for the Mackinaw (as he said with total “Coastie” pride) and they lived up to their motto “We move ships when no one else can.”

The real reason we came to Mackinaw was to visit Mackinaw Island – the Michigan tourist destination famous for having no cars on the island.  You step off the ferry and go way back in time as your feet hit the pavement the same time horse hooves clop by.  Oh sure you can hail a cab, but, it will be a horse and carriage.

In the late 1800’s the islands cool temperatures, laid-back vibe, and natural beauty began attracting larger waves of tourists.  In 1875, nearly 80% of the island was established as a National Park (second to Yellowstone) with the intent to be preserved.  As more and more people visited Mackinaw Island, the pressure to bring automobiles increased.  But locals were dismayed with the noisy and exhaust spewing vehicles that spooked their horses and broke the islands quiet tranquil way of life.  In 1898, the town banned automobiles.  But one pesky resident was determined to have an automobile.  He defiantly claimed it “was not against the law” and proceeded to buzz around the island in his automobile.  Finally residents had enough and made it a law that no vehicles were allowed onto the island for personal use.  The only exceptions are a fire truck (since a vast majority of the towns buildings are made of wood) and police vehicles for safety.

We opted to see the island via a guided carriage ride but you can also rent a bicycle, horse, or walk.  It was a two-hour narrated tour that took us through the downtown, out to Mackinaw State Park (formerly the National Park) to see some of the islands cultural and natural beauty.  The carriage made various stops including the Grand Stable to admire antique carriages and get an up-close look at the horses, Arch Rock and the bird’s eye view of the Lake Huron shoreline, Fort Mackinac, and the famed Grand Hotel. 


The Grand Hotel is the islands centerpiece.  Whether you stay there or just come to look around (which is a bit costly at $10/person just to go inside), the Grand is a highly visited Michigan attraction.  It is so popular for weddings that you have to book five years in advance.  The Grand Hotel dates back to 1887 and boasts that no two rooms are alike. The expansive porch is the longest in the world and draws a big crowd beckoning visitors to sit outside enjoying the views and soaking in the fresh air.  Instead, we headed downtown to meet a friend, Jill, for lunch and catch up with her travels.


Mackinaw City is a busy place in the summer, so if crowds bother you, come in the off-season.  The downtown is the hub for shopping, restaurants, and to book carriage rides or a bike.  Oh, and for fudge – they are “America’s Fudge Capital” and host a fudge festival every August. The whole island is a National Historical Landmark so there are many interesting historic buildings for you to see downtown and about the island.  The majority of the buildings are wood dating back to the turn of the century and preserve the islands history. The oldest grocery store in the country, Dowd’s (established in 1884), is right on the main strip and still operates as a grocery store (and a very busy one at that).  Now venture off the main drag a block to Market Street and you will find a quieter place to be and surrounded by beautifully restored buildings.  Here you will find the charming old post office, courthouse, city hall, and other buildings which are open to the public as museums. 


Mackinaw Island was a fun excursion and we very much enjoyed the ferry ride over that took us under the Mackinaw Bridge.  Having heard so much about the island (especially from friends Paul and LoAnn who got married over there) we were glad to have a chance to see it.  We were camped at Mackinaw Mill Creek Campground which offers a dog walking service while you are away.  The service was $20 and definitely worth the piece of mind knowing Spirit was fine.  Amy nicely took Spirit for an hour-long walk and then came back to check on her again before we got back.  Turns out she was the owners daughter so she lives onsite and is a lab-lover having a chocolate lab herself.  While at the campground we met two super nice work campers who we got to know better over a fire and wine.  They nicely arranged for the owner to give us a personal tour of the campground in his hand-made jalopy.  The man is a true collector and will build anything using practically anything.  He has a very creative mind and we got a total kick out of riding around with him and seeing his work shops.  We loved it!


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