Updated: Oct 19, 2020
IN READING ABOUT THE HISTORY of our region, it has been interesting to learn about the logging industry that attracted operators in the 1860’s in northern Michigan.
It made sense as our nation was expanding westward, and the plains were covered in grasses, not timber. The demand for building materials and home furnishings were unprecedented and wood was the material of choice. Michigan's land was covered in trees.
Healthy prices received per board-foot made millionaires of several who had come to Michigan from Maine, New York, and Canada. Their companies had harvested timber from surrounding forests out east, and they brought with them some of the best practices in milling and distribution. Conservation was not yet part of their vocabulary. The forests were meant to be conquered and the woodsmen basically met this objective in four short decades.
Michigan was ideal to set up camps and sawmills with its desirable geography and abundance of trees. The vast wilderness supported pine and hardwoods for as far as the eye could see and the Government Land Office helped the entrepreneurs by selling land for $1.25 an acre.
Michigan waterways helped in the transportation of the timber, and then the processed lumber was sent to ports of call throughout the Midwest on the Great Lakes. Money was being made hand over fist by the successful businessmen in this Gilded Age.
Victorian mansions sprung up in harbor towns and the lumber Barons opulently displayed their rewards from the harvest. Many of these fabulous homes still stand today thanks to the efforts of public and private preservationists allowing us to still marvel at their splendor.
The decades passed quickly and by 1900 the timber industry was in rapid decline as the trees had been clear cut and the land was being converted into farmland and orchards. Shoreline villages built grand hotels catering to wealthy tourists arriving by ship and rail to experience the glorious summers and clean air that NW Michigan advertised.
The automobile soon began to capture the hearts of America and with this transformative technology muddy ruts and roads gradually changed into hard pack connectors allowing autos access to the towns that once milled and shipped the region’s lumber. Tourism was taking hold driven by the growth of free time and personal mobility enjoyed now by the burgeoning middle class.
One such highway patchwork was finally connected in 1920 and named M-22. Today, the iconic highway measures 116 miles of blacktop connecting shoreline villages from Manistee to Traverse City. At last count there were two traffic lights on the entire M-22 highway.
The fall drive is spectacular and Mother Nature has brought back her trees.