The town of Grand Marais is much the same today as it has been for several decades. There may be a few new businesses, several new homes, and tourism in the winter with the influx of snowmobiles, but for the most part, it is still a quiet town at the end of our “25-mile long driveway.”
If you have been to Grand Marais, then you know why the sign just outside of town reads “Nature in Abundance.” If you have not been to Grand Marais, you should schedule time to visit and see it for yourself. There is something for everyone. Rockhounds are never disappointed, due to the huge variety of rocks that cover our beaches. There is also hiking, mountain biking, boating, four-wheeling, fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, sightseeing, and plenty of time to just relax in this peaceful, quiet little hamlet. For more information go to www.grandmaraismichigan.com.
This About Grand Marais page includes the following sections:
The main attraction in Grand Marais is the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Grand Marais lies at the eastern entrance to the park. This national park was established in 1966 to preserve the pristine nature of this 45-mile stretch along Lake Superior’s south shore. From the Grand Marais end you can easily access Sable Falls, Sable Lake, Log Slide Overlook, and camping at the Hurricane River (15 miles west) and Twelve Mile Beach (20 miles west) — both on a first come, first served basis. You can also access the Au Sable Point Lighthouse by walking 1 ½ miles from the Hurricane Campground, or 2 miles from the Log Slide.
There are many other camping opportunities within a half hour drive. In Grand Marais, Woodland Park has 110 sites. This park is operated by Burt Township. For information call (906)494-2613. There are numerous other campgrounds including the Lake Superior State Forest Campground (12 miles east), Blind Sucker #2 (16 miles east), Blind Sucker #1 (19 miles east), Muskellunge Lake State Park (25 miles east), and Kingston Lake State Park (25 miles west).
If you would like a little more comfort, there is a vast array of motels and cabins, as well as a century-old hotel that operates the same as it always has — with the bathrooms down the hall. There are also several restaurants and numerous boutiques, galleries, and gift shops. Go to www.grandmaraismichigan.com for more information.
Many people like to use Grand Marais as a central location from which to go on day trips. Within an hour or so there is Tahquamenon Falls, Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Oswald’s Bear Ranch, Seney Wildlife Refuge, Pictured Rocks Boat Cruises, glass Bottom Shipwreck Boat Tours, and Sand Point Lighthouse and Historical Complex. For more information go to www.Uptravel.com.
DIRECTIONS TO GRAND MARAIS
Grand Marais is located on the south shore of Lake Superior, halfway between Marquette and Sault Ste. Marie.
A SUMMARY OF GRAND MARAIS HISTORY
The first inhabitants of the Grand Marais area were the Paleolithic Indians around 8,000 years ago. They moved into the region after the retreat of the last glacier when the lake level was much higher.
In 1619, the first explorers discovered Lake Superior. Entienne Brule and a companion, Grenoble, were sent by Samuel de Champlain, governor of New France (Quebec), to find an all-water route to the west.
Pierre Espirt Radisson, Medard Chouart, and Sieur des Groseillers are believed to be the first voyageurs to reach the Grand Marais area in 1658. Radisson wrote in his journal:
“From this place (Whitefish Point) we went along the coasts which are most delightful and wondrous for its’ nature and made it so pleasant to the eye, the sprit, and the belly (they enjoyed the fish)”.
“Le Grand Marais” was first included on a map issued in Paris by Charlevoix and Berlin in 1660. This is among the first North American place names to be published. “les Grandes Sables” was first shown on a map printed in Paris in 1688.
When the Michigan Territory was established in 1805, land surveyors, geological expeditions, and Indian agents made frequent stops in Grand Marais. William Johnston of the Sault wrote:
“Grand Marais is worth noticing, as well, for its beauty and romantic situation, as its convenience as a safe harbor.”
In 1820 Michigan Territorial Governor, Lewis Cass, organized an expedition to the Upper Great Lakes. The group reported, “boats and canoes might find a safe and convenient harbor at Grand Marais.” The expedition camped at a little creek to the west they named the Hurricane River “because of a violent storm that raged there over the night.”
Since 1829, 84 ships have had maritime accidents in and around Grand Marais.
Commercial fishing in the Alger County area began about 1836 when the American Fur Company dropped nets off Grand Island.
Michigan was admitted as the twenty-sixth state of the Union in 1837.
The first full time permanent settlers in Alger County established a homestead on Grand Island in 1840. Abraham Williams, his wife, and 8 children repaired the old fur company buildings and constructed a water-powered sawmill, cabins, warehouse, blacksmith’s shop, and cooperage. This settlement became an important trading post and a fueling station for the few ships challenging the lake during that era.
Peter Barbeau, who moved here from Sault St. Marie in 1861, established the first permanent development by settlers in Grand Marais. He built a trading post on East Bay, around which a village soon formed.
The lighthouse at Au Sable Point was constructed in 1874 to try to reduce the number of ship disasters on the “Graveyard Coast.”
In 1879 the first sawmill was built by the Brazel brothers on West Bay in Grand Marais. It had a 100-horsepower steam engine and 40 employees. In 1881, Wellington Burt, one of the wealthiest men in Michigan, purchased controlling interest for $47,500. The Brazel Brothers operated the mill, while Burt and Henry Gamble, another Saginaw area lumberman, operated a logging camp of 80 men 13 miles up the Sucker River.
Walter Bell, a pioneer in the community, came to Grand Marais from Canada in 1880. As a clerk for the Randolph Lumber Company, he operated a general store in East Town, later moving the business across town. The Bell family continues to serve the community today, operating the Bayshore Market across the street from where their Great Grandfather had his store in West Town.
By 1880, lake traffic had reached such a volume that Grand Marais harbor was made an official harbor of refuge. Improvements recommended a decade earlier finally began. A new channel 75 feet wide and 10 feet deep was cut across the extreme eastern end of Coast Guard Point. In June 1883, the Marquette Mining Journal noted: “…the cribwork will extend 650 feet into the lake and as soon as a fine harbor is available, it will become the seat of extensive lumbering operations as a vast body of pine lies along tributary streams.”
One of the most dramatic influences on the history of Alger County was the building of the Detroit, Mackinac & Marquette Railroad from St. Ignace to Marquette in 1881. It provided reliable year-round transportation to the central Upper Peninsula for the first time.
Burt Township was established by a special act of the Michigan Legislature in March of 1882. The township was named for Wellington R. Burt of Saginaw, one of the state’s most prominent lumbermen, who had built the first sawmill in Grand Marais, a short logging railroad nearby, and platted part of the town.
By the mid 1880s, Grand Marais was the largest community in the county. The Federal census from 1884 reported the population at 334—including 222 males, 91 females and 21 Indians.
In 1893, the Manistique railroad was extended to Grand Marais when the Alger-Smith Company again decided to relocate its lumbering and milling operations. On October 15, 1893 the first through run was made on the new railroad to Grand Marais. The passenger depot was located at the foot of Carlson Street on Grand Marais Avenue. One train daily made connections at Seney and Curtis with other railroads traveling East, West, and South.
With the railroad, people and products began to flow into Grand Marais. The old mills were revamped and new mills built. By the late 1890s, harbor tonnage, mostly logs and lumber products, grew from 1,900 tons in 1887 to 142,500 tons ten years later. Doig and Wood, early Grand Marais publishers, described the town in 1896:
“Grand Marais is a flourishing young town of two thousand industrious inhabitants, nestled on the flats at the foot of a steep terrace surrounding Grand Marais harbor. The town has a large number of business houses, every business being represented by practical and experienced men who all work together for the interests of the people of their thriving young town. The land companies have been diligent in their efforts to advance the town, and sell property at reasonable rates and on easy terms, giving poor men a chance to make homes. The town has many nice business buildings, three churches, and the largest and best school building in the county—well furnished and the instructors are first class and up to date teachers. Besides being a lake town having a safe harbor, Grand Marais has first class railroad communications, having regular daily trains to Seney and return.”
As the first decade of the 20th Century neared an end, the supply of pine was exhausted. In 1909, Alger-Smith closed its big pine mill. The company had tried unsuccessfully to switch to hardwood. Also, with the death of Russell Alger in 1907, the family decided to branch into other industries.
The final blow came on September 28, 1910 when the Manistique railway serving Grand Marais was sold at a public mortgage foreclosure sale. It was expected that the railway would be reorganized. Petitions and protests were not successful in convincing private enterprises or the government to save the railroad. By 1912, the tracks were gone along with most of Grand Marais’ population. Of the thousand people who stayed on in 1911, only 200 remained in 1915. Commercial life had come to a near standstill. The few establishments remaining open had little business.
After the railway was shut down, Grand Marais was very isolated. A motorized daily stage struggled to navigate the Old State Road to Seney – a trip that took most of the day! In the winter, an open sleigh with horses made the trip. Weather permitting, a small lake steamer stopped a few times a week during the non-winter months. In November 1914, voters in Burt Township approved a $10,000 bond to help finance construction of a road to better link town with the old Grand Marais-Seney Road. The money ran out so the townspeople volunteered labor but failed to completely finish the road. In 1919, the state approved and finally began to build a new highway on a route that had been surveyed in 1913. However, M77 was not finished until December 1925.
During the 1930s, times were lean and money was practically nonexistent. People turned a nickel anyway they could. Most opportunities were seasonal such as cutting pulp, selling farm products, shipping cedar boughs to a Finnish sauna company, picking ferns and blueberries, and driving the school bus. Commercial fishing was one of the only thriving businesses.
On October 15, 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law, legislation creating the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. The 67,000 acre national park comprises 43 miles of shoreline and represents yet another influence of Grand Marais’ long series of economic transitions.