Pictured Rocks
An Administrative History
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"We go along the coast, most delightful and wonderful," wrote fur trader Pierre Esprit Radisson, the first documented visitor to the Pictured Rocks. "Nature has made it pleasant to the eye, the spirit and the belly." The French adventurer penetrated the Lake Superior basin in 1658. Up to this time it has been largely unexplored by Europeans. Although he did not draft a written memoir of his journey until ten years after-the-fact the images of the region's rugged beauty remained vivid in Radisson's mind. Indeed, it is clear from his memoir that the Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable Dune were the scenic highlights of his entire journey from Montreal to Lake Superior. It is both ironic and fortunate that even three hundred years after Radisson the Pictured Rocks would remain unheralded and unprotected. Radisson's visit underscores two central features of the history of the Pictured Rocks: its striking scenic vistas and its remote isolation. [5]

The Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable Banks are two of the most striking scenic features in eastern North America. The multicolored sandstone cliffs stretch for fifteen miles along Lake Superior's south shore. The Grand Sable Banks are a dramatic four square mile perched dune created 10,000 years ago by the last glaciation. Between these spectacular features is a landscape of inland lakes, spectacular waterfalls, and miles of sand-graced strand. Had this area been located near the early population centers of the United States it would have emerged at an early date as a major tourist destination. But geography assured Pictured Rocks region a very different history. While tourism and urbanization embraced and degraded Niagara Falls, Mammoth Cave, and the Hudson River valley the Upper Peninsula of Michigan remained a remote resource frontier. The Pictured Rocks were little known and seldom seen by out of state visitors until after World War II.

History conspired with geography to keep the Pictured Rocks obscure and inviolate. The Pictured Rocks were visited by Europeans at a much earlier date than many other Great Lakes region locations. Radisson marveled at sites such as Chapel Rock fifteen years before Chicago would even be visited by Europeans and twenty years before the great falls of the Niagara were first described. Yet Radisson's account created no lasting image of the Lake Superior country. He was a fur trader seeking wealth, not a scientific explorer. He wrote an account of his journey only when his English partners in the Hudson's Bay Company thought it might strengthen their commercial claims. That account was preserved only by the whimsy of the noted diarist Samuel Pepys, although it lay unappreciated by historians in Oxford's Bodleian Library for two hundred years. While Niagara Falls' discoverer, Father Louis Hennepin, published a graphic, illustrated account of what he found, Pictured Rocks remained in the shadows, a Terra Incognita. [6]

Radisson's brief account of the Pictured Rocks and the Grand Sable Banks does serve to suggest the mix of emotional responses the scenery engendered in the early French explorers. Seventeenth century Europeans were caught between the erosion of the medieval world and the birth of the modern. Fur traders such as Radisson and his partner Medard Chouart, Sieur des Groseilliers, were even more precariously situated on the frontier between the Old World and the unexplored horizons of the New. Images of America as a magical, mystic place were balanced by fear of its remote vastness and dread of its exotic mysteries. Radisson was enthused by the scenery of the south shore of Lake Superior, which he called "most delightful and wonderful." Yet his brief account of the Pictured Rocks area is also tense and anxious. "That place is most dangerous when there is any storm", he described the Grand Sable Banks, "being no landing place so long as the sandy banks are under water, and when the wind blows that sand doth rise by a strange kind of whirling that are able to choke the passengers." He was awed by the "violence" with which Superior carved caves in the rocks. The sound of the waves on the cliffs was described as "a most horrible noise, most like the shooting of great guns." Dwarfed by the Pictured Rocks, Radisson observed "We must look to ourselves and take time with our small boats." Equally unsettling was the reaction of the Indians accompanying the fur traders. They called the rocks "Nauitouchsinagoit," which Radisson took to mean "the likeness of the devil" and before the mottled cliffs they left an offering of tobacco to the spirit. [7]

The Pictured Rocks region was part of the land of the Ojibwa, a woodland Indian people who lived on the margins of Lake Superior. Radisson's account of their behavior toward the Pictured Rocks is consistent with the Ojibwa belief in a world shaped by a marvelous array of spirits. Rather than view natural objects as inanimate, the Ojibwa saw that they were alive with unseen spirits. Spectacular topographic features such as Doric Rock could alternately command dread or veneration. Prudence dictated paying respect to a powerful spirit, particularly when traveling a coast as hazardous as the Pictured Rocks. Grand Sable Dunes, known as Negouwatchi or the Sandy Mountain, likewise were honored with an offering of tobacco by Ojibwa travelers. Grand Island, locate just west of Pictured Rocks, was long the location of an Ojibwa village. Members of the village undoubtedly fished in the waters of the lakeshore, hunted in its forests, and harvested maple sugar from its groves. Although the Pictured Rocks area does not seem to have been heavily used by the Ojibwa for subsistence or habitation it did serve as a piece of burial (at Sand Point and Grand Sable Dunes) and frequently mentioned in Ojibwa lore. [8]

Radisson was followed by other fur traders, as well as missionaries and explorers, nonetheless, the Lake Superior country remained (to quote one French chronicler) "the fag end of the world." If anything, geographic knowledge of the region became more, not less, clouded. The amazingly accurate 1670 Jesuit map of Lake Superior was followed by a series of increasingly distorted depictions of the region. Bogus islands and distended Peninsulas crowded most cartographic representations of the region. It was not until well into the nineteenth century that the world began to get a genuine representation of Lake Superior. Spearheading these efforts were United States government explorers. [9]

It is an axiom among historians of exploration that explorers are "programmed" by the society which sends them to the frontier. What they report, therefore, reflects as much on the values and perspectives of the society they left as it does on the lands they explore. This is particularly true of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the principal chronicler of the 1820 Lewis Cass expedition. Sponsored by the U.S. War Department, Cass was charged with extending peaceful relations between the Indians of the region and the federal government, as well as detailing the resources and potential of the Superior country. Schoolcraft was retained as the expedition's scientist. He later published Travels Through the Northwestern Regions of the United States which was the first extended description of the Pictured Rocks to appear in English. [10]

Schoolcraft and the other members of the Cass expedition approached the Pictured Rocks with a mixture of scientific curiosity and romantic imagination. Schoolcraft described the shoreline as boasting "some of the most sublime and commanding views in nature." To convey the beauty of the place Schoolcraft relied upon aesthetic concepts, such as the sublime, which were readily identifiable to readers familiar with English Romanticism. To romantic writers landscape was the embodiment of culture. By describing and exalting the landscape of the Lake Superior country, Schoolcraft was using the scenery of the frontier to build an American identity that would meet European standards of culture. [11]

The degree to which American landscapes such as the Pictured Rocks were described in terms of European aesthetics is most tellingly demonstrated in Schoolcraft’s use of actual Old World locations as similes. "All that we have read of the natural physiognomy of the Hebrides--of Staffa,--the Doreholm, and the romantic Isles of the Sicilian coast, is forcibly recalled on viewing this scene, and it may be doubted whether, in the whole range of American scenery, there is to be found such an interesting assemblage of grand, picturesque, and pleasing objects." Although he was expedition's scientist, Schoolcraft could not restrain himself from penning a brief poem to the Pictured Rocks:

Their rocky summits split and rent,
Form'd turret, dome, or battlement,
O seemed fantastically set
With cupola or minaret,
Wild crests as pagod ever decked,
Or Mosque of eastern architect. [12]

The aesthetic conceits of Schoolcraft and other writers of his generation linger on in prominent place names within the National Lakeshore. Locations such as Miners Castle and Chapel Rock take their names from the inclination of European-American writers to subordinate the Lake Superior wilderness to Old World images of grandeur and beauty. "We were struck with their picturesque beauty, stratified as they were resembling more the crumbling ruins of some immense building---some huge castle wall---than the works of nature," wrote David Douglass, an Army engineer with the Cass expedition. Later he observed, "Great blocks of sandstone lay heaped around and help of a tolerable fancy the whole might be conceived a truly elegant classic ruin." [13]

The publication of Schoolcraft's narrative of the expedition as a book, formal reports to Congress, and newspaper stories about the explorers all failed to raise public consciousness concerning the Pictured Rocks. The emphasis in all reports from the Cass expedition had been upon economic geology. In the America of the 1820s and 1830s, resource development easily took precedent over the picturesque. Lake Superior received increased attention due to Schoolcraft's report, but that emphasis was directed to evaluating copper deposits in the western Upper Peninsula. [14]

A succession of state and federal explorers did pass through the Pictured Rocks area in the 1840s and 1850s. Like Schoolcraft their depictions of the region we marked by an uneasy balance between romanticism and science. Bela Hubbard, an assistant geologist on the 1840 Douglas Houghton expedition, was particularly florid his prose. He resorted to classical allusions to describe a ghost forest in the Grand Sable Dunes: "They look like the time-worn columns of some antique temple whose main structure has long since tumbled to the dust. They stand amid the waste like the ruins of Persepolis, the Tadmor of the desert." In describing the Pictured Rocks, Hubbard referenced the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the Pyramids, Pompeii, the paintings of Raphael, the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and the adventurers of Sinbad from Th Arabian Nights. Yet while Hubbard and other scientists continued the practice of adapting the scenery of the Pictured Rocks to the aesthetics of European romanticism they also could draw on an increasingly sophisticated scientific vocabulary. [15]

What is remarkable is the consistency with which scientist-explorers described the Pictured Rocks. The descriptions of Douglas Houghton, Charles W. Penny, John W. Foster, and Josiah Whitney all portray the Pictured Rocks in colloquial, common, if sometimes florid language. The emerging technical language of the geologist was reserved for economic assets such as copper deposits. All of the scientist-explorers were also enthusiastic about unique beauty of the area. David Douglass exulted: "I cannot think any scenery I ever visited--even including Niagara Falls and its vicinity--it to be compared to for grandeur and sublimity to the Pictured Rocks of Lake Superior." On Charles Penny described the cliffs and dunes "two of the greatest natural curiosities of the lake." Foster and Whitney regarded them as "among the most striking and beautiful features of scenery of the Northwest." [16]

The splendor of the Pictured Rocks was further trumpeted by the publication in 1855 of The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This epic poem was based on the legends of the Ojibwa as related in the works of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Longfellow located his story "By the shore of Gitche Gumee, By the Shining Big-Sea Water." The poem makes frequent allusion to Lake Superior's "rocky headlands" and at the "Pictured Rocks of sandstone, Looking over lake and landscape." Hiawatha destroys his enemy Pao-Puk-Keewis in an epic encounter at the rocks. The Song of Hiawatha went on to become one of the most popular English-language poems of the nineteenth century. As late as the 1940s a writer could confidently predict: "most Americans know at least a line or two of it." Remarkably, however, Longfellow did not inspire curiosity about the Lake Superior country. In fact the poet showed little direct interest in the region himself. Rather than make his own journey to Lake Superior Longfellow simply relied upon the descriptions of others. [17]

Neither the Iyrical descriptions of an epic poem nor the enthusiasm of explorers who actually visited the Pictured Rocks spawned a wider appreciation of its scenic values. Lake Superior was too remote for Longfellow or any of his admirers to visit the Pictured Rocks. This was the sad lesson of a rather elaborate, if poorly documented, attempt to build a tourist resort on Munising Bay. In 1850, a group of Philadelphia-based business men headed by Thomas Sparks formed the Munising Company. Their goal was to develop an iron furnace and a resort on the mainland, just opposite Grand Island. An impressive plat map of "Grand Island City" was prepared, a few lots were sold, and a dock was built. The investors did manage to erect a tourist hotel, described by one traveler as "built and furnished in grand style." A trail was hacked through the woods to link Munising with Lake Michigan and make the resort more accessible to travelers from Wisconsin or Illinois. The scheme came to naught after a single year. The furniture in the hotel was "all stored in heaps in one or two rooms" and a caretaker appointed to watch over the shuttered structure. After 1867 the hotel was reopened and for several years was operated on a much more modest scale. The property of the Company was eventually purchased by the Schoolcraft Iron Company, which used the abundant forests or the region to make charcoal iron. Iron production dominated the economy of the area throughout the rest of the century. A few isolated attempts to exploit the scenery for the tourist trade, such as the Hotel Hiawatha on Powell's Point, were not met with great success. [18]

After 1846, the Lake Superior country had to compete for attention with the vast and widely heralded vistas of the Mountain West. When Horace Greeley of the New York Herald editorialized "Go west, young man" he meant the Lake Superior country. Yet the Mexican War changed America's conception of its frontier to the far west. The mineral resources of northern Michigan continued to be developed, but by the 1850s, the northern lakes region ceased to attract much national attention. The strongly romantic images of the Pictured Rocks created by Schoolcraft and the other scientific explorers retreated from public consciousness. While the Keweenaw became famous for copper and the Marquette Range for iron ore, neither was an attraction for the genteel travelers of Victorian America. [19]

The handful of tourists who did visit the Pictured Rocks required heroic determination. Artist A. L. Rawson spent part of two summers exploring the area in the mid-1860s. In May 1867, Harper's New Monthly Magazine published his extended account of the Pictured Rocks illustrated by eighteen drawings. Rawson was not disappointed by the "fairy-like forms and colors" of the cliffs which he esteemed were "a truly grand procession of wonders, not equaled in its kind in all the world." Although Rawson strained to convince readers that the region was "a pleasant summer retreat" he had to admit to "some few disadvantages, the chief of which is the appalling fact that it is about two or three days' canoe journey, either way, to a beef-steak." [20]

The tourism which did develop in the Great Lakes region was initially focused on Mackinac Island. Located at the junction Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, the former fur trading center emerged as a picturesque watering hole for the well-to-do in the 1870s. The very fact that almost nothing happened on the island since it had been the scene of battle during the War of 1812 insured that the town was both quaint and historic. Railroads and shipping lines cooperated to promote and develop the site. The building of the Grand Hotel in 1887 by the Michigan Central Railroad and the Cleveland Navigation Company gave Mackinac one of the largest and most luxurious resort hotels in the world. So popular was the island that in 1875 the federal government withdrew all public land from sale and declared a national park. Mackinac was only the second such park in America, although in 1895, the park and the site of old Fort Mackinac were turned over to the state of Michigan. The principal visitors to Mackinac were the residents of the rising metropolises of the Midwest. Steamship lines which already connected Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Cleveland Naturally converged on Mackinac. This unrivaled access allowed the island to develop tourism decades before more remote areas of the region. [21]

The rest of the Upper Peninsula lagged behind Mackinac Island for several reasons. Railroad connections with the cities of the region were delayed until 1872. Chicago was connected to San Francisco well before it had a direct rail line to Lake Superior. Rail links were not made to the eastern Upper Peninsula until 1881. While it is true that by the turn of the century the Upper Peninsula could boast fourteen common carriers the fact was that the principal emphasis of the railroads was carrying ore and lumber, not passengers. Railroads played a leading role in promoting and developing such major tourist sites as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Park. But save for Mackinac Island, northern Michigan did not see any substantial investment in tourism by the railroads. The entire economy of the region was focused on natural resource exploitation. The high cost of developing extractive industries on the nation's northern frontier encouraged the concentration of a large percentage of real estate in the Upper Peninsula in the hands of a small number of very large corporations. These corporations Naturally were inclined to use their clout to emphasize natural resource development. [22]

Even people who lived in the growing lumber towns of Grand Marais and Munising found it difficult to visit the Pictured Rocks. Save for the rude routes of a few logging ice-roads there was no overland access to the cliffs. Nor were there any regular excursions by water. When a Marquette pharmacist in the 1890s wanted to show his young bride the famed Pictured Rocks, he was obliged to hire a tug-boat to make the trip. At a civic celebration in Munising in 1902, excursions were offered on the steamer Hunter for "the large number of visitors in the city who have never had an opportunity for viewing the Rocks." [23]

The moguls who controlled the region's resources were not immune to the scenic attractions of the Lake Superior region. Their method of developing recreational opportunities, however, was quite exclusive. The most popular model was to take a page from the wilderness retreats of the east coast "robber barons" who built elaborate "Great Camps" for themselves in the Adirondack Mountains. The pioneer of this type of recreation was the Huron Mountain Club founded in 1889. The exclusive club was initially established by the leading industrialists of Marquette, Michigan, although it rather quickly passed to the control of elite Detroit and Chicago families. Prominent men of business such as Henry Ford and distinguished members of the bar, notably Supreme Court Justice George Shiras, graced the list of members. Elaborate "camp" buildings were built in a rustic and romantic style. The success of the club spawned more ambitious private initiatives. Cyrus McCormick, heir to the farm equipment fortune, built a magnificent 17,000-acre estate known as White Deer Lake Camp. Industrialist Louis G. Kaufman developed a magnificent seventy room mansion on Lake Superior near Big Bay. Graced with sixty fireplaces, imaginative use of native wood and stone, and a white pine growing through the roof, Kaufman’s Granot Loma was a classic of rustic architecture. William G. Mather, heir to one iron mining fortune and founder of the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company, brought the "Great Camp" concept to the door step of the Pictured Rocks. [24]

In 1900, the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company purchased Grand Island. The acquisition was part of a series of purchases which made Cleveland-Cliffs one of the largest owners of forest lands in northern Michigan. Mather, however, did not want Grand Island turned over to commercial logging. Instead he made it the site of a conservation experiment and the setting of his wilderness retreat. A large log lodge, surrounded by a mock frontier stockade, complete with miniature blockhouse, was built on the west shore of the island. Later a second lodge and a boat house were built on an interior lake. For the use of guests Mather restored the structures remaining from the days when a trading post was located on Grand Island. Mather also devoted considerable sums to make the island a nationally renowned game preserve. [25]

Mather was an enthusiastic advocate of wildlife preservation. He added to the native white tailed deer population a wide array of other ungulates, including moose, woodland caribou, elk, pronghorn antelope and albino deer. Exotic game birds such as Chinese pheasants, Scotland black grouse, and Scandinavian grouse were stocked in the forests. Bass, salmon, and steelhead trout replaced the native pike in the interior lakes. Articles in Field and Stream and National Geographic lent notoriety to Mather's experiment. The Marquette Mining Journal, in a bit of hyperbole, referred to Grand Island as "A Second Yellowstone." Mather tried to defer the high costs of his hobby by live-trapping and selling surplus deer. Over a thirty year period of time, 1,800 deer and thirty elk were sold. [26]

Unlike most exercises in elite recreation Mather's ambitious plans for Grand Island paved the way for public tourist development in the Pictured Rocks area. Mather funded the development of the Hotel Williams on Munising Bay and cottages on Trout Bay. As early as 1902 promoters connected with Mackinac Island's famed Grand Hotel approached Mather with a plan to build an equally impressive resort on Grand Island. Mather, however, did not want to share his preserve with that many people. Acting on his own more modest plan, Mather ordered the building of a 150-person hotel in 1909. Attractive brochures promoted the resort as a place to fish, hike, ride horses, and of course, see the Pictured Rocks. [27]

The Hotel Williams found a ready market for its amenities. By the end of the nineteenth century, middle class midwesterners were being drawn northward in ever increasing numbers for summer vacations. The "cult of the strenuous life" and the search for relief by hay fever sufferers helped to stimulate the demand for north woods retreats. Hay fever was a vexing health problem one hundred years ago. Without antihistamines there was no relief from the asthma, red eyes, and wet noses caused by pollen. "Hay fever and Asthmatic sufferers," one railroad advertisement declared, "the climate of Northern Michigan offers speedy relief for your ailment." At resorts throughout the region informal "Achoo Clubs" congregated for a month at a time. [28]

In 1899, Theodore Roosevelt, a hero of the recently completed Spanish-American War, called upon urban Americans to resist "flabbiness" and "slothful ease" and instead live the "life of strenuous endeavor." Roosevelt, who was also the founder of the Boone and Crockett Club, felt that the best way to do that was to cultivate the virtues of the vanishing frontier through outdoor sports. "There are no words," he wrote, "that can tell of the hidden spirit of the wilderness...there's delight in the hardy life of the open, in long rides rifle in hand, in the thrill of the fight with dangerous game." Transportation companies created advertisements to support Roosevelt's ideals and lure sportsmen north. According to a Chicago and Northwestern Railroad advertisement, the north woods were "almost untouched by the hand of man, and five-pound small mouth black bass are not uncommon while there are....hundreds of lakes within reach by canoe or portage." Another publicist promoted the region with imagery familiar to any weary urbanite: "Have you ever caught a muskellunge, one of those cruel, leaping savages that snatches your silver spoon with all the eagerness of a nocturnal housebreaker?" [29]

Mather's investment made Grand Island one of the finest resort attractions in northern Michigan. In its heyday during the 1920s the Hotel Williams catered to a upscale set of visitors for whom it was necessary to provide special accommodations for accompanying personal servants. A trail network provided hardy sportsmen access to the best fishing in the area. Less energetic guests could take advantage of a stagecoach that circuited the island. While Grand Island had the activities to be a destination in itself, the Hotel Williams benefited from its proximity to the Pictured Rock. Three motor launches and several sailing boats were available for chartered trips to the picturesque cliffs. During the 1920s the steel steamer Ottawa made regular weekend excursions to the Pictured Rocks. [30]

The fame of the Pictured Rocks spread slowly among midwestern tourists. Great Lakes cruise ships like the Noronic and the South America afforded guests a passing familiarity with the cliffs and dunes. Visitors with means more modest than the William Hotel could rent guest cabins in Munising, or stay in the town's new campground. Hundreds of young men unable to visit the area in person were introduced to the Pictured Rocks in G. Harvey Ralphson's 1913 novel Boy Scouts on Old Superior or The Tale of the Pictured Rocks. Written by a scout master and chock full of melodrama, the story followed the adventures of four middle class Chicago boy scouts among the Indian and woodsman of the north country. [31]

The Depression of the 1930s began the decline of the Hotel Williams. The early years of the decade were particularly hard on the Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company forcing financial cutbacks across the board. William G. Mather resigned as president in 1933 to become the chairman of the board. When the hard times ended the Hotel William was not well positioned to recover its lost trade. It lacked amenities such as swimming pools which even other Upper Peninsula competitors such as Blaney Park were quick to install. Access to Grand Island also hurt the resort. During the more leisurely pre-World War II era guests might stay for several weeks or even a month; when shorter visits became more common a lengthy trip to Munising from Detroit or Chicago was less attractive. When William G. Mather retired from active control of Cleveland-Cliffs, the company quietly closed the resort and in 1950 began timber harvests on the island. [32]

One hundred years after pioneer scientists Foster and Whitney complained that "a full and accurate description of this extra-ordinary locality has not as yet been communicated to the public," the Pictured Rocks and Grand Sable banks of Lake Superior remained a largely unappreciated recreational resource. The forests behind the cliffs had been carelessly logged and burned during the late nineteenth century. Amid the shoots of second growth timber were a scattering of hunting camps and summer homes. Tourist cabins were available in Munising and Grand Marais for the handful of motorists who braved the poor roads and lack of information to visit the area. "The region is not geared to make your visit painless," a writer observed in 1944. "Sometimes the absence of conveniences and the clannishness of the people are maddening to an outsider...A tourist should know what to expect in Upper Michigan. The truth is the Upper Peninsula is poised uneasily between past and future." [33]

The "grandeur and sublimity" which so struck the early explorers was harnessed during the first decades of the twentieth century to begin a tourist industry in northern Michigan. Yet, it was not until the post-World War II era that the industry was strong enough to remove the barrier of isolation and to pull the Superior region into a new era of economic prosperity. [34]

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Last Updated: 05-Apr-2002