On-line Book

Book Cover
Our Fourth Shore
Great Lakes Shoreline






The Lakes and Their Areas

A Region for Recreation

Sands and Scenery

The Land and Its Life

Discovery and Development


Great Lakes Shoreline Recreation Area Survey
NPS Arrowhead logo

aerial view of lakeshore

A Region for Recreation

Mackinac Island
Mackinac Island — Early holidays in the grand manner. — Michigan Historical Commission Photograph

Recreational use of the Great Lakes got off to a slow start in the middle of the nineteenth century. At that time, long weekends and annual vacations were non existent for most people, and transportation limitations prevented all but the very wealthy from seeking recreational enjoyment on this inland sea. Recreational development was restricted to a few exclusive resorts and estates accessible by rail, stagecoach or boat. As a result, there were still miles and miles of undeveloped shoreline for the hardy, for the wilderness lovers, for the solitude seekers. There was no problem.

Niagara Falls became the first center for extensive public visitation and use. This primary scenic wonder of the Great Lakes region was readily accessible by train from major cities throughout the country and, although general vacations still were not the accepted thing, honeymoon travel was. Consequently, thousands of young couples initiated their marital status with a "Shuffle off to Buffalo" and public use of the Great Lakes region was under way.

Niagara Falls
"...a vast and prodigious Cadence of Water which falls down after a surprising and astonishing manner.... — Father Hennepin (1679).

Pleasure cruises — an early recreation use of the Great Lakes. — Photograph by courtesy of Dana Thomas Bowen, author of "Memories of the Lakes."

Next came the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800's. This brought an abundance of goods and a higher standard of living; it also increased the size and activity of a vacationing public. Escape from the confines of metropolitan existence was made possible by the advent of paid vacations, and gravitation toward the eternal attraction of water was inevitable.

Land travel limitations were still a deterring factor, but during this period the Great Lakes cruises from Buffalo to Duluth flourished along with the popular resorts in the Thousand Islands and Mackinac Straits. Summer home development along the lakeshores was initiated but not to any extensive degree. Public use was still limited in scope to the vicinity of major cities. There still was no problem of available shoreline for recreation and wildlife — no major concern over the preservation of the natural scene.


The automobile provided more extensive recreational activity.

In 1907, Henry Ford at his little Piquette Street factory near downtown Detroit, brought the Model T to the common man and America found itself on wheels, demanding a place to go. In answer to this call, roads were improved, the network was extended, and the wilderness was pushed back. Great Lakes recreation was no longer an exclusive privilege; everyone who wanted a place in the sun could now get to it. The problem became one of finding the place.

Not everyone could afford the investment necessary to buy shore frontage and erect a cabin which would be used only on weekends or summer vacations. Thus, the need for public recreation areas and parks arose, and, in time, was answered by legislative bodies which appropriated money for land acquisition and development.

Giant strides were made in this respect and grave injustice would be committed if the foresight and preservation efforts of men like Stephen Mather, Robert Moses, Judge Magney were to be overlooked. Through the public-spirited planning of these men and others like them, many significant natural areas were set aside for public benefit. In most cases, such long range planning also included areas over and beyond existing needs. However, in those days the ultimate threat of insufficient public lands was not apparent to appropriating bodies.

In all fairness to the situation, though, it must be stated that the 111 state and federal areas which encompass 620 miles of Great Lakes shoreline were adequate to handle public use until the present decade when we entered the "Age of Travel" and, at the same time, were faced with the "Urban Sprawl."

Never before in the history of recreation and wildlife conservation have the Great Lakes been faced with the magnitude of recreational use that has roared into the parks, game areas, fishing sites. The reasons are simply these: Our national population continues to grow. Incomes have risen. Living standards have constantly improved. Leisure time has increased. And in most Americans, as in most other people, there is a hunger for the outdoors.

On the Great Lakes this hunger is now being satisfied through the use of automobiles and power boats. The horse and buggy has been replaced by horsepower and, unless steps are taken now to keep ahead, transportation improvements are apt to deplete forever the public recreation resources still available on the shore line of the Great Lakes.

Porcupine Mountains State Park
Michigan's Porcupine Mountains State Park — recently saved from the encroachments of industrial exploitation.

Next >>>

top of page Top

Last Modified: Mon, Dec 22 2003 10:00:00 pm PDT

National Park Service's ParkNet Home