Located on the northwestern shore of Michigan's Lower Peninsula Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is one of the most beautiful places in the American heartland. Named after a series of towering coastal sand dunes, the national park features rugged four hundred-foot bluffs, splendid sugar sand Lake Michigan beaches, and cool, dark forests. The lakeshore's mainland beaches and dunes are often crowded with summer vacationers, while two islands, North Manitou and South Manitou, offer backpackers and day-trippers a more secluded natural experience. The lakeshore's splendid natural setting is enhanced by an array of cultural resources. As befitting a park located astride one of the busiest ship channels on the inland seas, the lakeshore boasts a wide variety of maritime cultural resources including shipwreck sites, a lakeshore ghost town, three Coast Guard Stations, a lighthouse, and an impressive collection of small boats and nautical artifacts. Behind the beaches and dunes the lakeshore embraces a landscape marked by former farmsteads, offering the National Park Service the opportunity to interpret the vernacular expression of a vanishing American lifestyle. This rich mixture of historic and natural assets, together with the lakeshore's location amid rapidly developing resort communities, makes Sleeping Bear Dunes an immensely complex park unit to administer.
Beginning in 1919 a small portion of what is now the national lakeshore was set aside as a state park. The idea of a national park in northwestern Michigan did not surface until the National Park Service's Great Lakes Shoreline Survey visited the area in 1958. Between 1959 and 1970 there was a continuous and controversial effort in Congress to create a park unit around the Sleeping Bear Dune. The legislative leader of the Sleeping Bear park proposal was United States Senator Philip A. Hart. The senator's persistence and patience in the end led to the creation of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on October 21, 1970.Opposition to the creation of the lakeshore was very strong among local summer homeowners. More than 1,400 tracts of private land had to be acquired to create the lakeshore. A heavy-handed, poorly planned land acquisition program reinforced the bitterness that surfaced during the decade of struggle that preceded authorization. The legacy of those actions has been two fold. On one hand the National Park Service has been vilified by many local property owners and the park staff have had to work in an environment that is unnecessarily confrontational. On the other hand, the presence of an organized local populace wary of National Park Service policy has influenced for the better the development of the national lakeshore. Local sentiments played an important role toning-down the agency's initial plans to intensively develop the area's recreational assets. More recently local sentiment has influenced the agency's approach to the lakeshore's rural cultural landscapes. Unfortunately, resistance to the National Park Service in the region has also hindered opportunities to bring more land under protection and to develop scenic drives for park visitors.
The National Park Service conceived the Sleeping Bear Dunes lakeshore at a time when the shores of Lake Michigan were rapidly undergoing privatization. Subdivisions of vacation and year round homes threatened to keep ordinary citizens from enjoying Michigan's broad, sandy shoreline. A nationalized lakeshore along the beaches and bluffs of the Sleeping Bear made available for all what might have been enjoyed only by a select few. The cost was millions of dollars of federal funds and the hopes and dreams of hundreds of small property owners. Sleeping Bear Dunes was a tragedy for the latter and a wise investment of the former.
In addition to trying to reconcile its national mandate with an aggrieved local community, the National Park Service, within its own ranks has often been challenged and divided over policy toward the shifting sand dunes. Congress conceived the national lakeshore parks of the Great Lakes region as experiments in public recreation management. The requirements of managing small, often non-contiguous parks carved out of private holdings required adjustments by administrators whose primary experience had been earned in large, isolated western national parks. The managers of Sleeping Bear have been further challenged by the dynamic evolution of the environmental movement during the 1970s and 1980s. The requirements of wilderness, environmental protection, endangered species, and historic preservation have meant that even within the lakeshore staff decision making can be contentious and time consuming, with a variety of resource management issues in direct competition with values of public recreation and visitor safety.
The administrative history of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the story of one park unit's attempt to meet its congressional mandate in an era of expanding responsibilities and often uncertain financial means, in a beautiful but often hostile place.
The beauty of the landscape of Sleeping Bear Dunes and the charm of towns and farms of northwestern Michigan made researching this history a genuine pleasure. Part of the joy of working in the region was the friendship and cooperation of the people who live and work in the area. Their assistance made this study possible. Oral history informants made the most important contribution. I thank them for their patience and their willingness, in many cases, to go back over complicated and painful memories. Of particular help to me in locating documentary sources at the lakeshore headquarters were William Herd and Neal Bullington. Jacqueline Fine was particularly gracious during my research trips to the park. Superintendent Ivan Miller was very generous with his time and facilitated my work at Sleeping Bear Dunes. In the Regional Office Donald L. Stevens, Jr., Senior Historian, Cultural Resources, Midwest Region, was particularly helpful. I am especially indebted to the many people who reviewed the draft report. Their comments and corrections greatly strengthened the final text.
Historians and archivists at the Bentley Historical Library, University of Michigan and the Clark Historical Library at Central Michigan University were very helpful with my research and photocopy requests. Laura Quakenbush of the Leelanau County Historical Society was particularly gracious directing me to manuscript collections and oral sources in Leelanau County. I wish to thank the Traverse City Record-Eagle and the Grand Rapids Press for their gracious permission to reprint political cartoons from their newspapers. At Loyola University I wish to thank Lorna Newman for her help with inter-library loan requests. The history department chairpersons, Dr. Cheryl Johnson-Odim and Dr. Anthony Cardoza, helped to facilitate my work through conscientious scheduling. Graduate public history student Jennifer Bridge helped with bibliographic research and Melanie Wood provided very efficient assistance with the bibliography and the index.
This history is dedicated to the people who devoted their careers to making the national lakeshore and to those who sacrificed their private property for an enduring public benefit. Because of them the broad beaches and sandy bluffs are open to all.