South Manitou Island was once the center of civilization and commerce in the Manitou Passage. Settlement of this area of Michigan actually began on this little island primarily because of it's protected natural deep-water harbor. The island was densely forested, so when steamers began to sail the Great Lakes, it's strategic location between Chicago and the Straits of Mackinac, made it the best place to take on firewood for their boilers. The first village was located just north of the present dock on Crescent Bay. The remains of Burton's Warf can still be seen if you walk north along the beach from the present dock. There was a little railroad built to haul the logs from the interior of the island down to the dock.
After the land was cleared, immigrant farmers, many of them from Bavaria, came to the island to homestead. Before long, the island became a little farming community.
As Chicago grew, travel between there and Buffalo resulted is heavy traffic on the lower Great Lakes. Long before automobiles and paved roads, passengers and freight traveled from New York's harbor to Chicago by barge and boat. Early sailors quickly discovered that the Great Lakes, and especially Lake Michigan were different than the ocean. Treacherous seas could come up almost without warning, and the wave structure was different than they were used to on the oceans. As the shipping disasters increased and the Lake Michigan shoreline became a graveyard for ships, the government launched an ambitious program to build lighthouses and establish lifesaving stations. That brought lightkeepers and surfmen to South Manitou Island as well as to North Manitou Island and the mainland.
In time, the boom town gradually turned into a ghost town. As coal became more available and less expensive, the ships did not need to stop at the island as often and the cost of shipping supplies and produce to and from the island became too expensive and the families abandoned their farmsteads for the mainland.
Steel hulls and electronic navigation equipment reduced the need for lighthouses and lifesaving stations. Many lighthouses were automated, and eliminated the need for the lighthouse keepers. In the early 1950's the Coast Guard closed the station on the island. Most islanders simply locked their doors and left with little more than a few of their most treasured personal belongings. The rest of their possessions were not worth the cost of shipping them to the mainland.
For approximately 20 years, the things that people built on the island suffered the ravages of nature. Vandals and looters also contributed to the decline of the buildings on the islands. In the early 1970's South Manitou Island became part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Since then, the National Park Service has removed some of the hazardous structures and has stabilized many of the historic buildings to preserve the historic and cultural resources for future generations.
Much of the content of the web pages describing South Manitou Island was adapted from "Welcome to South Manitou Island - A Pocket Guide for Visitors" published by Gene Warner, Manitou Islands Memorial Society, 2004.
Last updated: April 10, 2015