Nestled on the shores of Lake Huron, itâ??s easy to see how water has impacted the city of Cheboygan throughout its history. From the very start, it was water that drew people there. As local historian Matt Friday explains "Native Americans have always had a very strong presence in the area, especially along the inland route and the mouth of the Cheboygan River because we have bodies of water coming together."
Those bodies of water, the Cheboygan River and the Great Lakes, provided everything that the first inhabitants needed. But it was dying industry and salted fish that may have put it on the map in 1844.
That was the year, according to Friday that the fur trading industry began to fade in the Straits area. Looking to expand their future beyond fur, two residents from Mackinac Island, Alexander McLoud and Jacob Sammons crossed the Straits. McLoud saw the writing on the wall for the fur trade, and instead, decided to set up a small upright saw mill on the banks of the Cheboygan River. He had a specific market for his timber. The fur trade was dying, but exporting salted fish was booming. McLoud knew to ship fish you needed one thing. Friday says â??McLoud made barrels for the fish. Making barrels may be the original reason why the place was settled.â??
While the first lumber cut went to make barrels, it didn't take long for fortune minded sawmill operators to realize what they had in the woods surrounding Cheboygan in the huge stands of virgin white pine. The immediate need for barrels was quickly replaced with a seemingly insatiable appetite for lumber from far away markets. America was literally nation building. Cities were booming, the demand for lumber was soaring and the supply in the north woods was seemingly endless.
Cheboygan had the lumber, and the perfect location to get it to market quickly. Friday explains "Cheboygan being right at the Tip of the Mitt, right on the Cheboygan River, it was a great place to cut down the white pine, to float it down the river to the mills here. The schooners could come up and load up with the finished product and head to Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland."
With standing timber everywhere they turned, sawmills popped up seemingly overnight throughout the second half of the 19th century. As the sawmills grew, so did the upstart town. The population of Cheboygan actually peaked in 1896, the peak of the lumber era. Friday says "Cheboygan really looked like a wild west boomtown. First you start with the quickly constructed buildings, and then you get the brick and substantial structures."
But even substantial structures could fall victim to a fire, and Cheboygan would not be immune to their destructive powers. Friday recounts "there have been a significant number of fires, when you have this many wood buildings, they are prone to fire and built very close to each other, but the most destructive fire was in February of 1923, when 3 people died and four business blocks were lost to fire."
Cheboygan would rebuild and bounce back, turning its attention to once again helping the nation. This time, it wasnâ??t to build, but rather to defend. Almost four decades after the lumber boom dried up, Cheboygan saw a rebound by producing several products for the war effort. In the 1950â??s, Charmin paper products came to town. The town began to explore new industries and provided new opportunities for residents.
Today one of Cheboyganâ??s biggest industries is tourism. Itâ??s a port city popular with boaters, fishermen and those looking to take advantage of the natural beauty both in the surrounding woods and waters. Cheboygan has long relied on the river to drive its industry, from sawmills to tourism, but the rest of the Great Lakes has also relied on Cheboygan. Stationed on the river is Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw and its crew, a fixture in Cheboygan since the 1940s. Friday says, while the community takes pride in the vessel, he knows it role has a far reaching impact, "its important to see that in our community, it keeps the great lakes shipping open, and to know it is here in our community I think its absolutely fantastic."
Today, Cheboygan once again has to reinvent itself and overcome obstacles, but if history proves anything, this town has what it takes.