The story of Beulah

Many Northern Michigan communities got their start by turning to the surrounding trees with a booming timber industry; but only one got its start by being completely underwater. This is the story of Beulah.

Ask amateur historian Neil Nugent what the strangest thing that ever happened in the Benzie County community of Beulah is, and he is quick to point, "I guess draining the lake is the most unusual thing that anyone has done." The lake in question is none other than Crystal Lake. And if it wasn't for William Case, the land that the town of Beulah sits on now might still be under water.

Nugent explains "he (Case) got a bright idea that he could connect the outlet of Crystal Lake to a waterway and go all the way down to the Betsie River, then we would have commerce from this part of Crystal Lake all the way to the Great Lakes, which would have been a great idea except that apparently nobody used a transit to discover that the lake level was considerably higher than the Betsie River. When he opened it up in 1878, it started gushing and ran for a number of weeks and drained the lake down like a big bath tub." Some estimates say the lake level dropped by up to 30 feet. The waterway and commerce never really took hold, but the exposed land proved to be the most valuable payout of the botched project.

Nugent says "About 6 or 8 years later, they started putting down houses and 1888 the railroad came through utilizing the exposed shoreline that was because it had no trees on it. The railroad was really the impetus of a commercial area that became a town. People saw the three and half miles of shoreline along the railroad here and so they started buying up land along the railroad line, and then more and more people started coming."

But that railroad did more than just bring people here. It actually changed the town's name. The first residents who staked their claim did it in a town named Crystal City, but when the railroad built the station that name became something entirely different. Nugent says "when they hung the shingle out at the rail road depot it just said Beulah. So we lost our nice name of Crystal City, and just got the relatively mundane name of Beulah."

While many neighboring towns saw lumber booms drive their first industries, Beulah staked its claim on a smaller scale in the form of celery and onions. They produce grew well in the newly exposed, and often mucky soil at Terp's farm.

By the turn of the century, Beulah's main street began to take shape. Nugent describes the narrow corridor of commerce, "of course we had grocery stores, livery stables, and a grist mill and all the things that go with a little town." But even back then, from its earliest roots, Beulah's industry was based on the nearby water, and the draw that Crystal Lake had. Nugent says "there were a number of resorts and resort hotels. We had two large hotels, the largest being the Northway, which was down here on the lake."

For decades, guests at the hotels and resorts would arrive by rail, but in the 1920's that too would change. Nugent says "when they ran US 31 the roadway up through here that was instrumental in bringing a lot more visitors. By that time people were starting to drive cars and that brought a lot of people here because the highway ran right through town."

But the new road wasn't the only thing that ran through town back then, so did the smelt. The tiny fish stocked to feed the landlocked salmon in Crystal Lake would run into Cold Creek, and thousand of smelters looking to fill their nets would like the creek at midnight at the start of the season.

Beulah has always had a close relationship with its neighboring community Benzonia, in fact, Nugent says "it wasn't until 1932 that Beulah became an independent town, with its own post office." A post office and a park suitable for a prizefight. Nugent says "in the center of that park was a boxing ring, and this was a popular place on summer weekends they would have boxing tournaments."

Gone these days are the boxers, the rail lines, the onion farms and the vintage hotels. But today, Beulah still capitalizes on its biggest draw, Crystal Lake; even if it's a little smaller because of a mistake.