Mackinac Island is a resort town with a rich and colorful history. "Mackinac Island is a major crossroads of the Great Lakes for all people who were ever here, this was a place they came to or came through, primarily in the summertime," said Steve Brisson, deputy director, Mackinac Island.
That began in the 1600s with the Native Americans who came in great numbers to fish from the beautiful waters the area provided. Brisson says Mackinac Island was a very special place for them and had great spiritual significance because in their creation story Mackinac Island was the place where the world began. The Odawa eventually established a village in present day St. Ignace and lived there year round.
In the late 1600s, the French Jesuits found the island and attempted to establish a mission. They too went to St. Ignace and that was the first European presence in the region. Soon, the presence grew. These were fur traders, which was the main economy of New France and they found that the Straits of Mackinac was also a great meeting point in the summer. The Straits became the main fur trading depot of the Great Lakes region until 1714 when the French abandoned the Straits and moved to present day Mackinac City.
The area flourished for many decades and following the French and Indian War, the fort passed into British hands. In 1780 with the threat of American attack during the American Revolution, the British decided to move the fort to Mackinac Island. The Americans officially took over in 1796 until the British recaptured the fort at the beginning of the War of 1812 and held onto it until the war ended.
Travel writers soon found the area and began to expose it's beauty. Brisson says, "one travel writer commented that this island was destined to become one of the chief resorts of this part of the country and he was a true prophet."
In the years leading up to the Civil War, Mackinac Island became a true resort town and was soon declared the nation's second national park. Tourism reached new heights with the construction of the Grand Hotel in 1887. In the 1890s the park was transferred to state hands and automobiles were banned. "They were banned here mainly because somebody brought a car here and scared some horses and the village commission made the decision to stop them, the park commission followed soon two years later," Brisson says.
Tourism fell during the Great Depression and picked up again after World War II. The island also became a back drop for two major motion pictures including "Somewhere in Time" and "This Time for Keeps" starring Esther Williams. Rumor was she never swam in the Grand Hotel pool, but that's not true at all. She swam in it wearing a plaid bathing suit and nude. Brisson says, "a plaid bathing suit might look good, but once Esther jumped into the pool she sank like a lead weight to the bottom and couldn't get up, she had to unzip the suit, wiggle out of it and swim to the surface."
Many presidents and politicians have also visited and continue to visit the island along with hundreds of thousands of tourists every year and Mackinac Island remains a very prominent summer getaway place in this part of the country.