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Mackinac Island

by Brian Dearle

Like a great many communities across North America at the beginning of the twentieth century, the thriving upper Michigan resort village of Mackinac Island banned the newly invented automobile from its roads, as a menace to horses, carriages and people. Unlike practically every other community in North America, Mackinac Island has never repealed the ban. In the ensuing century the little town has had the almost unique fortune to be an enclave of peace, quiet and a stately-paced, uncluttered life, paradoxically located in the very state that gave the world the mass-produced automobile.

Mackinac Island rose to regional prominence in the latter part of the nineteenth century as a summer holiday destination for the newly wealthy industrialists of the upper Midwest. Hotels filled in the summer months as fast as they could be built, inspiring the usually arch-competitive railroads and steamer companies to collaborate on a huge new Grand Hotel which opened in 1887 and soon thrived. The well-to-do from the Detroit and Chicago areas flocked to the summer resort on the ample rail and steamer services, and the best-off built summer "cottages" that presaged modern McMansions in their ostentatious size.

When the first few sportsmen brought their new motorcars to the island and promptly wreaked havoc, fright and injury to humans and horses, both the city and the state park authorities quickly banned the machines. While other towns large and small gradually lifted their bans, Mackinac Island sold itself as a place of calm and had little need for the efficiencies and speed offered by the motorcar.

So popular was Mackinac by the 1920s that the Detroit car companies even used the Grand Hotel to showcase their latest creations to the moneyed set that visited there. They got around the ban on their products from the village roads by having them hauled to their destination on horse-drawn wagons!

The idyll ended in 1930 with the onset of economic depression, and the settlement withered and almost died until prosperity, and visitors, returned at mid-century. By then, the rail and ship connections were gone, but were replaced by new freeways and mass-produced autos. Mackinac Island has thrived ever since as a spot of romance and nostalgia known well in the region, but hardly at all outside of it.

It is not an easy place to get to nowadays. Where in an earlier time a visitor could board a train or ship in Chicago and be delivered next day to the quay, today a visitor starting from a major city must be prepared for a 5-8 hour drive in a car down a freeway, unless an even longer bus journey sounds appetizing, or perhaps a costly ride in a small plane to a local airfield. Very few add a cross-country flight to this itinerary, but such is the draw of a rare car-free community in car-crazy America that this individual and his patient wife recently made such a trip, to considerable surprise among the locals.

To one hoping for a bit of time travel, the first view from the little ferry at it swings into the harbor is reassuring--an attractive sight of Anglican buildings, steeples, and manses on the bluff, uncluttered by modern designs. The visitor passes through the pleasant jumble of the dock, and onto the bustling yet peaceful Main Street. Squint your eyes a bit, to blur out the sweatpants and windbreakers that pass for fashion, and you can partly see and sense the world as your great-grandparents did. It's also a popular pastime for some in town to dress as if the last hundred years never happened, sharpening the illusion delightfully.

The fondness for anachronism extends to the Grand Hotel, which enforces an archaic dress code in the evenings, and accordingly draws much custom from the romantics in this generally rather unromantic corner of the world. It's a very pricey experience, rather beyond my means, but an indulgence to aspire to.

Thoughts of defying auto mania by walking boldly down the center of the road, as one could blithely do in a car free town on other continents, are quickly revised. For while there is not a private car on the island, Americans still love their vehicles, and the streets here are as much the enclave of wheeled transport as they are in the rest of the continent. The difference is the absence of motors. The streets in the town are paved, and even painted with centerlines. The pedestrians stay mostly on the sidewalks, with the streets given to horse-drawn carriages and bicycles. The impression is that of any number of older American villages, but where the cars are replaced by horses. It seems that, were the auto-ban to be reversed, cars could invade and conquer tomorrow.

But a few minutes' acquaintance with this unique arrangement reveals its charms. There is little visual clutter amid the comfortable cityscape, and even the most bustling street retains a quiet calm and a gentle pace

Those determined to stroll in the middle of the street do not risk life and limb as everywhere else on the continent. Diligence to avoid stepping in horse droppings is the main impediment. The carriage traffic moves at under five miles per hour and is amply announced by the lovely clip-clop sound of horseshoes on pavement. Bicycles are quieter and swifter but mostly adept at avoiding collisions, though many of the riders are visitors and, as this one was, not very practiced at steering.

The settlement is barely a mile in width and but a few blocks in depth, so easily covered on foot. The island is significantly larger, and bikes and buggies carry most visitors further afield. One can even rent one's own horse and buggy.

The dependence on horses as the main motive power means that the whole town has the ever-present aroma of a farm, or a zoo. This is not unpleasant on a cool fall day, though it might get a bit rich on a muggy summer one. Crossing any street calls for a sharp eye for where one steps, to avoid bringing home a fragrant souvenir on one's shoe. But then this is a skill known to anyone who has walked down sidewalks in France.

In what passes for periods of heavy traffic, the only sound is the musically percussive and quickly endearing clip-clop. The earthy aromas are not easily ignored, but animal pollution is far the lesser of evils compared to petro-chemical. Street-sweeping gets considerable attention. The city runs a mechanical street sweeper as well, which, amazingly, is drawn by dray horses!

An older gent sat next to me at breakfast one day, and inquiry revealed that this Michigander's occupation was making buggies. Henry Ford did not quite succeed in driving them all out of business after all! Surprisingly, he had never sold one to the scores of Mackinac residents with their own buggies, though he had sold them elsewhere in the US and in Britain.

Mackinac's economy is almost entirely derived from tourism, as it has been since the late 19th century. And it is very seasonal. Traditionally, the island was all but abandoned between early September and the end of May, and in recent years the "season" has only been extended from late April to the end of October. While it is not completely closed for the remaining six months of the year, visiting the island then, much less living there, requires a certain determination.

Mackinac sits several miles offshore in Lake Huron, which freezes around December and remains so until well into April. Ferry service is of course suspended, and the only way for people or goods to get on or off the island is either by small chartered airplane (weather, nerves, and finances permitting) or by snowmobile across the ice bridge. For the latter journey, one must begin with a snowmobile, of course, and that is presumably the bane of this otherwise pristine locale. The town elders relented to public pressure in the early 1970's and permitted private snowmobiles, so their noisy, smelly whine is ubiquitous during the long winter. On one hand, this is the perfect place for them; Mackinac averages nearly three meters of snow a year, and there being no other vehicles, snowmobiles' practicality is unquestioned. The cost of keeping horses on the island during winter is so high that nearly all of them are transported to the mainland every fall. Until snowmobiles were allowed, the only way for surface transport to the island in winter was on modified airboats, like those used in Florida's everglades. Fitted with skids, these tropical devices got across the frozen lake ok in the frigid Midwest winter, but could not navigate on land of course. With horses prohibitive, hardly anyone could endure the privations of the long winter. Snowmobiles opened it up and now underpin a small but growing winter population, and visitor trade drawn by the cross-country skiing opportunities.

A plausible solution would be to introduce hovercraft, which could run year-round and facilitate the safe and reasonably economical transport of people and freight to and from the mainland even in winter. It might attract enough visitors and residents, demanding peace and quiet, to drive out the snowmobiles.

It could be very rewarding to make the frigid journey and experience the serenity of a pristine, un-motorized winter landscape and town-scape, skiing through drifts or gliding along in a sleigh. But as things stand now, the incessant racket, visual clutter, and petro-aroma of snowmobiles would negate the charm for which the island excels in the warmer months. I very much seek to revisit this most romantic place in America, but only during the months when the motors are silenced.

Brian Dearle