March 3, 1875: Mackinac National Park

The National Parks Traveler has a great article by Bob Janiskee titled
Pruning the Parks: Mackinac National Park (1875-1895)
that says (in part):

Though few people seem to know or care, Michigan’s long-ago abolished Mackinac National Park was America’s second national park. Yellowstone got there first, but not by much.

On March 1, 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law establishing that Yellowstone would forever be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Yellowstone thus became the first true national park in America and the world. What few people seem to know is that Congress created a second national park just three years later. Michigan’s Mackinac National Park, which existed from 1875 to 1895, is the “forgotten” national park.

…Despite a location well removed from the main population centers of the Midwest, Mackinac Island was well served by Great Lakes steamers and became a significant summer resort after the Civil War. The island developed a tourism-based economy and a reputation for being a “healthy” place (though not a cheap one) in which to relax and reenergize in scenic surroundings. By the late 1800s the island had acquired several large hotels and a number of large Victorian homes (called “cottages”) built by wealthy summer residents. The resident population remained small due to the harsh winter climate of the place. There were still only about three dozen residences on the island in 1895.

Island-born U.S. Senator Thomas W. Ferry (1827-1896), whose parents ran the island’s mission school, was concerned that Mackinac Island would end up in private hands and be subjected to development that would ruin its scenic-historic character and slow paced lifestyle. Not long after Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, Ferry began gathering political support for making a large part of Mackinac Island a national park as well.

It was tough going for several years, not least because Congress was loathe to spend money on parks and the island’s scenic and geologic attractions were not jaw-dropping wonders on a par with those of Yellowstone. Ferry finally prevailed, however, and Congress established Mackinac National Park with legislation that President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law on April 15, 1875. The enabling legislation was virtually identical to that used to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

This was a deal done on the cheap. Most of Mackinac Island was already federal property, and the park itself was small. Most importantly, Congress gave the park to the War Department to administer. That meant that soldiers from the Fort Mackinac garrison could be used for the requisite operation and policing of the park.

The arrangement actually worked quite well. The Fort Mackinac command gave serious attention to its park-related responsibilities, and although park superintendents irritated island business interests by nixing some inappropriate development proposals, islanders generally appreciated that their economic interests were best served by protecting the park’s scenery, geologic features, and historic landscape.

Mackinac National Park lasted just 20 years. In the 1890s the Army proposed to abandon Fort Mackinac, an action that would leave the park without a custodian. Alarmed at the prospect, Michigan governor John T. Rich petitioned Congress to turn the park over to the state of Michigan. This was done in 1895. Mackinac Island State Park, reportedly the first state-operated park in this country to be officially titled a “state park,” remains a Michigan state park to this day.

Read more at the National Parks Traveler and learn about this 1936 replica of Fort Holmes from Mackinac State Historic Parks.

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