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the arch at Mackinac Island

Michigan's first state park?

As the DNR celebrates the 100th anniversary of Michigan state parks system, a natural question arises – what was Michigan’s first state park? Well, the answer depends on how you interpret the question and isn’t simple.

The 2019 state parks centennial celebration is centered around the formation of the Michigan State Park Commission by the state Legislature on May 12, 1919. The commission was given responsibility for overseeing, acquiring and maintaining public lands and establishing Michigan’s state parks system.

One of the state’s earliest purchases was the site of Interlochen State Park in 1917. Although the land was purchased prior to 1919, Interlochen was the first public park to be transferred to the Michigan State Park Commission in 1920 and is considered Michigan's first state park. 

However, many consider Mackinac Island as Michigan’s first state park, which is also true.

Approximately 25 years before legislation established the state park commission, the federal government gifted the Mackinac Island property it owned to the state in 1895. The island was designated as Michigan’s first state park under the Mackinac State Park Commission. 

Because Mackinac Island is operated under the Mackinac State Park Commission and was not placed under the Michigan State Park Commission, there is more than one answer to the “first state park” question.

Interlochen State Park - The Michigan Legislature paid $60,000 for the land that became Interlochen State Park, located southwest of Traverse City, in 1917.

As recorded in the Biennial Report of the Public Domain Commission for 1917-1918: “At the last session of the Legislature Michigan purchased one of the few remaining parcels of virgin pine timber to be found in this State, the same being Interlochen State Park, … between two beautiful lakes in Grand Traverse County. Duck Lake on the east covers some 3 square miles and Green Lake on the west is of slightly less extent, the distance separating the two being but one-half mile. The property has a shoreline of three-quarter mile on the former and one-half mile on the latter, all of which is high and dry and very desirable for camping purposes.”

Its location between two well-known fishing and swimming lakes, Green Lake and Duck Lake – Interlochen means “between the lakes” – is one of the park’s defining features.

Another is its virgin pine forest.

 “The timber is practically all old growth white and Norway pine in which it is said that no cutting has ever been done except to remove windfalls and trees that have died,” according to the Biennial Report. “Many specimens of the white pine two and a half and three feet in diameter, towering 175 feet or more in height, can be seen here and the Norway, tall and dense, is as fine as can be found anywhere.”

Originally known as Pine Park, Interlochen State Park was created to preserve the land’s virgin pine stand for the people of Michigan.

The Biennial report continues: “The object of the State in acquiring this tract was first of all to preserve to posterity at least one remnant of the virgin pine forest with which Michigan was so lavishly endowed by nature, where future generations may go and view the glories of the pine forest in all its pristine grandeur. Being always open to the public it will also provide a delightful summer recreation ground for those wishing to avail themselves of its advantages in this respect.”

The Public Domain Commission transferred the land to the Michigan State Park Commission in 1920.

Today, the state park system that the commission started 100 years ago has grown to 103 parks that attract 28 million visitors each year.

Mackinac Island State Park - Mackinac Island – historically a gathering place for Native people and then French fur traders and missionaries and later the home of soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac – had become a popular tourist destination by the late 19th century.

“By the time of the Civil War, lake boats were bringing visitors to Mackinac to enjoy the ‘healthy air’ or explore the island’s natural wonders,” David A. Armour, who served as deputy director of the Mackinac Island State Park Commission for many years, wrote in his book “100 Years at Mackinac: 1895-1995.”

Armour continues: “Such was the growing reputation of Mackinac Island that Thomas W. Ferry, a Mackinac boy who had grown up to become a U.S. Senator, spearheaded a move to have Congress designate the government land on Mackinac Island as a national park. He succeeded, and in 1875, three years after Yellowstone had become the United States’ first national park, Mackinac became the second. Set aside ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,’ the 911 acres outside the 104-acre military reservation were to be maintained by the soldiers who garrisoned Fort Mackinac.”

Almost 20 years later, the U.S. Army decided to close Fort Mackinac. At the time, the National Park Service didn’t exist, and all national parks were under the umbrella of the War Department.

“While Mackinac was a beautiful and pleasant post enjoyed by the soldiers stationed there, it had no remaining military importance, and its troops were needed in Sault Ste. Marie to guard the canal there,” Armour wrote. “Without the troops, who would care for the national park?”

In February 1895, Senator James McMillian – urged on by a group of Mackinac citizens who wanted the island’s government lands kept in public ownership rather than sold – introduced an appropriation bill amendment that would turn the military reservation and the buildings and lands of the national park over to the state of Michigan for use as a state park.

“Congress passed the bill on March 2, with the added stipulation that the land would revert to the United States if it ever ceased to be used for park purposes,” Armour wrote. “Michigan had no state park system, but the state Legislature acted quickly, and by joint resolution on May 31, 1895, created the Mackinac Island State Park Commission to manage Michigan’s first state park.”

The lands of the military reservation, Fort Mackinac and the national park were formally transferred to the state Sept. 16, 1895.

“The state had acquired a treasure,” Armour wrote.

Today, Mackinac Island State Park includes the 14 original buildings of Fort Mackinac, which were built by the British military starting in 1780, as well as several other historic structures and about 1,800 acres of land.

More than 80 percent of Mackinac Island is state park property, managed by the Mackinac Island State Park Commission.

More than 800,000 visitors come to the island each year. The park features a variety of historic and natural resources, including historic landmarks, breathtaking vistas, spectacular rock formations, quiet forests and inspiring nature trails.

To learn more about Mackinac Island State Park, visit MackinacParks.com.