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looking through the window of a building at Fayette Historic State Park

History and natural landscape highlighted in state parks

Before there were parks, there were people, both settlers and indigenous. Before people, there were non-human features of the landscape, from rocks to reptiles. The Great Lakes region showcases millions of years of social, geological and ecological movements. State parks in Michigan today are found in places where people have lived for thousands of years. These parks help visitors explore and interpret what these special places meant to Michigan’s people, even before there were state parks. 

Sanilac Petroglyphs Historic State Park contains Michigan’s largest known collection of early Native American teachings carved in stone. Created within the last 1,400 years, the petroglyphs were discovered following massive fires that swept the region in the late 19th century. The Michigan Archaeological Society purchased this important site and the surrounding land and donated these to the State of Michigan in 1971. Today, this 240-acre park is preserved to teach us about our cultural and natural heritage and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The petroglyphs are sacred to the Great Lakes Anishinabek and remain an important place of teaching and ceremony. This unique park is co-managed with the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan.

There is military history in places like Fort Wilkins Historic State Park in Copper Harbor, which is a restored 1844 military outpost on Lake Superior. The fort was under the direction of U.S. Secretary of War William Wilkins. In 1846, during the Mexican-American War, the garrison was moved to the warfront. After the Civil War ended, the post was abandoned by the Army. In 1923, the fort and the lighthouse became a state park. From 1939 to 1942, the Works Progress Administration – part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives – undertook restoration and improvement work at the park, which included creating car parking spaces and campsites. Over its 700 acres, the park also houses the Copper Harbor Lighthouse, which was built in 1866.

Fayette Historic State Park in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula holds some important clues to the area’s mining history. The area around the park initially was developed in 1867 for its iron production capabilities. Fayette served as the workhorse of the steel industry until, by 1890, rising production costs brought the industry to a standstill. Over time, Fayette became a summer resort. In 1959, the park was established when the State of Michigan acquired the area. The historic townsite was developed by the Jackson Iron Co. and contains the original roads, buildings, railroads grades and charcoal kilns – all remnants of a once vibrant, industrial community. Since 1974, the site has been preserved as an important cultural and historical landmark jointly managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Michigan History Center.

Lumbering and logging were important industries in 19th-century Michigan, which left major ecological damage as a lot of the old-growth forests were lost. In 1927, Karen Hartwick donated land for what was to become the namesake park of her late husband, Maj. Edward Hartwick. The park houses some old white pine, including the erstwhile Monarch tree. At its healthiest, the Monarch was over 155 feet tall and about 12 feet in diameter. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the Hartwick Pines Logging Museum and planted many of the trees in the park as part of the park’s “second growth.”

Belle Isle Park, owned by the city of Detroit but managed by the DNR (through a 30-year lease) since 2013, is one of the state’s newer state park ventures. Like most islands on the Detroit River, some of the first inhabitants of the island were indigenous people. In the 18th century, the island was settled by French colonists who named it Hog Island after the livestock that roamed freely on the island. In the late 19th century, Frederick Law Olmsted – who designed Central Park in New York City – re-designed the island as a park, though only parts of his design were ever completed. Important buildings on the island, such as the aquarium and the botanical conservatory, were not a part of Olmsted’s plans, but instead, were designed by famous Detroit architect Albert Kahn. Other important features of the park are the James Scott Memorial Fountain, the William Livingstone Memorial Light and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.