Third in a Series
I’m sure that many residents of Michigan have heard of Beaver Island, even if they haven’t actually visited there. But when I saw it on the itinerary for my recent “Magical Lake Michigan Cruise” aboard the Grande Mariner from Blount Small Ship Adventures, it had me scurrying to my atlas.
It turns out that Beaver Island is the largest island in Lake Michigan: about 13 miles long and three to six miles wide. But it’s remote and sparsely populated — with only about 550 year-round residents — and it can only be reached by boat or small plane.
Ferries serve the island from the mainland in warm months, but when the weather gets cold and the northern reaches of the lake ice over, Beaver Island residents mostly have to hunker down for the long winter.
The island does have additional summer residents, such as the guide who showed us around, an Irishman named Seamus who teaches college the rest of the year in Petosky, Michigan, on the mainland. We found Seamus, or rather Seamus found us, through Blount’s optional shore tour program, and his hour-and-a half-tour was a bargain at $33 a head.
He promised to fill us with island stories 100 percent of our time with him — “and at least 70 percent of them are true.”
The island does have a fascinating history, with or without embellishments from Seamus.
Originally settled by Irish fishermen expelled from their homeland by the English, Beaver Island became the “promised land” in the mid-19th century for a group of rogue Mormons who split off from the much larger Brigham Young-led segment that founded Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Beaver Island contingent was led by James Strang, known as “King Strang” because he declared himself the local monarch in 1848, the only legally recognized kingdom in the United States. Strang, a polygamist with five wives, even served for a few years in the Michigan state legislature and founded northern Michigan’s first weekly newspaper.
Strang based his authority on what was probably a forged letter from Mormon founder Joseph Smith saying that he, not Brigham Young, should succeed Smith in the event of the prophet’s death.
But Strang’s strictures about proper dress for women and generally authoritarian attitude – resulting in the Irish being driven from the island – led to his demise.
Two disgruntled men – whether Irish or Mormon is a matter of debate – assassinated him in 1856. The Irish soon returned, drove the Mormons from the island, and continue to this day to dominate Michigan’s “Emerald Isle.” You’ll find Irish pubs here, a bay called Donegal, and cars decorated with shamrocks.
But some descendants of the exiled Mormons still look to Beaver Island as the “promised land” that will eventually usher in Armageddon.
The island, once a thriving commercial fishing and lumbering area, now relies mostly on eco-tourism for its livelihood. Birding, bicycling, canoeing on its six inner lakes, camping, and recreational fishing are all popular with visitors. It’s also very rural — of the 100 miles of road on the island, only seven are paved.
The backroads are littered with houses harboring local characters, past and present. One beloved figure, locally known as “Dr. Protar,” was a famous actor in Latvia who decided to give it all up and live off the land on Beaver Island. While he failed badly at that, he served as an informal doctor to the locals for years before dying in the 1920s. His old house remains, as does a monument erected to him by grateful citizens.
The main town – where we docked and which holds most of the population – has some impressive homes along the waterfront. One particularly striking structure, King Strang’s Hotel — which was the only hotel on the island until 1953 — is now a private club.
According to Seamus, tourism saved Beaver Island back in the 1960s, when the population dropped to below 100. Bike trails now criss-cross the island, birders arrive annually, pleasure boats dot the harbor along with the passenger ferries, and a pricey lodge occupies one particularly scenic backcountry location by the water.
And, from time to time, the Grande Mariner makes port as well — a ship small enough to make remote Beaver Island a key stop on its Lake Michigan itinerary.
Next up: Mackinac Island, The Grand Resort
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