Fort Mackinac: Michigan’s Former Gateway

Fort Mackinac: Michigan’s Former Gateway

I have lived all of my life in Michigan but never made it to Mackinac Island until my twenties. As a kid, we spent every summer camping in Northern Michigan. However, paying to take the ferry with six kids was never quite in my parent’s budget. It might have also been the constant energy my four rambunctious older brothers exuded that kept us confined to a secluded campsite where all of us could run like wild animals.

I finally made it to Mackinac Island and saw Fort Mackinac for the first time. I wish I had made it there sooner. The unique attributes and beautiful views on the Island make it one of the most interesting places to explore in Michigan. The Fort makes it a place still alive with the past. Built 150-feet upon the bluff above Mackinac Island Harbor, Fort Mackinac is an important piece of Michigan’s history. It is a piece every Michigander should experience.

Fort Mackinac: Michigan's Former Gateway - The Awesome Mitten
The Shores of Mackinac Island. Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Ryan

There is always something fascinating about walking through historic sites that remain set-up as they originally existed. It is an intriguing chance to glimpse at the life our ancestors led, and the hardships they faced. At Fort Mackinac, there are fourteen buildings that have been restored. These feature period furnishings to recreate how the Fort looked in its original glory. Visitors can walk along the walls built by the British and see Michigan’s oldest building and the Officers’ Stone quarters. Guests are greeted by people dressed for the period and are ready to share the details of life inside the fort. Walk the same grounds where soldiers and their families lived, eager to help defend a developing nation.

Fort Mackinac: Michigan's Former Gateway - The Awesome Mitten
A view of Fort Mackinaw outside its walls. Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Ryan

History

The Fort was built in 1780 by the British to control the waterways. It also served to control the fur trade that the French started on the mainland. It was faster to travel by boat rather than land, and the Great Lakes provided easy access to the state. The original fort was Fort Michilimackinac in current day Mackinaw City. However, the fact that it was made of wood and vulnerable to attack by Americans led the British to move it to the island for its obvious advantages. By 1796, Americans finally had control of the fort, only to have the British take it back during the first land engagement in the War of 1812.

In Canada, British forces learned about the war before Americans were even aware that they were under attack. It gave them the chance to rush the fort with soldiers, outnumbering those on the Island. Two years later, the Americans would become engaged in a bloody battle to retake the fort but to no avail. In the process, they also lost two sailing vessels when they attempted to blockade the harbor. Americans wouldn’t regain control until after the war ended. Once it was returned to American forces, it became a bustling place filled with soldiers and their families. Here they continued their daily routines within the massive stone walls, always carrying the looming threat of invasion in the back of their minds.

Fort Mackinac: Michigan's Former Gateway - The Awesome Mitten
Fort Michilimackinac, the original Fort before the construction of Fort Mackinac. Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Ryan

Becoming a National Park

From time to time, soldiers had to abandon the fort. They were forced to leave in support of other wars.  Soldiers left for the Mexican War, Santee Indian Uprising, and the Civil War. During these times, it remained quite empty until 1862 when it served as a prison for 3 Confederate supporters of substantial wealth. In 1875, the Mackinac National Park was established making it America’s second National Park after Yellowstone. Without a National Park Service, the commanding officer played the role of “park superintendent.” With its park status, people began venturing to the island for vacation, using it as a summer resort. Once the Fort became completely inactive in 1895, the State of Michigan took over its ownership and made it Michigan’s first State Park.

Fort Mackinac: Michigan's Former Gateway - The Awesome Mitten
Fort Mackinac. Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Ryan

Present Day

Today, the Fort has live programs and tours. Costumed interpreters help capture the historical events that took place. Visitors have a chance to see what life was like as our nation was forming. Each of the buildings is open to the public. Special exhibits include the kids’ quarters that feature interactive games and displays. There are also audiovisual presentations and live reenactments, like the cannon demonstration, musket firing, and live music. They even allow lucky patrons to fire the cannon!

Fort Mackinac: Michigan's Former Gateway - The Awesome Mitten
Fort Mackinac. Photo Courtesy of Kaitlin Ryan

The slow paced atmosphere of Mackinac Island makes it a major attraction. If you step foot on the island, you have to see the Fort. It is a fascinating experience that was once a gateway to our Great State.

Have you had a chance to visit Fort Mackinac? What is your favorite part about coming to Mackinac Island?