2017-10-12 / Life in Leelanau

Steamboats launch early Leelanau development

STEAMSHIPS LIKE the S.S. Petoskey, shown here in 1880, were typical of big wooden fleet that shipped goods and people the Great Lakes. 
Photo credit: Leelanau Historical Museum STEAMSHIPS LIKE the S.S. Petoskey, shown here in 1880, were typical of big wooden fleet that shipped goods and people the Great Lakes. Photo credit: Leelanau Historical Museum The following is an excerpt from “Remembering Solon,” a community and family history of the Solon Township area, Leelanau County, compiled by Carol Drzewiecki for Solon Township.

Leelanau County, which forms the little finger of the mitten-shaped lower peninsula of Michigan, occupies the whole region between Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay, a land area of approximately 228,000 acres. High rolling hills follow the shoreline of Lake Michigan, curve around Lake Leelanau, and stretch northward to form the backbone of the long thin Leelanau Peninsula.

The hills were once covered with dense forests of beech, birch, maple, oak, elm and other hardwoods. Tall pines and cedars grew in the many miles of swampland that surrounds the inland lakes of the county.

Solon Township, established in October of 1891, is located at the south edge of Leelanau County and for five miles borders Grand Traverse County. Within the township, the community of Solon prospered during the lumbering era. Although it never became an unincorporated village, Solon played an important role in the development of this part of Michigan.

Like most northern parts of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, the settlement of Leelanau County was delayed until the middle of the 1800s. Until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, along with the popular use of the steamboat for transportation, this part of Michigan was far from the routes of migration. People were further discouraged from seeking farmlands here because of an official survey made public in 1815 that branded Michigan as a “poor, barren, sandy land, on which scarcely any vegetation grows, except very small, scrubby oaks.”

A new survey, conducted in the 1820s, corrected this false report, and soon eastern newspapers and guides advertised Michigan lands a being rich and productive as any in the Northwest.

Word of the promising new lands of the Michigan Territory was greeted with hope and enthusiasm by Easterners who were discouraged by the worn-out soils, the crowded cities, and the poor economic conditions of New England and the Middle Atlantic States. As they traveled the land and water routed to the new West, the migrating Easterners were joined by thousands of immigrants fleeing the political, economic and religious strife of post-war Europe. Many from new England came by way of the Great Genesee Road and settled lands of the Connecticut Land Company in Ohio. At the mouth of the Cuyahoga River, the town of Cleveland was laid out, and from this growing center settlements spread to form new villages and open new farm lands. Solon, Ohio was one of the numerous communities that grew up near Cleveland, was peopled by those who had left their homes in New England. After 1833 the great flood of migration was turned from the Ohio Valley toward southern Michigan when, in 1833, a regular lake steamer service established between Buffalo and Detroit. This all-water route made it possible to travel from Massachusetts to Michigan in relative comfort for less than $10. Thousands of Easterners pushed into Detroit to make their homes; others traveled west to find new homes in the villages along the Chicago Road or the Territorial Road; some turned north to open farmlands in the Saginaw Valley; many crossed the territory to settle the Grand Valley to the shores of Lake Michigan. By 1837 when it was granted statehood, 175,000 people, most of them from New England, had found homes in the new state of Michigan.

Because there were no roads north of Bay City, Michigan’s population by the mid-1800s was, for the most part, confined to the southern sections of the state. An Indian footpath stretched from the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula to the Ohio Valley while other trails followed the shorelines of Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and crossed the state at different points, following the east-west flowing rivers and streams. Since the Michigan Indians did not have any horses, these pathways were narrow and tortuous and therefore of little value to the white man as a means of reaching new lands in the northern wilderness.

Traveling by water, the only practical means of reaching the remote parts of Michigan, fishermen and traders began probing the waters and shores of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay during the early 1800s. One of these lonely fisherman was a Frenchman who lived for a while on the shore of Lake Michigan about two miles south of the present village of Leland.

Lying about 10 miles from the mainland of Leelanau County are the North and South Manitou Islands. These islands, because of ancient Indian legends and superstitions, held no permanent native villages remained uninhabited until increased steamboat traffic on the Great Lakes brought the island’s first white man.

The Pickard brothers, Nicholas and Simon, arrived in 1846 on North Manitou and on each side of the island set up a wooding station from which the “propellers” steaming between Buffalo and Chicago could pick up cord wood. On the south island a man named Barton had a similar enterprise. His business had begun in 1839 shortly after the construction a lighthouse, the first of such structures on the Great Lakes.

One year following the arrival of the Pickard brothers, John Lerue came to North Manitou Island, traveling by steamboat from Chicago. During the first year Lerue began a trading business with the Indians and in 1848, when he moved to Sleeping Bear Bay on the mainland, he became the first permanent settler in Leelanau County.

During the next 10 years, the 1850s. tiny villages began to develop along the shorelines of Lake Michigan and Grand Traverse Bay as scores of families found new homes on the Leelanau Peninsula. Northport, at the tip of the peninsula, grew around the mission established by the Congregational missionary, George Smith. Five miles south of Northport the tiny community of Omena was founded by the Presbyterian missionary to the Chippewa Indians, Reverend Peter Doughtery.

At Leland, Antoine Manseau drew others to the area as he and his son began construction of a dam and sawmill. Others were attracted to the Glen Arbor region where the safe deep waters of Sleeping Bear Bay provided an excellent harbor for the steamships picking up lumber and forest products.

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