2018-09-13 / Columns

Transportation on the peninsula

MAIL WAS delivered by horse-drawn stage in the Northport area. This photo was taken in front of the Porter Hotel in 1891. MAIL WAS delivered by horse-drawn stage in the Northport area. This photo was taken in front of the Porter Hotel in 1891. The following is gathered from reading through A History of Leelanau Township, Omena: A Place in Time, and the History of Roads provided on the Leelanau County Road commission website and submitted on behalf of the Northport Historical Society.

In 1855, no roads had yet been opened in Leelanau Township at the northern tip of the county, although work had been done to lay out a road between Carp River (now Leland) in 1854. The first settlers had arrived in Northport and Omena by boat in 1849 and 1851, respectively, and boats were the main means of transportation to all but nearby local areas for years to come. Some early settlers followed Indian Trails on foot or followed the beaches to get to Traverse City. In winter, some traveled on the ice.

In 1862, word came that a road had been cut from Newago to Northport. In 1868, one family (the Greenes) came to Northport by boat with a covered wagon and horses on board, then drove through deep sand on a one-track road from Northport to Omena. In 1870, a state road was laid out and more secondary roads opened. These were dirt and corduroy logs laid out perpendicular to the direction of the road over swampy areas). There was a plank road from where the Happy Hour is now to the lakeshore where W.T. Gill built a sawmill and a pier. The first gravel was put on the Leland road in 1916.

In 1884, there was a stage service from Northport to Traverse City with two companies who alternated that service – John Sanburn’s and Wilbur Steele’s. It was still faster to go by boat. In 1890. Richard (Dick) Thomas and Mr. Gill ran the stage. Following are excerpts from a letter describing that journey written by that Dick Thomas.

It was in 1890 that I commenced going south to Traverse one day and back the next with the stage. I had a partner then that went the opposite direction on the same days. It was about 1900 that Gill and I started the route with one man going both ways in a day with 3 good teams and a covered sleigh with a stove. The rig was built large, strong, and light. The house was 12 feet by 6 feet covered with canvas. The runners were 7 feet so they carried over the soft snow. I changed teams in Suttons Bay and Traverse City.

There was but one day that I did not make the round trip. It snowed and ‘blowed’ the worst I ever saw it. The team had to wade above their knees. Two miles before Suttons Bay one of the horses played out and that left but one to pull us through….

There were no traffic laws then but as a general rule the public helped me make good time. I had a bell on the neck yoke that cold be heard ΒΌ mile so people knew I was a-coming.

An early settler, Mrs. George Bourdo, said she remembered when the first car came to Northport in about 1900. It was brought by Leander Peck. He drove it to a community picnic and everyone was excited but couldn’t see the car until he stopped because of the dust from the road.

During those early years each township in the county also had its own system of local or township roads. Examples of those early local roads include Solon, Lincoln, Tower, Schomberg and Setterbo. Local roads were financed entirely by the township in which they were located. The cost for the roads was raised by a property tax of up to five mills on township residents. It’s common to hear about farmers who “worked off their road tax” by using their team of horses to haul gravel or pull a drag along the road to smooth it out. In 1917 the public voted for the adoption of a county road system for Leelanau County, and the Board of Supervisors appointed the first three members of the Leelanau County Road Commission: Elmer Billman, who was appointed Chairman, Clinton B. Fisher and Marcus Hoyt. In 1926 the county had bought its first “V” snowplow to keep the main roads open. In 1937 the snow removal fund was provided.

In 1931 the Michigan State Legislature passed the McNitt- Holbeck-Smith Bill which provided that county Road Commissions would take over all township roads. Under the act over 440 miles of township roads were consolidated into various county road systems over a six year period and the act also provided for uniform statewide funding to reduce the burden on the property tax. Road commission services were far different than what is expected today. During the winter only 66 miles of road was snowplowed on a regular basis. Road commission workers routinely erected snow fence along those roads each fall and removed it each spring.

Since 1931, the network of roads that gets us around Leelanau County has grown dramatically. Today the Leelanau County Road Commission maintains 170 miles of primary roads and 425 miles of local roads. Approximately 80 percent of all roads surfaces are paved. Only 50 miles of county roads are considered seasonal roads – roads that are not plowed in the winter. Most of these are two-tracks, what the typical county road would have looked like during the first decade of operation for the road commission.

Although the 1930’s brought a nationwide push for straighter and faster roads, northern Leelanau County has many reminders of 1851 in the curves of the modern roads. As Amanda Holmes has noted in Omena: A Place in Time, present day roads there follow the boundaries of what an early map labels an “Indian Field”. In addition, she notes that Indian trails radiating from Omena are the basis for the present-day roads to Leland, Northport, and Peshawbestown. These curvy roads are a wonderful reminder of how our county was settled and grew.

Return to top