Grand Island N.R.A. & Beaver Lake
July 2011


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Approximately one half mile off the coast of Munising, Michigan lies a rather small, unassuming chunk of land anchored to the bedrock in the deathly cold waters of Lake Superior. I've passed this island many times over the years during my journeys across Michigan's Upper Peninsula and have often thought to myself, "I wonder what it would be like to backpack ´over there´?" For those unfamiliar with the area, "over there" is called Grand Island, and until I backpacked around the island with three co-workers I had no knowledge of the rich history that was tied to this eight mile long and three mile wide piece of land.

Grand Island has been a fixture in human history for literally thousands of years. Archaeological digs and studies have documented over 200 historic and prehistoric sites and revealed that Grand Island has been continuously occupied by humans for thousands of years. In fact, the oldest pottery discovered on the island was determined to be about 2000 years old, and charred pieces of wood, from what appeared to have been a campfire, were dated to 3000 B.C.

In more recent times, early Native Americans took advantage of the island's natural resources, particularly quartzite, a hard rock which was used for making various tools and weapons. The Indians would chip away at pieces of rock and form them into cutting and scraping tools which helped them survive in their environment. Ojibwa Indians also used the island during their seasonal fishing expeditions as well as harvesting the island's deer, moose and beavers. In the early 1800's the Indians began trading with American fur traders as Americans began exploring the area.

In 1837 a man by the name of Abraham Williams became the first American to permanently take up residence on Grand Island when he and his family moved there from out of state. Williams farmed the land and built several houses, a saw mill, a blacksmith shop and a trading post. He also capitalized on the island's timber by selling cordwood to passing ships that took refuge from Superior's unpredictable weather in the island's protective bays. Over the years Abraham managed to purchase many sections of land and eventually owned much of the island.

In 1901, William Mather, owner of the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company, purchased a large portion of the island from Abraham Williams. Mather was not only a prominent businessman, but also was an outdoorsman who believed in conservation of natural resources. Mather contacted his friend, Warren Manning, a well-known Ohio architect, who helped him devise a plan to save the historic Abraham Williams house and preserve various other historic buildings and roughly 25 miles of undeveloped shoreline.

Mather eventually built summer homes and resorts on the island as well as a small game preserve, but in the process he was careful to preserve the island's forested area and historic buildings. The historic Abraham Williams house was saved and actually became part of a hotel during the Mather resort era.

William Mather died in 1951, and within one year the Cleveland Cliffs Iron Company began cutting down many of the island's larger trees. This change ushered in a period of large-scale logging which continued from 1952 through 1988 and provided jobs for local lumberjacks and sawmills. The Grand Island Resort closed in 1959 and was eventually torn down, effectively ending the island's resort era.

The last major change took place in 1984 when Grand Island was put up for sale by a real estate company. Investors and preservation groups battled over how the island should be used. In 1989 a non-profit group purchased the island for $3,500,000. Congress eventually authorized a Federal purchase of the land and it officially became part of the Hiawatha National Forest in 1990. Even though it was designated a National Recreation Area, the island is officially called Grand Island Township and was listed in the 2000 U.S. Census as having a population of 45 residents.

References: Informational plaques on the island and the following websites:

Grand Island Archaeological Program

Hometown Chronicles - Grand Island

Grand Island North Light

Abraham Williams Memorial

Abraham Williams Photos

Grand Island Township Info On Wikipedia

Day 1

This page last updated on 02-25-2016 @ 11:27 AM