Exploring the Past in Historic Traverse City

It’s easy to think about the past when you’re visiting impressive Michigan historical sites like Fort Michilimackinac or Greenfield Village. But every community has its own history, and sometimes it can be just as fascinating! Today, Mike Norton of Traverse City Tourism tells us what he discovered as he set out to learn about his adoptive hometown.

I admit it. When I first moved to Traverse City 36 years ago, I didn’t spend much time thinking about its history. Like most people who find themselves in this beautiful place, I was much more interested in its endless sandy beaches, its glacier-sculpted hills and lakes and all the outdoor adventures it offered.

As time went on, though, I began to realize that there’s more to Traverse City than those scenic and recreational qualities. Reminders of this area’s brief but dramatic past are scattered everywhere: lonely lighthouses, humble mission churches, workingmen’s taverns, quaint Victorian cottages and the grand estates of 19th century lumber barons. Fortunately, you can visit and tour many of these sites, just as I did!

Indian hunters and French traders were the first people to visit this place, and it was they who gave the region its name – La Grand Traverse – because of the “long crossing” they had to make by canoe across the mouth of the bay. But they were just passing through; even the native Ottawa and Chippewa people didn’t arrive as settlers until the early 18th century.

Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

Old Mission Lighthouse – Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

To learn more about those earliest arrivals, who call themselves simply Anishinaabek (“The People”) – take a drive up the Leelanau Peninsula to Peshawbestown, the headquarters of the 5,000-member Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians to visit the Eyaawing Museum & Cultural Center, which contains exhibit galleries and a store featuring traditional and contemporary artworks.

It wasn’t until 1839 that the Rev. Peter Dougherty established the area’s first permanent settlement at the tip of the Old Mission peninsula. The modern-day village of Old Mission still occupies Dougherty’s idyllic site: a place seemingly frozen in time, where many of the original structures are still standing and in use. Three miles to the north is the quaint Old Mission Lighthouse, built in 1870 to warn ships away from the rocky shoals of Old Mission Point.

By 1847 a small but growing community was forming on the banks of the nearby Boardman River. In 1852 the little sawmill town was christened Traverse City — but until the first road through the forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water.

Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

Perry Hannah House – Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

A good place to begin exploring this community’s beginnings is on Sixth Street in the city’s historic Central Neighborhood. Here, housed in the former 1903 Carnegie Library, is the History Center of Traverse City, which conducts 90-minute bus tours of the city’s most important historical sites. Tickets for this “Magical History Tour” are $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and children 12 and under.

Just across the street is the immense 32-room Perry Hannah House, built by Traverse City founder Perry Hannah in 1893. It’s a true showcase, with its beveled Tiffany doors, copper-clad turrets and intricate wood paneling. (A different wood was used in almost every room — appropriately enough for a man whose fortune came from the forest.)

A few blocks to the north is Front Street, Traverse City’s main street, and the immense white building that once housed the heart of Hannah’s 19th century Empire. Built in 1863, when it was known as The Big Store, it’s only half as large as it used to be – it once stretched for two blocks.

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City Opera House – Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

After decades of neglect, Front Street has been extensively restored and is now a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly reminder of the city’s historical roots. Its tree-shaded sidewalks now border shops, restaurants and galleries that have made creative use of the Victorian buildings they occupy. One special landmark is the ornate 1891 City Opera House, recently reopened after more than $8.5 million in exquisite restoration work.

Not everyone in 19th-century Traverse City was a millionaire. The city’s west side, known as Slabtown, was home to millworkers and skilled woodcarvers, including a substantial community of Bohemian immigrants who built tidy cottages for themselves with slabs of scrapwood from the sawmills. Many of their homes are still standing, and so is Sleder’s Family Tavern, a 125-year-old establishment that’s still a favorite hangout for locals and visitors alike.

Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

Sleder’s Family Tavern – Photo courtesy of Traverse City Tourism

After the lumber boom ended, the local economy turned to manufacturing and agriculture – potatoes, apples, and eventually cherries. But the city’s biggest economic windfall came in 1885, when it was designated as the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum, which became one of the city’s major employers and eventually housed a population several times larger than that of the town itself.

Today, the 480-acre site of the former hospital is known as the Grand Traverse Commons and is being redeveloped into a unique “village” of shops, restaurants, apartments and galleries. Developers are preserving both the castle-like Italianate century buildings that once housed staff and patients, while its lovely wooded campus has become a favorite place for hikers and cyclists.

As you can probably tell, I’ve made up for my initial ignorance by wandering around a lot of Traverse City’s historical site. But history isn’t just about big public buildings; some of this town’s most charming reminders of the past are in its lovingly-restored old homes and neighborhoods. Wonderful places for a stroll or a bicycle ride!

To learn more about the history of Traverse City, and for help with lodging, dining and other year-round fun, call us at Traverse City Tourism at 1-800-TRAVERSE or visit their Web site at www.traversecity.com

27156_4580575632833_1130134017_n - CopyFormer Coast Guardsman Mike Norton majored in history at the University of Michigan and spent 25 years as a newspaper writer and columnist in Traverse City. For the past decade, he’s been the media relations manager at Traverse City Tourism. He lives in the village of Old Mission.

Traverse City is a Mountain Biker’s Paradise

Every November, thousands of cyclists converge on Traverse City to compete in the 29-mile Iceman Cometh Challenge, the largest one-day point-to-point mountain bike race in the country. Mountain biking is a big draw in the hills and valleys around Traverse City in almost every season of the year, as cyclist Cody Sovis demonstrates.

Of the million-and-one reasons to visit the Grand Traverse Area, mountain biking is quickly becoming a more popular excuse to head up north and get a little dirty. The region attracts cyclists from all over the country — including those who prefer paved trails or the scenic roads of the Leelanau and Old Mission Peninsulas – but it’s also home to some of the best trails in the state, and some of the biggest events around.

We’ve never taken our forests for granted around here. Traverse City is a special place where all the charms of a thriving downtown are just minutes from pristine woods, beaches, and miles and miles of trails to weave it all together. For me, it’s a real treat to have the ability to ride the Traverse Area Recreational Trail from downtown and be at the trailhead in just a few minutes.

One of the most popular trails in the area is the Vasa Pathway. In winter it’s home to the world-class North American Vasa ski race and gets the professional grooming treatment for ski and fat bike use as long as the snow sticks around. During the rest of the year, it’s usually peppered with riders out hitting famous landmarks like Anita’s Hill, the Wall and the Power Section. The terrain is open and rolling, with pockets of sand adding to the challenge of steep hills, fast descents and fast sections that test the legs and lungs. The Vasa Pathway also serves as the final kilometers of the Iceman Cometh Challenge, the largest single-day mountain bike race in North America.

Around here, the Iceman is king. People plan for it for months, registering in the spring and riding most of the summer with one eye on the first weekend in November. One of the biggest local rides is the Speed of Light, which takes in the last few miles of the Iceman. Over 5,000 people are registered for the race, including some of the best professional riders from around the world. We always welcome the big names, but we are rooting for the local guys to take the win.

I’ve always raced in the pro class, though it’s not about trying to win. It’s the chance to race the best riders in the world, and I won’t let the chance go by. It’s like getting to play a pickup game against Michael Jordan. You know you’re getting beat, but you get to tell everyone the story.

Cody Sovis with his bike just before the 2013 X100 50-Mile Gravel Road Race through Traverse City’s Boardman Valley (He took 4th place).

Intersecting the Pathways is another trail: the Vasa Singletrack. Though it has its own separate trailhead off Supply Road, this twisty, tight course winds and crosses with the Pathway, or the “25 K”, as it is popularly known. The Singletrack is a testing little loop, a bit over 12 miles long, offering up some great technical practice and a break from the wide-open speed of the Pathways. The Singletrack is tough. If you’re looking for a great ride that combines both, hop off the Singletrack at Marker 7, do the 25 K, then hop back onto the Singletrack when you cross at Marker 13. It’s the perfect blend of speed and technical riding.

If the Vasa is the most popular and oldest trail system, the Glacial Hills Pathways is certainly the newest and the hippest. Located in Bellaire, this brand-new system of professionally maintained trails has gotten rave reviews from beginners and experts alike. It’s a terrific blend of hills, flat and fast sections and beautiful views – and it certainly doesn’t hurt that it’s located just a mile or two from one of Michigan’s finest breweries, Short’s Brewery.

But you don’t even have to leave town to enjoy a great mountain biking loop. Traverse City’s former mental hospital, now The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, is home to a great network of trails. Riders have been climbing to the top of the hill for years, but the recent rise in mountain biking enthusiasm means there’s seldom a time you’ll go on the trails and not see a few other cyclists. It’s a short loop punctuated by steep, testing ascents with rewarding views of West Bay and screaming-fast descents back to the Village, where a host of coffee shops, bakeries, and other shops serve as a great place to refuel after the ride. The Commons is also home to the Conquer the Village Mountain Bike race, a new event that draws hundreds of racers each spring.

The arrival of a race like Conquer the Village was well overdue. So many riders were able to just roll through Traverse City to race on trails that they’ve ridden for years. I remember riding back there when I was five or six years old, my dad diligently riding behind me as I slowly made my way up to the top of the ridge and yelling all the way down the other side.

There are miles and miles of trail in the area, and nearly everyone has their own favorite loop. It’s a great place be a cyclist.

Have you been mountain biking in Traverse City? Tell us about your experience!

Cycling connoisseur Cody Sovis works at Einstein Cycles in Traverse City and maintains a cycling blog year round. 

Five Spectacular Pure Michigan Instagram Fan Photos from July

This month, our Pure Michigan Instagram community has continued to amaze us with stunning photos from around the state. From sunrises and sunsets to days at the beach or the ballgame, we saw it all on Instagram this month. Here are five spectacular photos that we wanted to share today. For more, see our MarchAprilMay and June Instagram roundups and be sure to follow Pure Michigan on Instagram.

Camping at Port Crescent State Park. Photo by @salwangeorgesphotography:

A breathtaking view from Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Photo by @casiepr: 

An endless field of sunflowers, captured by @detroit_d in Traverse City:

A beautiful day at Log Slide near Grand Marais. Photo by @ariewise:

Sunset along Lake Superior, captured by @jmwuokko:

If you’re on Instagram, follow us @puremichigan! If you’d like us to share your photos from across the state, please tag them with #PureMichigan to give us permission to repost.