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Pruning the Parks: Mackinac National Park (1875-1895)


View toward the Straits of Mackinac from historic Fort Mackinac. That's the Mackinac Bridge in the background. Photo by Kansas Explorer 3128 via Flickr.

Though few people seem to know or care, Michigan's long-ago abolished Mackinac National Park was America's second national park. Yellowstone got there first, but not by much. 

On March 1, 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law establishing that Yellowstone would forever be "dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Yellowstone thus became the first true national park in America and the world.  What few people seem to know is that Congress created a second national park just three years later.  Michigan's Mackinac National Park, which existed from 1875 to 1895, is the "forgotten" national park.

The evidence of this oversight is everywhere. Consider these examples of disinformation now circulating on the Internet:

The popular website (a New York Time Company) posted an article by Robert McNamara that contains this statement:  "Yosemite was designated the second National Park 18 years later, in 1890, and other parks were added over time."

The homepage of Sequoia-Kings Canyon Park Services Company, the authorized concessionaire for Kings Canyon National Park,  contains this statement: "Sequoia National Park, America's second national park, was created on September 25, 1890, by president Benjamin Harrison."  (There's not much you can say for this statement. Sequoia wasn't the second national park, and it was Congress that created the park, not the  President.)

Michigan's Mackinac Island (pronounced MACK-i-naw) is a small island -- less than four square miles -- situated about seven miles east of the Mackinac Bridge, the gigantic span that carries traffic across the Straits of Mackinac.  The latter, regionally known as "the straits," is a narrow body of water that separates Michigan's Upper and Lower Peninsulas and connects Lake Huron with Lake Michigan.

Mackinac Island's location on the Straits of Mackinac gave it great importance in historic times, assuring that it would become an important activity hub during the fur trade era as well as a  "chokepoint" military base.  The French prized the site, but had to yield it to the British, who in their turn yielded it to the United States.  During the early 1800s, John Jacob Astor's American Fur Company, which exploited a peltry of  immense size, used the island as its main depot.

The military value of the island strongly influenced its history. During the Revolutionary War the British abandoned Fort Michilimackinac in present day Mackinac City and built a replacement fortification on nearby Mackinac Island.  Named Fort Mackinac, the new fort was constructed on a 150-foot high bluff with a commanding view of the straits. The British relinquished the fort to America in 1796, regained it during the War of 1812, and gave it up to American control for the last time in 1815. Fort Mackinac was subsequently garrisoned by the U.S. Army until the 1890s.

A strategic location wasn't Mackinac Island's only major asset. Pleasant scenery, interesting geology, and a breezy-cool summer climate combined to make the island one of the  better known  summer resorts of the Midwest by the mid 1800s.  The island has unusual limestone formations, caves, old growth forests of pine, cedar, oak, and maple, and other natural amenities, including wildflowers, dramatic bluffs, and gorgeous views of Lake Huron, the Straits of Mackinac, and (since 1957) the Mackinac Bridge.  Arch Rock, a 149-foot tall limestone arch formed during the Nipissing post-glacial period, is the island's best known geologic feature and a prime tourist attraction. 

Despite a location well removed from the main population centers of the Midwest, Mackinac Island was well served by Great Lakes steamers and became a significant summer resort after the Civil War.  The island developed a tourism-based economy and a reputation for being a "healthy" place (though not a cheap one) in which to relax and reenergize in scenic surroundings.  By the late 1800s the island had acquired several large hotels and a number of large Victorian homes (called "cottages") built by wealthy summer residents.  The resident population remained small due to the harsh winter climate of the place.  There were still only about three dozen residences on the island in 1895.

Island-born U.S. Senator Thomas W. Ferry (1827-1896), whose parents ran the island's mission school, was concerned that Mackinac Island would end up in private hands and be subjected to  development that would ruin its scenic-historic character and slow paced lifestyle.  Not long after Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, Ferry began gathering political support for making a large part of Mackinac Island a national park as well.

It was tough going for several years, not least because Congress was loathe to spend money on parks and the island's scenic and geologic attractions were not jaw-dropping wonders on a par with those of Yellowstone. Ferry finally prevailed, however, and Congress established Mackinac National Park with legislation that President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law on April 15, 1875. The enabling legislation was virtually identical to that used to create Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

This was a deal done on the cheap.  Most of Mackinac Island was already federal property, and the park itself was small.  Most importantly, Congress gave the park to the War Department to administer.  That meant that soldiers from the Fort Mackinac garrison  could be used for the requisite operation and policing of the park. 

The arrangement actually worked quite well. The Fort Mackinac command gave serious attention to its park-related responsibilities, and although park superintendents irritated island business interests by nixing some inappropriate development proposals, islanders generally appreciated that their economic interests were best served by protecting the park's scenery, geologic features, and historic landscape.     

Mackinac National Park lasted just 20 years.  In the 1890s the Army proposed to abandon Fort Mackinac, an action that would leave the park without a custodian.  Alarmed at the prospect, Michigan governor John T. Rich petitioned Congress to turn the park over to the state of Michigan. This was done in 1895. Mackinac Island State Park, reportedly the first state-operated park in this country to be officially titled a “state park," remains a Michigan state park to this day.
Mackinac Island State Park is operated as a public preserve and is open year round.  Its beautiful scenery, historic structures, and slow-paced character (private autos are banned) make it popular with visitors from all over America.  The park recorded its 20 millionth visitor in 2009.

Postscript: The Grand Hotel, Mackinac Island's signature structure, sports the world's longest porch, a 900-footer that has to be seen to be believed. The hotel was opened to the public in 1889, having been completed in just four months. Film buffs may recognize it as the setting for the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer.

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If you look at the official Government National Park Service brochures between 1916 (When the National Park Service was created) and 1924 you will see the Hot Springs National Park was the first US National Park created in 1832. It was created to "reserve" the hot springs for the politicians and public (mostly the weathly)  due to the "healing" waters.  While it was considered a "reservation" it was listed in all the office brochures as the first National Park.  It was officially "turned" in a National Park from a Reservation in 1924 but it really was the first US National Park. The first "scenic" National Park was Yellowstone in 1872.  You can see why they want to promote Yellowstone as the first National Park and not Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas.

Mackinac Island State Park is operated as a public preserve and is open year round.  Its beautiful scenery, historic structures, and slow-paced character (private autos are banned) make it popular with visitors from all over America.


A prime example of that a park entity can be successfully ceded to state control without threatening its historical or recreational value.  

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