West Michigan Shore Region

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Prior to the Treaty of Washington in 1836, land that includes the West Michigan Shore Region belonged to Native Americans. Euro-American settlers came beginning in 1836 to harvest the forests. An average of five thousand board feet of pine lumber per acre of land was interspersed through Michigan's hardwood and softwood forests. Because of its cell structure, pine was an ideal building material, and since it floated well, lumbermen could take advantage of the river systems in the region. The Muskegon, White, Pentwater, Pere Marquette, Big Sable, and Big and Little Manistee rivers flow into smaller lakes before emptying into Lake Michigan. These smaller lakes provided a ready means for sorting logs and served as protected harbors for the vessels that carried lumber to market. Lumbermen such as Charles Mears, Martin Ryerson, and Henry Pennoyer came to the region during the late 1830s and early 1840s.

Mills were built of logs along the smaller lakes and log structures also served for housing. By the late 1840s, these mills and houses were augmented by a store, a meeting place, and perhaps even a school that might also function as a church. To facilitate transportation, docks and wharves were built. At the same time, channels from the smaller lakes into Lake Michigan were opened to permit ships direct access to the mill docks. During the late 1850s, Chicago, immediately across the lake, began a period of economic growth that would make it the leading entrepôt in the Midwest, and growth required lumber—West Michigan lumber. Meanwhile, on the western shore, small communities became villages, and some became cities. Because of its ready availability, the primary building material was wood and in the process of building, nothing was wasted: scrap wood was used for fuel and sawdust was used as landfill, even for street paving. Consequently fire was a constant problem. So much so that during the 1870s and 1880s, parts of entire towns burned and many structures were lost. It was not until communities accumulated wealth that brick and stone buildings were erected and fire departments established. Those buildings that do remain, therefore, date to the 1870s and 1880s, during the heyday of lumbering.

As early as the 1880s, some residents realized that the lumbering boom would not last, so they set about attracting new industry to the region. Tourism was promoted, taking advantage of the lakes and rivers. Fruit farming was introduced on land formerly used for growing pine and other trees, and dairy farming was proposed for other areas. During the 1890s these transitions were in progress, and in the twentieth century new industry such as wood products replaced lumbering. Some lumbermen participated in this process, others moved on to lumber elsewhere. In 1938, the federal government established Manistee National Forest, which spreads across the region affording public recreation opportunities and fish and wildlife habitat.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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