Traverse Bay Region

-A A +A

The Traverse Bay Region borders the sandy beaches and pristine waters of Lake Michigan on the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula from the Straits of Mackinac south to a point just north of Arcadia. Wind action related to Glacial Lake Nipissing formed large sand dunes in the region. They are prominent on Lake Michigan's beaches. Arms of Grand Traverse Bay were cut off during this time to form Torch and Elk lakes. Beaver, North and South Fox, and North and South Manitou islands lie to the west.

Native Americans traveling seasonally to the region left marks of their heritage throughout. By the eighteenth century, French voyageurs who departed the shore at this point on their trip along the east coast of Lake Michigan, to make a petiteor grande traverseacross the mouth of the respective bay, named the bays Little and Grand Traverse. Jesuit missionaries followed. Then came lumbermen to harvest the forests, farmers who found the soil of the cutover lands and climate suitable for fruit growing, and resorters to enjoy the beautiful scenery, pleasant climate, forests, streams, and lakes.

Grand Traverse County was organized in 1851, Emmet organized in 1853, Antrim and Leelanau in 1863, and Charlevoix and Benzie in 1869. The state legislature and the U.S. Congress established Wilderness State Park, Traverse City State Park, and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Paleozoic deposits of Antrim and Ellsworth clay and shale of Devonian age provided material for brick, tile, and lightweight “expanded” aggregate used for construction. On the cliffs on the south side of Little Traverse Bay next to navigable waters, limestone was quarried and cement produced. Manufacturers molded and baked a clay without iron into pale yellow brick similar to the Cream City brick of Milwaukee. Fieldstone and beach stone also furnished building material. The forests yielded timber for building and wood products.

As lumbering dwindled, the Chicago and West Michigan, Grand Rapids and Indiana, Michigan Central, and the Pere Marquette railroads promoted northern Michigan as a resort area. Earlier, steam navigation companies sailed from Chicago and Detroit into ports at Petoskey, Harbor Springs, Charlevoix, Traverse City, Northport, and Frankfort. U.S. 31 runs through the region from Mackinaw City south to Frankfort, following the Lake Michigan shore from Petoskey south. Builders and architects migrated to the region from Allegan, Kalamazoo, and Lansing to design cottages for people who came from these places for the warm months. Building inns and huge resort hotels, they developed the region into one of Michigan's premier recreational areas. One seasonal resident was novelist Ernest Hemingway, who spent his boyhood summers at Windemere, the family cottage on Walloon Lake (1899; Lake Grove Road, Resort Township), now a National Historic Landmark, and wrote his Nick Adams stories about places near Petoskey.

Architect Charles W. Caskey came to Harbor Springs and Mackinac Island to build wooden cottages and hotels, and Earl H. Mead moved from Lansing to Harbor Springs to upgrade earlier modest camps into full-blown summer homes. Clients sought designs from Gordon W. Lloyd, William G. Robinson, and Alden B. Dow, and Arthur Heun and Benjamin Marshall of Chicago worked for clients with connections to that city. More recently national and international firms—The Architects Collaborative, Douglas J. Cardinal, Anderson Anderson, and Richard Meier—brought modernism to the region. And Richard A. Neumann and Fuller-Nichols of Petoskey and David Hanawalt, Larry Graves, and Ken Richmond of Suttons Bay and Traverse City restore historic buildings and create new ones compatible with the old. Since 1970 architects Cynthia and Ben Weese have cultivated an acclaimed cottage-style garden on an empty lot next to the former storage shed they turned into a cedar-shingled house at 11700 S. La Rue Street in Empire.

Today people are attracted to the region's historic, walkable, small-scale cities and villages, and farmland, forests, and shoreline. Communities and citizens' organizations are energetically engaged in managing development and change while retaining and conserving their natural and cultural resources. Watershed organizations strive to maintain the environmental integrity and economic and aesthetic values of lakes, streams, wetlands, and ground water in the region. With conservation easements, land conservancies seek to protect land and the places people love and the character that makes these places distinctive. Under study in the Petoskey and Traverse City areas are transportation and land use issues to determine ways of easing traffic congestion, promoting business in the center of town, and protecting the forests, farmland, and recreational areas in the countryside.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.