|An early touring car follows the West Michigan Pike along East Grand Traverse |
Bay in this hand-tinted Traverse City postcard. (History Center of Traverse City)
TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Today, this bustling resort community on the shores of Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay is a four-season tourist magnet visited by more than two million people a year.
Looking at the town’s modern-day influx of tourist traffic, it’s hard to imagine that there were no dependable roads into Traverse City until well into the 20th century. Visitors could reach this part of Michigan by steamship or railroad, but motorists were warned to prepare for a major adventure along “cow paths, dirt trails, and twin ruts through dune sand.”
That all changed in 1913, when civic leaders from the coastal communities along the Lake Michigan shoreline began agitating for a new highway that would carry tourists from Chicago all the way up the coast to Mackinaw City, at the tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The West Michigan Pike (as it was eventually christened) opened Traverse City to an entirely new clientele, making it suddenly affordable for young working-class families to enjoy an “Up North” vacation.
Historians Christine Byron and Tom Wilson, authors of "Vintage Views Along the West Michigan Pike", say the new road transformed the economy of northern Michigan, which had been devastated by the decline of the lumber industry and had lost much of its population.
“The automobile made it possible for more people to become involved as tourists, and the Pike was really the first road that brought them into northern Michigan,” says Wilson. “It was a true grass-roots initiative -- which is exactly the opposite of the way we do highways today.”
The 400-mile route, now known as U.S. 31, begins at the Michigan-Indiana state line and wanders through a litany of storied beach towns -- New Buffalo, Saugatuck, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, Ludington, Manistee, Frankfort, Traverse City, Charlevoix and Petoskey – to its terminus at Mackinaw. This year, communities up and down the shore are preparing to celebrate the 2013 centennial of the Pike with parties, tours and ceremonies – exactly the same kind of observances that were held when it first opened.
Sometimes called the “Route 66 of Michigan,” the Pike was first conceived by William Antisdale of Muskegon, who called a 1913 meeting that included two passionate advocates from the North: Traverse City’s Frank Hamilton and D.H. Day of Glen Haven. They drew up potential routes – including a long “scenic loop” around the Leelanau Peninsula that skirted the edge of the Sleeping Bear Dunes, and campaigned for state funding to make it a reality. Determined to stay as close as possible to the water’s edge, their slogan was “Lakeshore All the Way.”
It would be years before the road was actually paved – the pavement didn’t reach Traverse City until 1926 – but its mere existence created a galaxy of gas stations, rest stops, tourist courts, state parks, campgrounds, restaurants and roadside stands. Some of them can still be found along the road’s quieter stretches.
Although the official centennial of the Pike isn’t until 2013, plans are already taking shape for a number of early-bird events. A coalition of “beach towns” along the southwestern Michigan shore are creating a traditional publicity tour of the highway, aimed primarily at travel writers and other members of the media. And in Traverse City, more than 100 classic automobiles will drive a portion of the Pike on June 23 on the first leg of The Great Race, a nine-day international road rally through Ontario, New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio that will end in Henry Ford’s hometown of Dearborn on July 1.
Local car aficionados and officials of Hagerty Insurance (the world’s largest insurer of collector cars and boats) are preparing a wide array of events and celebrations to mark the start of the rally. Hagerty is a major sponsor of the event. Participating autos must have been built between 1911 and 1969, and most are prewar vintage. (The 2011 winner was the first 100-year-old car to enter the race – a 1911 Velie owned by Howard Sharp of Fairport, NY).
For information about other goings-on in Traverse City, and for assistance with lodging and dining options, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or online at www.traversecity.com.