Pioneer Auto Travel in the U.P., Summer 1921

By: Russell M. Magnaghi

During the summer, residents of the southern shore of Lake Superior daily see vacationers pass through their communities in their cars, RVs, or campers. Behind an immense RV driving south on US-41 toward Escanaba and unable to pass, you ask the questions, why? when? how? The why is obvious by a quick look at the environment, from the blue waters of Lake Superior, to the expanses of forests, to the cool summer climate. The Upper Peninsula has attracted tourists since the early days of the Republic when everyone from ambassadors from Belgium, Sardinia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to southern planters and common folk traveled to Mackinac Island to enjoy an invigorating summer away from the heat and humidity to the south.

Up until the early 20th century travel was by steamboat followed by rail. At the time of World War I and after this form of travel was giving way to the freedom and independence provided by the automobile. One railroad manager had completely missed the point when before the Michigan State Public Utilities Commission he predicted that the Upper Peninsula would never attract vacationing motorists due to lack of quality hotels. Local tourist officials naturally took issue with the statement and for good reason as we shall see.

Contrary to the railroad official's inaccurate comment, travel and camping with the automobile were becoming part of the American way of life. Tourism officials at Green Bay anticipated this change in American summer travel habits and in the spring of 1921 established a campground at the Northeastern Wisconsin fair grounds. A check of the facilities in late June showed that there were over three hundred automobile on the grounds and hundreds of people from over twenty different states were camped on the grounds. Upper Peninsula officials realized that it was a matter of time before these tourists would enter the Upper Peninsula in large numbers and they were not wrong.

By the early 1920s the Upper Peninsula and in particular Marquette County had become the destination of summer vacationers. People were beginning to appreciate the independence that the automobile provided and they were quickly exchanging railroad travel and luxurious hotels and resorts for camping gear and even if "official campgrounds" were not available, a roadside campsite.

During the month of June it was estimated that between 4,000 and 5,000 vacationers drove across the Upper Peninsula. Reports gathered from garagemen and hotel keepers indicated that a high percentage of them sought campsites in every community that they passed and were forced to camp along the roadside. It was noted that not one in ten motor tourists arrived in the Upper Peninsula seeking fancy accommodations. In July 1921 tourism officials reported "that the great majority come to Cloverland with khaki shirts and fish poles, that many have their own tents and need only a suitable camping site."

As a result of this lack of sites the Upper Peninsula Development Bureau began a program to contact county leaders from throughout the Upper Peninsula to encourage them to develop at least one well located campground in their county. This would help to promote the region and the local economy.

New camping equipment was being developed for this new and exciting form of vacationing. The Clare Manufacturing Company of Clare, Michigan offered a new and unique camping outfit carried on a trailer and weighing only 750 pounds. Two full-sized springs and bed mattresses were folded into the auto box of the trailer and were pulled out on each side of the trailer on special extensions and hinges. Two men could have the outfit prepared for use within ten minutes. Additional springs and mattress could be placed on the trailer bed for two additional sleepers. The outfit came equipped with woolen blankets, two a mattresses, four pillows, three camp chairs, gasoline cook stove, cooking utensils, ice chest and other necessities. Storage space existed in a compartment under the trailer. A rain-proof tent measuring 12 by 14 feet protected the happy campers.

The question of better and expanded highways throughout the state was a growing concerning throughout Michigan. This was the reason for the creation of the Michigan Pikers' Association. In July 1921, Fred S. Case, a businessman from Sault Ste. Marie and president of the Michigan Pikers led an "Around Lake Superior Tour". It consisted of 150 members and officers along with members of the Detroit band. Their arrival in Marquette and other Upper Peninsula communities was greeted with local enthusiasm and boosterism and residents came to see these pioneer auto travelers. When they arrived in Marquette they were greeted at the city limits and given a warm welcome by officials and citizens. Presque Isle pavilion was the site of a dinner and on their way proud city officials pointed out the Shiras pool, considered one of the best pools in the Midwest, which had opened nine days earlier on July 4th. At the pavilion perched on the edge of Lake Superior, they were treated to Jim Deegan's "famous whitefish" and music was furnished by the Marquette and Detroit city bands. Once the music ended, the Pikers held a "Good Roads" session during which they discussed the importance of good roads which interested many in attendance. The next morning they continued on their tour.

With this background, excerpts of an auto vacation through the Upper Peninsula can be better appreciated. The anonymous Grand Rapids, Michigan couple made the 18 day trip which cost them $100 and brought them to some isolated sections of the peninsula. It was rather typical of travel in the summer of 1921. Their trip was reported in the Mining Journal (7/24/1921): "At Mackinaw City we took the ferry to St. Ignace and from there followed Route 12 through Cedarville to the Soo. From this point we cut across to Rexton, going over elegant roads. At Rexton we veered to the north as far as Newberry over stone road.

From Newberry we cut through the stumps over a winding road to the mouth of the Two Heart river in Lake Superior. Here was Paradise indeed. For 35 miles over this woods road we never saw a sign of habitation of human life, never even meeting another car. Near the mouth of the Two Heart we came upon lumber camp of mighty hospitable folks. They were glad to see us and said our "Big Six" Studebaker was the first large car that ever had been that far into their woods.

I found the fishing in the Two Heart all that upper peninsula press agents have claimed. Not a large stream, the water is of a brownish hue and the German brown trout lie in holes waiting for fishermen to yank them out. At the mouth of the river, in the deep water of Lake Superior, the coast guard captain told me you could, in calm weather, see big German brown trout swimming along the bottom of the lake.

We camped for two days on the Two Heart and were sorry when we had to leave. Turning back we cut through the woods again to Newberry then west and north through Seney over the beaver trail across to Munising. Here we passed through mile after mile of virgin hardwood, beautiful maples, beech and birch.

Marquette was our next stop, then Houghton, Hancock, Calumet and Lake Linden. We hit Lake Superior again at Ontonagon. Because of work on the roads it was necessary to turn south and then west to Bessemer, Ironwood, and Hurley, Wis. Doubling back to St. Ignace we passed through Iron Mountain, Iron River, Escanaba, and Manistique.

Our return trip from St. Ignace through the lower peninsula was through Petoskey, Boyne City, Kalkaska, Pioneer, Lake City and Cadillac.

During our tour we were on the road 18 days. Fifteen nights we camped, using a side tent erected alongside of the car. Having a floor to our tent we were never bothered by mosquitoes or bugs. We did all of our cooking out of doors, except during the two days we stayed at hotels and the one day spent with friends at Luther. While you folks down here [Grand Rapids] have been suffering with the heat we found the nights so cool in the upper peninsula that all of the blankets we had were scarcely enough."

This glimpse into the summer of 1921 provides some interesting insights into the pioneer days of auto travel in the Upper Peninsula. This was the foundation upon which the Upper Peninsula tourist trade was built.