Continuing for a second month
with the theme of combining a travelogue with the regular classic car feature, we’ll take a visit to a place called the jewel of the Great Lakes, where the predecessor to the automobile still reigns supreme.
The location is the 3.8-square- mile Mackinac Island, located off the Northern tip of Michigan in Lake Huron, that gained its prominence in history as the center of fur trade between the United States and Canada.
Today its main attraction is the magnificent and legendary Grand Hotel and the carriages powered by actual horses that traverse the island all day and night as the primary mode of transportation.
In 1896, spirited public interests petitioned the town council to prohibit the presence of any vehicle that most believed was a nuisance and temporary contraption that would never take the place of carriages pulled by horses.
Paraphrased, it read: “We the undersigned would respectfully request that your honorable body take such action as may be necessary to prevent the operating use or running of any vehicle known as a horseless carriage in this village as they are dangerous to the lives and property and to all others as such vehicles frighten even a quiet horse and will cause any timid or spirited animal to run away to the danger of both lives and property.”
The council approved the petition, citing “danger to life and limb” by a vote of three in favor and one opposed. The ban stands to this day.
It should also be noted that the largest economy
on the island at the time was that of building and running carriages. So, it was no surprise that community leaders would take action to protect their town’s financial interests.
Arlington Today publisher Judy Rupay and husband Brad spent their honeymoon at Mackinac and have taken vacations on the island with their family over the years. Her father was an autoworker for Ford Motor Company, so their Michigan roots run deep.
Like others who have noted the irony of the place that prohibits automobiles, she points out, “Part of the state that is home to the largest manufacturers of ‘motorized vehicles’ in the world doesn’t want them there.” Getting to the island that is listed as a National Historic Landmark requires visitors to leave their automobiles, trucks, SUV’s and anything else powered by any kind of engine on the mainland at Mackinaw City (yes, the city and the island spell their names differently, but both come out “mack-in- naw”) and board a ferry for the 20-minute crossing.
When you step off at the dock, you realize almost immediately that you have also experienced the closest thing there is to having made the trip over in a time machine.
You arrive at the dock adjacent to the town’s main street amid retail stores, restaurants and multiple shops featuring the sweet scents of fudge making. Right away you hear the clip-clop of horses hoofs as they pull, mostly in pairs, the amazing variety of carriages that move visitors and residents throughout the island.
Once again accompanying our son Brian, who is producing a television series featuring the world’s finest automobile museums, my wife and I made the trip to Mackinac, where he filmed an episode for the show about the carriages that came before the ones that evolved with a mechanical form of horse power.
These marvelous vehicles from the 19th century that are housed in Grand Hotel’s Carriage House meticulously managed by Ben Mosley. That’s Ben with the groomed goatee guiding the carriage that took us for a ride around the grounds.
All of the carriages are in current use and available to guests for touring the island in a style not found anywhere else.
Percherons adorned in ornate harnesses pull the hotel’s burgundy omnibuses that carry guests to and from the downtown area. The Percheron breed derives its name from an old province some 50 miles southwest of Paris. These very large horses are known to have more overall balance and refinement than other draft breeds.
Among the carriages are some made
by the Studebaker Company, offering vehicles ranging in price from the affordable to the more expensive for the well-to- do. Studebaker’s advertising touted the company’s products as “the choice of those who seek elegance of carriage equipment as well as those who are thoroughly competent to appreciate their fine points.”
The largest of the manufactures, Brewster & Co., produced its carriages from a giant assembly facility in Manhattan and featured ads promising “the best quality carriages and road wagons using rubber-cushioned axles securing a greater degree of safety, comfort, and economy.”
And then there are William Vanderbilt’s Carriages, owned by the famous railroad baron who played a key role in building the Grand Hotel. He traveled with a large entourage that included some of his prized horses and carriages that he kept on the island. The carriages, still in use today, were left behind when he retired from the railroad business in 1903 and sold his share of the hotel.
The hotel’s historian, Bob Tagatz, explains, “Grand Hotel is a living, working museum, not history from the observation deck, not art and antiques from behind velvet ropes. It’s not a replica of anything.
“History comes alive here, and as a guest or visitor, you become a valued participant in the ongoing history of an American institution. It is difficult to convey how rare a hotel like the Grand really is. At the turn of the century, hundreds of wood-frame hotels existed; today only a handful remain, and fewer still have been able to adapt, evolve and thrive.”
Among its amazing stories
is one that occurred at the very beginning. Developers were eager to complete the construction in time for the summer season before winter set in and made it inaccessible when Lake Huron froze over. Bringing in carpenters and work crews in ever greater numbers, the developers had a goal to build it all in 90 days. They missed the target. It took 93 days to finish it in time for the opening to be held on July 10, 1887.
Wow, one would have thought that building just the porch that Ripley’s Believe It or Not declared to be the longest in the world at 660 feet would alone have taken more than 90 days. The seemingly endless colonnade stretches the entire length of the hotel’s elegant facade.
Grand Hotel became even more famous about a hundred years later, when the Universal film, “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, debuted on movie screens across the country in 1980.
The movie that was entirely filmed there received lukewarm reviews from critics and was far from a box office smash. However, today there is an enormous following of dedicated romantics who consider it a classic. Each October, at the end of the season before it closes for the winter, hundreds gather for a special Victorian period celebration.
Among the more remarkable features inside the hotel is the main dining room. The history brochure describes it best: “The Salle a Manger is an impressive 3,400 square foot room that can comfortably seat over 750 guests in a delightful atmosphere filled with enchanting colors, crisp white linens and panoramic views.
“The proper attire helps to set the tone for the dining experience. After six o’clock, gentlemen are required to wear coat and tie, and ladies their finest. Guests are warmly greeted by the Maitre D’Hotel, then a tuxedo-clad Captain escorts diners down the long runway of mirrored pillars to the table.”
Since Mackinac Island is one of the more romantic places
in the world, thousands of weddings have taken place at the Grand. There were four on one of the days we were there, including one staged in the Carriage House, where the horses were part of the audience. Well, sort of … actually.
The same family has owned Grand Hotel for three generations. That may explain why no matter how large the hotel is, it still retains the warmth and dignity of a private home. Current President Dan Musser sums up the unique family traditions best: “My dad always said it doesn’t cost a dime to have guests put on a coat and tie, but it changes the atmosphere in a way that I feel is not stuffy, but it’s formal and it’s fun. It might not work for Disney or places like that, but it works here because it does elevate the experience for everyone.”
The season on the island is May through October and includes interactive historic sites like Fort Mackinac, tours, golfing, and sailing, as well as nature trails and roads that can be experienced by hiking or renting bicycles from the bike livery or explored by carriage. High Tea in the Parlor of the Grand Hotel, lunch at Carlton’s Tea Room or a large serving of homemade ice cream can be enjoyed at Sadie’s, even for those who are not guests of the Grand Hotel for a required entrance fee. Hotel guests can swim in the Esther Williams pool, play a round of croquet on the lawn, or take in the music and dancing nightly in the Grand Ballroom.
One more feature of the island that changed the course of medical history is an event that occurred long before Grand Hotel was built. You can read all about that in the Finish Line on the last page of this month’s