Learning the history of Grand Island

Learning the history of Grand Island

The history of man on Grand Island dates all the way back to the B.C. years, long before European settlers even dreamed of a land across the sea.

The island itself is predominately sandstone with a thin layer of soil and vegetation, and it offers shelter to Munising from strong winds and rough waters. Divided into two parts, the smaller part of Grand Island is called the thumb.

“If you look at a map, sometimes it looks like a cowboy boot rather than a mitten and the land that connects the two parts of the island is sand,” Alger County Historical Society Board vice president Phyllis Pokela said.

Europeans had been visiting the island since the 1600s, trading with the natives, which the French called the Ojibwe and the English called the Chippewa.

The first permanent white settler on the island was Abraham Williams, who was invited by the natives and brought his family ashore in the 1840s, settling into four log cabins abandoned by the American Fur Company.

“It wasn’t until 1842 that the Williams’ first house was completed,” Pokela said. “He built a log home for them. That building is still on the island; it’s a summer cottage. By 1867, Williams was able to afford to build a New England-style home, reflective of his native state of Vermont.”

At the turn of the 20th century, Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Company president William Gwinn Mather bought the Williams home and built a hotel around it to increase the island’s recreational appeal.

“At the height of the resort era, there were limousines on the island,” Pokela said. “There were footmen that would come and get your luggage once you got off the boat and took them up to the hotel.”

The hotel remained open until the ’60s, when the whole structure, except for Williams’ former house, was taken down. Cleveland-Cliffs began logging on the island a short time later.

“The hotel came under poor management, so there were some financial losses,” Pokela said. “The Cleveland-Cliffs board just decided to go in a whole different direction and use the island’s resources for commercial development and do the timber, and still do the maple syrup that they always did, but to get out of the hotel and resort business.”

In the ’90s, the U.S. Forest Service began offering island tours via bus or bike that give tourists a chance to see the cottages that still stand, the two lighthouses and even Mather’s hunting lodge and game preserve.