Monday, May 16, 2011

Little Victories

Take 'em where we can find 'em. As you may or may not have heard, the state was planning on closing 23 state forest campgrounds, 15 of them in the UP, due to a combined factor of budget cuts and low usage. The plan is on hold right now as the state is contacting local townships and counties to see if there is interest in leasing those planned for closure - but if details can't be worked out, down they will go.

One of the targets was a place called Lime Island, tucked up just north of the DeTour Passage/Drummond Island on the St. Mary's River, and if I had ever heard about it before, I had forgotten it. A recent GR Press story told of a retired 40-year DNR employee by the name of Mike Paluda, who was on the task force to refurbish the island after the state first acquired it in 1982, reaching out to everyone he could think of to say, "hey, don't close this one"...

"It’s a historically significant place and we have a huge investment of public dollars in it," said Mike Paluda, a retired DNR administrator now living in Marquette. "This is an embarrassingly bad decision by the DNR. We have over a million dollars invested in the island."

Intrigued due to a piece I wrote about the historical state park of the town of Fayette last year, I did a little more research on this island, and it sounds like one of those cool little spots of Michigan history that might be fun to visit. You have to get there by boat, and the rustic, solar-powered (yes!) cabins do not have showers, but if you are into the camping experience - this sounds like a place you may want to go to sometime. From the (very good) DNR write-up:

To those who have been there, the island is a premier outdoor recreation area, but even most of them don't know that the island was the site of summer camps of Woodland Indians some 5,000 years ago; or that lime kilns were constructed there in the early 1700s or that it was a 20th century sportsmen's club, attracting the likes of Hoot Gibson, Diamond Jim Brady and Mae West.

"More recently, Lime Island was owned by Consolidated Coal, which supplied coal-burning steamers and, later, bunker oil to diesel-powered ships plying the Great Lakes," said Janet Chilson, a volunteer host on Lime Island.

Janet and her husband, Howard, live on the island from May through September, caring for the island, interpreting its amazing history and helping campers to enjoy their visit.

"When the company pulled out in 1982, the island's little village, including the small cottages, the one-room schoolhouse and the company superintendent's house, became a ghost town," Janet Chilson said. "Consolidated Coal then sold the island to the state for one dollar, but with no money for development, the village quickly deteriorated at the hands of vandals, until the DNR was given management oversight and began bringing the island back to life."

Oh noes! Gubbermint spending! (most of it under Engler) But what an interesting place to spend it. The lime kilns date back to French occupation in the late 1700s, and the site is on the National Register of Historic Places, as well as on the Michigan register as the "oldest known industrial location". In 1822, they drew the line that gave it to us instead of Canada, and by the time we were a state in 1837, they had talked the Native Americans into giving it (and the rest of the UP) up as well.

The island went through a series of owners starting in 1845, and by the late 1800s they were using the lime kilns again and had built a 30-room hotel. In 1910 they pulled 9 houses there over the ice in the winter, and in 1912 built a schoolhouse. The island was populated by a small amount of families and workers throughout the 1900s, but it could never compete with the bigger Mackinac and Drummond Island as a tourist destination, so it was mostly used as a refueling station. In 1982, when the coal dock closed, those remaining were asked to leave. The state took it over, let it sit abandoned for a couple of years where it was vandalized - and then they started to develop a plan to refurbish it in the late 1980s. They started with volunteers, drew the attention of the universities interested in the history and wildlife, and finally received funding to keep it maintained.

Today it has cabins and camp sites, beaches, hiking trails, wild asparagus and apple trees, fishing - as well as black bears, terns and the occasional moose, too. Bring your own bedding and camping equipment, you can dock your boat for a small fee, and you've got yourself a very unique camping experience.

The state was going to close this gem, citing the low occupation that only brought in $10,500 in camping fees in 2010. Running a boat out there makes it expensive to maintain - but this is one of those times where historical significance should be given some consideration. If abandoned, chances are it would fall to vandals once again, and this history might be lost forever.

Late last week, word of a reprieve. In the story about the DNR delaying the decision to close the 23 campgrounds was this paragraph:

The DNR Parks and Recreation Division is expected to take over management of six cabins on Lime Island, which were on the proposed closure list, Dettloff said.

Not sure what happened there, if the former DNR officer got through to someone, or saner heads prevailed, but it looks like Lime Island lives to fight another day. With our current slash-and-burn Republican government, that is a victory indeed. Here's hoping that they leave it alone when the inevitable call for "more cuts" comes along, and perhaps someday we will learn that a little extra expenditure is worth the price of preserving history. Future generations will thank us.

I hope I can get up there someday. Drummond too. I've never been east of 1-75 in the UP, and I bet it's as beautiful as the rest of the place. Maybe I'll even stay in a tent...