Travel: Islands of the Great Lakes
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The largest island in Lake Michigan, Beaver Island offers many of the same activities that can be found across the Great Lakes: sandy beaches, hiking-friendly forests, and cerulean waters for all manner of vessels to navigate. But what sets “America’s Emerald Isle,” as it’s called, thanks to a large Irish population, apart from the other islets is an intriguing history as the former home of a Mormon monarchy and America’s only kingdom.
After the death of Mormonism founder Joseph Smith, James J. Strang founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), claiming to be Smith’s sole successor. Most Mormons were Brigham Young devotees, but many followed Strang to Beaver Island, where, in 1848, they founded the town of St. James. Here, Strang declared himself king of the Strangites, and often tussled with other islanders before two disgruntled followers shot him in the back as he boarded a Navy ship in 1856. After his death, mobs from Mackinac Island drove the thousands of remaining Strangites off the island. They were soon replaced by Irish immigrants who, for a period, turned Beaver Island into the largest supplier of freshwater fish in the United States.
Over time, fish populations fell off, and the fishing industry on Beaver Island followed. Things began to turn around in the late ’70s, when tourism on the island picked up.
A sunset floods the sky over Beaver Island. (PHOTOGRAPH BY NANCY SWEARINGEN.)
History, biking, golfing, boating, hunting, fishing, swimming, camping, and hiking.
The Beaver Island Boat Co. provides car and passenger ferries from Charlevoix. Details: bibco.com.
There are also private boat and airplane charters available: beaverisland.org/transportation.
WHERE TO STAY:
Lodges, motels, bed-and-breakfast accommodations, and cottages are available for rent.
The Old Mormon Print Shop Museum, built in 1850, is the last surviving structure built by the Strangites. A newspaper Strang founded was published here, and the building now serves as a general museum for the Beaver Island Historical Society.
Another historic structure, the Protar Home, once belonged to Feodor Protar, a disciple of Russian author Leo Tolstoy, who lived on Beaver Island from 1893 until his death in 1925. Protar, who became a medicine man for the island, was highly regarded among the locals. His modest log cabin is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
LEFT: The Beaver Head Light Station on the south end of the island. RIGHT: There’s another lighthouse on the north end. Fishermen at twilight.
The island has two lighthouses: The Beaver Head Light Station at the south end of the island and the St. James Harbor Light at the north end. Both merit a visit.
An old fishing shanty is now the Marine Museum, which pays tribute to the island’s former fishing glory.
Other Lake Michigan Islands:
Washington Island, Wis.
Beaches, dunes, nature trails, and a number of museums at the tip of popular Door County region provide opportunities for biking, birding, boating, fishing, and camping.
North and South Manitou Islands
(22.3 and 8.3 square miles, respectively) Part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Visitors can climb the dunes, visit a preserved 1900-era village, and tour the South Manitou Island Lighthouse.