Experiencing Northern Michigan: Touring Historic Fort Mackinac
One of the highlights of my first-ever trip to Mackinac Island, June 14-17, was the opportunity to tour historic Fort Mackinac. I walked around the immaculate grounds and inside restored buildings more than a century old while learning all about the fort’s spectacular history from Dominick Miller, marketing manager at Mackinac State Historic Parks, an agency within the Michigan Department of Natural Resources that’s home to “a family of living history museums and parks” set in Northern Michigan’s gorgeous Straits of Mackinac.
Dominick is incredibly knowledgeable about the Island’s history, geography, and fascinating stories behind the fort. Founded during the American Revolution, Fort Mackinac moved from Fort Michilimackinac to Mackinac Island by the British in 1780 before Americans seized control in 1796. The British then captured it back in July 1812, marking “the first land engagement of the War of 1812.” After the war, the fort was returned to the Americans, remained active until 1895, and has been carefully preserved ever since. It’s dumbfounding how much history Fort Mackinac contains within its fortress walls!
Moreover, the fort sits high upon the most breathtaking view from the West Blockhouse overlooking tree-green hills leading to the Grand Hotel on the right with Downtown Mackinac Island straight below and the lilac-infused Marquette Park to the left. The 360-degree views from the southernmost edges of Fort Mackinac overlooking Haldimand Bay are absolutely enchanting. There’s something magical about how the architecture, tradition, and so much of the landscape on Mackinac Island have been preserved in the tumultuous last few centuries.
All the buildings within the fort are restored and open to the public, “furnished with period settings highlighting the building’s particular function or a themed exhibit.” Inside each building are interesting exhibits about Mackinac Island’s history, including “Military Medicine at Mackinac: 1780-1895,” which explores medical care at the fort in the Post Hospital building, dating back to 1828. There’s the Post Bathhouse from 1885 with clawfoot tubs behind bathroom stalls inside as well as a schoolhouse original to 1879. A twenty-minute film called Heritage at Mackinac plays on a loop in the Post Commissary’s theater while historical interpreters conduct live programs and demonstrations throughout the day.
Construction for the Officers’ Stone Quarters dates back to 1780, making it one of the oldest buildings in Michigan. Today it serves a significant purpose as the “Kids’ Quarters” at Fort Mackinac. With many hands-on activities, the Kids’ Quarters is a fun place for children to explore and learn alongside their parents, who’ll enjoy it just as much as the kids. The Officers’ Wood Quarters was built 1816 and remodeled in 1889 to be a gathering place for off-duty soldiers to unwind over a game of pool, a sandwich, or a five-cent mug of beer.
The Soldiers’ Barracks, the largest building at Fort Mackinac, dates back to 1859 and today houses a museum exhibit on the second floor with a gift shop on the main level. Men dressed as soldiers marched outside the barracks during one of the public demonstrations offered while I was touring Fort Mackinac. Built in 1835, the Officer’s Hill Quarters was a duplex-style home where two officers and their families lived. Impressively decorated in authentic 1880s furnishings, the Officer’s Hill Quarters were rather lovely and looked like happy homes. Contrary to any notion of happiness, the Post Guardhouse from 1828 was partly the headquarters for soldiers on “twenty-four hour guard duty while the cell served as a jail,” and dug underneath the cell was a super creepy dungeon called the “Black Hole.”
After hours of exploring all this educational destination has to offer, you can stop by the snack cart for light refreshments, or swing on over to the Tea Room Restaurant, operated by the Grand Hotel, for more snacks, beverages, and desserts. Dominick and I visited the Tea Room for a cup of coffee and glass of lemon water outside on the patio overlooking picture-perfect Marquette Park. Fort Mackinac opened for the season this year on May 3 and will remain open through October 28, offering daily attractions including a morning cannon salute, rifle firing demonstration, guard mount ceremony, historic walking tour, Women of the Fort walking tour, live music, children’s program, court martial reenactment, bayonet demonstration, and cannon firing.
The public even has an opportunity to fire the iconic Fort Mackinac cannon! Every morning at 9:15 beginning in June through October, one person (age 13 and up) has the chance for a once-in-a-lifetime experience to clean, load, prime, and fire the first cannon volley of the day on Fort Mackinac, following the safety procedures for the event. For $50 (or $35 for Mackinac Associates at the Heritage level membership or above), the lucky assistant stands on top of a bluff 150 feet above the park below to fire the cannon for the whole Island to hear! That special ticket includes admission to Fort Mackinac for the day and a souvenir kepi. Though I didn’t fire the cannon myself, I did get the chance to watch the cannon firing from a balcony right next door with a great view of the bang!
Tickets to Fort Mackinac are $13 per adult and $7.50 per child age 5-12. Your ticket to Fort Mackinac will also get you free admission to The Richard and Jane Manoogian Mackinac Art Museum located in Marquette Park on Main Street. Open through October 7 this year, the art museum features fine and decorate art exhibits inspired by Mackinac Island through the ages. Through August, art instructors on staff offer Island-inspired, hands-on activities for children eager to create their own works of art in the Kids’ Art Studio. New this year at the museum was a special juried exhibition with a “Landscapes of Mackinac” theme!
Awesome events coming up at Fort Mackinac include the Star Spangled Fourth of July celebration at 2pm on July 3 followed by An American Picnic presented by the Grand Hotel at 6:30pm on Independence Day. War of 1812 Weekend is coming up August 4-5 with Civil War Weekend at Fort Mackinac on August 25-26. “Ghastly Mackinac” is scheduled for July 14 and August 1 at 7:30pm, and Fire at Night programs take place at 7pm on the last three Saturday evenings in September at Fort Mackinac.
In addition to this fascinating tour of Fort Mackinac, fun at the Lilac Festival Grand Parade, and my stay at the Lilac House Bed & Breakfast, my first-ever experience on Mackinac Island also included a horse-drawn carriage tour through the cemeteries and Historic State Parks on the Island, a magical visit to the Butterfly House, kite-flying at Mission Point Park, biking along the shores of Lake Huron with the Mackinac Bridge in the background, delicious meals, and browsing the tourist shops downtown. There are so many incredible experiences from this unique trip to share, so stay tuned for more of my Island adventures coming soon!