National Parks in Michigan: Copper Mining and Maritime History

Pictured Rocks
Low Arch at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Posnov / Getty Images

National parks in Michigan are dedicated to historic and prehistoric exploitation of the nearly-pure copper deposits; shipping and sailing on the Great Lakes; and the automotive innovations of Henry Ford and Walter Chrysler.

National Parks in Michigan
National Park Service map of National Parks in Michigan. U.S. National Park Service

According to the National Park Service, nearly three million visitors come to see the five national parks in Michigan each year, among them historic sites, battlefields, lakeshores, and an archipelago of islands.

Isle Royale National Park

Isle Royale National Park
Beautiful McCargoe Cove in Isle Royale National Park, Lake Superior. Westhoff / E+ / Getty Images

Isle Royale National Park consists of the main island—Isle Royale—surrounded by over 450 smaller islands in an archipelago in northwestern Lake Superior, between Ontario and the Keweenaw Peninsula of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The islands are a series of parallel ridges and atolls rising high above the lake to support plant and animal life, formed from geological uplifts and volcanic eruptions. 

Called "Minong" (the place of blueberries) by the Ojibwe who lived there, Isle Royale was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1980. The ecosystem of dense boreal conifer and northern hardwood forest has had limited, but significant, human interference due to its remoteness from the mainlands. Thunder Bay, Ontario, is visible from Isle Royale, but to get to the islands, visitors must own a seaworthy boat or book passage on a commercial boat or seaplane. Weather, wind and waves, fog, and ice can strand visitors on or off the islands with little warning. 

The earliest occupations date to about 6,500 years ago, and the islands are closely associated with the Grand Portage Ojibwe, who were the primary residents up until the 20th century. They hunted, fished, and gathered berries and other foodstuffs, and they mined copper—an important trade good for several thousand years in what is today the upper midwestern United States. There are about 1,500 prehistoric copper mines on Isle Royale, each with between one and 100 pits.

Europeans arrived in the early 19th century: the American Fur Company established a brief foothold for commercial fishing in 1837–1841, and there were three later efforts to establish commercial copper mining, responding to demand booms in the American and Canadian mainlands. 

There are only 19 mammals recorded on Isle Royale, compared to over 40 on the mainlands. Caribou (reindeer) and beaver arrived prehistorically, but the main animal occupants are wolves and moose, which did not come to the islands until the 20th century. Scientific studies of wolves and moose began in 1958, the longest running large predator-prey study on earth. Genetics have identified the wolves as having all descended from a single female who arrived in the late 1940s. The last large influx of moose arrived in 1912–1913. 

Keweenaw National Historic Park

Keweenaw National Historic Park
Abandoned building at the Quincy Mine Complex, in the Keweenaw National Historic Park in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. ehrlif / iStock / Getty Images

Located on the Keweenaw Peninsula projecting into Lake Superior, the Keweenaw National Historic Park is dedicated to the region's copper mining history. The earliest mines date to at least 7,000 years ago. Copper in the Upper Peninsula is 99.99% pure, and prehistoric use in North America was widespread. At the time, cooper was cold-hammered and did not involve smelting. 

All of the historic period towns and cities on the Keweenaw began as a result of the copper mining industry. All of the waterways today struggle with the pollution created by the mining industry. Waste, tailings, slag, and various chemicals all were dumped into the canals, lakes, and shores. In 1986, mining activities were halted and a Superfund site was established to clean up the pollution. 

Three lighthouses dated to the 19th century are still extant: Eagle Harbor, Fort Wilkins, and Ontonagon. The mining shafts have been modified to become a habitat for North American little brown and big brown bats, and scholars have been researching the possibility of using flooded mine shafts for geothermal heating and cooling. The National Park Service's Midwest Archeological Center has studied the archaeological remainders of the people, equipment, and buildings of the copper mining business. 

Several museums in and around the park are dedicated to the copper mining industry, as well as Finnish-American heritage, homesteaders, firefighters, logging camps, and cabins.

Motor Cities National Heritage Area

Ford Piquette Plant

Ford Piquette Avenue Plant Museum

The Motor Cities National Heritage Area is a set of designated historical buildings located in southeastern Michigan and including the cities of Detroit, Flint, Lansing, and Dearborn. The buildings are associated with the heyday of the automobile industry in the United States during the early and mid-twentieth century. 

Events hosted by the park are focused on Daimler/Chrysler and Ford motor companies, and include car shows, cruises, historic home tours and holiday tours of Henry Ford's Greenfield Village.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Sea kayaker paddling around a stone arch at the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. genesisgraphics / iStock / Getty Images

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, located in the eastern Upper Peninsula near Grand Marais, is named for the enormous variation in color of the natural sandstone. The sandstone is dyed in jaw-dropping patches and stripes of colors from metals in the groundwater—iron (red and orange), copper (blue and green), manganese (brown and black), and limonite (white)—making for astounding other-worldly landscapes. 

Industry in the region was focused on commercial shipping on Lake Superior—the Au Sable Light Station built in 1874 is an extant complex of buildings that serve as a reminder of that period. Commercial logging in the region began in 1877, focused at first on a high grade of white pine lumber. Fifty million board feet of white pine were cut between 1882–1885 and by 1909, over 3,000 acres were cut. Hardwoods, including cedar, then became the focus of the timber industry, used for railroad ties, woodenwares, and veneer products. 

The Pictured Rocks region was long associated with U.S. government marine organizations, including the U.S. Lighthouse Service, U.S. Life Saving Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard. The park lies along Superior's "Graveyard Coast," where many shipwrecks lay and can be found and visited with commercial glass-bottomed boats and scuba diving. 

Great vistas for hikers are found in the geological formations such as Minor's Castle and Chapel Rock, beaches like 12 Mile Beach, forests of white birch, the Grand Sable Dunes, and five waterfalls.

River Raisin National Battlefield Park

The Battle of River Raisin war memorial in Monroe, MI
The 1812 Battle of River Raisin war memorial in Monroe, MI. csfotoimages / Getty Images

The River Raisin National Battlefield Park, located near the shores of Lake Erie, commemorates the Battle of the River Raisin, part of the Battle of Frenchtown, a decisive battle in the War of 1812. The battle on January 22, 1813, was between the U.S. forces led by General James Winchester and the British led by Brigadier General Henry Procter and their Native American allies Wyandot chiefs Roundhead and Walk-in-the-Water.

The park includes an accessible 0.6-mile Battlefield Loop Trail with historical markers and the one-mile wood chip Mason Run Loop Trail along the battlefield grounds.

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
A beautiful sunset at Esch Road beach on the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Ben Neumann / Moment / Getty Images

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, located on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan near Empire, is named for the Legend of Sleeping Bear, a Native American story that identifies two little offshore islands as bear cubs and an on-shore dune as their mother, a family driven out of their home and into Lake Michigan by a forest fire. The Sleeping Bear is their mother, looking out into the lake for the cubs. 

Sleeping Bear includes miles of sand beach, bluffs that tower 450 feet above Lake Michigan, lush pine forests, and clear inland lakes. Like most of the parks in Michigan, Sleeping Bear holds a history of transportation, in this case, maritime travel and fishing on the lake. 

The Glen Haven cord wood station supplied fuel to Great Lakes steamers; a Coast Guard Life Saving station includes a maritime museum, and the park features plenty of ghost towns and logging villages. Pieces of shipwrecks frequently wash ashore, a reminder of the dangers of travel in the Great Lakes.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "National Parks in Michigan: Copper Mining and Maritime History." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 17). National Parks in Michigan: Copper Mining and Maritime History. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "National Parks in Michigan: Copper Mining and Maritime History." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).