Mackinac Island & The Grand Hotel

by Dave Weiman

When we started Midwest Flyer Magazine, one of the first travel articles we ever did was on “Mackinac Island.” Known for its fudge shops and ferry boat rides from the mainland, we made it a one-day trip the first time with friends in a V-tail Bonanza, which was doable, but hardly worth a six-hour round trip from Madison, Wisconsin. Over the years, we returned to the island many times. We have many fond memories there with our children.

The State of Michigan has made the airport on Mackinac Island (KMCD) one of pride and joy for tourism, wealthy residents of the state, and its governor, who enjoys a summer home there.

When you land on Mackinac Island, park the plane, and walk into the quaint terminal building to pay the daily tie-down fee, the park ranger will call for a horse-drawn taxi to your destination. From that moment on, you step back in time. Our destination on this trip was the “Grand Hotel.”

Mackinac Island

Mackinac (MACK-in-awe) became one of your nation’s favored summer resort destinations during the victorian era. Vacationers arrived in large lake excursion boats from Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit seeking the cooler weather on the island. They danced to Strauss’ waltzes, listened to Sousa’s stirring marches, dined on whitefish and strolled along the broad decks. To accommodate overnight guests, boat and railroad companies financed the building of the Grand Hotel.

One of the most noticeable differences on Mackinac Island (which is accessible only by boat and plane) is the absence of automobiles. Visitors and residents travel by foot, bicycle or horse-drawn carriage. There are only 600 year-round residents, and if you fly there before the ice leaves Lake Michigan as I did one year, everyone knows there is a stranger in town.

During the summer, there are more than 500 horses. To learn more about Mackinac Island, visit www.MackinacIsland.org.

The Grand Hotel

If you like history and have a sense of imagination, you will like Mackinac Island, its forts, cemeteries and the Grand Hotel.

Most interesting was a one-hour presentation by Grand Hotel resident historian, Bob Tagatz.

Mackinac Island became a summer getaway beginning in 1886, but accommodations were limited. The Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company formed the Mackinac Island Hotel Company. Land upon which the Grand Hotel would stand was purchased, and construction of the hotel began. Just one year later in 1887, the Grand Hotel opened. Room rates then were $3 to $5 a night.

In the 1890s, the front porch of the Grand Hotel, said to be the longest in the world, became the principal meeting place for all of Mackinac Island, as well as a promenade for the elderly and a “flirtation walk” for island romantics. Grand Hotel Manager James “The Comet” Hayes invited an agent of Edison Phonograph to conduct regular demonstrations of the new invention.

In 1895, Mark Twain gave a lecture in the Grand Hotel Casino. Admission: $1.

In 1897, the West Wing was added to the hotel, and by the turn of the century, the automobile found its way onto the island until the 1930s when an island-wide ban on any motorized vehicle was put into place.

In 1919, W. Stewart Woodfill was hired as a desk clerk, and later purchased and became the sole owner of the hotel.

In 1947, Mackinac Island and the Grand Hotel was the site of the film “This Time For Keeps,” starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams. The outdoor pool was built especially for Ms. Williams, and the room she stayed in is named in her honor.

The Grand Hotel was also featured in the motion picture “Somewhere In Time” in 1980, starring Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, and Christopher Plummer. Many of the indoor scenes were also filmed on the island in the studios at Mission Point Resort. I remember vividly when Reeve – a pilot himself – flew to Mackinac Island that year.

In 1951, R.D. (Dan) Musser joined the hotel staff and in 1960, W. Stewart Woodfill appointed Musser president. The Mussers purchased the Grand Hotel in 1979.

In 1957, the Michigan Historical Association selected the Grand Hotel as a state historical building.

R.D. (Dan) Musser III was named president of the Grand Hotel in 1989, the East Wing was added, and the U.S. Department of Interior designated the hotel a national historic landmark.

In 1998, five new rooms were named in honor of former First Ladies Lady Bird Johnson, Betty Ford, Rosalynn Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush. In 2002, the Jacqueline Kennedy Suite was added.

Construction began on the Millennium Wing in 2000 – a 200-seat addition to the main dining room and 42 new guest rooms. The Grand Hotel is the ultimate place to go for the $100.00 hamburger, but food prices are much more reasonably priced than that.

While many of the original timbers used to build the foundation of the hotel are still in use, the Grand Hotel has made numerous improvements since then and was certified as a Green Lodging Michigan Leader by the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor & Economic Growth in 2009.

Like most vacation destinations, don’t go to Mackinac Island unless you are willing to spend some money, but even the Grand Hotel offers special packages, and depending on the time of the year you visit, there are deals to be had.

We were pleased to learn that the Grand Hotel has a Cessna 421C, operated by North Country Aviation in Gaylord, Michigan, which it uses to transport guests from anywhere in the country to Mackinac Island.

In 2012, the Grand Hotel celebrated its 125th anniversary.

For additional information and reservations, refer to their website at www.grandhotel.com or call 906-847-3331.

EDITOR’S NOTE: 100LL and Jet A  are available across the bay at Mackinac County Airport (83D) in St. Ignace, Michigan.

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