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Take a Trip Through Time

Heritage tourism can boost state’s economy

September 10, 2003 |

Americans love their vacations. In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation found that, at $537.2 billion, tourism was America’s third-largest retail industry. Tourists spent $15 billion in Michigan in 2000.

Moreover, vacationing Americans love visiting historic destinations. According to Travel Industry of America, “heritage tourism” generates more dollars than any other type of vacation spending. The average U.S. vacationer spends $457 and 3.4 nights away from home on each vacation, while a historical and cultural-interest vacationer spends $631 and 4.7 nights.

But a recent study sponsored by the Michigan Historic Preservation Network showed Michigan lagging behind other states in promoting its historic sites because it is “the state’s rich water and woodland resources — not its historic attractions — that have been the primary draw for tourists.”

So heritage tourism in Michigan is a resource waiting to be tapped. Various regional initiatives and the revitalization of small town communities through the new Michigan Main Street program aim to increase heritage tourism in Michigan.

Thanks to efforts by many Michigan leaders, government officials, and everyday citizens, heritage tourism is on the rise. From celebrating the state’s nautical tradition, to recalling its crucial role in the Underground Railroad, to recreating its earliest industrial efforts, Michigan offers plenty of ways to discover and enjoy its colorful past.
Here are a few samples.


MLUI/Gary Howe
Keweenaw National Park
To visit Keweenaw National Historical Park is to visit a 100-mile stretch of Michigan’s Copper Country in the Keweenaw Peninsula, where mines began flourishing in the 1840s. In 1921, two counties purchased many of the closed sites, turned them into parks, and eventually gave them to the state. Now campers, hikers, sportsmen, skiers, canoeists, snowmobilers, bicyclists, and tourists can enjoy the wide-open spaces, stay at a restored mining lodge, and explore old mine shafts. For more information call 800-338-7982.


Photo courtesy of the Honolulu House

The Honolulu House
When Judge Abner Pratt returned from serving as U.S. Counsel to the Sandwich Islands, he brought his newfound fondness for the tropical lifestyle with him. He built his new home in 1860; a New York Times article described it as “a tropical fantasy in ivory, red, and three shades of green — the architectural equivalent of a four-rum cocktail served in a coconut.” Today the Honolulu House is the centerpiece of a National Historic Landmark District in the heart of downtown Marshall. For more information call 269-781-8544.


MLUI/Bruce Giffen
Underground Railroad Tour
From 1840 until 1863 abolitionists and freed slaves helped runaway slaves escape to Canada. The historic First Congregational Church near the Detroit River that escaping slaves once used now presents re-creations of those perilous journeys with period costumes, lectures, dialogue, and song. Tourists become “passengers” on the Underground Railroad, feel the weight of shackles, meet their “conductor,” walk through tunnels, find relief in “safe houses,” and adjourn for discussion around a light luncheon. For more information call 313-831-4080.


Photo courtesy of the Alden B. Dow Archives
Alden B. Dow Home & Studio
Instead of working for his father’s chemical company, Alden B. Dow became an award-winning architect. He did much of his best work in his hometown Midland, including several churches and private homes, Northwood University, and the Midland Center for the Arts. His home and studio reflect the brilliant, 50-year career that earned him the title of Architect Laureate of Michigan. The house also offers programs for grade- and high-school students. For more information call 866-315-7678.


MLUI/Gary Howe
S.S. Milwaukee Clipper
Built in 1905, this 361-foot Great Lakes passenger and package steamer sailed with 350 passengers on nine-day cruises between Buffalo, New York, and Duluth for six decades. Thirteen years after its 1970 retirement, the National Register of Historic Places listed the vessel. She became a National Historic Landmark in 1989 and is now moored at the foot of McCracken Street in Muskegon. For more information call 231-755-0990.

Presque Isle:

Photo by Gary Howe
Old Presque Isle Lighthouse
In 1838 a Michigan representative asked Congress to finance a lighthouse that would guide mariners traveling along Lake Huron’s eastern shore to a harbor in the Presque Isle area, which for 100 years was an important port for French trappers. The lighthouse was completed in 1840; the National Register of Historic Places listed the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse in 1973. It is one of only nine remaining freestanding conical lighthouse towers on the Great Lakes. For more information, call 989-595-9917.

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