Peace In A Tin Can

Peace In A Tin Can

Monday, April 23, 2012

Wilderness State Park: An Historical Perspective

You'll always remember your first time.  The first baseball trophy, the first kiss, the first car.  The first time you met your future mate, the first time your child said "Mommy".  For me, the list includes my first camping trip at Wilderness State Park near Cross Village in Michigan.  I make it a point to return there every few years for its miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, untouched wilderness, and many hidden corners to explore.

The lands contained within Wilderness State Park and the waters bordering it are enveloped with history well known in the development of Michigan.  It is without a doubt that the park area was used extensively by the Indians as a haven in times of trouble.  Waugoshance Point was specifically mentioned by Alexander Henry in a journal of his travels.  On June 6, 1763, Henry and three other English prisoners were taken by canoe from Fort Michilimackinac toward Beaver Island.  Because of a heavy fog that morning the Chippewas followed the shoreline westward, periodically sounding four war whoops - one for each English prisoner aboard.  As they reached Waugoshance the Chippewas again gave their four whoops and surprisingly, received an answer from the foggy point of land.  An Ottawa appeared and spoke with the Chippewas, luring them close to land.  Then many Ottawas sprang from cover and charged the canoe, forcibly removing the four English prisoners.  The Chippewas were allowed to go on their way, and eventually the prisoners were escorted to Montreal by the Ottawas and set free.

Big Rock Trail Head
Indian Artifacts have been found in the park and surrounding area, such as arrow and tomahawk heads.  No doubt many more artifacts lie beneath the surface at Wilderness State Park. I may have come across one of these artifacts once while biking in Wilderness State Park.  I had left the Big Stone Trail, which is a moderate hiking and biking trail just east of the lower campground, and was biking in a wooded area, following a deer track.  It was a glorious bike ride, weaving between trees and around roots, rocks, and fallen branches.  I was going along at a pretty good clip, eyes on the ground 5 feet ahead of my front tire, when I came upon a small marshy stream.  Ever fearful of snakes, I increased my speed and plowed right through the stream, going up a shallow incline on the other side.  I was so exhilarated at that point, I wanted to throw my hands in the air and shout "I'm Alive!!!"  for all the woods to hear.  Instead, I glanced up (excuse my language here) and shouted,


About 6 feet in front of me, I was staring dead-on at this:

I was about to hit the end of this tree face first.  I skidded my bike sideways, fell over, then panicked at the thought there might be a snake nearby, hopped up and rode like a bat out of hell out of there.  In hindsight, I suppose that tree fell during some recent storm and lodged itself there, but at that moment, staring it down as I catapulted towards its wicked point, I sincerely felt as if I was staring at an ancient Native American war weapon.  Act of Nature, or Artifact?  Hmmmmmmm.

Even if this is a more recent development in woods weaponry, the very same situation may very well have provided inspiration for our native ancestors as they defended their land in the early 1800's against other tribes and English settlers.  You will never convince me otherwise.

In 1855, Father John Bernard Weikamp established his benevolent, charitable, and religious society of St. Francis at Cross Village.  Eventually 2000 acres of land fell under its domain.  Though the land was used extensively for farming, cattle, and logging, it fell into disrepair upon Father Weikamp's death in 1889 and was finally abandoned in 1896.  For the next 40 years, the land was owned by English settlers operating three large-scale saw mills.

As fires and lumbering operations denuded the land, it became useless to landowners.  In 1902, "One Forty and Surrounding Land" was sold for as little as $1.00.  Much of this land reverted to the state for nonpayment of taxes.  As the years went by, more private holdings came into state ownership through purchase and land exchange.

In 1921 and 1922, a house and outbuildings were constructed to house a resident manager, Frank Lloyd.  In 1928, the lands were turned over to the Parks Division, and the area officially became "Wilderness State Park".  Its first manager was Thayer Denny, followed shortly by Daddy Bronson.

The singlemost time of greatest development at Wilderness State Park occurred during the Depression, with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).  Beginning October 1, 1933, A CCC Camp was built on the hill where the present outdoor center now stands.  During their stay until 1937, the CCC established an impressive building record, including all interior roads and bridges, five trail cabins and one trailside shelter, dining hall, a stone and log observation tower, 60ft in height atop Mt. Nebo, a trail system with benches, a 15 acre area cleared for the campground, and the dredging and damming of Big Stone Creek to form Goose Pond.  When the camp was discontinued in 1937, a pit was dug in the camp area and all of the hand tools were buried so they would not be used by local residents and thus create hardship for local merchants.

1937 brought three changes to the park; the burning down of a trail cabin at what is now appropriately called "Burnt Cabin Site", a new park manager by the name of Bill Parker, and with the ending of the CCC program, the beginning of the Works Project Administration (WPA).  In addition to the employment of common laborers, the WPA employed craftsmen such as artists, writers, musicians, teachers, and architects.  WPA workers completed several park projects between 1937 and 1942, including three log dormitory buildings presently in use at the outdoor center and the development of the campground with restroom facilities.  With the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, little was done within the park other than maintaining the status quo; however, the old CCC Camp and Waugoshance Point were taken over by the Navy and placed off-limits to civilians.  Between 1942 and 1946 the area was used as a testing ground for the Navy.

Sturgeon Bay

Waugoshance Point North
Sturgeon Bay Sand Dunes
During the postwar years, the area on the hill was used as the Pines campground, while the beach area below was used as a day-use area.  On June 18, 1947 the Conservation Commission established a Game Refuge at Wilderness.  Hunting and trapping were prohibited, but the law was later modified.  Then in 1951, the Conservation Commission dedicated four sites within Wilderness State Park as Preserves;  Crane Island Natural Area Preserve, Sturgeon Bay Preserve, Waugoshance Point Nature Study Preserve, and Big Stone-Cecil Bay Nature Study Preserve.

With that, Wilderness State Park became the park we know today, with continual updates to the campgrounds and bath facilities.  In my next post, I will continue this fascinating journey into the modern day park and my experiences there.  I know you are holding your breath in anticipation, but go ahead and breathe, it will take a while to write it.

Thanks for reading, I hope I have piqued your interest in Wilderness State Park!
Waugoshance Point South
If you are interested in a more extensive tale of the history of Wilderness State Park, you can read the reference document used for this blog, "A History of Wilderness State Park" at

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