Fayette park

Where outdoor recreation and rich history meet

Above left is a view of the Lake Michigan shoreline at Snail Shell Harbor at Fayette Historic State Park in Delta County. Top right, boaters ply the waters of Lake Michigan from the Snail Shell Harbor. Above right, visitors take pictures and tour the state park’s grounds. Below, campers enjoy an afternoon in the campground at the park. (Michigan Department of Natural Resources photos)

By JOHN PEPIN

Michigan Department of Natural Resources

If you take a turn off U.S.-2 at Garden Corners in Delta County and head south along M-183, the closer you get to Fayette Historic State Park, the further back in time you go.

The 711-acre park is home to a preserved historic townsite, depicting life in a late 19th century iron smelting community along the beautiful shoreline of Lake Michigan.

The townsite, home to iron ore blast furnaces, was named after Fayette Brown of the Jackson Mining Co.

Brown was the company agent who chose the site for the town.

“Fayette was once one of the Upper Peninsula’s most productive iron-smelting operations,” according to a park brochure. “Fayette grew up around two blast furnaces, a large dock and several charcoal kilns, after the Civil War.”

The park offers guided tours during the summertime and self-guided tours of the townsite.

At one point, Fayette was a booming community that operated the town’s blast furnaces for 24 years, producing a total of 229,288 tons of iron.

The operators used wood from the area’s hardwood forests to fuel the furnaces and the iron ore was purified with the help of limestone quarried from the surrounding bluffs around Fayette.

“When the charcoal iron market began to decline, the Jackson Iron Co. closed its Fayette smelting operation in 1891,” the park brochure explained.

Walking the historic townsite gives park visitors a real feeling of the community, while at the same time, some of the isolation the town experienced on the Garden Peninsula.

A park interpretive display describes how stagecoaches linked Fayette with neighboring communities.

“Two Fayette livery businesses rented horses and buggies, while stage lines carried passengers to Garden, Manistique and Escanaba,” the display read. “The overland route to Escanaba took two days; travel by boat took only three hours.”

In 1870, James Hibbert Langille described the “great changes” that had been brought about in and around Snail Shell Harbor, a beautiful sheltered harbor adorned with white, dolomite cliffs.

“The short, thick growth of cedars and white birch showed general signs of havoc,” Langille wrote. “A long dock had been constructed; several schooners had landed large quantities of building material; and houses and barns of the ruder class had been built.

“An immense smelting stack was going up; and coal pits were beginning to smoke on the sides of the hill which overlooked the harbor. The whole region echoed with the sound of axes and hammers. More men were constantly coming; and new points of work were starting every day.”

Fayette was an iron company town. Its residents depended on the town for jobs, housing, medical care and supplies, according to another interpretive display at the park.

“From 1867 to 1891, the furnaces at Fayette produced high-quality charcoal iron for America’s steel industry and supported a bustling immigrant community of nearly 500 residents,” the display read.

Today, more than 20 structures, including the furnace complex, business district and employees’ homes, recall the daily life of this industrial community. The park museum features a large, glass-encased model of the townsite.

In 1916, Jackson Iron Co. successor Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. sold its Fayette property to a couple of local businessmen who ran the hotel as a summer resort into the 1940s, according to park literature.

For years, the harbor, docks and warehouses were used by commercial fishermen. The state of Michigan acquired Fayette as a state park in 1959.

In addition to the historic townsite, the park features boating and fishing in Big Bay de Noc out of Snail Shell Harbor, with the help of a recently reconstructed pier with 15 slips. Boat camping is offered in Snail Shell Harbor, as well as scuba diving.

The park also offers about five miles of hiking trails, a beach day use area at Sand Bay, with playground equipment. On the second Saturday of August, the park is transformed back to its glory days with period displays, food and music during the annual Heritage Day event. The event celebrates the “hey-day” of Fayette.

Additional activities at the park include history programs, geocaching, mountain biking, swimming, paddling and interpretive programs. Facilities include cabins and lodges, a picnic area with a picnic shelter, camping area with just over 60 sites, and a visitor center, which includes a gift shop.

State-managed facilities located nearby include a state forest rustic campground at Portage Bay, with 23 sites, and the 2.25-mile Ninga Aki Pathway and the Indian Lake Pathway, which is located northwest of Thompson, and winds for nine miles through the Schoolcraft County woodlands.

Whether its for a day or a week, a trip to Fayette Historic State Park provides a fascinating glimpse into life in an Upper Peninsula mining company town during the latter days of the 1800s.

The winds are light and warm off Lake Michigan, the summer days inviting and the old Fayette townsite remains ready and waiting for visitors.