Preserving Presque Isle as pristine park

A section of Lake Superior shoreline on Presque Isle is seen in a photo taken in the 1890s. The site was, even back then, a favorite recreation destination for local residents. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

“The young folks made up a party in the morning for Presque Isle and Partridge Island and gave me an invitation to accompany them.” — Amos Harlow, July 4, 1851

MARQUETTE — A favorite picnic spot since the settlement of Marquette in 1849, Presque Isle was reserved as a lighthouse site by the U. S. Lighthouse Board in 1852. In the late 1880s, as chair of Marquette’s Parks and Cemetery Commission, Peter White made it his mission to acquire the 328-acre property from the government for a city park. This proved to be far more challenging than White could possibly have anticipated.

White first contacted the Lighthouse Board to request that Presque Isle be donated to the City of Marquette for a park. The board said no. His next stop was to see the district’s U. S. Congressman, Seth Moffatt, of Traverse City. Knowing the board did not relinquish lighthouse property, Congressman Moffatt told White nothing could be done.

Traveling to Washington D.C., White then appealed to the Congressional Parks Committee. Again his request was met with a resounding no. Before he concluded with the Committee, however, he wisely asked that if the Senate agreed to his request, then would the committee approve it? Believing that Senate approval was also impossible, the committee said that in that unlikely event, they would also agree.

Peter White was the consummate storyteller and Michigan’s U.S. Senator Tom Palmer of Detroit, always enjoyed White’s yarns. When White stopped by the Senator’s office to pitch his idea, Palmer brought in other senators to listen to the proposal. After listening to White’s tales of early Marquette, the senators agreed to submit a bill.

They felt it was the least they could do to honor pioneers who settled the wilderness. The bill passed the Senate and the House of Representatives followed with their approval. President Grover Cleveland signed the bill on July 12, 1886.

With a copy of the bill in hand, Peter White returned to Marquette to present the government’s offer to the city council. But there were still obstacles to overcome. The island was given to the city except for a small area at Black Rocks reserved for a lighthouse. But the bill also required the city to develop a park and pay for its upkeep. If the city decided not to develop a park, the land would revert back to the government.

Some city council members expressed concern that the city would be creating and maintaining a park for the wealthy. At that time access was primarily by boat. Building the road and a bridge over the Dead River would be costly andonly the affluent had carriages which were necessary to make the long trip from town.

In an effort to finalize the plan for which he had already worked so hard, White offered to pay for the road to the Island and the first five years of park maintenance.The council then finally approved the proposal. White built a mile long road through extremely wet, marshy land for $30,000 (approximately $746,800 today). Donations from citizens and $800 (approximately $20,000 today) from the city were used to build the bridge over the Dead River.

An additional $35,000 (approximately $871,000 today) was spent on a creating a road, trails, and picnic areas on the Island. With these tasks completed the park officially opened to visitors in September 1887.

The construction of a street car line in early summer 1891 significantly boosted traffic and Presque Isle routinely hosted 4th of July celebrations and company picnics. In 1896 a report on Presque Isle by Frederick Olmsted’s renowned landscape architectural firm (creators of New York’s Central Park), concluded “we beg to congratulate Marquette on having one of the most beautiful parks in the world and to earnestly advise that its natural beauty be religiously preserved . . .” Thankfully city leaders over the years have adhered to the landscape firm’s recommendation to maintain the wilderness and beauty of Presque Isle.

Obstacles were presented and overcome to make Presque Isle a pristine city park.With its woods and rocky cliffs, the Island is still heldnear and dear to the hearts of Marquette residents. Later additions to the park would go on to encompass the zoo, Shiras pool, the band shell, and pavilion.

A model of the island with many of these attractions was built by the children in the Fifth H: History Club, a cooperative effort between the Marquette Regional History Center and the Marquette County 4-H and has been entered in the Marquette County Fair. The history center will also have demonstrations and activities at the fair.

We encourage you to attend the fair this weekend from today through Sunday to view this and other entries and have some good old fashioned fun.