A Ghost Town Draws Us Back

By Sandy Steele

Fayette, Michigan, has stories to tell — of American industry and the toil of its people and the little harbor that protected it all.

Ghost town of Fayette Michigan

Some boating memories remain so powerful that just the mention of a town's name can brings back a flood of emotion. The ghost town of Fayette, Michigan, does that for my family. Cliff and I first heard about the place, and its Snail Shell Harbor in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, 35 years ago, when we were on our annual family boating trip on Lake Green Bay, in Door County, with our children, Scott and Tina. We struck up a conversation with some boaters eager to share their stories about cruising up to historic Fayette, and we got hooked! We'd always teased the kids that we were like water gypsies, because we loved wandering from port to port. So it was an easy decision to chart a compass course the following morning to Fayette, 50 miles north.

As we left Door County's Sister Bay for Michigan's Garden Peninsula in Big Bay De Noc, we passed Washington Island, St. Martin Island, and Little Summer Island to starboard. Out in the open water between the islands is where Lake Green Bay and Lake Michigan merge. Weather changes quickly here, so it's important to carry updated charts, a GPS, a VHF, and two good anchors and to travel these waters in the early morning, before the wind kicks up. We were lucky; the water wasn't too rambunctious for us or our 21-foot Winner. Told to look for tall, majestic limestone bluffs to starboard and a No. 2 red buoy marking the channel once we got into Big Bay De Noc, we kept our eyes peeled.

Fayette Michigan area map©2017 Mirto Art Studio

Except for a glimpse of weather-worn buildings through the trees, the harbor blended right in with the rugged shoreline. Even after we spotted the No. 2 buoy, the entrance didn't become apparent until we neared the limestone bluffs. Suddenly, like something out of a history book, this little jewel of a harbor appeared, with remnants of limestone structures and old weathered buildings on the shoreline. As we entered the deep-water harbor, rotting pilings from years past were still visible below the surface, and we could imagine what the scene had been like a century ago. Boats were tied up along the pilings, which were next to rickety little piers on shore. We've been to other natural harbors over the years, but this hidden treasure far outshined them all.

A Boomtown

Fayette's glory days began in 1867, when the Jackson Iron Company turned it, and its large supply of limestone and hardwood forest, into one of the Upper Peninsula's most productive iron-smelting operations. It was a hard life for the immigrants who lived and worked in this smoky industrial furnace town; by 1891, all the trees had been cut down, and the plant began using coal. Today, the noisy pollution from years ago is gone, and what's left is a quiet, peaceful harbor that the State of Michigan turned into a state park in 1958. In its heyday, this town boasted beehive-shaped charcoal kilns, a drugstore, company store, machine shop, opera house, stately homes, and even a big hotel with a two-story outhouse. Today, visitors to Fayette State Park can see 20 historic structures, including several public and commercial buildings, residences that housed the workers of Fayette, and the stabilized ruins of the furnace complex. The state built a beautiful visitor center that can't be seen from the harbor; at the center, you can view a scale-model diorama of the original community. A campsite is within walking distance of the town site and is equipped with electric hookups, water, and pit facilities. In the first few years that we visited Fayette, a woman would deliver requested groceries to boaters in a cart pulled by her dog! Those days are long gone, so be sure to come fully provisioned. Fayette also can be reached by land from M-183, between Manistique and Escanaba, 17 miles south of U.S. 2.

Fayette hotelThis hotel is one of the Fayette State Park's preserved buildings.

The first thing you notice in Fayette is the quiet. There's no bustling marina, no busy highways, no phones — just dirt roads with weather-beaten buildings that have stories to tell. The rugged beauty of this harbor and its solitude takes your breath away. On the other side of the snail-shaped peninsula is the beginning of a lovely sand beach that stretches 4 miles south and is peppered with pieces of slag from the mining days. Gas and limited groceries are available in Garden, Michigan, which is 10 miles north of Fayette. It gets very shallow the closer you get to Garden, so keep a close watch on your depth sounder. If you prefer to anchor out rather than tie up, don't miss South River Bay, a protected and picturesque anchorage framed in water lilies that lies 5 miles north of Fayette.

Fayette Harbor with anchor on shoreLimestone bluffs, once mined for use in the blast furnaces, serve as the backdrop for the weathered remains of 19th-century docks on Fayette's waterfront.

One year, on the way up to Fayette, we stopped for fresh fish at Fairport, just north of Little Summer Island on Michigan's Garden Peninsula. It's a small fishing port and a little tricky getting in, especially on a windy day. But if you haven't caught any fish for dinner, it's worth the trip. But wear a hat! Seagulls by the hundreds are flying around, attracted by the fishermen's buffet.

And Now, Fast-Forward

We visited Fayette quite a bit when our kids were younger. Then, 10 years ago, Cliff and I decided it was time to go back. As we passed the No. 2 buoy and came into the channel, it was like visiting an old friend. However many times you visit this harbor, it's hard not to be moved by the vision of its weathered buildings standing tall along the shore overlooking the towering limestone bluffs turning pink at sunset. More work had been done on the restoration of the town, and the state had added a new dock along the shore. The best part of our trip was finding out that the blessing of the fleet, which had been going on for 55 years, was to take place the following day. By nightfall, boats were tied up two deep along the dock, and the harbor was filled with anchored boats, all eager to be part of this event.

Blessing of the fleetThe bishop from the Marquette diocese blesses each boat in Snail Shell Harbor.

The following day was a flurry of activity. The hotel was getting ready for its pie social and the community store for its hotdog-and-brats lunch. Chairs were being moved into the old furnace building for the service, and a horse-drawn wagon was shuttling visitors back and forth between the parking lot and town. Just before noon, a bagpiper followed by the bishop of the Marquette diocese came down the hill in a procession leading into the old furnace building. A hush came over the crowd as the names were read of all the local mariners who'd lost their lives over the years, and a bell tolled deeply for each. Then the piper and bishop lead the procession toward a large fishing vessel tied up at the shore. Everyone got aboard, and the fishing boat slowly moved alongside every boat in the harbor, the bishop blessing each one, even our Bayliner, 4's Enough. A wreath was thrown out to the water in remembrance of those lost. After the blessing of the fleet, a bugler high atop the cliffs played Taps, which echoed back from the bluffs. I had goosebumps. Later, the captain of the fishing boat that had carried the procession whispered to Cliff that he'd decided not to have his boat blessed this year because after the bishop blessed it last year, he'd had nothing but problems with his motor.

Cliff and Sandy SteeleCliff and Sandy Steele enjoy the quiet stillness of Fayette State Park, once an industrial furnace town on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

On one moonlit night, sitting in the stern of our boat, Cliff surprised me with a watch that he'd bought in the Fayette gift shop. It had a vintage look, complete with replicas of old buttons on the band. Whenever I wear it, time rewinds and the years fall away, bringing fond memories of Fayette, of the trips with our children — now married with families of their own — and of peaceful visits with Cliff, where we were drawn to the quiet solitude and to the town's haunting history. 

Sandy and Cliff Steele have owned and trailered boats all over the lakes and rivers of the United States for the past 51 years. They now live near Lake Cumberland, Kentucky.

— Published: June/July 2017

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