Ancient glaciers carved the long deep lakes and dramatic hills that give Traverse City and its
surrounding communities their splendid natural setting. But this beautiful region is much more
than the sum of its scenic and recreational qualities. It is a place rich with human history, where
generations of Native Americans and missionaries, lumberjacks and fishermen, mariners and
farmers all left their imprint on the landscape and helped create a colorful and vibrant culture that
can still be experienced today.
Indian hunters and French traders were the first people to spend time here, and it was they who
gave the region its name – La Grand Traverse, because of the “long crossing” they had to make
by canoe across the mouth of the bay. But even the native Ottawa and Chippewa people didn't’t
settle here permanently until the early 18th century.
In 1839 the Rev. Peter Dougherty established the area’s first permanent settlement, an Indian
mission at the tip of the Old Mission peninsula, and soon other settlers followed.
By 1847 a small sawmill operation had been established on the banks of the Boardman River, and
soon it became the nucleus of a growing company town led by Chicago businessmen Perry
Hannah and Tracy Lay. They soon opened several other mills in the area and realy got our town
In 1852 the new settlement was christened Traverse City -- but until the first road through the
forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water.
Perry Hannah and Tracy Lay soon opened several other small mills in the area
and realy got our town roll'in.
The development of manufacturing and agriculture – potatoes, apples, and eventually cherries –
spurred the community to press for railroad service, which came to Traverse City in 1872. In 1885
Traverse City was designated as the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum, which became one of
the city’s major employers and eventually housed a population several times larger than that of
the town itself.
By the end of the 19th century, Traverse City was also attracting large numbers of summer
visitors, who flocked by train and steamship to enjoy the region’s cool temperatures, clean air and
water and scenic beauty. They are still coming today, and tourism has grown to become the area’s
main economic mainstay.
But reminders of the past are everywhere, from lonely lighthouses and humble mission churches
to grand homes whose owners made their fortunes shipping timber from the region’s vast forests.
Here’s a small sampling of historic sites in the area:
Old Mission Village
From 1839 to 1852, this idyllic site on East Grand Traverse Bay was the site of a unique
experiment created by Presbyterian missionary Peter Dougherty: a small colony of teachers,
artisans and farmers – Indians and non-Indians alike – who lived and worked side by side.
Although the village of Old Mission is a thriving community to this day, it seems a place that has
been frozen in time. Some of its original structures, including the broad frame mission house, the
general store, the trim Old Mission Inn and the New England-style Congregational church with its
tall white spire, are still standing and still occupied. Three miles to the north is the Old Mission
Lighthouse, built in 1870 to warn ships away from the rocky shoals of Old Mission Point.
Downtown Front Street
After decades of neglect, Traverse City’s Front Street shopping district has been transformed into
a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly reminder of the city’s historical roots. Its tree-shaded
sidewalks now lead past shops, restaurants and galleries that have made creative use of the
Victorian buildings they now occupy. One special landmark is the beautiful City Opera House, built
in 1891 and recently reopened after more than $8.5 million in exquisite restoration work.
The Neighborhood along Boardman Ave. and Washington St. preserves some of Traverse City’s
oldest and most ornate homes. Many of which have been built in the fanciful Queen Anne style.
To the West, the later turn-of-the-century mansions of Sixth Street (known as “Silk Stocking Row”)
include the immense 32-room house built by Traverse City founder Perry Hannah and dozens of
other elegant homes.
Grand Traverse Heritage Center
Located in the city’s 1903 Carnegie Library building, the center houses several historical and
cultural collections that trace the history of Traverse City and its people. Admission: $3 for adults,
$1.50 for students, age 5 and under are free. Hours: Tuesday-Friday noon - 4 p.m. During June
through December only, the museum also is open on Saturdays 10 a.m. - 4 p.m. On Saturdays and
Tuesdays in summer, volunteers conduct informative walking tours of many local historical sites.
Call for details. 322 Sixth Street Traverse City MI 49684 (231) 995-0313
Sleder’s Family Tavern
This 123-year-old Traverse City landmark was built by Bohemian immigrants who worked in the
city’s thriving 19th-century sawmills. It has been lovingly preserved, and is still a favorite hangout
where locals and visitors can enjoy lunch and dinner seven days a week. 717 Randolph Street
Traverse City, MI 49684 (231) 947-9213
Grand Traverse Commons
The former home of the Northern Michigan Asylum is now being redeveloped into a unique
“village” of shops, restaurants, apartments and galleries in what may be the country’s largest
historic re-use project. Developers are preserving both the castle-like 19th century buildings that
once housed staff and patients, as well as the 480-acre wooded campus that surrounds them –
now a favorite place for hikers and cyclists.
ANCIENT HISTORY: How the Great Lakes were formed
In the beginning, there were glaciers -- the icy rivers that slowly, surely sculpt our planet. Today,
on sunny days, the flawlessly clear, fresh water in Lake Michigan, its bays, and the inland lakes
and rivers in and near Traverse City reflects those blues and aquas again. How? Why? The
answers tell tales of powerful, fascinating geologic forces and historical coincidences.
We know that when the last of the Michigan glaciers retreated 12,000 years ago, the glacial
puddles, some 1,000 feet deep filled with water and became lakes. A river of ice half-a-mile thick
and 22,000 square miles in surface area carved the hole we now call Lake Michigan. But how did
the glaciers dig such deep puddles? What's more, why did they dig them in the Traverse City area?
A coincidence with roots 200 million years in the geologic past explains how the puddles got dug.
In that very ancient time, salt-water seas covered the Great Lakes areas. When the seas, in turn,
disappeared, they left extremely soft seabed -- porous rock made up of sand and fossilized sea
life. Obviously, when a retreating glacier reached this substance as it melted its way north, the
glacier was able to dig much, much deeper than when it dug into hard, non-porous rock. So, a soft
Paleozoic seabed is the reason why the glaciers dug the Great Lakes in their present location.
Lake Michigan's Grand Traverse Bay at its deepest point is 612 feet, and Torch Lake to the east
reaches a depth of over 300 feet. The deeply dug trenches or valleys like these are features of this
area. The trench feature at the bottom of East Bay known especially by local fishermen as "The
Cut" provided a perfect winter storage system for canoes. When for many centuries in autumn,
local Native Americans migrated to the Traverse City area for winter hunting, they stored their
canoes by submerging them in the cut and floating them again in the spring. In the cold, quiet
waters, their canoes were kept seaworthy to a degree that would not have been possible in the