How history is making a comeback on Michigan’s trailways

Before Joe Louis grew to legendary status for his conquests in the boxing ring, the future world heavyweight champion boxer trained along a dusty county road next to his training camp near Berlamont, Michigan, an old railroad town near Kalamazoo.

Seventy years later, whatever memory remains in the collective consciousness of Berlamont’s and Louis’s interconnected history was nearly lost. The era of interstate highway construction had siphoned travelers and activity from local towns, leaving places like Berlamont struggling to survive.

Berlamont was one of several old railroad towns between Kalamazoo and South Haven connected along 34 miles by an active railroad line that operated for a century. That line had long been unused by 1991 when the 34-mile Kal-Haven Trail opened for non-motorized trail recreation.

But thanks to a new effort to include interpretive exhibits that tell the history of the peoples and places along the old line, enthusiasts who bike, walk, or run the crushed limestone rail trail today are able to learn about Louis’s story and his connection to southwest Michigan’s landscape.

“The landscape before us now is like the last page in a book,” says Dan Spegel, who serves as the Michigan Trail Heritage Specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “But connections to the history of the place open up trail users’ eyes to the many chapters that precede them.”

Fresh-faced and beaming with enthusiasm, Spegel is an approachable research historian who came to Michigan four years ago from Nebraska. His charge: Work with communities and trail organizations to incorporate heritage into the trail user experience.

A few minutes in Spegel’s company yields a half-dozen colorful stories about boom-towns turned ghost-towns along the Kal-Haven Trail, the oil rush in Bloomingdale, Mentha’s days as the spearmint oil capital of the world, and the still-thriving blueberry industry of Grand Junction.

All of these and more are lessons in Michigan history that can be experienced uniquely from the Kal-Haven Trail.

The Kal-Haven Trail was the pilot project when the Michigan Heritage Trail Program kicked off four years ago under Spegel’s leadership. In 2013, a blue ribbon panel on outdoor recreation released its report on leveraging the state’s outdoor recreation assets. Incorporating heritage into outdoor recreation and trails turned out to be a top priority.
The Department of Natural Resources funds the program, which is charged with helping organizations create a deeper experience of place for trail users through heritage trail presentations, interpretive plan preparation, trail survey and map production, trail promotion and more.

Expect to see more trails connecting recreation and heritage around Michigan. According to Bob Wilson, Executive Director of the Michigan Trails and Greenways Alliance, the Heritage Trail Program is receiving a boost that will help Michigan live up to its moniker as the “Trails State.”
Michigan-based inventor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist Mike Levine is committing $100,000 to fund five-year-long assistantships with graduate students at Michigan colleges to support the program. With that kind of support, Spegel’s vision of heritage is becoming as fundamental to trail development as laying the pathway’s surface.


An ‘outdoor linear museum’ in the Upper Peninsula

Along the southern coast of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula runs the Iron Ore Heritage Trail. The award-winning, 47-mile, year-round, multi-use interpretive trail named for the Marquette Iron Range is considered by some to be Michigan’s shining star for trails that integrate natural and cultural history into the user experience.

The Iron Ore Heritage Trail has fully embraced the notion of creating a history-infused destination for people who bike and hike—or ORV, snowmobile, and cross-country ski—calling itself an “outdoor linear museum.”

Trail Administrator Carol Fulsher credits a dedicated, nimble team of board members and volunteers for their success in offering trail users a way to connect with the history. As a result, Fulsher sees more awareness of local history spreading throughout the region.

For example, when organizers of the Marji Gesick ultra mountain bike race found an old furnace while scouting a new 100-mile race route, they approached her with an idea.

“They wanted to incorporate the furnace into the race and the Iron Ore Heritage Trail,” says Fulsher. (The namesake of the race is Chief Mah-je-ge-zhik from Sault Ste Marie, the Native American who showed the Jackson Mining Company where the iron was located.)

The stories of iron ore country are presented to trail users in unexpected and imaginative ways. Sixty-two unique tales reveal the peoples, natural world, and industry of this landscape via signs, kiosks, and artwork. Appropriately, those signs are fabricated from the actual rail that conveyed ore from mine to harbor in decades past. A graphic-rich travel blog by West Virginian Michael Breiding depicts the interpretive highlights.

Heritage on water trails

Some of the oldest trails in Michigan are those that require a boat and paddles.

Spegel worked with the Huron River Watershed Council in 2016 to develop a heritage interpretation tour for the Huron River Water Trail in the southeast corner of the state. Municipal leaders, business owners, and recreation enthusiasts came together to develop the tour.

The piéce de resistance of the tour is Hull’s Trace, located at the mouth of the river where it meets Lake Erie.

In June of 1812, U.S. General William Hull ordered a road to connect Fort Detroit with the rest of the United States. A part of this, a “corduroy road,” (logs laid perpendicular to the direction of the route and resembling the fabric) remains 200 years later. It’s the only known log remnant of the first U.S. military federal road. Four years ago, the River Raisin National Battlefield Park (located nearby to the south) established the Hull’s Trace Unit as a satellite park.

“The Huron is named after the Wyandot who were the indigenous people of the area,” says Scott Bentley, Superintendent of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park. ”Our interpretive program includes Native American history, War of 1812 history, and the connections by road and water critical to the Huron River, Lake Erie, and Raisin River.”

The cornerstone program at Hull’s Trace, now in its fifth year, is a youth-focused Ticket to Float program that has reached nearly 5,300 students from Metro Detroit. Students learn kayaking skills (more than half for the first time), water quality testing, Wyandot history, and military history. Surveys completed by the students reveal that this approach is successful with 92 percent indicating they want to return to the trail.

An economic boon

Spegel and the trail managers he works with find that heritage interpretation is an often an easy sell to communities. People tend to understand that tourism-based economic development is a wise investment, he says.

For example, the Iron Ore Heritage Trail gained a foothold when nearby towns witnessed the economic potential of year-round trails. Those eight communities, including Negaunee, Ishpeming, and Marquette Township, created a recreation authority and voted twice to tax themselves for trail development, management, and maintenance. Moreover, the state’s investment in heritage trails gives smaller governments the confidence to move forward. At this time, Michigan is the only state with a heritage trails program.

Heritage and trails are simply good for business, say advocates. The data collected by Bentley and his team show attendance at the Battlefield reached 234,000 visitors in the most recent fiscal year. Visitors come to Monroe from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 16 foreign countries.

Nearly half of those visitors also visited the Hull’s Trace Unit. Long-term projections estimate attendance to reach 635,000 visitors annually, and contribute economic benefits of $16.4 million annually, according to a case study produced by the International Association for Great Lakes Research.

[T]his integrated approach to protecting the environment, celebrating history, enhancing the community, and furthering the economy is helping redefine Monroe [home to River Raisin National Battlefield Park] from a Rust Belt city . . . to a desirable urban community with outstanding natural resources, significant historical assets, a national park, an international wildlife refuge, a state park, and a growing, diverse . . . economy. - A New Day for the River Raisin: From Cleanup of the River Raisin to Revitalization of Monroe, Michigan

While trails and trail heritage are good for local economies, it’s the personal experiences of trail users that most resonate with the trail managers.
“Among my favorite stories about people who visit the trail,” shares Fulsher with the Iron Ore Heritage Trail, “is the gentleman in his 90s who hiked the trail for years with his wife until she entered senior care living. Then, he hiked the 15 miles to see her there. She passed away, but he still walks that trail and even does research at the local library and shares his findings with us.”


Read more articles by Elizabeth Riggs.

Elizabeth Riggs is a Michigan-based conservationist serving the communities of the Great Lakes Basin for 25 years in environmental policy and planning. She is the owner of Freshwater Coast Solutions, LLC.
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