On the road again: History thrives in Charlevoix

By Steve Ellis

Charlevoix is named after Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix, a French explorer who travelled the Great Lakes and is said to have spent the night near here during a bad storm.
Charlevoix was first settled by fishermen in the 1850’s. In 1853, Charlevoix residents entered into a dispute with Jesse Strang and his Mormon colony on Beaver Island. A gunfight broke out between the two groups and it became known as the the Battle of Pine River. When Strang was assassinated on June 20, 1856, many thought Charlevoix residents to be responsible.

The Homestead Act of 1862 brought many Civil War veterans and speculators to Northern Michigan, by making 160-acre tracts of land available for $1.25 an acre.

In 1864, a large dock was built at the mouth of the Pine River on Lake Michigan. Boats were exposed to the rough Great Lakes weather. To solve this problem, the Pine River channel was dredged in 1869 connecting Lake Michigan to Lake Charlevoix.

In 1876, Charlevoix was declared a port of entry and became one of the busiest ports on the Great Lakes. Lumber mills proliferated as the forests along Lake Charlevoix could finally be harvested and at its height in the late 1800s, more than 40 million board feet of lumber were shipped out of the area.

In 1892, the first rail traffic to Charlevoix arrived as the Chicago and West Michigan Railway extended rail service from Traverse City to Bay View. The rail brought tourist traffic from warmer areas and it wasn’t long before the city became known as a resort destination.

With three summer associations (the Belvedere Club, Sequanota Club, and the Chicago Club), a number of extravagant summer hotels, including The Inn and The Beach Charlevoix became one of the nation’s finest summer communities.

In 1918, real estate agent and self-taught architect Earl Young began to design and build his signature “mushroom houses” and other buildings out of locally-harvested boulders. Most of the homes and many of his commercial structures still stand today.

In 1918, Albert Loeb, an executive from the Sears corporation in Chicago, built a farm on the southern outskirts of Charlevoix. Known as Loeb Farms, the farm raised prizewinning cattle sold through the Sears Catalog. In its heyday it was the primary employer in Charlevoix County. Loeb’s son became involved in an infamous murder trial (the Leopold and Loeb trial). During the trial, Scopes trial lawyer Clarence Darrow came to Charlevoix to visit the Loeb family at Loeb Farms. Albert Loeb died in 1924 and the farm closed in 1927.

During Prohibition, Charlevoix became a popular place for Chicago gang members. The Colonial Club, a restaurant and gambling joint on the city’s north side, became known as a popular place for the Midwest’s most powerful and influential. John Koch, the club’s owner, kept automobile license number “2”, second only to the governor – a telling sign of his influence.

The converted lumber barge Keuka served as a blind pig and speakeasy and sailed nightly between Boyne City and Charlevoix, hosting its guests in relative comfort. A murder aboard the ship and the pressure of U.S. Treasury Department surveillance, however, forced the owner to shut down.

Several bridges were built to cross the Pine River. A drawbridge was planned to be built in 1940, but due to Pearl Harbor, the completion of the bridge was delayed until 1947.

The City of Charlevoix suffered economically during the decades after WWII, as the manufacturing base largely evaporated, the train lines to the city ceased operating, and the larger tourist hotels fell out of business, leaving many empty buildings downtown. Several large corporations, including Michigan’s first nuclear power plant, Big Rock Point and the cement plant came in the early 1960s and spurred economic development in the area.

Today, Charlevoix continues to be one of Michigan’s most popular vacation destinations. The gorgeous downtown overlooking Round Lake harbor, classic Victorian homes, festivals, dining, boating and golf provide for a perfect vacation.

Leave a Reply