M-22’s history begins long before it was designated as “M-22,” long before the area was captured by the United States in 1813, and long before early European settlers like Pere Jacques Marquette and Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived on Michigan’s soil. The history of M-22 begins with the Native American tribes that inhabited the area as long ago as 11,000 B.C. With populations migrating through the dense forests native to Michigan, it was necessary to create trails. Little is known regarding the location of the earliest of such trails, but logic suggests that they were developed near life sustaining navigable waters, like Lake Michigan and the inland lakes and rivers near Lake Michigan. These trails would provide the framework for much of Michigan’s highway system, including much of present-day M-22.
The Council of Three Fires
By 750 A.D., Algonquin tribes inhabited Michigan, including the Ottawa along the Straits of Mackinac and in the northern Lower Peninsula, the Ojibwe in the Upper Peninsula and northern Lower Peninsula, and the Pottawatomie in the southwest Lower Peninsula. The Ojibwe, Pottawatomie, and Ottawa tribes formed the “Council of Three Fires” around 796 A.D. at Mackinac. The Council of Three Fires was primarily a military and political alliance used to maintain the council’s stronghold on the area and fight Iroquois and Sioux tribes to the west.
With the rise of the Council of Three Fires came the need to communicate, and with the need to communicate came the need to travel and meet. The council met regularly along the Mackinac Straits. The council also fostered trade among the tribes and their members. The rise of trade and the regular political and military meetings within the Council of Three Fires increased the need for trails through the dense forest that covered the state. Given the military and political importance of the Mackinac Straits, trails became relatively well developed in Northern Michigan. Although most trails were only twelve to eighteen inches wide, they crisscrossed the state and connected most significant Native American settlements and tribes. A number of Native American trails still exist today as hiking trails just off of M-22.
Fur Trading Trails
French explorer Etienne Brule reached Michigan in 1622, and is the first known European explorer to do so. In 1668, French explorer Pere James Marquette established Michigan’s first permanent European settlement in Sault Saint Marie. By 1675, bases for Catholic missions extended south to Saint Ignace at the Mackinac Straits. By 1682, Michigan was incorporated entirely into French Louisiana. The following decades saw the rapid expansion of the French fur trade, and of the trail system necessary to sustain the trade through the dense forests of Northern Michigan. Again, trails were expanded and developed along and between navigable waters.
The Interminable Swamp
After a period of British rule, Michigan was captured by the United States in 1813 at the Battle of Lake Erie. In the first decades of United States governance, the territorial governor established five roads in and around the City of Detroit, which served the city’s agricultural interests. Northern Michigan’s roads remained largely undeveloped, however, when compared to the avenues in Detroit. Maps of the era identified Detroit, but simply labeled the northern part of the state as “interminable swamp.”
The political organization in Michigan made road building even more difficult. Once Michigan gained statehood in 1837, road supervision was turned over from the federal government to counties and townships. Densely populated counties in southeast Michigan were able to assume the burden. Counties in Northern Michigan were far larger and less populated, however. The Upper Peninsula and much of the northern Lower Peninsula, for example, was one county at the time.
Private companies began building “corduroy” roads in the mid-1800s. The corduroy roads were built by placing logs of varying thickness lengthwise on the ground to provide a hard surface. They were hard to maintain, however, and caused numerous problems with horse hooves and wagon wheels getting caught in ruts. Corduroy roads quickly gave way to flatter wood plank roads. Counties and townships relied on local labor to build plank roads. Each able-bodied resident was expected to contribute to maintenance. Plank roads were problematic in places like Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse Counties, however. Wood rotted quickly. Maintenance was unprofessional. The political organization was ill equipped to get state or federal support. Thus, in the mid-1800s most of present day M-22 was still comprised of nothing more than primitive Native American trails with an occasional stretch of corduroy or plank road.
Through the late 1800s, however, Michigan’s logging industry thrived. Faced with the task of developing and maintaining trails and roads to transport timber, settlers naturally chose the same trails that had been cleared centuries before by Native Americans and maintained by French fur traders. The plank roads of the 1800s, as shoddy as they were, traveled the same path as the Native American trails many centuries before. Even with the growth of the logging industry, however, what is now M-22 remained relatively undeveloped. Loggers had a need to transport lumber from the interior of the peninsula to the shore for shipment, but had little need to transport lumber by land along the shoreline. Thus, east-west roads and trails developed much faster than north-south roads during the logging era.
The development of railroads in the late 1800s and early 1900s also played a key role in M-22’s future. On the east side of the Leelanau Peninsula, railroads were extended to Northport and provided a critical means of shipping and transportation. Railroads also provided a natural site for future roads. The railroad depots in Sutton’s Bay and Northport sit along M-22. Much of present-day M-22 between Traverse City, Suttons Bay, and Northport runs where the tracks used to sit.
The State Trunkline Act and Rise of the Automobile
The invention and mass production of the automobile was the impetus to significant improvements in Michigan’s road system in the early 1900s. Michigan was not only a pioneer in the auto industry, it was also a pioneer in road development. Michigan’s State Highway Department was created in 1905. The State Trunkline Act of 1913 designated 3,000 miles of roads throughout the state to be financed by the state. It was the second such statewide act passed in the United States. Within the next decade, Michigan became the first state to paint center lines on a road, to pave a road, to install a stoplight, and to place route designations along roads. Under the State Trunkline Act, roads were planned along the location of existing plank roads and trails, and designated by the letter “M” and a number. Many of the originally designated interstate trunkline roads would later be redesignated as “US” roads, such as present-day US-31. M-22 was in operation under the State Trunkline Act by 1920. It ran generally along the same route it runs today, except that present-day M-109 between Glen Haven and Glen Arbor was designated as M-22 as of 1920. M-22 would later be redirected to its present route over the middle of Glen Lake north to Glen Arbor.
Although there are no maps of early Native American trails on the Leelanau Peninsula, historical records from the time of the State Trunkline Act’s passage confirm that its routes were chosen over the same trails which Native Americans built centuries before. Numerous Native American hiking trails still exist connecting M-22 to Lake Michigan. Archaeological evidence confirms the presence of Native American populations in the area. Thus, it is reasonably certain that M-22 occupies ancient Native American trials. The twelve to eighteen inch trails that once connected the tribes of the Council of Three Fires and later enabled French fur trading are today paved two lane highways which see more traffic in a day than the ancient trails likely saw in a decade.
Early Development after Designation as M-22
M-22’s early history is one of unfulfilled plans. At numerous locations, original plans called for running M-22 closer to the Lake Michigan shoreline. Between Arcadia and Elberta, for example, the road was intended to run directly along the lakeshore, instead of along the inland path it takes today. Some areas were cleared and graded for rerouting according to the original plans, and one area between Arcadia and the Manistee-Benzie County border was completed. However, the Great Depression, World War II, and other budgetary constraints continually led to cancellation of most of the original plans.
By 1950, the original plans for M-22 were scrapped. The route existing since the 1920s would for the most part become the permanent route that still exists today. By the time M-22 was completed, the logging industry had clear cut the area and left, leaving behind swaths of land where native forests once stood. Agriculture and fishing would have to fill the void left by the loggers. For its first twenty-five years, M-22 would serve the agricultural and fishing industries, allowing fishermen and farmers to get their product to market.
M-22 was also the impetus to expansion of the region’s tourism industry in the 1920s. With the automobile enabling more people to travel, towns along M-22 were determined to capitalize. The Leelanau County Association of Commerce produced a promotional pamphlet in 1924 titled “The Captives: Being the Story of a Family’s Vacation in Leelanau County (Michigan), The Land of Delight.” The pamphlet told the story of a fictional family on their way to Mackinac. The father is determined to press on through and past Traverse City on the way north, but his wife and kids persuade him to take a detour along M-22, which the pamphlet describes as “Seventy-Five Miles of Lake all the Way!”
M-22 initially consisted of gravel roads left behind from the days of local governance. With the funding provided by the State Trunkline Act in 1920, federal reforms under the McNitt Act in 1931, and statewide funding measures in the Horton Act in 1932, however, the gravel roads were replaced with paved roads. By 1945, the final gravel segment of M-22 was paved between Leland and Northport.
Post-War Baby Boom to the 1980s
The post-World War II baby boom saw economic expansion, parents with more time on their hands, and expanding families no longer facing the pressures of world war. It was the perfect storm of factors for a boom in tourism along M-22. Previously, lakeside resorts were few and far between and lakeside property was not affordable during the Great Depression. Places like the Portage Point Inn in Onekama, catering to wealthy patrons from the Midwest, were the only option for vacationing families along M-22. The 1950s saw a proliferation of small, affordable lakeside cottage resorts. The lakes along M-22 had plenty of land available. Ten or more housekeeping cottages could be built on 200 feet of lake frontage for a reasonable price and rented to the middle class at a reasonable rate. In the 1950s, cottages sprang up around lakeshores. Tourism thrived. From the 1960s to 1980s, M-22 and its surrounding areas benefited from concerted efforts to market Michigan as a summer tourism destination. In the 1960s, county governments combined efforts to promote roads like M-22 as parts of a Lake Michigan circle tour.
By the 1980s, the Michigan Department of Transportation completed its effort to coordinate with Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin to complete a unified Lake Michigan circle tour. All 116 miles of M-22, except for the few miles along Old M-22/M-109, were included in the circle tour. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Michigan funded one of the largest national marketing campaigns of its kind to date, the “Say Yes To Michigan” campaign. The Say Yes to Michigan campaign prominently featured areas in northwest Michigan along M-22, and was successful in bringing the splendor of northern Michigan to the nation.
The Boom of the Eighties and Nineties
From 1980 to 2006, the United States experienced tremendous economic expansion, which transformed Manistee, Benzie, Leelanau, and Grand Traverse Counties. Michigan in particular benefited from this economic boom. While the 1970s saw the bankruptcy of Chrysler and demise of American Motor Company, the 1980s and 1990s saw the automobile industry thrive. The log and stick built cabins of the 1940s and 1950s were leveled and replaced with palatial summer homes, often funded by wealthy executives from Chrysler, General Motors, Ford, and various automotive suppliers. M-22 now passes some of the most beautiful summer homes in the country.
2000 to Present: M-22 Emerges
For all of the recognition that Frankfort, Glen Arbor, the Sleeping Bear Dunes, Leland, and Traverse City received over the decades as tourist destinations, relatively little attention was given to the road that connected these places. More famous roads like Route 66, Pacific Coast Highway 1, and A1A were well known. M-22 remained just a road to get you to your destination, however. It was not a destination in itself. In the 2000s, however, three forces converged to dramatically increase M-22’s prominence.
In 2006, Michigan resumed its national marketing efforts with its “Pure Michigan” campaign. It had been two decades since the Say Yes to Michigan campaign ended. During that time, the City of Detroit continued to decline and earned the dubious distinction as the “Murder Capital of the World.” By the mid to late 2000s, the automobile industry was on the verge of collapse after two decades of expansion. Fairly or unfairly, Michigan was a symbol of urban blithe and industrial decline. The Pure Michigan campaign provided a badly needed makeover for a state desperate to change its national image. The campaign’s commercials featured stunning imagery of Northern Michigan, smooth music, and the deep voice of narrator Tim Allen (many Michiganders initially confused his voice with that of Robert Redford or Morgan Freeman) spinning tales of Michigan’s natural attractions. Gone were the outdated production values that marked the Say Yes to Michigan Campaign. They were replaced with one of the most professionally produced and successful tourism marketing campaigns in United States history. Even though it had nothing to do with Detroit’s decay or the automobile industry’s collapse, M-22 was one the main beneficiaries of the state’s effort to remake its image through the Pure Michigan campaign.
In 2011, Good Morning America named the Sleeping Bear Dunes the Most Beautiful Place in America. An award from a morning talk show, even a venerable national talk show, might not be cause for widespread celebration. However, Sleeping Bear Dunes had never been considered in the same breath as most of America’s traditional beloved attractions. Indeed, Sleeping Bear Dunes is not even a national park. It is a mere national lakeshore, and it is in Michigan, the place that the national media derided for the previous decades as nothing more than the home of Detroit. For Sleeping Bear Dunes to beat out the likes of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Olympic, Acadia, and the Grand Canyon was big news in a state which had endured great economic hardship and in a country that had held such a negative view of Michigan. The impact of the award was felt the following season, when the number of visitors to Sleeping Bear Dunes increased by 59%. The convergence of the Pure Michigan campaign, the iconic M-22 bumper sticker, and the Most Beautiful Place in America award within a five year period have produced a sea change in attitude toward and recognition of M-22. The road now has its own identity as a symbol of summer.
Despite the national attention, M-22 has maintained its character. Sleeping Bear Dunes’ designation as a national lakeshore has insured that the area will remain untouched and undeveloped. The stretches of M-22 beyond the dunes have seen the development of local wineries, local shops, local business, and a few golf courses and resorts. However, there have been relatively few large scale real estate developments, no high rise condominiums, and very few incursions into the lakes, forests, and rivers along the road. As an example of M-22’s distinct character, driving north on M-22 from Manistee all the way to Northport and south to Traverse City, one will not see a single chain restaurant, box store, chain motel, or chain drug store on the road. While the area has obviously changed dramatically in the last one hundred years, M-22’s development stands apart from the development of roads like A1A, Pacific Coast Highway 1, and Route 66, which have been commercialized by development.