After veering inland around the C.S. Mott Nature Preserve, M-22 runs straight north about a mile off of the shoreline. The road runs between Upper and Lower Herring Lake, which sit on the east and west sides of M-22 respectively. M-22 continues through forest, dunes, orchards, and farmland to Elberta and Frankfort. Planners originally conceived of a route along the lakeshore from Arcadia to Elberta. In the 1920s, crews began grading portions of the shoreline for the planned route. However, the plans were continually delayed during the 1920s and 1930s before being scrapped permanently. Today, the eight mile stretch of shoreline remains mostly undeveloped, while M-22 runs inland along its original “temporary” route.
The towns of Elberta and Frankfort sit respectively on the south and north side of Betsie Lake. The lake is fed by the Betsie River, which flows for 52 miles from its starting point at Green Lake in Interlochen. The Betsie River is one of the most popular fall salmon rivers in the United States. Salmon swim upstream by the thousands to spawn in late September and October. M-22 provides river access at the mouth of the river opening to Betsie Lake.
Elberta is lesser known than Frankfort today, but this was not always the case. Elberta has its roots as one of the most important transportation hubs along the Great Lakes. The Ann Arbor Railroad was opened in 1895, running from Toledo, Ohio to Ann Arbor, Michigan north to Mount Pleasant and Clare, and then northwest through Cadillac and across M-22 to its terminus in Elberta. The railroad saw a high volume of traffic, despite the fact that it bypassed industrial hubs like Detroit, Flint, and Saginaw. Indeed, its main purpose was to avoid the bottleneck in Chicago’s rail yards, so the railroad’s less-traveled route was an advantage. From Elberta, freight cars were loaded on to steamers like the SS City of Milwaukee for transport across Lake Michigan. The Ann Arbor Railroad handled a high volume of passenger traffic at times, selling 1.1 million tickets in 1913. Thus, Elberta became a hub for travel to destinations throughout Wisconsin and westward. The railroad also served an important purpose during World War I and World War II, as it was an efficient way to transport goods from all points west of Lake Michigan to ports in the eastern United States. Numerous warehouses were built in Elberta, which housed car loads of flour, coal, and food for transport. Following the Ann Arbor Railroad’s bankruptcy in 1973, however, the section of railroad from Yuma to Elberta closed.
Today, a few vestiges of the railroad remain. There is a historical marker at the location of the car ferry docks. A warehouse that housed cabbage for shipment across Lake Michigan now exists as a full service restaurant just off of M-22 known as “The Cabbage Shed.” The Cabbage Shed, in addition to paying homage to Elberta’s bygone days as a transportation and warehousing center, is one of the most popular restaurants and bars in the area, featuring excellent cuisine, live music, and large outdoor seating areas overlooking Betsie Lake. The history of The Cabbage Shed is much like the history of Elberta. What once existed to serve the transportation and shipping industries now exists as a hotbed of tourist activity.
Elberta is now known as an excellent place to access Lake Michigan’s beaches. Lake Michigan sits one mile off of M-22 and a municipal park provides access to Elberta’s beach. Lakeside Avenue continues two miles south along the Lake Michigan shore, providing numerous points of access.
Just past the turn-off into Elberta and over the Betsie Lake Bridge, M-22 enters Frankfort. The road proceeds north for a half mile and then heads west toward Frankfort’s downtown. Frankfort owes its history in part to the fate of the weather. In 1855, a schooner owned by George W. Tifft of Cleveland, Ohio was driven by gale force winds toward the shoreline. Through chance, the winds blew the boat into a harbor then known as Aux Becs Scies Lake, the French term for “Sawbill Duck,” which was a prevalent species in the area. Impressed with reports of the area’s resources and potential, Mr. Tifft purchased more than a thousand acres of land around the lake. In 1859, Mr. Tifft sold the land to a group of developers from Detroit, and the Frankfort settlement was born. The developers built a sawmill and dredged Betsie Lake to accommodate ships of all sizes.
The federal government soon recognized Aux Becs Scies Lake’s strategic and economic importance, and funded further dredging and shoreline improvements. Frankfort became the best known harbor in the area, with newspapers reporting the arrival of as many as ten ships per day with settlers and visitors. Frankfort rose and fell with the rest of Northern Michigan as the logging industry rose and fell. The town was able to weather the logging industry’s departure better than other surrounding communities, however. Frankfort benefited from the Ann Arbor Railroad’s terminus across Betsie Lake in Elberta, and it had the benefit of being one of the only ports in the area that could accommodate all sizes of boats.
Frankfort’s transportation economy gave way to tourism in the late 20th century. A number of condominiums were built near downtown and the beach. Gift shops, antique shops, and restaurants opened downtown. Frankfort became one of northern Michigan’s most popular destinations for summer vacationers. Today, Frankfort has the largest downtown along M-22 (Traverse City’s is much larger, but is one mile beyond M-22’s end), and remains a popular tourist destination. It features numerous restaurants, bars, gift shops, and bed and breakfasts. Frankfort’s beaches, pier, and lighthouse are an easy walk from downtown. During summer months, the beaches, pier, and downtown bustle with visitors, some of whom vacation in Frankfort and others of whom stop there on the way to the Sleeping Bear Dunes a few miles north.
Frankfort’s lighthouse is the first of four along M-22. The Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse was built in 1912 to replace a deteriorating wood lighthouse built in 1873. The original lighthouse still stands today along the entrance to Main Street. The Frankfort North Breakwater Lighthouse sits at the end of Frankfort’s north pier, stands 67 feet above Lake Michigan, and has a range of twelve miles. It illuminates nightly after sunset, and is a popular place for tourists to stroll and take in the sunset.