North of Onekama, M-22 passes by numerous farms and apple orchards until it intersects with Thirteen Mile Road. To the west, Thirteen Mile descends one mile down a hill through groves of maple and pine trees to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Pierport. The beach at Pierport is secluded, pristine, and expansive, making for a wothwhile stop along M-22.
Historically, Pierport is a microcosm of northwest Michigan. Bear Lake, which sits five miles inland from Pierport, was a center for the logging industry in the late 1800s. A large sawmill sat on Bear Lake’s south shore, owned and operated by lumber baron George Hopkins. Logs from forests throughout the area were floated across Bear Lake to the sawmill, where they were processed and placed on the Bear Lake Railroad. Hundreds of logs are still submerged on Bear Lake’s bottom today. The railroad extended from Bear Lake’s east shore, past the sawmill, and west over present day M-22 to Pierport.
As the lumber industry grew in the late 1800s, so did Pierport. A long wooden pier was built into Lake Michigan in 1866 by the Turnersport Pier Company. The initial settlement was known as “Turnersport,” until Charles W. Perry arrived from Vermont in 1868. Mr. Perry bought the pier and lakeshore property from the Turnersport Pier Company in 1871, renamed the area “Pierport,” and developed a thriving settlement centered around lumber shipping.
In 1868, Pierport became one of the first areas along the shore to get a post office, a testament to its importance in Michigan’s logging days. As testament to the volume of shipping traffic around Pierport, few other areas along the northwest shoreline have as many known shipwrecks sitting in their waters.
Loggers like George Hopkins and Charles Perry cleared the native forests with no regard for the future, however. Within a few decades, the land was stripped of its native forests. There were no trees left to cut, no logs left to mill, and no lumber left to ship. Mr. Hopkins and Mr. Perry left the area, leaving behind shells of once thriving towns. The population of Manistee to the south fell from over 10,000 to less than 3,000. Bear Lake’s population fell from 1,200 to about 300. Pierport became a ghost town. By 1929, the pier was rotting, the lumber industry was nonexistent, and the country was about to sink into the depths of the Great Depression. The post office cut back to seasonal service in 1929, before closing for good in 1933. In the span of fifty years, Pierport went from being just a beach, to being a thriving lumber port, and back to being just a beach again. Today there are no businesses in Pierport, no post office, and little indication that a thriving logging and shipping community once stood there. There is only a parking lot and a beach, with a few homes lining the shore. What was once a separate township is now just a neighborhood within Onekama Township. The only link to the past that still stands is “Old Faceful,” a spring-fed fountain about forty feet off the beach that has been running since 1931.
Mr. Perry’s loss is our gain, however. Pierport is a remarkable spot along Lake Michigan’s shoreline because of its seclusion. Other than a lone roadsign on M-22, there is no visible indication that Pierport even exists. The beaches are wide, the sand is sugary white, and there are seldom more than a few people along the shore. Even on some of the best summer days, one can often look for miles up and down the beach without seeing another human being. Other than a few shoreline houses near the parking lot, the beach is generally undeveloped, with dune grasses, tall dunes, and forests sitting at the edge of sand as pure as that of the Caribbean. Pierport may be the best and most accessible place along Lake Michigan’s shoreline to simply explore the beach. Although two signs purport to warn that the public beach ends a few hundred feet from the parking lot, state law in fact permits public access for the length of the beach up to the mean high water line. It is a mile walk to a 100 foot shoreline dune to the south. Along the way there are numerous streams and brooks feeding into the lake, a number of shallow swimming areas and sandbars in the lake, and trails extending off of the shore into neighboring forests and rolling dunes. Small piles of charred firewood mark places where locals and visitors have taken in starry nights by a bonfire. Unlike better known stops along M-22, Pierport’s splendor is available without having to hike to the lake, to descend a 200 foot dune, or to share the beach with hundreds of other tourists.