Cheboygan, like many places in northern Michigan, got its start as we know it today from the boom of lumbering, beginning here in the mid 1800s. But well before that Native Americans lived in the area, using the Inland Waterway as a means of traveling through the region we now know as Cheboygan County. The mouth of the Cheboygan River was an important area for trade among the local Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, and later, Europeans as well. Captain Samuel Robertson, under the employ of fur trader John Askin of Mackinac Island, spent two winters at the mouth of the river trading with the native population in the 1770s. His description of the river is the earliest known:
“…the most safest place near Michilimackinac [Mackinac Island] for wintering vessels is the River Shaboygan, there is six feet water upon the Barr, the River is about twenty yards wide at the entrance, & a vessel of 6 feet Draught of water cannot go up further than 200 or 300 yards, & then he can lay alongside a Clay Bank, in two fathoms of water, or she can be hove up two or three feet in mud & lay with all safety, I never saw the River freeze over or any sea to hurt a Vessel, it is clear level marshy ground for half a mile around at the mouth so that there could be no danger of them being surprised from Indians & there is always good Fishing and shooting, there is plenty of fine pines both sides of the River…”
The river was originally quite shallow, which helps explain the origin of the name “Cheboygan.” It probably comes from the Annishinaabe (Ojibwa) zhiibaa’onan, meaning a channel or passage for a canoe. There is plenty of evidence of more permanent settlements by Native Americans further down the river, as well as along Mullett and Burt Lake’s shore.
The Lumber Boom
As the fur trade dwindled in the mid 1800s, the importance of Mackinac as a trading post dwindled. Some turned to fishing for their livelihoods, and it is because of this that settlers began to drift over from the island. They needed barrels to pack fish into for shipping, and the rapids at Cheboygan provided a place for a sawmill. In 1844 Alexander McLeod set up a mill near where the paper plant is today for just this purpose, and the next year his employee, Jacob Sammons, was the first person to move here permanently.
But because Cheboygan lay amongst a stretch of white pine, it would be lumber which made her really grow. White pine, the choicest lumber for building, was needed throughout the country, and especially for the expanding American west. Lumber cut here could be shipped to Chicago, and from there to points westward. As supplies further east were nearly exhausted by this time, Cheboygan was in a fortunate position. Settlers and lumber barons came from the east and set up shop along the river and by what is today Duncan Bay.
The sleeping north took off. Once the river was dredged in the early 1870s and became easier to navigate, lumber could easily be shipped out of the Port of Cheboygan. Buildings popped up, along with everything necessary to make a city boom. Mills, houses, stores, banks, breweries, theaters, and everything else imaginable soon made an appearance here. Cheboygan was incorporated as a village in 1877 and ultimately as a city in 1889. Outside of town, smaller settlements popped up around other rivers and logging camps.
Cheboygan’s population peaked in the mid 1890s, and soon after began dwindling as the supplies of lumber ran out. The mills closed and their operators (and employees) moved to other places where lumber could be found. The town held on despite its changing identity. While she has not yet regained prominence like she held during the lumber boom, other industries came to town, such as paper making and limited manufacturing. Tourism became more important in an era where people were becoming more mobile, especially via the automobile.
The Post-logging Era and Tourism
Though the local economy suffered greatly after the end of the lumber boom, and particularly through the Great Depression, those that chose to stay fought hard to maintain a good quality of life. Although Cheboygan was first settled because of the logging industry, there were other industries that kept the town alive. Paper manufacturing began around 1904 and continues to this day. The Pfister and Vogel Tannery, once one of the largest in the United States, operated until 1926. During the Second World War, local industries manufactured equipment vital to the war effort. In July 1945 the Saturday Evening Post featured an article about Cheboygan, dubbing it “The Town that Refused to Die.”
In the years after the decline of lumber, those seeking rest, relaxation and solace came here in greater numbers. This was facilitated by the greater availability of the automobile, as well as by two railroads and, perhaps less importantly, by lake steamers. However one chose to get here, the attraction was all of those things that set this region apart – lakes and rivers, pristine air, and a relaxed attitude towards life. These wonderful attributes led visitors to come back time and time again, and for many of them, to establish a more permanent residence in the area. On area lakes and rivers, summer cottages popped up with greater frequency. These summertime residents were joined by those just seeking time away from their busy lives for shorter periods, often staying at one of the many idyllic hotels that lined the area’s shores.
But perhaps the longest-lasting component of the local economy was tourism. In 1907, the Cheboygan Chamber of Commerce began promoting the area as a recreational destination, though the region had long been regarded as a mecca for rest and relaxation. As early as 1876, the area was touted as the ideal location to help alleviate the conditions of “consumption, asthma, chronic disease, general debility, and overworked professional or business man,” among other ailments. Even the “mildness of temperature” was promoted, which “is no doubt owing to the close proximity of such large bodies of water as Lakes Superior, Huron and Michigan, and in no instance has the thermometer marked so low a temperature as it has in inland localities… This one fact, coupled with its equableness, [sic] makes this one of the most delightful as well as the most healthful localities on the continent.” Even though in those early years lumber was the main catalyst for commerce, recreational opportunities were still an important part of the local economy.
The Cheboygan of Today
Today, Cheboygan is a place of all of these things. Tourism, manufacturing, and the service industry all play vital roles in the local economy. The diverse history of the community has in many ways shaped what it is now and, very likely, what it will become in the future. Community leaders and business owners are committed to the continued growth of commerce in the area, making it an ideal place to do business… or to simply enjoy life.
For more information on the region’s history, visit the Cheboygan County History Center.