The Grand Hotel Mackinac Island: Sagas of Ancient Native American Chiefs, Frozen Shipwrecks, and Ancient Ballroom Dances

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is as mysterious as it is magnetic. Overlooking the wild Lake Huron waters, this Victorian-era resort looks like something straight out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. And it’s stories are certainly worthy.

Constructed in 1887 as a summer retreat for America’s luxury rail and steamship passengers, the Grand Hotel boasts 393 uniquely-designed rooms, the world’s longest porch, secret geranium gardens, and candy-colored fudge shops just a horse-drawn carriage ride away.

You may recognize the hotel from the 1980 film Somewhere in Time, where time-traveling Christopher Reeve falls in love with Jane Seymour at the Grand Hotel. Or you maybe you’ve peaked at the register of famous guests including Mark Twain, Esther Williams, John F. Kennedy, Madonna, Jeff Daniels, Robert De Niro, Bill Clinton, and the Bush Family.

From the hotel’s quirky design to the hundreds of black and white photos that line the hallways, the Grand Hotel is a Mackinac Island museum unto itself – revealing sagas of ancient Native American chiefs, frozen shipwrecks, ancient ballroom dances, the story of America’s second national park, the great American Fur Trade, and the island’s iconic automobile ban.

Voted among the top ten historic hotels in America, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Michigan, is an escape where legends come alive and time slips away.

Skeletons Beneath the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

In order to understand the Grand Hotel, you have to understand the island’s history.

Today, most tourists associate Mackinac Island with its fudge shops, automobile-free streets, and Victorian charm. However, the story of the island begins well over 1,000 years ago with the arrival of the Anishinaabe First People, who named the 3.8 square-mile island Mishimikinaak (or great turtle) after the shape of the island.

The Anishinaabe were a lake faring people. They built birch canoes and fished in the cold Lake Huron Waters. They also gathered on Mackinac Island to socialize, share meals, and present offerings to the creator of all things, Gitche Manitou, whose spirit lives on the island. Local tribes paddled their diseased chiefs across the straits via canoe and buried their war heroes beneath the sacred Mackinac earth, where Gitche Manitou could protect them.

Centuries later, when the Grand Island Hotel contractors were digging out the foundation for the hotel, they unearthed hundreds and hundreds of human skeletons. Overwhelmed by the daunting task of removing the skulls or relocating to another bluff, they built the hotel directly over the burial ground. It is unclear whether the skulls belonged to ancient Anishinaabe Chiefs, warring tribes, or the fallen European soldiers of the Great Fur Trade. However, one thing is sure: the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is sitting on top of tons of history. And the island’s many ghost tours and murder mystery dinners are quick to point out this fact.

Every summer, curious children find ancient pottery, fish hooks, and arrowheads beneath the hotel’s beautifully mowed grass — evidence of a storied past. And the hotel’s annual murder mystery weekends often borrow themes from the island’s past residents and skulls beneath the foundation.

The Fur Trade and Fortune on Mackinac Island

When the French Canadians, Jesuit priests, and fishermen discovered Mackinac Island in the late 1600s, they were welcomed by Michigan’s first people. The Anishinaabe taught them how to build canoes out of birch trees, fish the straights, tap maple syrup from the trees, and hunt local animals for their warm fur coats and pelts.

Inspired by the ability to create warm winter clothes out of native beavers and foxes, the early traders took advantage of the Anishinaabe’s kindness. Their capitalistic intentions exploited the Anishinaabe’s knowledge of the local ecosystem — one of the first North American industries to exploit natural resources for profit.

The French Canadians ran the fur trade at Mackinac Island for many years — offering knives, cooking pots, and clothes to the Anishinaabe in exchange for their knowledge and hunting skills. However, as the British moved in from the east and discovered the lucrative fur trade, they vied for ownership of the island, defeating the French and the Aninishaabe (who sided with the French) in the bloody Indian War of 1753.

Over the years, the fur trade became an important economic staple, and the Native Anishinaabe, British, French, and Americans continued to war over the fur-bearing animals and sacred Mackinac Straits. The British were not as friendly to Michigan’s first people, and as a result, the Anishinaabe and British Soldiers battled each other during the gruesome Pontiac War at Fort Mackinac.

After decades of bloody battles between the British, the French, and the Americans, the U.S. gained control of the straights, and German Investor, John Jacob Astor, built the American Fur Trade Empire, a monopoly that brought the American wealth and prominence to Mackinac Island that would later lay the grounds for luxury establishments like the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

Today, the Grand’s Lady Astor suite and Astor Salon honor the Astor family and their historic contributions to Mackinac Island.

The Story of Over Exploitation and America’s Second National Park

After decades of over-exploiting the region’s native animals for pelts and warm winter hats, the fur trade on Mackinac Island came to a halt, and tourism picked up. Visitors from the East Coast, Detroit, and Chicago caught wind of the remote and scenic destination, and before long, the U.S. government made Mackinac Island the United States’ second National Park, just shortly after Yellowstone achieved its iconic status.

As visitor numbers soared to record heights, the island needed to develop tourism infrastructure. In response to this need, the Michigan Central Railroad, Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad, and Detroit and Cleveland Steamship Navigation Company formed the Mackinac Island Hotel Company and built the Grand Hotel.

The Grand Hotel took just four months to build and was completed in 1887. It cost between $3 and $5 to spend a night at the hotel. Although the island is no longer a national park, it boasts over 70 miles of pure Michigan state park trails and has hosted millions of travelers.

The World’s Longest Porch

At 660 feet long, the Grand Hotel’s porch is the longest in the world. Visible from the ferry lines, this postcard-worthy veranda boasts traditional white rocking chairs, American flags, potted red geraniums, striped yellow awnings, and a sense of timeless American beauty. Over the years, the porch has served as the island’s major gathering point, hosting presidents for cocktails, flirtation walks for island romantics, promenades, political discussions, and Edison Phonograph demonstrations (the father of all sound recordings today). It’s an elegant place to spend the afternoon watching the cool Michigan waves or to start writing your next mystery novel.

Mark Twain Lectures at the Grand Island Hotel

Known for his best-selling works Innocents Abroad and the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain was an accomplished American Author and humorist. But he was a terrible businessman. After his moonshot investments in the Paige Typesetter and his own publishing company tanked, he hit the road on a 22-city, judge-ordered tour in order to lift himself out of debt and pay back his creditors.

The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island was one of the stops on his famed international tour. He arrived via steamship in 1885 and was immediately surrounded by fans on the ferry ride over. When he arrived at the hotel, he ate dinner with his family at the hotel restaurant while onlookers stared and whispered at his celebrity.

When it was time for his lecture to begin, the hotel manager regretfully told him that not a single ticket had been sold. Confused and surprised, Twain stuck around. The manager was about to cancel the lecture. However, guests started showing up. By 9 pm, an hour after the scheduled lecture was set to take place, the hotel’s casino room was filled to the brim and Twain delivered a legendary evening of stories, humorous tales, and passages.

Fake Nannies and Prohibition

During the early 1900s, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island hired fake nannies to smuggle spirits in from Canada. Women pushing baby carriages full of alcohol strolled up the storied Mackinac streets, pausing periodically on their routes to enjoy the sunshine and avoid suspicion from law enforcement or church officials. The nannies unloaded their goods at the Grand Kitchen’s door and went on with their days.

The Grand Hotel staff unloaded the goods and doled them out to notable guests. Perhaps iconic hotel visitors like the Armours and Swifts (the meat packing families), Marshall Field (the department store founder), Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Mrs. Palmer Potter (whose husband founded the Chicago’s Palmer House Hotel) imbibed, or perhaps that was all before their time, but who can say for sure?

Somewhere in Time — Hollywood Leaves its Mark on the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

Although a handful of documentaries and movies have been filmed on Mackinac Island, few leave as lasting of an impression as the 1980 cult-classic Somewhere in Time. Filmed at the Grand Hotel, this time-traveling romance captures the elegance of the resort — which masquerades as the set for the film’s two distinct time periods (1912 and 1980).

In the movie, lead actor, Christopher Reeve, plays a Chicago playwright who teleports back in time to win the heart of a beautiful actress, played by Jane Seymour.

Nearly forty years later, Somewhere in Time continues to be a cult-classic and fan favorite. Every fall, the historic Grand Island Hotel hosts a sell-out Somewhere in Time Weekend which draws film fans to the hotel for a series of elegant dinners, dances, screenings, and celebrations. Attendees are known for dressing in period wardrobes and dancing to the Grand Hotel’s Symphony Orchestra after dinner. Jane Seymour makes the trip every fall to join her fans and romanticize in age-old costumes.

At one of her lectures, Seymour told Grand Island guests that the biggest challenge of filming at the Mackinac Hotel was the remoteness of the island and automobile-free stipulations. The production crew had to fly and ferry in all of its equipment — a daunting task for the movie crew. They also had to get special permission to bring a few cars onto the island for filming.

Three Generations — and A Westminster Dog

In 1919, W. Stewart Woodfill landed a job as the hotel’s front desk clerk. He was paid $3 a day and $5 on weekends. Woodfill was a practical and serious man who said, “just pay me what I’m worth.” After learning the ropes of the business from the inside out and serving the hotel’s upper-class clientele, the front desk clerk purchased the hotel in 1933. He believed the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island should remain a formal and proper place, a tradition that is carried on by his descendants to this day.

In 1979, Woodfill’s nephew, Dan Musser, took over the business, and since that time, Musser’s son has taken over the reins. The family is involved in all aspects of the hotel — the kids sell bottles of coca-cola on the porch and make pastries in the kitchen, Dan’s sister works as the Vice President and chief hotel designer, and their mother runs the finances.

Even the Musser’s dog, Sadie, has her place. In 2010, Sadie won Best in Show at the Westminster Dog Show. To honor their prize-winning Scottish Terrier, the Mussers opened up Sadie’s Ice Cream parlor, an old-fashioned soda shop with milkshakes and banana splits.

This family-owned historic establishment has charms all its own and personality behind its storied walls.

The Named Rooms of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

The Mackinac Island Grand Hotel is a wood-framed 19th-century summer resort. Complete with lawn games, after-dinner dancing, and mandated coat and tie dinners, this exclusive historic hotel boasts lavish guest rooms and accommodations. Each of the 393 rooms were designed with custom furnishings, colors, and wallpapers. From the pink velvet armoires to the red checked sofas and bright green wallpapers, Carleton Varney’s work is unmistakably detailed. Varney’s designs have been featured in hotels, presidential quarters, and governor’s mansions around the world.

Among the hotel’s most exceptional accommodations are the 40+ Named Rooms. Many of the Named Rooms were designed in collaboration with former U.S. First Ladies. The Jacqueline Kennedy Suite, The Betty Ford Suite, and the Ladybird Johnson suite are just a few of the unique rooms — complete with characterized color palettes and vintage furniture to represent their personalities. Jacqueline Kennedy’s suite, for example, was designed using golds and navies, her favorite colors, along with a 24kt gold leaf trimmed canopy-style bed. Betty Ford’s is styled with mint green and damask patterns.

The charm and allure of staying at this historical resort lie in its storied suites and one-of-a-kind accommodations. No two stays are alike, and the hotel is constantly working to add new themes and stories to its repertoire! In 2018, the hotel added two new suites: the Lilac Suite (to honor Mackinac’s 130-year-old signature trees) and the Prentiss M. Brown Suite (to commemorate the former Michigan Senator).

Secret tip: As you’re exploring the grounds, keep an eye out for secret infusions of the hotel’s signature geraniums. They pop up everywhere: in the artwork, the wallpaper, the floors…the devils in the details.

Today’s Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island

Candy-colored walls, afternoon tea on the terrace, dress up dinners, clip-clopping horses, pickleball, and a rolling green golf course: it’s hard to argue with the charm of the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Recognized among the top ten historic hotels in the United States, and honored with numerous awards from Travel and Leisure, Conde Nast, The National Trust for Historic Preservation, and USA Today, this storied resort lives up to its legends.

Slip effortlessly back in time as you post up in a rocking chair on the world’s longest porch, hire a horse-drawn carriage to transport you around the islands 70+ miles of epic trails, or dance to the Grand Hotel’s symphony orchestra after dark. The grand hotel delights travelers with its iconic Victorian-era charm, American luxe, and storied mysteries.

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