The Crooked Tree

Emmet County Michigan, in the very northwestern tip of Michigan's Lower Peninsula kept me challenged for a long time to find something worthy of covering for this website. I try to go beyond the ubiquitous farm houses and ordinary abandoned things, and explore something that is unique to, or especially representative of each county that I am covering. While there is no lack of depth to Emmet County's history nor a shortage of historic sites, it was difficult to find something abandoned. There was the obvious Waugoshance Shoal Lighthouse, but getting there would have involved waiting for Lake Michigan to freeze over, and chancing a nearly 20-mile round-trip hike in deep snow and lacerating winds...even though that kind of thing is right up my alley, I was forced by practicality to think of something else.

When my northern colleague Dr. Dave Clark went on a winter snowshoeing trip in late 2016 to Waugoshance Point in the wild northwestern corner of the county and discovered something there that interested me, I decided it was time to go. Surely I could also find more along the way that would suit my needs, and there were plenty of non-abandoned things I wanted to see as well.


Probably the best-known historic site in Emmet County is Fort Michilimackinac, next to the Mackinac Bridge. Built by the French around 1715, the fort was the scene of Pontiac's Uprising in 1763, after which the British subsequently moved their post to Mackinac Island, leaving the old fort to the mercy of nature until 1958, when it was restored and became a major tourist attraction. I can only fantasize about the two centuries or so that saw Fort Michilimackinac forgotten and in ruins; it must have been sublime to visit in the 1800s.

Naturally any driver passing through Emmet County is well advised to take a spin through the famous "Tunnel of Trees," the stretch of old highway M-119 from Harbor Springs to Cross Village, where the boughs of the trees arch over the roadway and intermesh to form what feels like a tunnel through the forest. I had cruised the Tunnel of Trees before several years ago, and was looking forward to having an excuse to do it again.


It's hard to get a proper photo of the Tunnel of Trees unless you stop and set up a tripod, but there's really nowhere to stop. As you can see however, it looks like a lot of fun to drive if you have a fancy sports car or motorcycle, rather than some rickety old work truck with a loose front end like me.

Once you've been driving along in the winding Tunnel of Trees for several miles, you will come upon a hell of a hairpin turn around a precipitously steep gorge that is known as Devil's Elbow. Varying descriptions say that the Ottawa believe the ravine was created by lightning strikes when a great battle amongst the gods of the sky and the gods of the earth ended with the "Devils" or evil gods being banished into it, although the concepts of "evil" and "Devil" are substitutions added by white re-tellers of the Indian stories from pre-Christian times.


The Good Hart Store's website has a totally different explanation for the name, saying that according to Indian legend Devil's Elbow was the place where the Devil scooped out a giant hollow after the tribes had suffered a terrible plague, I suppose so he could imprison the souls of those killed by it. Other stories say that the murmuring voices of the spirits can be heard emanating from down within its narrow depths. The original sign posted next to the road said,
Motchimanitou, Devil's Elbow: A flowing spring in this ravine was believed by local Odawa Indian bands to be the home of spirits who made their presence known in this location during the hours of darkness.
This was also allegedly the site where British soldiers from Fort Mackinac once convened with the tribes to form an alliance against the Colonial United States during the Revolutionary War. I would have stopped for a picture of the "Elbow," but there isn't really much room to pull over, especially with some impatient bastard in a BMW riding your ass the whole way.


The coastline along this route, from Harbor Springs to the hamlets of Middle Village, Good Hart, and Cross Village is known as "L'Arbe Croche," or "Crooked Tree." That was the name given by the French to this region because of a large crooked tree that was known to stand prominently on a particular bluff above Lake Michigan. Visible for many miles, it once marked the center of the Odawa settlement here and welcomed the French fur traders to do business. "Marker trees" were often intentionally bent when young, so as to serve as trail markers or to indicate places of council once the trees grew large and became more noticeable.

Emmet County was originally named Tonedagana County after an Ottawa chief. The name was later changed to honor Irish nationalist rebel patriot Robert Emmet, who led a rebellion against British rule in 1803. According to David M. Brown, author of the Michigan County Atlas, the Little Traverse Bay area has been inhabited as far back as 6,000 years ago, and Ottawa tribesmen used it as a meeting ground for hundreds of years before white men came. It was a land of plenty, allowing them to gather maple syrup, as well as the usual fishing and gardening. French Jesuits came in the late 1600s to start a mission at L'Arbe Croche, but the first permanent white settlers did not begin arriving until the 1820s, to fish the bay.


The intersection of M-119 and Middle Village Drive marks the center of what had been Middle Village, and I couldn't help but notice that this house was actually a former log cabin, possibly 200 years old...


...Lake Michigan is off in the distance beyond the cliff in that photo, and you can just see the crucifix at the top of the church steeple poking up from below.

Before going down there I wanted to see if there were any other signs of former structures from Middle Village still standing back in the woods uphill. I didn't really see anything, and when I ended up on a soft, deeply rutted logging road I decided I was on a cold trail...


According to the book Michigan Ghost Towns by Roy L. Dodge, Middle Village had a population of 100 people in 1877, 75% of whom were Native American. The village had the same number of people in 1905, but by then it was all white people. Cross Village peaked at 1,000 population.


It was another narrow winding path that led down to the lakeshore where the old mission church was.


A sign said, "Aapatawaa'ing: The church below stands in the vicinity of the first Jesuit mission built 1741, which was rebuilt by local Waganakising Odawak carpenters and craftsmen in 1825."


The St. Ignatius of Loyola Church and Cemetery.


This state historical plaque is actually written in the Odawa tongue...the opposite side has an English translation, which says,
In the 1740s French Catholic missionaries had come to this area, known to the Odawa as "Waganakising," to minister to the tribes. Later missionary work was taken up by Fr. Baraga, who dedicated a church on this site in 1833. The church we see now was built in 1889 to replace it after a fire.

The plaque goes on to say that this cemetery contains generations of Odawa ancestors, and probably contains burials dating back to the 1700s. The white crosses were added in 1970 to mark the original graves, it said.


The inscriptions on both of these fancier grave markers indicate that they both died in 1907.


Here is a quick look inside the church...an old birchbark canoe is suspended from the choir loft:


There were signs on these two cabins near the church, but I forgot to make a note of what they said...


I'd say it's a safe bet that they date to the 1820s or 1830s. They were both currently being restored.


Onward and northward, back through the Tunnel of Trees.


As I was rocketing along beneath the shady boughs of the forest, something caught my eye slightly uphill to my right.


Something told me it was worth stopping for a closer look, so I swiftly braked and downshifted to execute a sharp turn onto a long neglected leaf-covered driveway. It wasn't long before I had to stop and go the rest of the way on foot due to fallen branches blocking the path.


A tiny creek babbled amongst the boulders of the hillside as I approached what I guessed had once been a fancy vacation home. The entire Tunnel of Trees is lined with ridiculously expensive vacation mansions and other retreats, since many of them look over the cliff above Lake Michigan (and often the owners chop the trees down to ensure they get their waterfront view). There is however still the modest cabin or lodge from the 1920s-1940s, built before the area was dominated by big money.


Somebody spent a lot of money here at one time...


Large floor-to-ceiling windows opened up to the view of the woods on the downhill side...


...while the rear of the structure was built into the uphill side.


Looking down the hill in these next shots, you can make out the line of the roadway through the trees in the distance:


The brook in this ravine traveled under the highway and eventually found its way out into Lake Michigan no doubt:


The more I thought about it, the more I believe this may have been an outbuilding to a larger estate somewhere uphill; this thing seemed more like a weekender party hut than an actual residence.


...When you're rich enough to have a vacation house from your vacation house. But of course!


Maybe it had like kind of a tri-level thing going on...


Anyway, I got back on the road to Wilderness State Park, which was still a long ways up the coast yet from Cross Village. The scenery changed from steep bluffs to open dunes as I neared the extremity of Waugoshance Point.


I had always wanted to visit Wilderness State Park because it looked like a cool area to hike, but now I had another reason. My colleague Dr. Dave Clark who I knew from exploring in the Copper Country area took a winter's vacation here a year prior, and while snowshoeing the park he came across the wreckage of what he learned was an Army Air Corps glider from World War II.


During World War II the military used Waugoshance Point as a testing range for aerial bombing, and this old glider was one of the dummy targets they set up to aim at. They also used the old Waugoshance Lighthouse for target practice. It sounded like the remains of at least the one glider wreck were still to be seen out here, so naturally I had to find it.


As I started out this day my progress was quickly halted by extremely swampy conditions on the trail...it had been a wet summer and the trail was totally flooded for a few hundred feet in any direction. After a few abortive attempts at trying to tiptoe my way through on tufts of higher vegetation I gave up once my hiking boots had become inundated. This wasn't good, because I had calculated the position of the aircraft wreck to be near the intersection of a few trails, and if I was forced to detour out of the way that could make it hard to find my target in this huge park.


I decided to go back to my starting point and hike along the shoreline. The few other people who were here at the same time as me had now left; my truck was the only vehicle left in the parking lot. I had the whole jagged peninsula to myself, apparently. The silence was awesome.


The waters of the vaunted Caribbean haven't got a thing on Michigan's crystal clear blue freshwater seas...


Looking out to the north, the coast of Michigan's Upper Peninsula is easily seen through my camera's zoom:


Lake Michigan was calm but hazy...off on the horizon to the northwest I could barely spot the silhouette of the Waugoshance Shoal Lighthouse:


The venerable Waugoshance Shoal Light was completed in 1851, marking one of the hazardous reefs that had cursed the shipping of the Mackinac Straits area since the 1820s. After lasting through many seasons of pounding waves and grinding ice it was superseded by the newer White Shoal Lighthouse nearby, and decommissioned in 1912. It has sat alone decaying ever since...


...Except for a brief period in World War II when according to lighthousefriends.com, the U.S. Navy took control of several islands in northern Lake Michigan for training purposes, including these here at Waugoshance Point. The area became part of a bombing and gunnery range for Naval Air Station Traverse City, and the lighthouse was used by pilots for bombing and strafing practice.

Naturally, that was part of the reason there was aircraft wreckage out here for me to find. I just hoped that there wasn't any unexploded ordnance still lurking around beneath the sand for me to trip over.


Like I said before I have wanted to get out to the 170-year-old Waugoshance Light for a long time. I saw a trip log from a guy who used skis to get out to Waugoshance Shoal in 2007, and in the notoriously frigid winter of 2014 photographer Jason Lome hiked all 18 miles of it, braving -20F temps (to get this PHOTO), but the dangers and logistics of such a mission are formidable to say the least, and my desire to stay amongst the living for now has kept me on land, although I admit I had done some serious tentative planning to try it. For now you can check out my similar expedition to Turtle Island Lighthouse instead.


In the year 2000 the Coast Guard recommended that it be demolished, but the Waugoshance Lighthouse Preservation Society was formed soon after, with plans to take stewardship of the old beacon and restore it.


I kept hiking, my eyes still peeled for the glider.


There were a few high spots where I could stand and see an unexpectedly long distance...here, I am looking across Sturgeon Bay back to approximately where Cross Village lies:


The only explanation I can find online for the story behind this glider comes from an entry on geocaching.com, which I have found to generally have very informative and seemingly reliable info. Apparently there is also a geocache out here near the glider as well.


The entry says that during World War II the western portion of what is now Wilderness State Park was leased by the U.S. Navy for remote control aircraft testing. Experimental gliders were pulled here by tow planes from Traverse City Naval Air Station. Once in the airspace over this desolate coast the gliders were released from tow and piloted via radar and cameras.

There is declassified film footage on Youtube showing some of these gliders equipped with dummy bombs, dive-bombing the lighthouse; I guess maybe they were intended for use in unmanned kamikaze missions. Besides aiming at the poor lighthouse, there were also large white targets erected on the various small islands strung along the coast, for the gliders to be aimed at.


Just when I was beginning to despair of finding my target in this trackless barren, I spotted something off in the distance that looked like it could be worthy of investigation...


As I hiked nearer I quickly figured out that I had already found the wreckage of the glider, much earlier than expected.


I am not sure what happened to the rest of the glider, where its wings or fuselage went; perhaps they were wooden and burned away, or aluminum and taken for scrap? It also kind of resembled a dune buggy skeleton, so I decided I should take a closer look, in case this was all just a big urban legend. After a few minutes of closer examination I concluded that it definitely was once part of an aircraft and not a dune buggy.


According to the geocaching.com entry, this particular glider is believed to have been used as a machine gun target. I imagine it cold have been intended to be crashed into the lighthouse or one of the other white targets, and went down prematurely...subsequently becoming a strafing target itself. You can see how the nose looks a little tweaked, like it may have crash-landed here. Supposedly craters, and other metal chunks besides this glider remain scattered in the park as reminders of the military operations.


I've actually explored the Ford plant up in Iron Mountain where these gliders were built during the war, in an older post on this website.


I could have spent many more hours wandering this pristine state park, but I had plans to be elsewhere for the night. Guiding me on my way back to my truck, the Mackinac Bridge connecting Michigan's two peninsulas was visible, many miles away:


Awaiting my sweaty arrival back at the parking area were two deputies, examining the many dents in my junky old truck...they stopped me and said some resident along the road had reported that a truck like mine had smashed into their tree and took off. The cops spent about 15 minutes trying to convince me that I was the guilty party, and that "it would go easier for me" if I just admitted to the crime. I didn't realize that crashing into a tree was such a serious offense in Emmet County...in any case I reminded them that I was not in the habit of waiving my Constitutional rights even when I was guilty of something—let alone when I wasn't—and they eventually relented. I just hope they got the tree to the hospital in time. Land of the Crooked Tree indeed!


References:
Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown
Michigan Shadow Towns, by Gene Scott, p. 54-56
Weird Michigan, by Linda S. Godfrey, p. 183
http://goodhartstore.com/Good_Hart_General_Store,_Our_History.html
http://www.strangeusa.com/ViewLocation.aspx?id=64382&desc=_The_Tunnel_of_Trees&x=1
http://blog.dcclark.net/2017/01/winter-cabin-camping-at-wilderness.html
http://www.waugoshance.org
http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=211
http://www.terrypepper.com/lights/michigan/waugoshance/waugoshance.htm
https://www.geocaching.com/geocache/GC58TB5_wsp-on-the-way-to-the-point
http://www.c22region10.org/bb/viewtopic.php?f=12&t=220&p=1051#p1051
https://michpics.wordpress.com/2014/03/07/waugoshance-morning/