Manistee River High

When I was younger I went camping in Manistee County on Lake Michigan with my dad a few times, and passed through it on plenty of other occasions (briefly mentioned in an older post). According to author Roy L. Dodge, Manistee County was set off in the original survey of Michigan in 1840 from land ceded as part of the Treaty of Washington in 1836, and county government was organized in 1855. Historian Gene Scott writes that the name Manistee translates to "red ochre," for the reddish clay banks of the river, from which the local tribes would extract pigment for face paint, though several other interpretations have been proposed.

Jesuit missionaries built the first log cabin on the shore of Manistee Lake in 1826. It later became the first saloon in the county--which would come in handy when all the lumberjacks arrived in the 1870s. The Campau family of Detroit and Grand Rapids made fur trading expeditions here in the early 1800s, Dodge says, and in 1832 a party from Massachusetts attempted to establish a settlement along the Manistee River but were chased away by the local Indians.

The principal port town of Manistee (seen above) was founded when John, Joseph, and Adam Stronach erected the first sawmill at the head of Manistee Lake in 1841 according to David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas, and by 1867 there were 21 mills in the county. The Manistee River was ideal because it rarely froze and never flooded, and thus became "one of the great American logging rivers," according to Brown. Manistee was perfectly positioned to take advantage of the shipping to other Great Lakes ports where lumber was in high demand, especially Chicago and Milwaukee.

Manistee was also the home of Silas Overpack, inventor of the "Big Wheels," a monstrous draught vehicle that helped haul logs out of the forests in the lumber heyday. The timber ran out by the early 20th century, and the last sawmill closed in 1925. The county's economy turned over to farming, fruit growing, and salt mining, and the CCC replanted the denuded forestlands, which is part of why we have another great forest today in place of the one that was destroyed by reckless harvest. Here is the Manistee Iron Works, built in 1907:

But it was to the woods that I would be heading on this adventure. I was in search of the ruins of some old logging-era stuff, starting with the massive bridge that once ran though the ghost town of High Bridge.

I navigated my way along forest trails until I finally came to the spot on the south bank of the Manistee River where I knew the old "High Bridge" once crossed. There was once a town here, but now just a few houses, one of which had a dog that began barking incessantly about my intrusion into these quiet woods. There is also a campsite on the opposite side of the river, which has a website with some historical info about High Bridge.

When the road ended, I found myself at what had obviously once been a bridge pier long ago:

Walking around next to it to look down into the steep valley, I could see that there were several more piers going all the way down the slope.

Hard to see in all the overgrowth, this main pier was made of stacked blocks hewn of rusticated stone:

According to and, the bridge was constructed in 1889 by the Chicago & West Michigan Railroad over the Manistee River, connecting the towns of Kaleva and Baldwin. The line later became part of the Pere Marquette system, and the town of High Bridge had a station on it according to Roy Dodge. He also notes that by 1918 there was a sawmill and a grocer.

Carefully stepping down the incredibly steep slope, I got a closer look at the smaller piers, and noticed that there were a lot more of them here than I expected...

Brown writes that the town was originally named "Corfu," after the Greek island in the Adriatic Sea. The name was changed to High Bridge in 1890 when the post office opened under that name.

Notice that there is a single concrete pier situated in between the two larger stone piers, suggesting some kind of modification was done to the bridge at some point in the past:

The bridge was 1,200 feet long and sat 96 feet above the river, making it the highest bridge in Michigan at the time, hence the name. Originally constructed of wooden beams, it was reinforced in 1911 by the Pere Marquette Railroad in order to double its load capacity, which is probably when these stone piers were added. By 1947 the line was acquired by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad and the wooden beams were all replaced with steel members for even more strength. I'm guessing that probably explains the extra concrete footings.

C&O soon decided however to buy up an alternate line belonging to the Manistee & Northeastern Railroad, which would prove a more efficient route, and this bridge crossing became obsolete. For a long time this was the only bridge over the river in the area, and locals used it to get back and forth on foot, but it was finally dismantled in late 1955, leaving these footings behind as reminders of the High Bridge that once was. also says that on the North Country Trail along the river "you can still see the trusses to the railroad bridge," though I didn't see any such remnants on my visit. The website also features several historic images of the bridge still standing: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. There are also more historic photos of it at

Looking straight down the grade, you can see at least two more rows of footings leading downward:

By this point I had probably descended 70 feet or more into the valley, and this was the third or fourth set of piers I had passed on the way.

Looking back up behind me, it almost resembled a gigantic staircase going up the hill:

This should illustrate just how steeply this slope is angled:

Several rows:

When I reached what I deemed to be the "bottom" I did not see the Manistee River, but rather a dense swampy wetland where this was the last visible pier before I would have to go crashing through the mucky tangle if I planned to continue to the other side:

Assuming that the opposite side was the same as this side, I felt satisfied that I didn't need to go to those lengths, and began climbing back up the way I came. Another trio of footings:

Standing on top of one of the stone piers, it is evident from their texture that they were shaped with hand tools over 100 years ago:

On my way back up to the top I went around the opposite side of the main pier, where there was a better view of the stone to be had:

Since it would be too much of a bother to drive around to find the other end of this bridge, I continued to my next destination, another faded vestige of the logging era.

The Udell Rollway was not far downriver from here. It was a place where lumberjacks piled felled trees along the river where there was a steep bank, so that they could be rolled into the river to be floated downstream to the Manistee sawmills for the spring log drive when the waters were high. So it's not a physical ruin to go look at per se, so much as it is more a "lost landscape" that man had once altered to suit his needs.

These steep banks of the river here were clear cut back in the 19th century, and the massive pine logs were rolled down this slope to the river about 100 feet below. Now of course, new pines and hemlocks have grown up in their place to cloak this natural feature in evergreen darkness once again.

Other such abandoned rollways exist throughout Michigan and elsewhere in Manistee County, such as the High Rollways upriver of Stronach, on the Little Manistee.

The silence here on the side of the steep slope was pretty intense; all sound seemed muted once I went below the crest of the hill.

At the bottom a heavenly scene of warm, crystal-clear, placid waters and sandy banks bathed in evening sunlight greeted me. I suddenly wished I had a canoe to navigate the many meanders of this wide and serene river.

A century can do much to repair the ravages of human interference on nature, but it was still possible to imagine the dramatic scene of a stampede of massive logs sent cascading down the hill into this river by whistling, plaid-clothed lumberjacks starting the springtime drive on the mighty Manistee.

Climbing back up top to a different spot, I was treated to an excellent view of a good swath of the county:

My c.1984 copy of the Mapbook of Michigan Counties, an old atlas based on DNR information dating back decades shows a group of Indian burial mounds on the opposite side of the river from here, as well as an "Indian Village." I didn't attempt to find these since I had no other clues to go on, but I know that a lot of the land along this stretch of the river is tribally owned and protected today.

Much of the rest is under the protection of the Manistee National Forest. This particular spot has been turned into a picnic area and disc-golf course, and it used to be a campground until recently.

After leaving Udell behind, I started down Eastlake Road in search of another item of interest, but it was starting to get dark and I needed to find a place to camp, so I had to give up.

This picturesque row of willow trees made for quite the scene however, despite the fading light.

There are a couple ruined foundations sitting along the shores of Manistee Lake near here.

Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., David M. Brown, p. 108 & 116
Michigan Ghost Towns of the Lower Peninsula Vol. II, by Roy L. Dodge, p. 32, 33
Michigan Shadow Towns, by Gene Scott, p. 100
Mapbook of Michigan Counties (1984), p. 69

1 comment:

  1. Nice to see a post from "home". I was born and raised in Manistee. My Dad worked for PCA, buying timber to support the paper plant - modern day logging operations. Thanks for climbing the slopes to get the views & angles we normally don't see in a walk in the woods.


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