Leland on the Lakes

By Quackenbush, Laura J. | Michigan History Magazine, January-February 2006 | Go to article overview
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Leland on the Lakes

Quackenbush, Laura J., Michigan History Magazine

On the big lake, mariners find the village of Leland on the lee shore of the Manitou Passage by identifying the unique sweep of the bluff called Whaleback. Just to the north, where the land is low, the short Leland River empties Lake Leelanau into Lake Michigan. Both the river and the inland lake were once called Carp River and Carp Lake, a reference to the carp-like suckers that swam there. As the river flowed and the waves washed the beach and inland lakeshore, so has the village of Leland both thrived and diminished.


Native people found the place near the mouth of the river good for harvesting fish from the surrounding waters. The bluff to the north and the isthmus between the lakes provided campgrounds accessible to both lakes. Sturgeon, lake trout and whitefish fed the communities for generations, while the moist, lake-tempered climate nurtured their gardens. Small bands of Anishinabek--specifically the Odawa and Ojibwa--made their home here. The name they were said to have given the place was Mishmigobing: the place where the people's canoes go up the river because there is no harbor.

Throughout the nineteenth century American fishermen also fished here. However, it was not until near the end of the century that docks, fish shanties and icehouses were built near the river's mouth. This cluster of simple, cedar-shingled structures is known today as Leland's Historic Fishtown.

Fishing as a commercial enterprise peaked during the first decades of the twentieth century. In the 1920s, there were ten fishing families and dozens more involved in related businesses. Catches of lake trout and whitefish were cleaned, packed in ice and shipped off to Chicago and other Midwest cities. Along the riverbank, John "Bigfoot" Johnson built and repaired the distinctive turtleback fish tugs for Leland's fishermen. These enclosed boats, unique to the Great Lakes, minimized the fishermen's exposure to the weather and seas as they pulled and set their gill nets in the choppy waters.

Many of the same families continued to fish through the 1940s and 1950s. Over the years, the fish stocks dwindled due to continued over-fishing, changes in Lake Michigan's ecology and tighter regulations on commercial fishing. At the same time, exotic salmon and other sport fish were introduced, creating a new enterprise: charter fishing.

Today, the Carlson family of Leland preserves one of Michigan's last authentic working fish towns. Fish tugs still head out early in the morning to set and pull their nets. The catches are cleaned and smoked and sold on site at Carlson's Fish Market. Charter fishing boats and fish tugs line the docks along the river.


Before Euro-Americans settled at what is now Leland, Antoine Manseau Sr. had scouted the Carp River. In 1853 he returned and, with his partners, began work on an earthen dam and sawmill. In 1859, Manseau sold out to Herman J. Cordes and Otto Thies. Over the next decades, other lumber, shingle and stave mills were established along the upper river and shoreline of Lake Leelanau. Forest products (cordwood, timbers and bark) were floated down the river in rafts or on barges and shipped out on schooners and steamers. The dam and sawmill property changed ownership once again in 1908. The new owners built a concrete dam and a water wheel and installed an electric generator that provided electricity to the northern half of Leelanau County for the next two decades. By 1929 this operation was abandoned, although the Power House stood over Fishtown for many years.


Though the Leland River afforded shelter for only a few small boats, the port of Leland bustled in the second half of the nineteenth century. Within the first decades of American settlement, three pile and crib docks jutted into the lake to accommodate deep-draft boats. Cordwood, cut from the surrounding hardwood forests, was loaded on passing steamships.

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