Go, Fishtown: A quaint old village on the Lake Michigan coast

Historical Fishtown is a beloved Michigan place.

You will find its name emblazoned on countless T-shirts, sweatshirts and hats across Michigan's Up North region. It even has its own book: "Fishtown" by Bill Crandell (Sigil Publishing, $14.99).

Fishtown is everywhere.

It is the century-old commercial fishing settlement where the Leland River flows into Lake Michigan at the hamlet of Leland, on the northwest coast of the Lower Peninsula.

Fishtown, about 25 miles northwest of Traverse City, is home to a fleet of fishing tugs and charter fishing boats that work northern Lake Michigan with its deep blue waters for lake trout, salmon, whitefish and chub.

It is a place and a way of life, and that way of life is disappearing. It has endured and adapted. It is one of the only unmodernized fishing villages left in the state of Michigan, a surviving example of communities that once thrived on the Great Lakes.

The cluster of shacks and shanties are gray and weatherbeaten, covered in faded cedar shingles. They look like something from the coast of Maine or Newfoundland. They date as far back as 1900, although the name Fishtown was not used locally until the 1940s.

Some of the structures are still used for fish processing. The main shanties are flanked by icehouses, net-storage and net-repairing sheds and smokehouses.

There are 12 businesses in the seven historical shanties in Fishtown, plus three fishing charters that operate from the docks. The businesses offer fresh and smoked fish, artwork, cheese, shoes, tile art, handmade crafts, eclectic jewelry and clothing.

Today Leland and Fishtown also serve as the gateway to the nearby Manitou Islands, part of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

Fishtown is not big. It's not glitzy. But it's not lacking in charm. In fact, Fishtown is the No. 2 tourist attraction in Leelanau County, behind the federal lakeshore.

The core of Fishtown and two active fishing tugs are owned and operated by the nonprofit Fishtown Preservation Society. It was added to the prestigious National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The preservation group was formed in 2001 to preserve and promote the historical and fishing heritage of Fishtown. In June 2006, the society agreed to purchase Fishtown from the Bill Carlson family for $2.8 million for the real estate and $200,000 for two boats and related licenses. More than 1,200 donors from 46 states contributed the money.

The group owns and operates two fishing tugs: the Joy and the Janice Sue.

In 1958, fisherman Louis Steffens launched the Janice Sue, a steel-hulled gill-net tug. It replaced a wooden boat and was named for his 3-year-old niece. The Joy, a trap-net tug, was built in 1981 for Russ Lang. In 2010, the Joy caught 61,000 pounds of whitefish, and the Janice Sue caught 1,400 pounds of chub.

The two historical tugs fish spring to fall and typically head out in the early morning once or twice a week.

In 2010, the society fixed up the interior and exterior of the Steffens & Stallman Shanty that dates to 1906. It is one of the oldest and most historically intact structures in Fishtown. The society has plans to restore the other buildings as funds become available, said Executive Director Amanda Holmes.

The Leland historical district including Fishtown covers an area bounded by Main Street (state Route 22), Avenue A, the Leland park and the harbor. The historical integrity of the district and its buildings is strong.

Fishing heritage

As early as 1880, commercial fishermen sailed from Fishtown to set their nets offshore in search of lake trout and whitefish. They initially reached the fishing grounds via small sailboats.

About 1905, primitive gas-powered boats were introduced. Diesel eventually replaced gas and new machinery was added to new tugs that made commercial fishermen far more efficient.

The peak fishing years from Fishtown were 1900 to 1930, when it housed eight commercial fishing operations. The catch was shipped via rail to Chicago and Detroit.

Other buildings in Leland date to its lumbering and iron-smelting past in the late 19th century.

Some old buildings house small shops that cater to the hordes of summer tourists. There is a small dockside boardwalk that leads to the waterfall on the Leland River. A restaurant and a lodge flank the 12-foot-high waterfall.

Farther inland, two-story Gothic Revival structures house restaurants and shops in downtown Leland. The Bluebird restaurant, open since 1927, is a revered landmark known for its whitefish.

Leland was built on the site of one of the oldest and largest Ottawa villages on the Leelanau Peninsula. There was a natural fish ladder where the Leland River dropped into Lake Michigan.

Leland's commercial growth began in 1853 when pioneer Antoine Manseau built a dam and a water-powered sawmill on the river, still called the Carp River by some.

Construction of the dam raised water on the inland lakes by 12 feet and turned two lakes into the 21-mile-long Lake Leelanau that covers more than 8,600 acres.

The early settlers built wooden docks that allowed steamers and schooners to transport settlers and supplies.

The Leland Lake Superior Iron Co. began operations about 1870. It processed Lake Superior iron ore and used charcoal produced from locally cut maple and beech trees. The smelting operation produced up to 40 tons of iron per day. In 1884, the plant was sold to the Leland Lumber Co., which operated a sawmill on the site.

Other sawmills and shingle mills operated in Leland from 1885-1900.

Around 1900, wealthy individuals from Chicago and other Midwest industrial cities began to build summer cottages. They arrived by Lake Michigan passenger steamers or by Lake Leelanau steamer after taking trains to Traverse City. That led to the construction of hotels and the growth of Leland as a summer resort.