Traveling the Chain of Lakes: When Trains and Water Taxis Ruled

Published In:
Community Observer, Spring 2013,
Spring 2013

Author: Grace Shackman

Publisher: Ann Arbor Observer Company

Date: Spring 2013

At rush hour the railroad underpass in Dexter turns into a bottleneck, as people who live north of the village come and go on their daily commute. Many of them live in lake homes, either converted cottages or new houses, on the Huron River’s Chain of Lakes. In contrast to today’s solo road warriors, a century ago families took a slower but more leisurely trip by train and water taxi to reach lakeside cottages and hotels.

The six lakes in the chain—starting at Zukey, through Strawberry, Gallagher, Whitewood, Base Line, and ending at Portage—are all fed by the Huron River. The Huron starts north of Milford, flowing west until it reaches Portage Lake, where it turns east and south and eventually spills into Lake Erie. The Chain of Lakes is at the end of the western-flowing stretch and comprises larger bodies of water connected by narrower ones. “The change of scenery from lake to river and river to lake was beautiful beyond description to a lover of nature,” wrote Eli Moore in 1907, recalling an 1877 rowboat trip he took from Portage, where he was camping, to Zukey.
The lakes at each end of the chain, Zukey and Portage, are off to the north side of the river, but are connected to it—by Devil’s Basin at Zukey and by a canal at Portage that was deepened and widened in 1928. Scott Strane, who’s at work on a book tentatively titled What Is a Zukey?, thinks that the name comes from the Chinese words for the crescent moon, though he admits uncertainty about how a Chinese name would have arrived in nineteenth-century Michigan. Rick Glazer, co-owner of the Zukey Lake Tavern, believes that the name is of Native American origin.
Early French explorers gave Portage its name. It was here that they left the eastward-flowing Huron River watershed, carrying their canoes overland to connect to the westward-flowing Grand River. “An English explorer named Hugh Heward did the trip in the early eighteenth century that some folks re-created a couple of years ago, eventually traveling all the way to Chicago along the [Lake] Michigan shoreline,” explains land protection consultant Barry Lonik.

The river connections spurred the lakes’ development as a recreation area, giving people vacationing on any one of them a wider choice of places to explore and enjoy than if they were limited to a single lake. As early as 1836, an actor named Gardner Lillibridge dreamed of developing a “Saratoga of the West” on Portage Lake, modeled on New York’s Saratoga Springs resort. Key to his plan was a steamboat for pleasure parties that would make a round trip from Portage, Base Line, and Strawberry lakes through what the 1881 History of Washtenaw County described as “the most romantic and delightful scenery ever seen in this or any other country.” Lillibridge’s ambitious plan included a lookout on what is today known as Peach Mountain (site of the ­U-M’s radio telescope), so visitors could see the grand view of the lakes below. He platted a quarter section of land into 125 lots, giving his streets names such as Dryden, Byron, Shakespeare, Haydn, and Mozart. If none of those streets is familiar, it’s because Lillibridge managed to sell only half of one lot.

Unlike Lillibridge, most of the area’s early settlers did not consider having a lake on their properties an advantage. They were farmers, and neither the lakes nor their marshy shores could be planted.

The pioneers who did end up with lakefront acreage made the best of the situation, sometimes cutting wild marsh hay for feed before they had time to put in a better crop, and in winter cutting and storing lake ice. Occasionally passersby would pay them for permission to take a swim or to camp on the lakeshore, but at that time roads were just Indian trails or at best wagon trails, so access was difficult. “Very few, if any, cottages, were to be seen along the banks as I remember, but now and then a ‘tent,’” wrote Moore of what he saw on his 1877 boat trip.

This changed after 1878, when the Ann Arbor Railroad reached Whitmore Lake and Lakeland (the village on the north end of Zukey Lake), opening up these two communities for vacationers from the Ann Arbor and Toledo areas and beyond. Train passengers could stay at hotels or cottages or come just for the day. Daily traffic got so busy that during the interurban railroad bubble at the turn of the twentieth century, there was talk of laying interurban tracks from Lakeland to Ann Arbor—a competitive threat the Ann Arbor Railroad blocked by running a gasoline-powered McKeen motor car on its own tracks. Nicknamed “the ping-pong,” it ran back and forth between Ann Arbor and Lakeland eight times a day from 1911 until 1924.

Once people got to Zukey Lake, they could access the rest of the chain by boat. Steam-powered passenger boats began running in 1897. The first steamer was named the Prudence Potts, after the daughter of its owner, J. W. Potts. In the 1920s Potts advertised that he also had camping sites available on three of the lakes.

Once internal combustion engines became reliable enough, people quickly switched to them, because they didn’t blow up like steam boilers could. For instance, Karl Guthe, U-M professor of physics, and his wife, Belle, used a “motor launch” to bring visitors to their cottage on Strawberry Lake; a 1917 photo shows one such guest, their niece Dora Ware (mother of Ann Arbor physician and historian Mark Hildebrandt). They also used the boat to pick up groceries at the store at Lakeland.
If motor launches were the lakes’ equivalent of limousines, then rowboats were the taxis and rental cars. Rowboat owners met all the trains and could take people directly to their cottages. Some of those arriving would be met by friends who had their own boats, while others rented them for the duration of their vacations. A 1922 promotional book, Valley of a Thousand Lakes, is full of boat ads—for sale and for rent. The Waters’ Pavilion resort in Lakeland promised “Motor boats, row boats and canoes for all,” while Fred Imus, also of Lakeland, offered motor boat livery service as well as boats for sale, explaining that “with twenty miles of navigable waterways open to you a motor boat is a constant source of enjoyment.”

Families who bought lake lots in that era didn’t always build a cottage right away, but often first camped out. Later, after their savings recovered, they built a modest structure, and later a more substantial one. Most cottagers, even if they didn’t own boats, had docks facing the lake so people could come and go on the water.

Base Line Lake also was named for its location—the east-west base line surveyors established for laying out the state runs through it. What is believed to have been the first cottage on its south side was built in the early 1880s by George Wahr, who owned two bookstores in Ann Arbor, and his brother-in-law, Charles Staebler, another Ann Arbor merchant.

The original cottage was one big room, which made staying there not much different from camping—though it did have a pump in the kitchen and a privy out back. The brothers-in-law enjoyed getting away with a group of friends, also Ann Arbor businessmen—the Haarers owned a pharmacy, the Arnolds a jewelry store, and Heinzman had an ice business—to play poker and fish. They later divided the cottage into two rooms so two families could stay together in semi-privacy.

Serious development at Portage Lake started in 1902, when a group of Ypsilanti businessmen formed the Portage Lake Land Company and set up a subdivision on former farmland on the lake’s eastern shore. The next year Pinckney resident Clarence Baugh created Baugh’s Bluff on the other side of the lake. Most of the buyers came from Pinckney, only three miles away. In those days, though, moving out for a summer season was quite a trip by horse and buggy.

As automobiles made travel easier, buyers began to come from farther away. In the 1920s the Chain of Lakes experienced its biggest real estate boom. Valley of a Thousand Lakes is filled with ads for lots, cottages, and resorts that painted lake living in glowing terms. An ad for lots on the eastern shore of Strawberry—“the Queen of Lakes”—assured prospective buyers that a “broad ribbon of hard white beach flanked by a forest of spreading elms and maples, a hard bathing beach suited for the kiddies, the novice and the expert swimmer washed clean by the incoming current of the Huron, all fanned by cool lake breezes, lend charm to this location.”
People who owned cottages often remained all summer—at least the mother and children did, with the father commuting evenings or weekends. During the 1950s, Charlotte Sallade and her four children enjoyed summers at Base Line Lake while her husband, George Wahr Sallade (grandson of George Wahr), continued his law practice in town but drove up every evening. Families who didn’t own a cottage could rent one and follow the same pattern for part of the summer.

Commercial developments, such as hotels and grocery stores, were found at each end of the chain—Portage and Zukey lakes. In 1931 Newkirk Birkett, owner of land on Portage Lake where Lillibridge had once dreamed of a resort, brought in 1,500 tons of sand to develop the Newport Beach Club.

Owned by Tom Ehman since 1966, and now called the Portage Yacht Club, it offers its members a wide variety of activities, including boating, swimming, and dining. When Ehman took over, sailing was the big activity, but today he notes that about two-thirds of the club’s members prefer pontoons or motorboats. Also at Portage Lake is Klave’s Marina, the only place on the Chain of Lakes to buy gasoline. It has been there since the end of World War II and is still run by the same family.
Lakeland’s biggest attraction was, and still is, the Zukey Lake Tavern, which opened when Prohibition ended. The original owners, the Girald brothers, used to take their motorboat down the Chain of Lakes, picking up passengers to bring them back to the tavern. Many customers still come by boat, and it’s a wonderful start or stop on any trip on the Chain of Lakes.

After World War II, construction of I-94 and US-23 made it easier to live on the lakes while commuting to work in Ann Arbor or beyond. Owners began winterizing their summer cottages or totally replacing them. Another big step toward year-round living came in the 1980s, when sewage systems began to be installed. In 2000 the Sallade cottage was totally rebuilt, so that Charlotte Sallade and her children and grandchildren can now enjoy it in any season.

Today almost all the rustic cottages on the Chain of Lakes have been improved or replaced. About half the residents commute to work—Ann Arbor is just a half-hour away, Lansing or Southfield an hour. Scott Strane, a thirty-year resident of Strawberry Lake, used to commute to a sports medicine job in Birmingham; he says he never minded, because “when we drive home every day, we are driving to heaven.” The people who don’t commute are mostly retirees who often spend the winters in warmer climates.

For people who want to relive the early days of the Chain of Lakes, Strane offers a three-hour tour on his pontoon boat. “Captain Scotty” models his itinerary on the original steam launch routes and narrates the history and natural wonders of the Chain of Lakes. He’s also willing to develop tours for special occasions. One cruise took members of a bachelorette party through the lakes, ending the tour, of course, with a meal at Zukey Lake Tavern.


Photo captions:

(Left) Dora Ware and other guests cruise the lakes in the Guthes' motor launch, 1917. (Below) visitors got to Lakeland on Zukey Lake via the Ann Arbor Railroad, then took to the water.

Ann Arbor businessmen and their families played poker and fished at the cottage built by brothers-in-law George Wahr and Charles Staebler on Base Line Lake.