@Betty Steward

Fayette Historic State Park & Townsite — Ghost Town History + Outdoor Adventure

When you see the sign for Fayette Historic State Park at the junction of US-2 and M-183, don’t go by it. Turn south on M-183 and drive 17 miles along the Garden Peninsula’s coast to reach one of the most fascinating destinations in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Fayette is a ghost of its former self. Overlooking Snail Shell Harbor, the site was strategically chosen in 1867 by its founder, Fayette Brown, the general manager of the Jackson Iron Company in Cleveland, Ohio, to build the company’s iron smelting operation. The location allowed Jackson Iron to use limestone from the surrounding bluffs to purify the molten iron and the area’s abundance of hardwood trees to make the charcoal needed to heat the furnaces. Soon Fayette became a roaring, sooty-sky town bustling with gritty men, women and children. It was acclaimed as one of the best places to buy pig iron for the Great Lakes steel mills. Fayette helped build 19th-century America.

However, in 1891 the boom went bust as the Garden Peninsula’s forests were stripped and new methods for making iron and steel made pig iron less desirable. But the story of Fayette didn’t die as the last resident’s wagon rattled up the dusty road. The State of Michigan recognized the importance of Fayette and preserved it as one of the nation’s premier historic townsites.

When you visit, stop at the Visitors Center to see the exhibits that tell about life in Fayette after the U.S. Civil War. Then take a guided or self-guided walk through the townsite, exploring more than 20 buildings and gazing up at the giant furnaces that once darkened the sky with smoke. You are welcome to spread a blanket in the grassy area and picnic just as the townspeople once did.

Also, of historic significance are the trees growing across the harbor. These ancient cedars – some dating back 1,400 years – are the oldest in any Michigan state park.

More than an encounter with history, this is a beautiful place for outdoor adventure.

  • Three-and-a-half miles of scenic trails take you through hardwood forests, along the bluff, and through the townsite. Depending on the time, you can hike, bike, snowshoe and fat tire bike. In the winter, the park also grooms a single-track for cross-country skiing.
  • Paddle or boat past scenery that rivals the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. Snail Shell Harbor, shaped by picturesque limestone bluffs, is a stunning place to kayak, canoe and stand-up paddleboard. You can also navigate your pleasure boat or larger yacht in the harbor. Transient slips are available so you have more time to explore.
  • Few places in the Midwest rival Big and Little Bays de Noc when it comes to fishing. Walleye draws anglers from across the country, but these waters are also favorite places to reel in northern pike, perch and smallmouth bass throughout the year
  • Like to scuba dive or snorkel? You can discover some of Fayette’s past below the water’s surface. There are only certain times when diving is allowed. You will need to first get a permit from the camp office before you search for artifacts. These “finds” are to be seen, not taken.

Watch for special events from heritage days to ghost hunts to lantern-lit skiing. Whether it’s decorating campsites with Christmas lights in July, watching 1860s-style baseball games or taking hayrides through the townsite, the park’s annual events encourage visitors to take in the wonders you can experience here. Keep up to date about planned events on Fayette’s Facebook page.

A year-round place to immerse in the past and nature. The state park, located at 4785 II Rd., Garden, is open daily all year round, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. However, the park’s historic townsite buildings and campgrounds are only open mid-May to mid-October and the boat slips from early May to early November. To access the park, visitors and campers will need a current Michigan Recreational Passport. Michigan residents and non-residents can purchase day or annual passes when they arrive. These passes are good at all Michigan state parks and are a great value as you tour the Upper Peninsula.

Eager to experience 19th-century life in an iron-smelting town? Want to draw closer to nature exploring the Garden Peninsula’s beautiful land and water? Take the turnoff from US-2 onto M-183 and spend a few hours at Fayette Historic State Park.