Harsens Island: Then and Now

16 Sep

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 Picture yourself at the foot of Griswold Street standing alongside the Detroit River; it’s 1926, you are wearing your Sunday best, you have an overnight bag in one hand and a ticket for the steamship Tashmoo in the other. You gaze out in the distance and see the elegant steamer approach; excitement fills your body. Once aboard you find a place to look out over the railing as the ship heads north; destination Tashmoo Park and the St Clair Flats, also known as Harsens Island. Roughly 2 1/2 hours go by, the scenery splendid along the way, the park is in sight. As you leave the ship you hear music playing, visitors dance under an immense pavilion, a group of men are playing baseball at the athletic field, picnickers eat sandwiches and drink lemonade, the beach is sandy, its crystal blue water inviting. Tonight you will be staying at the Grande Pointe Hotel, sitting atop the highest point on Harsens Island you can hardly believe your eyes! The hotel is stunning; think Grand Hotel (Mackinac Island), Victorian in style it has a 300 foot long veranda, the perfect place to relax and look out on the St Clair River. Inside there are 125 rooms, a dance hall, bowling alleys, billiard rooms and parlors; the cost, about $3.00 a day. From about 1900 to 1936 the White Star Line of steamers carried thousands of people  from Detroit to Port Huron with stops at Tashmoo Park, owned by White Star Line and the many hotels located on the island; Harsens was a summer paradise. The size of the hotels ranged from the 22 room Public House to the 150 room Star Island House; entertainment consisted of  dance floors and slot machines. Outdoors you could ride bicycles, play lawn tennis, hunt, fish and go sailing. Hotel Mervue had the largest dance floor on the flats. There were private clubs for the wealthy Detroiters, bars, restaurants and markets. Alas, there was one problem that led to the demise of many of these remarkable buildings: fire. Back in the day buildings were constructed of wood, combine that with being located on an island with no roads, and no fire department, a recipe for disaster. The Rushmere Club was the first large hotel to burn down in 1908; some of the hotels and clubs rebuilt, but the St Clair Flats area was never able to recapture the glory days of the past.

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It had been many years since our last visit to the island; we boarded the ferry in Algonac and crossed the North Channel. When we arrived on the island we turned right and followed Middle Channel Drive, the road that follows the shoreline; with few exceptions this area is mostly residential. As you look out into the water there are large areas of water and land that make up the St Clair River Delta; this is the largest freshwater delta in the world, the water glistens and is strikingly clear. The road ends, we turn around and go back the way we came, enjoying the view as much as we did the first time. This is how we remembered Harsens Island; pretty, but as a tourist, kind of dull….

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We started taking 154, the main road, out to the other side of the island, Kris noticed the smaller, but more scenic, North Channel Drive; we follow the water making our way to South Channel Drive. Suddenly we find ourselves skimming along the South Channel; charming cottages and beautiful historic homes on one side, sparkling turquoise water on the other, hmmmm maybe there’s more to this place than we remember….Remnants of the past are visible here. We arrive in the town of Sans Souci on South Channel Dr; an old grocery store is now the Sans Souci Market, this is the business district of the island. We see the old fire hall has been turned into a museum by the Harsens Island St Clair Flats Historical Society, we park in front and head in. The museum brings the islands past to life; photographs and postcards, dishes from the steamers, summer schedules of the White Star Navigation Co. are all on display. Maps of the Flats show the area in detail, memorabilia hangs on walls and fills up display cases.  It is absolutely fascinating to see. Volunteers from the historical society answer questions and tell stories of life on Harsens, many have lived here their whole life. When you come out to the island be sure and visit the museum, it’s wonderful and really gives you a sense of what a magnificent place this once was when people traveled from all over to come here.  

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We jumped back on South Channel Drive till it merged with 154, then headed to the Southernmost tip of the island, believe it or not at this point you’re about parallel with 14 mile road. The views of the channel and lake are beautiful; I bet the sunset view would be awesome. It was hot and sunny; it seemed every boater was out enjoying Muscamoot Bay, it was an amazing sight. OK, now we’re hungry! We had planned to have lunch at the School House Grill even before we got to the island, many people have told us to give it a try. Located just off the main road on Columbine Rd the tan-colored brick school was built in 1934; it was one of Michigan’s only 2-room schoolhouses until it closed in 2005. In 2009 the building was brought back to life as a restaurant and wine bar, much to the delight of residents and visitors alike. We entered through the back door, a few steps led to the lower level where the main dining room and bar is located. The space is airy and attractive, the exposed ceiling painted black. We took a seat at the bar and ordered cold beverages to quench our thirst as we checked out the menu; everything sounded good. The bartender answered our few questions and we were ready to order. The Tuscan salad was delicious; mixed greens with basil, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts and shaved Parmesan topped off with homemade cashew honey dressing. The Deli 101 sandwich was an Italian style  sandwich served on warm ciabatta bread, also very good. 

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Back in the Jeep we drove back to South Channel Dr for one more look at the water; we noticed Sans Souci Bar has a covered patio and tables near the shoreline, we are so there! We considered taking advantage of the cooler temperature on the patio, but couldn’t resist the water view provided by tables overlooking the channel. We sipped our drinks as we watched the passing traffic on the waterway; freighters, jet skis, and boats of various sizes kept our attention. The color of the water is remarkable here, we found ourselves asking why we hadn’t come back sooner.  Harsens Island is a great place to get away for a few hours without having to go very far. 

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6 Responses to “Harsens Island: Then and Now”

  1. peggy clark April 24, 2017 at 9:55 am #

    wonderful place to bike,there was a restaurant..its been awhile..hoping to go again

  2. Dave & Nancy Chamberlain (from the flats) April 24, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    Favorite place in the world

  3. Granny April 24, 2017 at 7:25 pm #

    Needs a bridge .. local businesses can’t sustain financially .. ferry ride is $10 .. in the past two years a party store was closed as well as the Middle Channel Golf Course and soon another marina/party store. Most businesses are for sale on the island.

  4. Michael April 24, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

    Beautiful! Was lucky enough to have someone that I grew up with that has a cottage on the island. You might have seen him on the ferry. His name is James and has worked on the ferry for over 30’s. He and his wife Gale are luck enough to call Harsens Island Home.

  5. LuAnn Zettle April 25, 2017 at 8:46 pm #

    My cousins, Jon and Sharon McLane live on Harsens Island and I have been blessed to be able to visit them over the years and experience this unique and interesting Michigan spot.

  6. carl goeckel April 26, 2017 at 10:19 am #

    I visited The Island in the late 50’s & early 60’s with my long time & great friend Skip Armstrong. Wonderful memories.
    carl goeckel

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