1871 : Portage Lake Channel Opens

May 14, 2022 all-day
The history of the Portage Lake Channel

The history of the Portage Lake Channel

It began as little more than a 4-foot wide by 2-foot deep ditch, but in the early morning hours of May 14, 1871, before any light of the new day, it became much more.

Approximately 30 men, nearly all of them homesteaders with land abutting Portage Lake, had spent two weeks digging the cut. It was only 500 yards long, but that relatively short distance fails to tell the entire story. Most of that distance was through a mature forest so dense only shovels, picks and axes could be used to dig.

It’s fair to ask why would anyone care? The answer brings us to the crux of the problem. The Chicago-based Porter & Company owned and operated a sawmill located at the northwest corner of Portage Lake.

The sawmill’s saw was driven by a water wheel that depended upon water from Portage Creek which was, at that time, the only natural outlet between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan. Left to its natural condition Portage Creek would never have been powerful enough to drive a sawmill. But Porter & Company dammed it up, much to the dismay of the farmers around Portage Lake.

The dam caused that lake to rise some 12 to 14 feet above its normal level and that flooded out valuable farmland. Adding to the farmers’ misery, when the sawmill opened the dam to utilize the water, the lake level lowered slowly and pockets of stagnate water formed to breed mosquitoes which carried a malaria-like illness the farmers called the ague.

The homesteaders took the lumbermen to court and won … almost. On May 25, 1870, Circuit Court Judge J.G. Ramsdell issued an injunction against Porter & Company that should have stopped the damming.

The writ allowed the mill seven months to cease and desist. However, due to a technicality in the way the writ was written, the injunction was never properly served. The spring of 1871 saw Porter & Company continue to dam Portage Creek, long after the writ’s grace period expired.

The irate farmers threatened to take matters into their own hands until cooler heads prevailed. Their restraint kept the law on the farmers’ side, even though the injunction was doing nothing to protect their interests or their health.

It is at this point they made the decision to make their own cut anticipating a gently flowing stream similar to what Portage Creek had been prior to the lumbermen’s damming of it.

The southwest corner of the mile-long isthmus between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan was its narrowest segment and it was here that the farmers planned to dig the cut between the two lakes.

This parcel of land was owned at the time by Theodore Heiss. There is no record that the farmers sought Heiss’s permission to dig the cut, but neither is there any record that Heiss objected. The answer to the question is left to the reader.

The men who dug the ditch along with their families reveled on the evening of May 13, 1871, as the cut neared its completion after two weeks of back breaking labor.

At some time after midnight, but before first light on May 14, the farmers’ bulwark holding back Portage Lake was pulled down and the “little ditch” they’d dug became a raging torrent of water.

In a matter of minutes, it grew to over a hundred feet wide and 10 to 12 feet deep, sweeping an entire forest 2 to 3 miles out into Lake Michigan.

The revelers, standing entirely too close, suddenly fled in terror from the ever-widening torrent of raging water. It is amazing that no lives were lost in that early morning’s darkness.

The sawmill closed and along with it so did the settlement of Portage, but the Village of Onekama sprang up just a few miles east along Portage Lake. Over the next 20 years the farmers’ cut succumbed to Lake Michigan’s relentless winds and waves.

In 1892 it was too shallow to be navigable when the schooner The City of Toledo foundered in a storm a few miles west of Portage Lake. The vessel and all hands were lost because the ship could not make safe harbor.

In 1893, Congress finally put money toward maintaining the channel and Portage Lake again became a safe harbor. Today, it is one of the most beautiful safe harbor channels on the Lake Michigan shoreline and certainly one with a rich and fascinating history.

Source : John Wemlinger, “The history of the Portage Lake Channel“, Manistee News Advocate, July 7, 2021.