Garnet Lake Campground – Finding a Lost Past in Mackinac County
A Point North
I came here on a whim. I didn’t know what to expect. The sign, “Garnet Lake State Forest Campground” had an arrow pointing down a sideroad. Those are the kinds of things that arouse my curiosity when I am cruising the U.P. I had never heard of the place which added more incentive. What I found was a little known secret place revealed.
It was remote yet there were a few residences I passed on the way in. When I drove into the campground, there was only one other camper. I spotted a shoreline site which drew me in. Surrounded by pines and hardwoods, the campsite was comfortable and spacious.
What I saw before me was a beautiful little lake. Flat and serene, cattails along the edges, it was the quiet place I had been looking for. I pitched my tent near the shore and unloaded my kayak. The small lake was an ideal place to paddle. That would be tomorrow’s fun. In the meantime I set up my camera on a tripod. I was on the east end of the lake and had an ideal view of the upcoming sunset. Already the sky was beginning to tint. It was the beginning of what would be a spectacular sunset.
The campground here is nice, but basically primitive. Though you can camp here with camper or trailer, there are no hookups, so it needs to be self sufficient and functional off-grid. The entire time I was here, there were only two other campers.
When I arrived, I knew nothing about Garnet Lake and the immediately surrounding area. I thought it was just a remote campground, but I was about to find out exactly how wrong I was.
It all began with my Kayak. It was a beautiful day and I couldn’t wait to get out on the water. There was a light breeze which kept the bugs away on the water. I began to paddle and the water was very clear and the bottom could be seen easily. I paddled near the reeds where I had seen flashes of red moving through them. They were dragonflies, thousands of them, bright red and flying everywhere. They moved so quickly it was nearly impossible to get a picture of them. It made me wonder if these were the reason for the name “Garnet” lake.
I paddled out towards the deeper part of the lake. I kept looking at the bottom. It was so clear that everything was visible. As I paddled towards the west end, I started seeing trees on the bottom, large trees. Then I saw they’d been cut. The trees were saw logs. Garnet Lake had been at one time a sawmill pond. There could be no other conclusion. That meant that this had been a stream at one time and had been dammed to hold logs for a mill. I paddled to where it looked like there might be a stream outlet. I found it, but it was brushy, grown over and small, so I couldn’t take the kayak further. It was just too much of a mess, so I turned around and headed back to camp, but now I was really thinking about what my paddle on the lake had revealed.
Somewhere down that creek should be the ruins of an old sawmill, maybe even more, like a ghost town or logging camp. Being a historian, the more I thought about this more intrigued I became. It was time to take a hike.
I grabbed my camera, some water and snacks and headed around the lake. The first thing I came to was the railroad which was still being used, though I hadn’t seen or heard a train since my arrival. The tracks shined with little rust. I turned west towards where I knew the sawmill creek exited the lake. It wasn’t long before I saw how right I was. First was the ruins of the old mill, then the remains of the old town of Garnet, Michigan. I realized the railroad was paralleling a black-top highway which I hadn’t realized was there either. It was H-40 which runs between US-2 and M-28. Garnet is between Rexton another ghost town and Engadine. To get to the lake I had taken a backroad from US-2 and had completely missed Garnet, the ghost town. There were remnants of the old town still standing while a few of the houses were still occupied, though Garnet today has little resemblance to Garnet of the past.
Originally called “Welch,” The town of Garnet at one time had around 500 residents. There was a sawmill which produced mostly shingles. A general store and hotel was there along with a harness maker. There was a saloon, a boarding house, school, and a doctor. They even had their own Justice of the Peace.
1897 is the first year Garnet appears on a census showing 500 residents. The population would decline beginning in 1910. In 1915 there was only 150 people left. By World War II, there were just a few houses and a sawmill operating there now making handles for axes, shovels and hammers. The sawmill operated until at least the late 1970’s but now is a crumbling ruin.
The layout of the town is still visible and a couple of the old original buildings can be seen, some empty, a few still being lived in. As I walked, I was pleased with myself for having deduced the old town had been here from the clues from my paddling. If I had come in from the north, M-28, I would have seen the remains of the town first and knew it was there from the beginning. But I hadn’t and I felt I had solved a mystery, added an extra layer to my stay at Garnet Lake.
Back at my campsite I was treated to another nice sunset. I would have to leave in the morning, but it had been an adventure of discovery. I would go back now and learn more about the little place named Garnet.