Mackinac: Michigan’s Horsepowered Island
If you’ve ever wondered what it was like when the horse-drawn carriage ruled the streets, Michigan’s Mackinac Island is your next destination.
Top photo: Horses pull a tour carriage through the streets of Mackinac. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
It began innocently enough–the locals of Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-awe) Island petitioned their village council in 1896 to ban automobiles because the noise spooked the carriage horses. The council agreed, and the ban was never lifted, leaving Mackinac to the horses. Now a popular tourist destination, Mackinac is famous for its horse-drawn carriages and relaxed way of life. Motorized transport is restricted only to emergency vehicles, construction vehicles and snowmobiles in winter.
Mackinac lies in the Straits of Mackinac of Lake Huron, between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The island is most commonly reached by ferry, but small charter planes also make use of a runway; snowmobiles travel to the mainland via ice road in the winter when the ferry is shut down. Bicycles are a common form of transportation on the island, which is under four square miles in area. Other than bicycling and walking, however, everything else on Mackinac is moved by horses.
The largest carriage livery on the island is Mackinac Island Carriage Tours, which boasts a herd of 350 draft horses (mostly Percherons and Belgians.) These horses pull the large tour carriages in pairs or three-abreasts–pairs pull a smaller and narrower carriage to fit through the streets of the village while the larger three-abreast teams pull large-capacity carriages through the state park, which dominates a large part of the island. The tours point out various historic structures within the village, such as the Grand Hotel, as well as various natural delights in the park. Carriages travel the only Michigan state highway that is completely closed to automobiles.
In addition, the company provides wedding services complete with picturesque custom carriages as well as a 24-hour radio-dispatched taxi service anywhere on the island. The livery keeps several full-time farriers employed and several teams of horses are also on duty to haul hay up from the ferry to the headquarters. In the winter, those 350 horses relax on a mainland farm, hanging out in a giant draft horse herd until the lake melts and it’s time to return to Mackinac.
Some of the island’s residents–whether strictly seasonal, or year-round dwellers–keep their own private horses and carriages with hired drivers and grooms to keep their teams exercised. Historically, Mackinac has been a summer home for the wealthy, with the carriage drivers of a different social class than the seasonal residents. However, these barriers have mostly broken down, especially as fewer and fewer residents wish to continue to keep horses. Despite the island’s rich history with carriages and horses, residents have begun petitioning to keep golf carts with the horses relegated to tourism.
While the horse and carriage might be losing a little ground, Mackinac will continue to ban motorized vehicles for the foreseeable future, leaving one little corner of the country where the gentle sound of hooves clip-clopping on pavement can be music to all of our ears. Long live the Mackinac carriage horses!
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