History of the Port of Cheboygan
By Matthew J. Friday
The Cheboygan River provided the impetus for the settlement of much of Northern Michigan. Cheboygan’s first settlers, Jacob Sammons and Alexander McLeod, came to the area from Mackinac Island in 1844 seeking to use the current at the rapids located just up the river to power their sawmill. As development continued, so too did the river’s vital role not just in lumber, but in transportation.
In order for the settlement to grow, however, the Cheboygan River would have to be improved. Originally a shallow and narrow river, congress approved federal funds for dredging in March of 1871. The sand bar at the mouth became less of an obstacle after a channel was cut measuring 50 feet in width and a depth of nine feet. In June of 1880 additional funds were improved for widening and deepening the river from the mouth of the river to Third (State) Street. The channel, meanwhile, was dug to 18 feet and widened to 150 feet. In June 1883 the Northern Tribune reported that, “There is plenty of water to admit the largest craft on the lakes and plenty of room for winding after they get in.” The next year, a pier was built leading into the Straits of Mackinac at the mouth of the river, and two range lights constructed. One of these range lights is situated on a lighthouse which is currently being restored; the other range light is a bit further south and located on a high tower.
Cheboygan boomed in the latter part of the 19th century from the logging industry. Evidence of this can be found in the official records of the US Customs House located here. In 1876, clearances reported by the customs house was 176; in 1880, 384; and by 1892, 620. These figures are likely very low compared to the actual number of clearances, as many outbound vessels had received clearance elsewhere and were not required to report to US Customs.
But the port was not just used for commercial purposes. Beginning in 1869, Cheboygan became a regular port of call for some of the finest and largest passenger ferries on the Great Lakes. With no railroad to Cheboygan until 1881, passenger travel by water was essential. Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company steamers regularly docked in Cheboygan, as did those of the Arnold Transit Company.
In 1907 a river improvement project dredged the river to 8 ½ feet deep and 60 feet wide from the Third Street Bridge to the site of the Cheboygan River Locks.
The last major dredging project occurred in 1939 when a 700 foot wide, 420 foot long turning basin was created to allow larger lake freighters to turn around in the river without having to back out stern-first and then turn around in the lake. The US Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw now docks here as well, as it has since 1944.
Whereas many rivers have to be dredged yearly, the Cheboygan River rarely needs to be due to its swift current. Today, the Cheboygan River continues to be an important link for the community and the area. Oil tankers, freighters, research vessels, car ferries, and recreational boaters all utilize this important and reliable artery for commerce and industry.