Get to know a Great Lake: Michigan

By Jamie Bradburn - Published on October 6, 2016
Lake Michigan's largest cities are Chicago and Milwaukee, which also serve as its major shipping ports. (The Gugler Lithographic Co./Library of Congress)



As the Great Lakes Public Forum took place in Toronto this week, profiles each of the Great Lakes— today, Lake Michigan.

“As my plane descended into Chicago, I looked down at Lake Michigan and thought how strange it was that such a large body of water could be fresh.”

– Jerry Dennis, The Living Great Lakes, 2003

The Sleeping Bear Dunes near Empire, Michigan were named after an Indigenous legend about a mother bear and her two cubs. The family swam across Lake Michigan to flee a forest fire, according to the tale, and when the cubs drowned near the shoreline, the Great Spirit Manitou took pity and marked the spots with the Manitou Islands. The spot on a bluff the mother climbed to wait for her cubs became the dune.

The lake’s name derives from a term used in various Algonquian languages for “big lake.” Indigenous nations who lived along Lake Michigan included the Fox, Illinois, Menominee, Miami, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Winnebago. Early encounters with Europeans could be farcical when they weren't tragic: When French explorer Jean Nicollet landed in Green Bay in 1634, he draped himself in a damask robe and fired off muskets in the belief he was about to meet Chinese officials. Tribal rivalries, exacerbated by alliances with European powers, led to years of warfare in the early 18th century in present-day Wisconsin.

By the mid-19th century, the lake’s two largest cities took shape. Milwaukee experienced a heavy influx of German immigrants who fled the Revolutions of 1848. They developed a thriving beer industry, aided by the recipes they brought across the Atlantic, a large natural ice supply, nearby farmers who supplemented their grain harvests by growing hops, and high taxes applied on other forms of booze after the Civil War. By the end of the century, brewers like Blatz, Miller, Pabst and Schlitz were on their way to becoming familiar names.

As the 20th century dawned, Chicago had developed into America’s second-largest city after New York (today it’s number three, having been outpaced by Los Angeles). Amid its rapid growth, officials made provisions to protect its lakefront for public use. In 1836 officials set aside a narrow strip of shoreline to be “a public ground — a common to remain forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstruction whatever.” The work of architects like Daniel Burnham and mail order catalogue tycoon Aaron Montgomery Ward contributed to the endurance of Grant Park and the overall waterfront park system, helping Chicago live up to its motto, Urbs in Horto (“city in a garden”).

East of Chicago, the Indiana Dunes played a formative role in the field of North American ecology due to the pioneering work of botanist Henry Cowles at the turn of the 20th century. His observations of this section of the largest collection of freshwater dunes in the world, with their shifting sands and treelines, helped establish ecology as the study of how environments change over time. Conservationists campaigned to preserve the dunes as industrial and residential growth encroached on them. Following an outcry over a proposed deep sea port, Congress established the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966.

Among the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan falls in the middle: second in volume (4,918 cubic kilometres) and population (12 million), third in surface area (57,753 square kilometres) and average depth (85 metres). The only Great Lake contained entirely within the United States, it is bordered by Michigan on its north and east, Wisconsin on the northwest, Illinois on the southwest, and Indiana on the south. Its largest cities are Chicago (2,720,546) and Milwaukee (600,155), which also serve as its major shipping ports.

The lake supports active commercial and sport fisheries, though its aquatic diversity has varied over time. Native fish include bass, perch, sturgeon, trout and whitefish. Overfishing and the invasion of alewives and sea lampreys after the First World War decimated stocks, especially of trout. Attempts to restore the natural balance and attract fishermen included an annual stocking of the lake with salmon and trout. Fears of the invasive Asian carp entering Michigan and the other Great Lakes via the Chicago River have provoked calls for the separation of the Great Lakes and Mississippi River watersheds

Vegetation-wise, the northern portion of the lake has a mixed cover forest shaped by thick glacial deposits, which includes beech, birch, oak, pine and sugar maple. Some protected forest areas along the shore of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula cover the remains of 19th century mines and boom towns. A transitional savanna is found on the west side of the lake, which includes basswood, maple, and walnut trees, a tallgrass prairie, and an endangered oak savanna. Sand dunes along the Indiana shoreline provide habitats for over 1,400 species of vascular plants.

Tomorrow: Lake Ontario

Read more: 

Get to Know a Great Lake: Superior

Get to Know a Great Lake: Erie

Get to Know a Great Lake: Huron

The Great Lakes: An ecosystem in peril

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