The Victorian Port City of Manistee

Where to Stay

Hotels and motels, from rustic to elegant, abound in Manistee County, as do campgrounds, cabins, cottages, resorts and private lakefront homes for rent — many with boat dockage.

For an out-of-the-ordinary experience, try the S.S.City of MilwaukeeBoatel, a former car ferry and a National Historic Landmark built in the 1920s. Or there’s the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Acacia, a 180-foot buoy tender built in 1942. Both are docked side-by-side on Manistee Lake, now museums open for guided tours.

On the S.S.City of Milwaukee,which also becomes a spooky ghost ship come October, stay in Craftsman-style staterooms with varnished oak and brass interiors. Linens are available, but bring your own food to prepare in the galley. Acacia might be perfect for your large family or Boy Scout troop. Bring your sleeping bags, toiletries and food. Visit for more information.

The Ramsdell Inn ( on River Street overlooking the Riverwalk, built in the 1890s, was first home to the Manistee County Savings Bank. It has been exquisitely renovated with its fabulous period lobby still intact, and a bank vault is now used for notions and gifts. TJ’s Pub, with its fresh menu, fine wines and craft beers, is located at street level.

Just north of the city, Orchard Beach State Park and Campground overlooks Lake Michigan and has hiking trails.

Lake Bluff Bed & Breakfast north of Orchard Beach also overlooks Lake Michigan and is home to the 75-acre Michigan Audubon wildlife sanctuary.

More to Explore

If serenity and a small town atmosphere suit you, look no further than the surrounding Manistee ports of Onekama and Arcadia.

The 2,000-acre Portage Lake is surrounded by hills and deep green fir and pine trees with depths up to 45 feet. It offers great fishing and breezes for sailors without the big rock-and-roll of Lake Michigan. Channel depth is about 8 feet with some shoaling.

While there’s no municipal marina in Portage Lake, full-service Onekama Marine, established in 1963, helps boaters take care of all their waterside needs. As the oldest continually operating marina in Manistee County, Onekama specializes in sales, service and brokerage and employs certified technicians and a professional support staff to assist with all customers’ marine-related repairs and service. Winter storage is no problem, as Onekama offers heated, cold and outdoor options with 28-foot clear doors for even the tallest of boats. Voted a “Top 100 Dealer” by Boating Industry magazine, Onekama has five convenient locations: Four in Manistee County and one in Bay Harbor/Petoskey.

Dockage is also available at the Portage Point Inn marina.

Known as a Two-Lake Town, the Village of Onekama, pronounced o-NECK-a-ma, sits on the northern shore of Portage Lake located in the center of Manistee County. Now a haven of summer homes for vacationers, it was once known for its lumber business. Onekama Village Park features a boat ramp, swimming beach, picnic tables and restroom facilities.

On Monday nights from July through August, the Portage Lake Association sponsors Concerts in the Park at 7 p.m. Enjoy 50s, 60s and 70s pop/rock, Michigan Folk Music and a blues/folk combination. Bring your own chair, blanket, family, friends and pets and join 250 to 400 other music lovers for the festivities. Church groups sell baked goods, and Annie and Teddy’s Ice Cream Shoppe is located right next door.

Visit The Glenwood Restaurant for extraordinary fine dining, the Blue Slipper for casual up-north good food, and don’t miss MacBeth and Co. (across from the Blue Slipper) for a truly enjoyable shopping experience.

Onekama Days Festival takes place the first weekend in August and showcases not only fishing contests for all ages, but also impressive fireworks at dusk. At the Manistee County Fair, fairgoers can enjoy exhibits, shows and events The second Saturday in October, folks in Onekama look forward to Fall Festival, which includes hayrides, kids’ pumpkin carving contests and more than 50 scarecrows on display. And then there’s WinterFest. Be one of 750 ice fishing contestants in a competition sponsored by Osbourne’s Sporting Goods, participate in the sled dog race, or take an airboat tour.

For more information about the Village of Onekama, visit

Further north, Arcadia Lake offers a well-protected harbor of refuge with no surge. It’s a favorite for those who like a quiet country atmosphere, according to Mark Held, harbormaster at Arcadia Township’s Veteran’s Memorial Marina.

Boaters may have read that Arcadia Lake channel levels are low, but Held says dredging will bring the channel depth to between 10 and 12 feet. The marina offers transient and seasonal dockage for boats up to 65 feet. Fuel and pump-out are available. Additional facilities include restrooms with showers, laundry and free WiFi.

It’s about a quarter-mile from the marina to the public beach on Lake Michigan and a four-block walk to downtown, which features the Arcadia Historical Museum, restaurant, service station, convenience store, and ice cream and gift shop. Arcadia Lake is home to two marinas: Arcadia Marine, with a full-service boatyard, mobile marine service and Travelift; and Arcadia Campground and Marina.

For more information, visit

The Victorian Port City of Manistee

By Maralee Cook
This charming Michigan port invites you to kick back, relax and enjoy!

So, you’ve heard about Manistee County and its 25 miles of sandy, walkable Lake Michigan shoreline, three harbors of refuge and spectacular fishing, and you’re thinking, “Ah, the perfect kick-off-your-shoes vacation spot.”

Yep, you’d be right about that. But don’t kick them too far. There’s plenty to see and do here after you leave the beach. In fact, there’s a long list of suggestions for things you could pack if you’re heading to Manistee County this summer.

Fill a small bag with your favorite play clothes, bathing suit, flip-flops, golf shoes and sneakers. Keep it simple; no fancy duds necessary. What you do need to make room for, however, is the fun stuff: Fishing gear, tennis racket,  golf clubs, kayak, and bicycle. Strap them to the cabin top of your boat, stuff them in the dinghy, or tuck them under the boat cover if you’re trailering. And don’t forget the kids. This is family-friendly territory. 

Of the three ports — Arcadia to the north, Portage Lake, and Onekama in the center — the largest and southernmost is the City of Manistee. If you’re traveling by boat and spotted the stately, 85-year-old white pierhead light with its dramatic black iron catwalk, you know you’re close to the Victorian port city of Manistee. And if you follow a 600-foot-long Great Lakes freighter into this deep water port, or spy a movie crew and the occasional camel along the shoreline, you’ll begin to understand there’s more going on here than just a good time at the beach.

Rich in history

The reverence for nature is obvious in the pristine shoreline. But what can’t be seen from Lake Michigan are the 170 years of history and entrepreneurship that flourishes in Manistee today.

To the east lie rolling hills, farmland, orchards, the Manistee National Forest, campgrounds, seven golf courses, the Big and Little Manistee rivers, which flow into Manistee Lake, many inland lakes, rivers and streams, and a handful of small towns that offer the best of nature, year-round outdoor sports, history, culture and architecture — plus shopping, dining and entertainment. 

The name Manistee is generally interpreted from Native American language meaning “Spirit of the Woods.” It refers to the whisper of rivers flowing through the pine and hemlock trees. Small wonder, with more than 270 miles of rivers and streams “whispering” through the county. 

Father Jacques Marquette is credited with being the first white man to visit the shores of Manistee in the early 1600s. Home to members of the Ottawa and other Native American tribes, missionaries and settlers tried without success to establish a presence in this area over the next 200 years. In 1836, the Treaty of Washington established reservations in the area. Then, in 1840, John Stronach and his sons explored the area and built the first lumber mill. The configuration of the Big and Little Manistee rivers flowing into Manistee Lake, which then flows two miles west into Lake Michigan, was a natural for the lumber industry. Word spread of the opportunities for lumbering and shipping, and construction of more mills quickly followed. 

By 1870 Manistee was a bustling city of 3,000 fueled by the economic boom from lumber, shingles, agriculture and shipping. It funded the construction of schools, churches and shops, new homes and businesses, plus improvements to the river and harbor.

One year later, however, disaster would strike. On October 8, 1871, the same day the Great Fire leveled Chicago, fires also burned from southwestern Michigan north to Mackinaw across the state to Lake Huron, including in Manistee. When it became clear that fire surrounded the city, the steamer Messenger crowded women and children on board and ferried them into the center of Manistee Lake for safety. More than 1,000 people were left homeless, and property loss was valued at more than $1 million. 

With no telegraph service and 80 miles from the nearest railroad, residents and business owners would not learn until a few days later that the insurance the residents thought would be available from Chicago companies to restore their city and their lives no longer existed. The city appealed for aid, and Manistee residents received more than $5,000 in donations for the needy and a plethora of supplies. Within a year, telegraph communication had been established and the fire became a catalyst for rebuilding, with a focus on better materials and safety. The wood bridge spanning the Manistee River Channel that burned was replaced with iron, and in the months and years to come railroads were established and many wooden buildings were replaced with brick structures.

Wealthy industrialists whose businesses were not devastated continued to prosper. Salt was discovered, and mining and production began in the early 1880s. Manistee quickly became known as the “Salt City” and was a leading salt producer in the late 1890s. By then there were more than 20 millionaires in Manistee, and several commissioned well-known architects of the period to design their homes, offices and churches. Many of these buildings are still in use today and are on the national and state historic registers.

World-class fishing

The lumber industry faded by the 1920s. During the 20th century a variety of businesses came and went, including Century Boats, which built popular wooden boats in Manistee for 60 years. A paper mill that started in 1916 on Manistee Lake is now Packaging Corporation of America. Salt mining also continues at the Morton Salt plant on Manistee Lake, joining other industry serviced by Great Lakes freighters to the delight of onlookers. Agriculture still abounds in the farms and orchards that line the main highways of US-31 and M-22 and side roads throughout the county. 

Year-round fishing has boosted the tourism industry in Manistee for the last several decades. Hundreds of fishermen chase Chinook and coho salmon, brown trout, walleye, perch, pike and steelhead, which are found in abundance. More than 30 charter boats operate along the coast, and boat-launch parking lots are filled with trailers left by fisherman who’ve brought their own boats. Fishing guides and camps are bustling on the inland lakes and rivers, temporarily raising the existing countywide population of roughly 25,000. 

The city has dedicated more than 130 acres of Lake Michigan beachfront to two municipal parks, which flank the north and south shores of the Manistee River Channel serving as jumping off points for summer fun. 

Fifth Avenue Beach and Park on the north side is marked by the pierhead light and bright-red brick 14,000-square-foot U.S. Coast Guard Station built in 2003. Station Manistee was established in 1879 when the city was second only to Chicago’s Calumet Harbor in commercial tonnage shipping traffic. In 1996 the station was almost closed due to proposed funding cuts. “Save Our Station” became a rallying cry for the community and state officials, and the successful campaign led to Station Manistee’s transformation. With its 47-foot Motor Life Boat and 25-foot Response Boat, the crew performs between 50 and 60 search and rescue missions during the summer months. Security patrols, law enforcement, ice rescue missions and training are also a big part of the station’s responsibility. Tours of the station and boats are available, but call ahead (231-723-7412).

The pier, until it’s covered in ice and snow in the winter, is busy from dawn to dusk as a favorite fishing and sunset-watching destination. It adjoins the 79-acre park, which includes 1.5 miles of Lake Michigan beachfront, plus tennis courts and a children’s playground. A beautiful concession-comfort station that includes a fireplace is the site of many a family reunion, fund-raising party and wedding destination.

4th of July fun

On the south side of the Manistee River Channel, Douglas Park Beach is marked by two more piers that do triple duty for guiding boats into the channel, fishing and walking, while also creating a smaller more protected beach and a bay ideal for anchoring. Another wide, sugar-sand beach stretches to the south. 

If you like jazz, stop by the park’s gazebo on Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. and listen to concerts sponsored by the ShoreLine Showcase Concert Series. A new beachfront snack bar/comfort station is under construction as part of the city’s redevelopment of the park. The largest of the city’s three municipal boat launches is located here, with eight launch ramps and a multitude of parking for vehicles and boat trailers. A new fish cleaning station will replace the current one later this year. 

On July 4 this park becomes the go-to celebration area for the city’s Forest Festival, July 4-8. Following the 10 a.m. parade downtown on River Street featuring more than 170 entries, walk down to Douglas Park Beach. You’ll hear the joyful laughter of kids at the carnival and midway. Entertainment and food is available all day on the 4th beginning at noon, capped off by spectacular fireworks over Lake Michigan at dark. But you might want to make time for a nap on the beach. Sunsets this time of year are long and lazy; it doesn’t get dark until 10:30 p.m. Visit
for a complete schedule of events.

Douglas Park Beach is also the starting point for the 1.75-mile handicapped accessible Riverwalk. It’s busy from dawn until dusk, with people enjoying the view as it meanders from the mouth of the Manistee River Channel and Lake Michigan, past several marinas right into the downtown business district on River Street. 

The centerpiece of the Riverwalk is the Manistee Municipal Marina building, a contemporary Victorian structure in a lush park setting. The full-service, deep draft marina has an additional benefit for sailors in the absence of bridges between Lake Michigan and the marina. “We are also the only municipal marina in the state of Michigan that I know of that offers a special dockside lift for wheelchair-bound boaters,” adds Dave Bachman, public safety director and harbormaster. “It’s available to any boater, whether docked here or at one of the private marinas.” 

If you are looking to anchor out, continue on to Manistee Lake for a secure refuge — with the added bonus of spectacular sunrises over the marshes. You may even see a bald eagle snatching a fish from the lake for breakfast. 

If you would prefer a slip or need repairs while on Lake Manistee, Seng’s Marina provides unmatched service. This family-owned and -operated full-service marina offers a clean, scenic, friendly and secure facility. They will even arrange transportation to local attractions. For more information, call 231-723-9444 or visit

Historic architecture

Manistee’s Municipal Marina is adjacent to the historic downtown, with ornate Victorian and early 20th century buildings that feature unique shops and restaurants, museums and cultural attractions. Dine on the deck overlooking the river at The Boathouse Grill next to the marina and at River Street Station a couple of blocks east. 

Need to replenish or refurbish the galley on your boat or in your home? The Ideal Kitchen, Moving Spirit, River Street, Stockyard and Spirits, and the Glenwood Market can help you do that and pick up gifts as well. Surroundings offers a large selection of cigars, a walk-in humidor and candles and gifts. Kelli’s Hallmark will help you remember friends and family back home. 

Continue your stroll east to Snyder’s Shoes, two bookstores, home furnishings, an art gallery, children’s clothing, photographic supplies and antique malls. Need office supplies, a yoga stretch, organic foods or hardware? There’s all that and more within walking distance. And as in many small towns, most of the businesses are owned and operated by area residents who warmly welcome visitors to this city of about 6,000. Walk across the river channel on the Maple Street Bridge to the Victorian style Jaycees Bandshell, which hosts Roots on the River folk music Thursday evenings July to August. The Saturday morning downtown Farmers Market includes crafts and musicians from mid-May to mid-October, and Super Saturdays in the summer keep things hopping with specials and entertainment.

There are two Manistee County Historical Museums in the city. The former A.H. Lyman Store, built in 1883 on River Street, is open year round and offers documents, exhibits, displays, period rooms and extensive collections of Victorian antiques and photographs. The Waterworks Building, built in 1881 on First Street, is open during July and August and showcases logging, railroad and marine memorabilia.

The Vogue Theatre, an Art Deco-style building built in 1938, is being renovated by public and private funding helped by a donation from Michigan native and filmmaker Michael Moore. The Manistee Fire Hall, built in 1888, is the oldest continuously operating fire hall in Michigan and is a registered historic site. It is open daily for tours.

Built in 1869, Our Savior Historical Church Museum is the oldest existing Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Romanesque First Congregational Church, erected in 1892, contains two Tiffany windows and a Nels Johnson Tower Clock. You can flag down the Manistee Trolley for a guided historical tour or pick up a program for a self-guided walking tour of 50 residential and commercial architectural beauties. 

The Ramsdell legacy

The Ramsdell Theatre, built by attorney T.J. Ramsdell in 1903, was designed by famed architect Solon S. Berman with an act curtain by Walter Burridge, who designed the sets for the original stage production of “The Wizard of Oz.” It is home to the Manistee Civic Players who will perform “Lil Abner” beginning June 30. “The Glass Menagerie,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and “White Christmas” will also be performed this year. The Manistee Art Institute hosts art shows in the theater’s Hardy Hall in conjunction with plays in the main theatre, and art, dance and music classes are also offered. 

The Ramsdell has nurtured the career of one of filmdom’s most notable actors. James Earl Jones, who grew up a few miles east of Manistee, was a stage carpenter and an actor here in the 1950s. The legacy has continued with actors Toni Trucks and Daniel J. Edwards, who both grew up on the Ramsdell stage. Trucks, who has been in several movies and TV shows, plays the character “Mary” in the November 2012 release of “Twilight: Breaking Dawn 2”; Edwards is currently starring on Broadway in “Anything Goes.” 

The Ramsdell Theatre also has the distinction of being the city’s home for premier showings of movies filmed in the area. Producer Harold Cronk has filmed six movies here in the last few years, including 2010’s “What If?” for the Hallmark Channel starring Kristy Swanson and Kevin Sorbo, and “Mickey Matson and the Copperhead Conspiracy,” a children’s adventure, in 2011. With seven films in various stages of development, including a second “Mickey Matson,” Cronk said he wrote Mickey Matson based on area locations, calling the visuals “astounding.” He added that filming here was made possible by converting storage facilities owned by Seng’s Marina into set building and film studios, including the Manistee Iron Works, built in 1907, which also houses his offices of 10 West Studios. 

Year-round beauty

In 1994 the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians was federally recognized. They now fully own and operate the Little River Casino Resort, with its excellent facilities, restaurants and entertainment, and will construct a new government center this year. Their annual Jiingtamok Pow Wow is held July 7-8 at the Tribe’s Gathering Grounds, across from the casino.

Spring through late fall, golfers can be seen at the county’s several golf courses. The historic Manistee Golf and Country Club sits just south of Douglas Beach Park and overlooks Lake Michigan, and along with Manistee National Golf and Resort, The Heathlands, Fox Hills Golf Course, Fawn Crest Golf Course, Bear Lake Highlands, and Arcadia Bluffs, offers a variety of challenges for the novice or experienced golfer.

Hiking and biking bring outdoor enthusiasts by the hundreds, especially in fall. M-22, a Scenic Heritage Route, begins its journey north in Manistee as it winds its way toward Onekama and Arcadia. Under a canopy of brilliant red, orange and yellow leaves, it continues to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, voted “Most Beautiful Place in America” on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” (see story pages 28-33) and follows Lake Michigan around the Leelanau Peninsula.

Come back to Manistee in the winter. Snowmobile the hundreds of miles of trails, go ice fishing, cross-country ski, or snowshoe the trails you hiked this summer or fall. Nearby ski resorts Caberfae and Crystal Mountain offer great downhill skiing and snowboarding. Spend a day shopping and dining, too.

All that, and you can still kick off your shoes or boots — then warm your toes by the fire.