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The Ottawa tribe of Native Americans called Lake Macatawa "Ma-Ca-Ta-Wa" or Black Lake. The water, like many lakes in northern states, was dark from tannin released by decaying vegetation. Tributaries feeding into this natural lake include the Macatawa River, Pine Creek, and Winstrom Creek. Lake Macatawa formed at the mouth of the Macatawa River, just east of the Lake Michigan shore. When first surveyed in 1821, the surveyor was impressed enough that he purchased the Lake Michigan beach land that later became the Ottawa Beach and Macatawa Resorts.
The land rush created by the wildcat banking bubble sent settlers to the Lake Macatawa area in the early 1800s. By 1832, a sawmill had been built midway up the lakeshore, and three small settlements were platted out. When the wildcat banking boom crashed, the settlements more or less died. Many people moved away, and Lake Macatawa (aka Black Lake) was mostly quiet. Villages were un-platted and re-platted.
In 1846, a group of 60 Dutch Calvinists led by Rev. Albertus C. VanRaalte left Rotterdam (Netherlands) to head for New York, intending to settle in Wisconsin. After hearing about available lands in West Michigan, VanRaalte decided to look it over. He reached the banks of Black Lake on January 1st, 1847 and the first group of settlers arrived on February 9th, 1847. The settlers began clearing land and establishing their village. Industrious people, they soon had a village plotted out and a park established. After failing to obtain government assistance, the men got to work and dug a channel at the other end of the lake to connect it directly to Lake Michigan, bypassing the smaller crooked outlet. They also renamed it Lake Macatawa.
By 1871, two rail lines had built spurs to the new city of Holland, Michigan and business was booming. Many businesses grew up on the shore of Lake Macatawa. Unfortunately, the day of the Great Chicago Fire, Holland also caught fire in the drought. Over 80% of the city was burned and many lives lost. The staunch Dutch settlers simply began anew and, with help from businessmen in Grand Rapids, soon were back in business.
In the late 1800's the resort business exploded when the Chicago yachting crowd discovered the resorts at the mouth of the channel. As the channel had been dredged to accommodate Great lakes freighters, steamships soon arrived filled with vacationers and summer residents. Now, more visitors arrived by boat than by rail. Many wealthy families bought property in the new 'sub-divisions' outside of the resorts on both sides of the channel, building two and three-story Victorian 'cottages' connected by narrow streets and wooden boardwalks. John Jacob Astor vacationed here, and Frank Baum worked on his most famous novel, The Wizard of Oz, at the family cottage on Lake Macatawa. Later, President Gerald Ford spent all of his summers at the family property here while growing up.
A variety of activities built up to amuse the summer guests, including a zoo near the Big Red lighthouse north of the channel. The proprietors dug a tunnel through the dune to take the elephants down to Lake Michigan. The tunnel still exists in Tunnel Park, now a county park. Several yachting and sailing clubs developed marinas on Lake Macatawa, excursion boats plied the lake, and Lake Macatawa cottagers developed a society of their own making.
In the 1920's fire took its toll of both of the biggest resort hotels at different times, taking many of the cottages with it on both occasions. The lack of adequate fire equipment and the inability to get fire brigades up the narrow lanes caused much property to be sacrificed to the burning embers driven by lakeshore breeze. New cottages were built, but never on as grand a scale as the originals. Now these neighborhoods exist as gated communities, still served by the same narrow streets and wooden boardwalks. Many of the same families still summer here in Lake Macatawa.
Up the lake, the city of Holland grew and prospered, with furniture-making and tanneries. Hope College became known as one of the premier liberal arts colleges. The world's largest pickle factory, belonging to HJ Heinz, cans over a million pounds of pickles a year. Now in business for over 100 years, the aroma of vinegar and spices can be smelled in certain areas of town.
Through all of its travails and triumphs, Lake Macatawa has remained a sailing hotspot. An easy sail from Chicago, the marinas cater to the visitors with fine dining and every sundry necessary to enjoy life. Because the channel and lake are dredged to accommodate Great Lakes freighters for local shipping, even the largest pleasure boats can enjoy a berth here. The Coast Guard Station is located on Lake Macatawa rather than Lake Michigan. Yachts are now joined by all sorts of sports water craft for water skiing and wakeboarding. Equipment rentals, including kayaks, are popular for bird watching and wildlife viewing along the Lake Macatawa shore and Macatawa River.
Lake Macatawa has always been a favorite for fishermen. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) maintains three public boat launches, and there is public swimming and camping at the two units of Holland State Park. This unique park has space on both Lake Macatawa and Lake Michigan. The acres of state land assure plenty of room for hiking and exploring. Fishermen enjoy catching Bluegill and Crappie and larger game fish such as Walleye, Northern Pike, Muskie and Chinook Salmon, Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, and Brown Trout. In winter, true fishermen don't let the cold stop them: they can hardly wait until the ice is thick enough to spud a hole and drop in a line. Charter fishing can also be arranged from here.
For those wanting a day away from the water, the city of Holland has much to offer the visitor. Windmill Island with its 250-year-old Dutch windmill is a celebration of Dutch culture. One of the biggest celebrations each year in May is Tulip Time, where the streets are all lined with tulips and the festivities continue for the full week. Holland also has three museums and exhibits of interest at Hope College, plus music and theater. Downtown Holland has been revitalized and presents a full array of activities for every taste. Water quality has improved as the lake recovers from its difficult early industrial past, and Holland is determined to restore Lake Macatawa to better-than-new condition.
At only 30 miles from Grand Rapids and 150 miles from Chicago, Lake Macatawa is an easy weekend trip. To truly experience Lake Macatawa will take a little longer. Rental cottages and condos are available, even within the gated old communities at the mouth of the harbor, so pack your bags today.
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