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Portage Lake is a fantastic stop for Lake Michigan travelers. The lake is connected to Lake Michigan by a channel. Boating and sailing visitors often stop here on their way along the Lake Michigan shore.
Portage Lake started out as a land-locked lake separated from Lake Michigan by a narrow strip of land. A small, rapid flowing creek drained from the west end into Lake Michigan. Although likely visited by Father Marquette, the first Europeans to live for any length of time near Portage Lake were the crew of the schooner Prince Eugene that wrecked on November 15th, 1835 a few miles south of the present-day channel between Portage Lake and Lake Michigan. Out of necessity, they built a log cabin in the dunes and waited for spring. The Portage Lake area gradually drew settlers as the lumber business reached the area. By 1845, a small dam was built to power a sawmill at the outlet. The sawmill did a booming business and soon included a wooden pier built on Lake Michigan for water traffic and freight.
Unfortunately, when the mill was sold, the formerly good relations with area farmers and residents soon turned sour. The new mill owners constantly increased the dam, raising the lake level as much as six feet and flooding properties around the lake. in 1868, residents took the mill owners to court and won an injunction against them over the constant lake level problem. This apparently didn't end the problem, because residents decided to dig a channel to lower the lake level. Unfortunately, when the coffer dam holding back the water on the Portage Lake side was removed, water rushed out and cut a channel 500 feet wide and 12 feet deep, lowering the previously higher lake to the level of Lake Michigan several feet below. The old Portage Creek immediately dried up, ending the sawmill business. Suddenly, Portage Lake was now a port.
In 1878, Congress appropriated funds to develop Portage Harbor of Refuge, established a light on the pier head, and dredged the channel to a depth to allow for steamships. By 1914, steamships regularly called at the new town of Onekama on the north shore of Portage Lake. Along with the steamships came summer residents and the building of resorts. Many of the lumber barons of the Midwest built lavish homes along the shore. Resorts large and small soon followed. Several church groups developed resort properties for the use of their members. At one time, there were as many as six resorts on the lake.
An added attraction to these resorts was the many artesian springs in the area, reputed to be laden with beneficial minerals. Many of these old buildings survive and have been refurbished into modern resorts and, in one instance, Portage Lake condos. The artesian wells and mineral springs still exist and are an interesting side trip for visitors.
The resorts did a flourishing business during Prohibition when high-grade alcohol was shipped in from Canada on schooners. At least one resort had a deep-water marina and could accommodate the very largest Great Lakes steamers. There are even a couple of shipwrecks at the bottom of Portage Lake. One, the steamer, Music - a pleasure steamer that offered moonlight concert tours - caught fire at the Onekama dock and was set adrift, burning vigorously. A report from that era reminisces that the Music made a glorious sight, floating off into the darkness engulfed in flames. Interestingly, the other shipwreck was the result of fire aboard. Several resorts also burned in Portage Lake's history, victims of the very industry that brought them to fruition.
The first sailing club established on Portage Lake was the Onekama Sailing Club, in operation from 1896 to 1910. In 1936, the Portage Lake Yacht Club was established to promote small boat sailing on the lake. The club still continues to award the Pabst Cup, originally donated by the Pabst Brewery to the old Onekama Sailing Club. Portage Lake is still an extremely popular recreational lake and receives large numbers of sailboats, pleasure boats and fishing boats each year. Several Lake Michigan fishing charter boats operate out of Onekama. In winter, ice boating has become popular.
There are two public boat launches on Portage Lake, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR)-owned launch in the northwest corner, and one owned by the Village of Onekama in town. Several bass tournaments are hosted on the lake each year. Other fish species caught are Walleye, Northern Pike, Bluegill, Crappie, Chinook Salmon and Coho Salmon. Ice fishing is very popular, with many anglers spending most weekends on the ice.
For a change from water sports, there are plenty of other activities for visitors to enjoy. Hiking trails are plentiful in the area. An RV park on the south side of Portage Lake can accommodate those who enjoy 'roughing it' in motor home style. In winter, there is plentiful snowmobiling, downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and ice skating. Within a five mile radius visitors will find Little River Casino, wine tasting, tennis courts, Bear Lake, award-winning restaurants, several golf courses and more. A bit farther away are Manistee, Arcadia, Frankfort, Crystal Mountain, The Ramsdell Theatre, Interlochen Arts Academy, Point Betsie Lighthouse, and the Sleeping Bear Dunes.
Special events close to Portage Lake are plentiful and include Bear Lake Christmas, Victorian Port City Festival, Muzzleloaders Shoot-time, The Victorian Christmas Festival, Manistee National Forest Festival, Frankfort Art Fair, Onekama Fall Festival, Bear Lake Days and other events.
Real estate in the area is not yet overly expensive in many areas. There are properties to be had with lake frontage, even in the village of Onekama. Weekly and summer vacation rentals are plentiful. Come visit Portage Lake this summer. If you come by boat, call ahead to the local marina and check the depth of the channel: the channel sometimes becomes too shallow if the sand hasn't been dredged out recently, and large boats can't make it in stormy weather.
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