At the northern end of Lake Michigan lies the Manitou Passage, one of the deadliest stretches of water in the Great Lakes. In the heart of the Manitou Passage is Sleeping Bear Point, lying in wait, ready to snag any vessel who dares venture between her and the islands just offshore. A graveyard of shipwrecks lies in the sand beneath Sleeping Bear Point’s treacherous waters.
The Manitou Passage stretches from Cathead Point on the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula to the Point Betsie Light and encompasses North and South Manitou islands. The Manitou Passage is the most direct route to and from Chicago and Milwaukee, from Lake Huron and the rest of the Great Lakes. Chicago and Milwaukee are the two largest cities on Lake Michigan and were key shipping ports during America’s expansion to the West. During the heyday of Michigan lumbering, this was a booming shipping area. It is also an area where ships have sought safety by attempting to ride out storms in the lee of the Islands.
The Manitou Passage is home to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park, which encompasses a 35 mile stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline and North and South Manitou Islands. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was authorized by congress on October 21, 1970, and in the summer of 2011, the Sleeping Bear Dunes Lakeshore was voted the most beautiful place in America by the viewers of Good Morning America.
The most notable feature of the National Park is Sleeping Bear Dune, which towers over 450’ above the Lake Michigan shoreline. Native Americans passed down the following story of "The Legend of Sleeping Bear" around their campfires for generations:
“Long ago, along the Wisconsin shoreline, a mother bear and her two cubs were driven into Lake Michigan by a raging forest fire. The bears swam for many hours, but eventually the cubs tired and lagged behind. Mother bear reached the shore and climbed to the top of a high bluff to watch and wait for her cubs. Too tired to continue, the cubs drowned within sight of the shore. The Great Spirit Manitou created two islands to mark the spot where the cubs disappeared and then created a solitary dune to represent the faithful mother bear.”
Just North of Sleeping Bear Dune is Sleeping Bear Point, the most treacherous spot in the Manitou Passage. It’s dangerous and shifting shoals, unpredictable seas and remote local have proved fatal to a host of ships. Because of the Sleeping Bear Point was so dangerous for shipping, the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1877 decided to place a station there. But it was not until 1901 that the money was appropriated and bids came in for the construction of a dwelling, boathouse, and out-building
Over the years, drifting sand began to bury the buildings, and the pounding surf made launching boats difficult. In 1915, The U.S. Life-Saving Service was combined with another agency to form the current U.S. Coast Guard. In 1931, the station was moved by horses, rollers, track, and cable. In 1982-1983, the station was restored to its 1931 appearance, and turned into a maritime museum.