This picture was taken in 1993 by photographer and artist Sue Hardy. This year was also about when Standish real estate broker Robert Wiltse and a group of investors bought Charity Island Michigan for development. They envisioned 24 exclusive homes across the island. The project’s first phase was to take 60,000 pounds of dynamite to blast out the small harbor. It took 16 weeks to carve out the marina basin and connect it to the lake by a channel.
How Did Charity Island Get Its Name?
Charity Island, also known as Big Charity Island, is the largest island in Saginaw Bay, part of Lake Huron in Michigan, USA. The island encompasses about 222 acres and is located approximately 10 miles off the coast of Au Gres, Michigan.
Charity Island was included in property ceded to the British by the French in the Paris Treaty of 1763. Finally, this Territory became part of the United States in 1805.
During an exploration and surveying expedition in 1820, noted geologist Henry Schoolcraft called the island Shawangunk. The French denoted the island as Shawagunk on their maps of the region. Shawangunk is designated as a descriptive word meaning cloudy, foggy, or smoky. This a perfect description of the weather over Saginaw Bay and Charity Island on some mornings.
It’s conceivable that the indigenous tribes did not refer to Charity Island as Shawangunk. One theory is that the Lenape phase “Schawan,” which means “there is smoky air” or “there is smoky air,” was brought by the French. “Schwank” is the noun variant, meaning “smoky air.” By adding the suffix, we get “schawangunk,” which means “in that which is smoky air” or simply “in the smoky air.”
A Resource Center And Stop Along An Ancient Trading Route
For over millennia, the island was a resource for Native American tool-making. Chert, a low-grade kind of flint, is deeply entrenched in the limestone that outcrops along the island’s coastline. Native American Americans who lived on the island for close to 2,000 years before the first Europeans arrived developed it into a vital source of chert throughout time.
Until the Chippewas and other tribes engaged in warfare and completely wiped off the Sauks in 1535 around Pt. Au Gres, Michigan, the Sauks controlled access to the Flint deposits and inhabited the Saginaw Bay Region.
The island straddled a route across Saginaw Bay. Schoolcraft noted in his journals, “In order to cross Saginaw Bay with safety in a canoe, it is necessary to pass up the eastern shore from Point aux Barques to Point aux Chenes, a distance of eighteen miles. Here, if the lake is calm, the voyageur crosses by a stretch of twenty miles to the opposite shore, with the advantage of landing on the island of Shawangunk, should a storm overtake him in the center of the Bay, which is frequently the case. On gaining the opposite shore, it is necessary to pass down the bay about the same distance that was formerly ascended before the open lake is again reached.“
Development on Charity Island
In 1997 development plans were deferred, and Wiltse sold most of the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a new acquisition for the Michigan Islands National Wildlife Sanctuary. The non-profit Nature Conservancy bought a few more acres from Wiltse and bought the lighthouse tower from the government.
Robert kept five acres around the lighthouse keepers’ house, which architects said was unsalvageable and had collapsed. Robert and Karen Wiltse rebuilt an updated light keepers home on the same foundation and kept much of the site lines and details of the original house. However, it has been updated to be self-sufficient with wind and solar power generation and its own water purification system. The interior living areas are contemporary for guests and the family. The second-floor bedrooms were decorated in the period 1880s, and furniture had been collected from within the family. It is nicely done and reflects the late 1880s perfectly.
Visitors can go to Charity Island, Michigan, during the summer season. The Charity Island Dinner Cruise was a popular tour that may come back during the 2023 season. Visit Explorer Charters for schedule, pricing, and details. There is a long and interesting history of Charity Island when it was the key rest stop and focal point to entering Saginaw Bay. See the post Mysterious Charity Island.
Video: Charity Island History
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