Imagine traveling the United States in an RV going places you’ve always wanted to see. Think about those places for a minute – do they include Wamego, Kansas or Natchitoches, Louisiana? What about Alpena, Michigan? None of these on your list? Too bad because your travel itinerary may be lacking in a genuine American tour.
Wamego, Kansas is home to the Oz Museum, and Natchitoches contains the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase and is the filming location for Steel Magnolias. This brings us to Alpena, Michigan – home to one of North America’s largest cement plants and near the world’s largest limestone quarry. I’ve never been to Alpena, located on the shores of Lake Huron despite spending the first 23 years of my life less than 90 miles away from it. The small city was not a popular destination for reasons I vaguely remember including a strange name ‘Abitibi’ sardonically mentioned in reference to the foul smells and blue collar drudgery that described the Lake Huron side of Michigan.
Abitibi is a Canadian pulp and paper company that, in 1957 erected a plant in Alpena on the banks of Lake Huron’s Thunder Bay where the Thunder Bay River runs into the third largest freshwater lake on the planet. Abitibi became an important part of Alpena’s economy-but it was also once a Superfund site and still has its issues. Today, it is home of DPI (Decorative Panels International), which in recent years has received three smell violations.
Way back in time, the lumber industry dominated Northern Michigan. As a renewable source, trees take time to grow and eventually, the timber industry dwindled. Lumber barons turned to other natural resources including limestone. One of those barons, Herman Besser invested in Alpena Portland Cement in 1899 to create machinery to make cement blocks. In time, the company’s innovations made it an international leader in the cement industry, contributing to Alpena’s nickname ‘Cement City’.
Other industries came and went, including the Alpena Garment Factory and the Alpena Motor Car Company, one of the few automobile companies in northern Michigan that attempted (and failed) to compete with Detroit’s reign over the industry. Fletcher Paper Mill popped up in 1886 on the shores of Thunder Bay not far from Alpena Portland Cement and cranked out manila paper until it closed its doors in 2000. Several other businesses relating to lumber or cement came and went as well.
On one side of the empty Fletcher Paper mill is The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center and on the other side a marine diving business. It is here where the word ‘Maritime’ reminded us of why we visited Alpena. The limestone and lumber industries remain central to the area and difficult to ignore, but we came here to discover another piece of Americana that pops up frequently in our travels – a community that strives to attract visitors.
As far as places to visit in Michigan, Alpena is not on the short list. But there are plenty of reasons to, at least from mine and Vivian’s perspective. That is because we seek out natural areas especially those that include water, art & architecture, and anything with historical meaning. So, we saw potential in Alpena.
We’ve learned from our travels that many communities, small and large have at least one named natural area adjacent to its populated districts. Some of these plots of land are nature preserves, some are wildlife sanctuaries, and some are simply called ‘park’. Regardless, they are the result of some person or person’s generous contribution toward local conservation and improvement of their community’s quality of life.
Some nature preserves are just that – a piece of natural land set aside for nature itself, but most of the time, these are public spaces where residents and visitors may enjoy nature. They become sanctuaries for indigenous wildlife as well as non-wild humans. We seek these places out and although sometimes underwhelmed, especially given the national and state parks available to us, we always find joy and appreciate the great effort and generosity from members of a community for the sake of the community itself.
We enjoyed Alpena with its charming downtown full of historic landmarks and where we discovered an art gallery of local artists, we hiked Island Park that is within the Alpena Wildlife Sanctuary, shopped at a wonderful farmers’ market on the shores of Lake Huron, learned local history at the Besser Historical Museum and learned some more at The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center. Alpena is located on Thunder Bay which was designated a National Marine Sanctuary in 2000, one of 15 in the United States and the first in the great lakes. The purpose of the 4300-acre sanctuary is to protect 100 shipwrecks in Lake Huron off the Michigan coast. As a result, Alpena has become a popular shipwreck diving and kayaking location.
Not bad Alpena. Glad we had some quality time to get to know you and the surrounding areas along Lake Huron. You don’t have the bucolic wine country or the grand dunes that attracts tourists to the Lake Michigan’s side of the state, but you have plenty.