By M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson
Michigan’s beautiful landscape, with its rolling hills, inland lakes, and patchwork of farms, fields and forests, encouraged entrepreneurs to build sightseeing towers that offered tourists a chance to see expanded scenic views from a height reached by paying a small fee.
The beautiful Irish Hills landscape in Lenawee County spawned four such towers. The most well-known are the two towers on U.S. 12 near Cambridge Junction. In 1924, the Michigan Observation Company of Hillsdale was formed with the idea that observation towers located in scenic spots could be money-making tourist attractions.
The company approached landowner Edward Kelly about purchasing his high-ground property to build one of these viewing towers. Kelly declined, not wanting his view to be blocked by a tall structure. The company then approached his next-door neighbor, Edward Brighton, who agreed to the project. The tower was completed in early October 1924 with much fanfare.
It also was built just 6 feet from his neighbor Kelly’s property line. Kelly was upset and built an almost-identical tower just 12 feet from his neighbor’s lookout. The second tower was named the Gray Tower, but locally, it was known as the “spite tower” since it was built several feet taller than his neighbor’s structure.
The Michigan Observation Company responded by raising Brighton’s observation platform to match Kelly’s. After several threats of one-upsmanship, the two neighbors agreed to a truce and the two towers operated as separate and competitive enterprises until 1955 when they both were acquired by Frank Lamping, who built a gift shop on the ground floor connecting the two towers.
After a brief closure in the 1960s, the towers remained open until the end of the summer of 2000. Today, the Irish Hills Historical Society is in the process of restoring the twin towers.
Also built in 1924 by the Michigan Observation Company was the Bundy Hill tower, located on U.S. 12 near Jerome. The tower takes its name from John Bundy, the original owner of the 6-acre plot. In 1928, the property was sold to John Rainey of Ann Arbor, who added a free campsite, picnic grounds, a dancing hall and a small zoo. A restaurant featuring chicken sandwiches and cold milk was added about the same time. By 1949, new owners of the property razed the tower and used the lumber to build the Bundy Hill Diner.
Another tower in the Irish Hills was the White Swan Electric Tower, built in 1930 on U.S. 223 at Devils Lake. It stood 1,434 feet above sea level and had an elevator that took visitors to the viewing platform. In 1945, several of the top floors were dismantled and the remaining structure operated as a restaurant and tavern. The tower was razed in 1956.
In the 1920s, northern Michigan also saw the construction of several scenic towers that drew scores of vacationing travelers hungry for new sights. The Burt Lake Scenic Tower was located near Indian River and offered a telescope on its observation deck for visitors to view a panorama of the lake, the river and the surrounding area.
Two viewing towers on the Old Mission Peninsula were constructed with a distinctive rustic look. Friedrich’s Tower on Peninsula Road was built in 1920 by A.V. Friedrich. The Golden Tower on Elmen Road was built about the same time by the children of Windsor Golden, who was one of Old Mission’s earliest settlers. Unlike the free-standing Friedrich Tower, the Golden Tower was built around a large poplar tree. Both towers were in an area abundant with cherry orchards and offered views of thousands of cherry trees and the surrounding landscape, plus vistas of both the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay. Both towers advertised in the Traverse City Record Eagle from the late 1930s until World War II.
The Curio Fair tower in St. Ignace was built 1955-56 to allow visitors to watch the construction of the Mackinac Bridge. It stands 85 feet tall with 100 steps to the top and continues to be a popular stop for generations of travelers to view the Straits of Mackinac.
Scattered throughout Michigan were other towers that offered scenic views, ranging from the simple wooden structure The Top of the World at Glen Lake to the modern concrete Tower of History in Sault Ste. Marie. It seems people just never get tired of spectacular views of Michigan. ≈
BLUE Vintage Views columnists M. Christine Byron and Thomas R. Wilson reside in Grand Rapids. They are authors of the book “Historic Leelanau: Recognized Sites and Places of Historical Significance.”
Photography courtesy LL cook & Curt Teich