Marking history: M-119's Tunnel of Trees route
M-119's Tunnel of Trees route is not only a beautiful scenic route, but is also a deeply historical part of Northern Michigan's early history.
M-119 starts in the Bay View area between Petoskey and Harbor Springs. It rounds the north shore of Little Traverse Bay passing the Harbor Springs airport near the junction with C-81. From there it runs to Harbor Springs along Main Street.
The 20-mile section north of Harbor Springs is known as the "Tunnel of Trees." In some areas, trees butt right up to the edge of the road, some branches meeting in the middle above the road. This section has no shoulders and lacks a centerline when the road isn't a full two lanes wide. M-119 is the only state highway allowed to remain this way.
According to local history, this portion of M-119 has been preserved in its original layout from as far back as when it was simply an animal path, noted Henry Singer, a longtime member of the M-119 Scenic Heritage Highway Committee.
As local Native Americans used the path to travel between villages it widened, followed by settlers widening it for carts and later further widening for local travel to the point it remains at today, he added.
As early as 1936 locals realized the importance of the original route and began to work to preserve it. According to Singer, Alice Irwin, an early preservationist and naturalist who lived in Harbor Springs at that time, used the influence of her nationwide news column to garner support for the preservation of the route. This is the earliest recorded record of attempts to preserve the route in its original state.
"Irwin started the initial grass roots movement that has led to the movement we have today, " Singer noted.
"The influence of people like Mrs. Irwin are most likely the sole reason the route was never widened or changed to accommodate usage and residential building," he added. "To this day is it one of very few state highways able to avoid such changes."
The committee was formed in the spring of 2000 and is comprised of three delegates from Friendship, Readmond and Cross Village townships, as well as three delegates from Emmet County Lakeshore Association. The committee works in partnership with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Michigan Department of Transportation and Emmet County's planning commissioners.
In December 2002, as the culmination of more than 40 years of work, M-119 was officially designated a scenic route.
"There were many people who worked over decades to get the route protected and declared a scenic route," Singer noted.
Being designated a scenic route is extremely important to its preservation because it is then excluded from meeting the state's trunkline standards. Without the designation the road would be subject to widening, the addition of shoulders, increased speed limits and other improvements to bring it in line with state requirements.
There are four significant spots along the route that are specifically pointed out by unique signs.
Originally placed in the 1950s, the four signs align approximately with each township along the route and are positioned in areas where tourists may stop and visit.
"We also believe there may have been a fifth sign at some point and the addition of that sign is a topic of discussion for us," Singer noted.
There are two hairpin turns along the route, one of which has a sign and the other would likely be the site of the potential fifth sign.
Primarily, the signs designate areas with Native American historical significance and that have historical geographical significance. Going from south to north the four signs are Devil's Elbow, Middle Village, Old Area of the Council Tree (north of Good Hart) and L'Arbre Croche (a couple miles south of Cross Village).
Devil's Elbow refers to one of the many turns along the route, this one being particularly sharp. Local lore concerning the route will tell you the name has to do with some curious unexplained phenomena that occurred in the area, but it is most likely derived from translations of the original Native American name "where the spirits live." Horseshoe Bend is the name of the other hairpin curve along the route, which lacks any sign currently.
The Middle Village sign refers to the location where the first Jesuit mission was built in 1741, and then reconstructed with the cooperation of local Native American carpenters in 1825.
The Area of the Old Council Tree sign marks the location of a large tree where the chiefs of three local tribes would meet for council meetings in the late 1700s. The tree was also used as a landmark in travel and migration of the tribes.
L'Arbre Croche is the French name given to the area between Cross Village and Harbor Springs because of a large crooked tree on a high bluff which was visible from miles around and marked the center of a large Odawa settlement.
Over time, the original signs were greatly deteriorated by the ever changing Michigan climate, as well as wildlife and insects. The route's management committee began work to replace the original signs in 2003 with an updated and more durable version.
The new signs were designed to withstand the weather and had slightly updated text in some cases.
"The committee partnered closely with the Odawa tribe to make sure we upheld the meaning and spirit of the originals," Singer noted.
"We held fundraisers, secured private donations and were given a substantial amount by the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians," Singer noted. "The cost was nearly $5,000 even with the actual sign frames being made by the Harbor Springs High School wood shop students."
In 2004 the committee held an unveiling ceremony on the site of the Devil's Elbow sign.
"It was a wonderful ceremony," Singer noted. "As the music played and we unveiled the signs a bald eagle flew over as if on cue; it was unforgettable."
For more in-depth information as well as maps and future plans for the M-119 route visit http://www.nwm.org/m119.asp.