Indian hunters and French traders were the first people to spend time in the Traverse City area, and it was they who gave the region its name – La Grand Traverse -- because of the “long crossing” they had to make by canoe across the mouth of the bay. But even the native Ottawa and Chippewa people didn’t settle here permanently until the early 18th century.

In 1839 the Rev. Peter Dougherty established the area’s first permanent settlement, an Indian mission at the tip of the Old Mission peninsula, and soon other settlers followed.

By 1847 a small sawmill operation had been established on the banks of the Boardman River, and soon it became the nucleus of a growing company town led by Chicago businessmen Perry Hannah and Tracy Lay. In 1852 the new settlement was christened Traverse City -- but until the first road through the forest was built in 1864 it remained a remote outpost, accessible only by water.

The development of manufacturing and agriculture – potatoes, apples, and eventually cherries – spurred the community to press for railroad service, which came to Traverse City in 1872. In 1885 Traverse City was designated as the site of the Northern Michigan Asylum, which became one of the city’s major employers and eventually housed a population several times larger than that of the town itself.

By the end of the 19th century, Traverse City was also attracting large numbers of summer visitors, who flocked by train and steamship to enjoy the region’s cool temperatures, clean air and water and scenic beauty. They are still coming today, and tourism has grown to become the area’s main economic mainstay.

Here’s a small sampling of historic sites in the area:

Old Mission Village

From 1839 to 1852, this idyllic site on East Grand Traverse Bay was the site of a unique experiment created by Presbyterian missionary Peter Dougherty: a small colony of teachers, artisans and farmers – Indians and non-Indians alike – who lived and worked side by side. Although the village of Old Mission is a thriving community to this day, it seems a place that has been frozen in time. Some of its original structures, including the broad frame mission house, the general store, the trim Old Mission Inn and the New England-style Congregational church with its tall white spire, are still standing and still occupied.

Downtown Front Street

After decades of neglect, Traverse City’s Front Street shopping district has been transformed into a picturesque and pedestrian-friendly reminder of the city’s historical roots. Its tree-shaded sidewalks now lead past shops, restaurants and galleries that have made creative use of the Victorian buildings they now occupy. One special landmark is the beautiful City Opera House, built in 1891.

Park Place Hotel

Built by Henry D. Campbell on park land purchased from the city in 1873, the Park Place Hotel started as the Campbell House Hotel. Five years later, lumber barons J. Perry Hannah and A. Tracy Lay bought and upgraded the property to levels of opulence and service equal to the era's world-class hotels. Appropriately, they re-named it Park Place. In 1930, completion of a 10-story tower made it Traverse City's tallest building. Atop the tower, a 25,000 watt symbolized its far-reaching hospitality. Today, the Park Place Hotel is a designated Michigan State Historic Site.

Historic Neighborhoods

The Boardman Neighborhood along Boardman Ave. and Washington St. preserves some of Traverse City’s oldest and most ornate homes, many in the fanciful Queen Anne style. To the west, the later turn-of-the-century mansions of Sixth Street (known as “Silk Stocking Row”) include the immense 32-room house built by Traverse City founder Perry Hannah and dozens of other elegant homes.

Wellington Inn

Sleder’s Family Tavern

This 123-year-old Traverse City landmark, the oldest tavern in Michigan in continuous operation -- was built by Bohemian immigrants who worked in the city’s thriving 19th-century sawmills. It has been lovingly preserved, and is still a favorite hangout where locals and visitors can enjoy lunch and dinner seven days a week.

The Village at Grand Traverse Commons

The former home of the Northern Michigan Asylum is now being redeveloped into a unique “village” of shops, restaurants, apartments and galleries in what may be the country’s largest historic re-use project. Developers are preserving both the castle-like 19th century buildings that once housed staff and patients, as well as the 480-acre wooded campus that surrounds them – now a favorite place for hikers and cyclists.