Ontonagon plans enhancing area’s historical features

Vanessa Dietz/Daily Mining Gazette Plans to expand the offerings at the Ontonagon Historical Museum are on the horizon, according to Ontonagon County Historical Society President Bruce Johanson, seen here at the museum on Wednesday.

ONTONAGON — The county historical society is working on its patented appeal to visitors by making more of the area’s rich history.

“Our creed is: ‘If you walk in the door as a stranger, we want you to leave as a friend,'” said society president Bruce Johanson, warmly greeting visitors to downtown Ontonagon.

With plans to set up a fishing museum on Rose Island and eyes on a future railroad museum, the society wants to further branch out from its River Street roots at the Ontonagon County Historical Museum.

“We’re doing what we can to make a better tourist economy,” Johanson said.

The society already owns a few old boats, including a couple currently situated on land near the Ontonagon Lighthouse. One is the Awinita. The other is the George M. Cox lifeboat that rescued survivors when the ship sank in 1933 after striking a reef near Isle Royale.

Tours of the society’s Ontonagon Lighthouse are a popular choice among the 20,000 visitors who come through the museum doors in search of history or information from the Ontonagon County Chamber of Commerce headquartered there.

Most visitors come from Wisconsin and Minnesota, Johanson noted, with downstate visitors rarely venturing beyond the eastern Upper Peninsula.

Those who do make it to the museum learn Ontonagon occupies the third largest land mass of Michigan’s 83 counties.

“However, population-wise we’re near the bottom,” Johanson said, noting the village is the only municipality in the county with a population of 1,400 to 1,500. About 6,000 people live in the county’s 11 townships.

He also said the county has an interesting geography with 546 lakes and 1,227 miles of rivers and streams, the largest of which is the Ontonagon River — also the largest river that flows into Lake Superior from its south shore.

The oldest permanent settlement on the southern shore of the big lake, Ontonagon occupies 51 miles of shoreline, Johanson said.