Lake Mitchell Facts & History

Lake Mitchell History

Dave Foley


In last year's newsletter I noted that Alexander Henry, a captive of Chippewa Indians, was the first white man to see Lake Mitchell. I had several tell me I should write more about Lake Mitchell history so I contacted Cliff Sjogren, author of Timber Town Tales, a book about Cadillac history from 1871-1946 and an active member of the Wexford Country Historical Society. He provided me with sources of info on Lake Mitchell. Deb Bricault's Cadillac Vintage Postcard Memories also provided history information. There isn't much out there, but here is some of what I learned. If you have material to share about Lake Mitchell and early settlements on it, I would like to hear about it and it may be included in future updates. 

When they were making the Cadillac Country Club, excavators found several Indian mounds believed to be from Ottawa, Chippewa, and Pottawatomie Indians who used this land as a meeting and burial ground. The mounds/graves contained hatchets, knives, bones, and beads.  

    At one time a settlement was planned to go on the east shore of Lake Mitchell (then known as Big Clam Lake). But when George Mitchell made a deal with the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railroad Company to lay tracks on the east side of Lake Cadillac  (then known as Little Clam Lake), the interest in a settlement shifted away from the between-the-lakes area and the village of Clam Lake (later named Cadillac) was established.  

The Clam Lake Canal (Cadillac Canal) is 1/3 mile long and was made by George Mitchell in the 1870s. The main purpose of the canal was to facilitate of logs to sawmills. 

Although this area is best known for logging operations, from the 1870s  through the 1930s, our lakes provided ice for refrigeration purposes.  The operation centered on Lake Cadillac and, at its peak from the month of April through August, it was estimated that it would take a 15-car train departing daily to fill the need. Until about 1912, when steam-powered cutting tools appeared, manpower and horsepower did all the work. At least one large ice house was located on Lake Mitchell. 

At the turn of the century, the Chamber of Commerce was looking to promote Cadillac as a resort destination. In August 1920 the Rotary Club was chartered and Mrs. W.W. Mitchell purchased and donated the land which today is Mitchell State Park. 

Prior to that, the area between the lakes was known as Idlewild. Beginning in 1873, a tugboat was converted into a flat bed scow to transport people to the north shore of Little Clam Lake and on to Idlewild, the wooded area between the lakes.

On land, now occupied by Pilgrim Village,  was once known as the Baptist Assembly Grounds.

The first shoreline to be used on Lake Mitchell for vacationers was immediately north of the canal and was known as White City. The first permanent cottages were built along the east shore of the lake. 

In the 1920s resorts and tourist cabins were established on both lakes. The Indian Trail Inn was built at the site of the Sun and Snow Resort and Lakeside Charlies 

On a point located on the west side of the Lake Mitchell, Camp Doxey  was established in 1906 by the YMCA. By the 1930s it was becoming difficult to maintain the camp and in 1938 the 4½ acre point of land was sold to Cadillac Schools for $3000. In 1942 165 acres of additional land and was purchased for the camp. In 1953 it was renamed Camp Torenta which means “land of tall pines.”  

By the early 1900s, steamships took tourists to pick berries along the shore of Lake Mitchell. Canoes and rowboats could be rented in the Park of the Lakes livery, situated on the canal and taken on onto either lake.  

The Oak Ridge Pavilion was built at the north end of Lake Mitchell in 1925. At that time it was the largest resort dance hall in the north. It was later known as “the Spot” and ”Skatetricity.” It was destroyed in a fire on October 12, 2017.

The Platters, located on the north shore of the Canal near Lake Mitchell  booked groups in the 1960s like the Supremes, the Dave Clark Five, and the McCoys and became a major teen attraction. Originally known as the Park of the Lake Pavilion, it was built by the Holmen Brothers in 1917 as a recreational facility. When the roof collapsed in the late 1970s, it was torn down and the Carl T Johnson Museum was built on the site. 


Historical Notes about the Lake Mitchell Area

Chippewa and Ottawa Indians came from the Mackinac area to hunt and garden in the area. Indian artifacts were found near the canal, Country Club golf course and the Junior High at the mouth of Clam River. The first white man believed to have seen Lake Mitchell was Alexander Henry, a survivor of massacre of Fort Michilimackinac. Henry was adopted by his tribe and went on hunting trip to Wexford County area in about 1763.


An Indian trail going from Lake Mitchell to Traverse Bay has been marked with white stone markers. Marker 1# is found on shore of the lake at Hiawatha Park on east side of Lake Mitchell. Marker 2# is at the corner of 13th Street (North Lake Mitchell Dr.) and 33 ½ Rd. Marker 3# is on right side of Boon Rd a quarter mile west of 33 ½ Rd.. From then on you are on your own. This trail is not maintained and, as we discovered, hard to follow.


Wexford County was purchased from the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians in 1836 and was originally called Kautawabet, a Pottowatomi word which may mean "broken tooth".

The Cadillac area became one of the first inland areas to become a lumbering center. Because of prevailing west winds which would push logs to the east end of Lake Cadillac, the city of Cadillac was established on the east shore of Lake Cadillac in 1871 by George Mitchell, who is the namesake of our lake.


Originally Cadillac, Lake Cadillac, and Lake Mitchell were called Clam Lake, Little Clam Lake and Big Clam Lake respectively. The names were changed in 1903. The name Cadillac comes from Antoine DelaMothe Cadillac, a French explorer who founded the city of Detroit.


The heyday of the lumber industry was the 1880s-1890s. By 1920 much of the vast stands of white pine had been clear cut and the land was treeless. A few huge white pines grow in the Mitchell swamp woods and several can be seen off 33 ½ Rd near Boon Road.


The canal was dug in 1873 so logs harvested on the shores of Lake Mitchell could be floated to the mills on Lake Cadillac. With the canal in place Lake Mitchell dropped one foot and the low parts of the city of Cadillac were flooded.

Black Creek, which leaves Mitchell about a half mile north of the canal and empties into Lake Cadillac in Kenwood Park, is the natural connector between the lakes. Adventure seekers will find it navigable in the spring although there are eight portages (including one across M-115) and liftovers between Mitchell and Cadillac.


Wexford County's population based on US census: 1940 - 17,936, 1950 - 18,628, 1960 - 18,475, 1970 - 19,717, 1980 - 25,102, 1990 - 26,367, 2000 - 30,484. Projected in 2030 - 48,000.


I would like to compile a history of the Lake Mitchell area including photos, stories, and other data on the settling and development along the shoreline. If you wish to contribute or can help find sources of information, please email Here’s a chance to share information about what was happening here forty, fifty, sixty, or hundred years ago.


Quick Facts about Lake Mitchell & Lake Cadillac

Size of lakes: Lake Mitchell - 2,496 acres ; Lake Cadillac - 1,150 acres
Maximum depth: Lake Mitchell - 22 feet; Lake Cadillac - 30 feet
Lake Mitchell mean depth - 8.5 feet
Lake Mitchell flushing rate 1.06 years -complete exchange of water.
Water clarity: Lake Mitchell - 5-8 feet
10.4 miles to circle Lake Mitchell on a bike or in a car
7.1 miles to circle Lake Cadillac on bike (7.2 in car)
Acres of milfoil identified in 2005: Lake Mitchell -118 acres; Lake Cadillac -200+ acres
Length of canal: .3 mile
Average date lakes freeze 1974-2005 - last week of November.
Average date lakes become ice free 1974-2005 - second week of April
The lakes at 1289 feet above sea level are among the highest in the Lower Peninsula.
Lake Mitchell is in the Muskegon River watershed. Years ago Pete Smith paddled from Lake Mitchell down the Clam River, into the Muskegon River and on to Lake Michigan


The first white man to see Lake Mitchell

Of course there's no way to confirm who the first Caucasian was to view Lake Mitchell, but I've found two references that point to Alexander Henry. The first came from a historical account of the settling of Midwest written by Alan Eckert. In the Wilderness Empire, Ecket talks about Alexander Henry, an Englishman who came to the Upper Great Lakes in 1760 looking to get rich from the fur trade. For several years he lived at Fort Michilimackinac on the Straits of Mackinac with a contingent of English traders. Henry befriended a Chippewa chief, Wawatom  and in the summer of 1762 when the English were massacred by hostile natives, Wawatom saved Henry and adopted him. A hard winter and scarce food forced Henry and his Chippewa tribe to move to Ludington. 


Heading inland on a hunting trip in December of 1763, Henry became separated from his tribe. Alone, he wandered about and came upon the north shore of a lake so large he could scarcely discern the opposite shore. Eckert and Karl Bohnak, author of So Cold A Sky, both believe that Henry was looking at Lake Mitchell. Henry, traveling alone, managed to hike back through the snow to reunite with his tribe in Ludington. Henry became a wealthy fur trader and lived until 1824.