The Village of Union Pier, Michigan 49129
Logging and timber were Harbor Country’s major industries in the 1870s, requiring shipping piers along Lake Michigan’s shoreline. One of those piers, Union Pier, gave its name to today’s quaint lakeshore community, formerly named Townline. Unique, galleries, compliment Union Pier’s corner store, sweet shops, ice cream parlor and grand old resorts that dot the countryside. Many fine bed & breakfasts have been welcoming repeat guests for decades.
Union Pier was founded on an ethic of hard work without visions of a port to rival Chicago as was Wessel Whittaker's notion in New Buffalo. There was nature's bounty to be harvested here. Tree trunks measured five feet and more in diameter. Trees rose 60 feet to the lowest branches. Squirrels, we are assured ran through the community without ever touching the ground.
There clearly was no Sears Tower to be seen on the horizon across the Lake, but everyone in what is now Union Pier understood that timber was the fuel, which would fire the growth of Chicago. Boards could be bucks. John Gowdy arrived from New York and bought all the timberland he could afford. He brought in additional partners who understood that it was necessary to ship Union Pier's bounty to Chicago. And so, a group of men built a "Pier" in Union" at the foot of Berrien Street. It was constructed as a 600-foot edifice jutting into Lake Michigan. A 130-ton schooner was built on the adjacent beach.
Soon there were brick tool handle factories sending their wares to Chicago and beyond. The Chicago Fire of 1871 only increased the demand for Union Pier's natural bounty. But, Chicago was rebuilt, Union Pier's pier washed away and a new economy had to be established. The leveled forests soon became orchards and farms. Lumbermen became fishermen and shipped their new harvest to Chicago. During the spawning season, residents would gather on the beach to spear Sturgeon of a hundred pounds. In the 1900's, tourism replaced timber, bricks and fishing as Union Pier's major Industry. Union Pier became the United Nations of tourism.
As the emerging popularity of rail travel began to import visitors from neighboring counties and states, the Pere Marquette Rail Road established a rail stop in Union Pier, with its own station. These early travelers were, as today, fond of the appealing lakeshore town, hosted by many long gone boarding houses and resorts that dotted the pristine Lake Michigan shoreline. Eastern Europeans, African Americans and Jewish vacationers all established homes and resorts in the community. Olympian Jesse Owens had a home here. Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak, ultimately the victim of an assassin’s bullet, brought guests to his summer home by yacht.
John Dillinger even stopped for gas at the Prusa Resort service station, which is now the Wine Sellers at Miller's Country House. The Prusa kids, who manned the gas tanks, told stories about Dillinger not allowing anyone to check the engine compartment where he stored his weapons on racks. Al Capone was also known to have had homes in the area. He'd play an occasional game of cards with his buddies at the Lakeside Inn and may have had a lady along for luck. But really, it's the sunsets over the lake that gets us all. Even the early lumbermen would have agreed--they had a bounty of nature to offer Chicago.