Traveling the Chain of Lakes
Early French explorers gave Portage its name. It was here that they left the eastward-flowing Huron River watershed, carrying their canoes overland to connect to the westward-flowing Grand River. "An English explorer named Hugh Heward did the trip in the early eighteenth century that some folks re-created a couple of years ago, eventually traveling all the way to Chicago along the [Lake] Michigan shoreline," explains land protection consultant Barry Lonik.
The river connections spurred the lakes' development as a recreation area, giving people vacationing on any one of them a wider choice of places to explore and enjoy than if they were limited to a single lake. As early as 1836, an actor named Gardner Lillibridge dreamed of developing a "Saratoga of the West" on Portage Lake, modeled on New York's Saratoga Springs resort. Key to his plan was a steamboat for pleasure parties that would make a round trip from Portage, Base Line, and Strawberry lakes through what the 1881 History of Washtenaw County described as "the most romantic and delightful scenery ever seen in this or any other country." Lillibridge's ambitious plan included a lookout on what is today known as Peach Mountain (site of the U-M's radio telescope), so visitors could see the grand view of the lakes below. He platted a quarter section of land into 125 lots, giving his streets names such as Dryden, Byron, Shakespeare, Haydn, and Mozart. If none of those streets is familiar, it's because Lillibridge managed to sell only half of one lot.