The Comedy of Crystal Lake“The “Comedy” of Crystal Lake” – Serendipitous Sauntering            

by Dr. Stacy Daniels
Crystal Lake and Watershed Association

“The Comedy of Crystal Lake” is a new book by Dr. Stacy Leroy Daniels, a native “littorian” – “historian” of Benzie Co.  It is based on the real-life story of the lowering of Crystal Lake, which resulted from an attempt to build a slack-water canal to nearby Lake Michigan.  It is a sequel to “The Tragedy of Crystal Lake”, a classic pamphlet by William L. Case (1922).

The “Tragedy” / “Comedy” is a well-known story of the lowering of Crystal Lake, in Benzie Co., MI.  Archibald Jones founded the Benzie County River Improvement Co. in 1873, to improve waterlots on Crystal Lake, remove obstructions and construct slack-water canals between Crystal Lake and Lake Michigan, and build a steamboat to facilitate shipping of settlers and goods to and from the interior of the County to the nearby port of Frankfort.  Ensuing events were unique among large inland lakes of NW Lower Michigan.  The dramatic lowering of a very large inland lake by 20 feet and creation of a 21-mile perimeter of sandy beach insured the future of Crystal Lake as a prime recreational area.

The role of Archibald Jones, “the man who (allegedly) pulled the plug at Crystal Lake”, involved travels of a typical American family in the 1800’s, searching for opportunities, experiencing adventures, and facing vicissitudes posed by the opening of the American Midwest.  A “Tragedy” depicts a protagonist overcome by superior force or circumstance; a “Comedy” depicts a laughable person involved in a blunder without pain or disaster. The lowering of Crystal Lake has elements of both – a serious beginning with a happy ending with perceived foibles of human nature and realized unintended consequences of bold venture.

It is this author’s intent neither to disparage the “Tragedy”, nor to exalt the “Comedy”.  The “Tragedy” occurred during 1873, and its “tragic” aspects were felt well into the early 1900’s.  The transition into the “Comedy”, with its “comedic” aspects, is of more recent interpretation and still continues.  The former remains forever indelibly inscribed in our collective memories; the latter only embellishes upon its virtues.

Told in two parts, the “Comedy” chronicles a seemingly ill-fated historical event that is now considered “so epochal in its nature as to have had a permanent bearing upon the development and future of Benzie County”.  The story also contains many sidelights and myriad viewpoints of diverse characters and sundry locales.

 Part I. The Lowering of Crystal Lake is a critical review of recorded legends, contemporary accounts, and historical records that include: the original Stock Certificate, the Articles of Association, the Map of Proposed Improvements, and the Court Proceedings for the Benzie County River Improvement Company from the 1870’s.

 Part II. The Biography of Archibald Jones is an accounting of the accomplishments of an entrepreneur and “bootstrap engineer” enjoined in the settlement of a new territory filled with challenges and opportunities.

Be prepared for “rediscoveries”: how Archibald Jones came to Crystal Lake; his plans for “three” canals; the timeline of the “Comedy”; who named of Crystal Lake; the century of debate over control of the level of Crystal Lake; and “Sidelights” of myriad individuals, events, and subjects, with contemporary philosophy on the sense of place and environmental consequence of being at Crystal Lake.

The combined “Tragedy” / “Comedy” exemplifies serendipity – a fortuitous occurrence of a “chance” event with beneficial results derived from unintended consequences of the intended action.  The “Tragedy” / “Comedy” of Crystal Lake has another (serendipitous?) association.  Sir Horace Walpole, who coined the word, serendipity, wrote in a letter to Horace Mann (31 Dec 1769), “I have often said, and oftener think, that this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel – a solution of why Democritus laughed and Heraclitus wept.”

It is often said, “One can’t tell a book by its cover”, (or a “tragedy” from a “comedy” ?) metaphorically implying that worth should not be prejudged by outward appearance or first impressions.  A cover should be an “attention grabber” to lure the reader onward to be captivated by its contents.  (The dust cover of the “Comedy” should gather “attention”, not “dust”!)

What then is the proper literary blend to author the contents of the “Comedy”?  “Lake” books are variously formatted to visionally tell interesting stories of people, their environment, and related events.  A few tell all in prose with no illustrations; others use mostly pictures with limited captions; while still others are anthologies of short stories, but not histories.  Impressions must be left in the minds of readers who process content related to their personal experiences.  Hopefully, the “Comedy” strikes a proper balance between entertainment value and detailed archival research of an event to make an interesting read for both the casual and serious reader.  The book is directed toward young adults and mature audiences, who have surmised that a special and unique “spirit of place” exists for Crystal Lake and its Watershed.

The Rev. Harlow Spencer Mills (1846 – 1931), an astute observer of the Benzie community, and author of “The Making of a Country Parish” (1914), wrote a thoughtful introduction to the original “Tragedy”, and also suggested a repository of “Crystalana” to preserve the history, literature, and traditions of Crystal Lake.

 “I suppose that every community has an interesting history, if only it were fully known and truly told—a history that would be well worth recording because the community is composed of human beings, and every human life is fraught with intense interest.  But it would seem that for some reason this Crystal Lake region has more than its share of charming scenes and attractive localities, and that in its early settlement and its succeeding history there has been an unusual number of stirring events.  Perhaps it seems so only because we know about them, but be that as it may, they are well worth describing and recording.”  – Rev. H.S. Mills, “The Benzie Book”. Benzie Banner 28(12), 1 (16 Nov 1922); Ibid, “Crystalana”, BB 29(36), 1-2 (04 Aug 1927).

The present author had no intention of creating a “Benzie Book”, i.e. a repository of “Crystalana”, to preserve the history, literature, and traditions of Crystal Lake.  There are many other authors who have contributed with flowing text and colorful illustration toward that goal.  But in the end, the “Comedy” inevitably evolved to include some “Crystalana”.

 Why write about a singular esoteric event, the “Tragedy” / “Comedy” of Crystal Lake?  All northern Michigan lakes share commonalities of geological histories, physiological features, hydrological behaviors; climatic influences, visual beauties, and recreational pursuits.  Our visions are of clear waters and bright sunshine glittering from gentle waves lapping against pristine beaches ringed by wooded hillsides, scented of pine, exuding a spirit of place.  We escape the congestion and “hustle-bustle” pace of our cities by vacationing at our special lake to experience carefree living, roughing it, returning to the simple life, and communing with nature.

Peculiar to Michigan were needs to improve the land-locked entrances of drowned river mouths along the eastern shoreline of Lake Michigan (the West Coast of MI) by creating “harbors of refuge” for shipping, and inland waterways to access the interior of the State.  Other “improvement projects” included canals, dams, locks, docks, and/or other appurtenances for transporting timber, powering saw and grist mills, and irrigating newly cleared fields.  Many natural river outlets were straightened and new channels dredged to navigable depths to connect nearby inland lakes by “slack-water” canals to Lake Michigan.  These included: Saugatuck, Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon, White Lake, Pentwater, Ludington, Manistee, Portage, Frankfort, Charlevoix, and Petoskey.  The attempt to connect a canal from Frankfort Harbor to Crystal Lake proved to be the most ambitious of all sui generis.

One lake’s uniquity is an object lesson to be extrapolated to other lakes.  Uniquity of opportunity brought Archibald Jones to Crystal Lake.  The Benzie County River Improvement Co. improved upon Nature, and increased both uniquity and commonality for Crystal Lake.  In 1873, the level of Crystal Lake was dramatically lowered in an attempt to construct a slack-water canal between it and Lake Michigan.  Most other canals had differences in level of only a few feet, the original level of Crystal Lake was 38 feet above Lake Michigan which made it especially attractive for a canal.  Unfortunately, the whitecap waves of Crystal Lake washed out a temporary dam before a permanent canal could be completed.  The level of the Lake dropped precipitously by 20 feet and 76 billion gallons of water poured down its outlet.  Although a canal system was never realized, the lowering of the Lake exposed a 21-mile perimeter of sandy beach where none had previously existed. This made possible: the founding of the Village of Beulah, the coming of the railroad, installation of telegraph and telephone lines, development of lakeside resorts, construction of 1,100 cottages, all connected by an infrastructure of perimeter roads and trails.  This epochal event is unsurpassed compared to all other large inland lakes in Michigan history.  Its unintended consequences make this story worthy of telling to a wider audience.

Back in the Middle Ages people who went on pilgrimages A la sainte terre (To the Holy Land) became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers.  For a watershed to be truly meaningful, and not a neutral landscape through which water and humankind merely trickle, the saunterer must experience, and interpret it according to personal and cultural factors.  Your humble saunterer would posit that the “Tragedy” and the “Comedy” have perpetuated a mixed generational conundrum. Each has created traditions and dramas with unique roles in their respective histories.  It is now the responsibilities of present and future generations to preserve the heritages of both “Tragedy” and “Comedy” redux.

Herein your humble saunterer has attempted to answer questions about the uniqueness of Crystal Lake.  What caused the lowering of the Lake?  Who was Archibald Jones?  Such is the “Comedy” of Crystal Lake – an epochal event with unintended consequences which has evolved from perceived “failure” of an “ill-conceived” project by an apparent scapegoat, to unqualified “success” by a visionary celebrated as a local hero!

Please contact Dr. Stacy Daniels at e-mail  stacydan@chartermi.net  for information on how to purchase the book.

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