The road began its life as a mine access road, a rather narrow and rugged trail meandering its way from the port of Eagle River up to the mines cropping up along the rugged cliffs of the peninsula’s bony spine. Luckily one of these early mines – the Cliff – would end up finding great success and the road’s permanence on Copper Country maps was assured. Later its winding path fell into government control, as part of its mine-connecting corridor known as the Mineral Range State Road. Later still it became part of the much heralded “Military Road” connecting Fort Wilkins at the peninsula’s tip with fellow military installations in Wisconsin.
Yet the road’s role as a major Copper Country transportation corridor was short lived, as the mines along its route began to fizzle out and die. Newer and richer mines began to take shape inland, and a new road was built to access them. When the state highway system came into place around 1915, it was this newer route that received an official highway designation (M15, later to become US41) while the old Mineral Range road was largely abandoned. Though seemingly doomed to obscurity, the road found new popularity as an auto-touring destination – due largely to those same old mines and soaring ridges that originally brought the road into existence in the first place. Thus modern “Cliff Drive” was born.
The idea of “auto-touring” was a novel one, made possible of course by the growing popularity and accessibility of the automobile. For those wishing to get out and explore their world with their new found mobility – Cliff Drive was the place to do it. Its mine’s abandoned decades before, the route travelled through lands devoid of industry and largely absent of people. Best yet a great many impressive attractions could be found along its path – including the calm waters of the Seneca Dam, the meandering waters and beaver meadows of the Eagle River, and – of course – the soaring rocky outcroppings of the Cliff Range itself.
Further enhancing the road’s appeal was the ruins that still lined the bases of the rock cliffs, ruins left in plain view with little or no foliage blocking views of their crumbling structures from the road. The road was a perfect sight-seeing destination, wild and natural enough to give visitors a much-needed break from the rest of the industrialized peninsula but accessible enough to allow even those with limited means visit for themselves.
As the Depression neared and the region’s copper industry faltered, the powers-that-be looked to pivot the region’s economy into something that could live on past the the empire’s demise. With the Cliff Drive as a guide, it was decided the tourism was the region’s best bet and there was no better place to promote then the very same drive that had already been popular for decades. To help make the old tourist road more “official”, the county erected a pair of roadside parks at either end along with a rustic “information booth” at its southern entrance.
The tourist booth came first, erected in 1936 with the help of WPA funds and labor. The booth was more accurately a small log cabin, built from locally harvested and cut logs. It was placed in the most visible location possible right at the intersection of Cliff Drive and US41 – its front door looking straight out at the highway in front of it. Inside clerks would answer questions and direct visitors to the region’s tourist offerings. There were also plenty of souvenirs to buy, along with WPA funded tourist guides as well.
Up close the little cabin is rather quaint in design, harkening back to a much more rustic and “hand-made” style popular in tourist destination design at the beginning of the UP’s tourist trade. Here you can also see that the building looks to have been expanded at one time in its life – as the logs making up the wall look to have been cut prematurely before reaching the corner.
Three years later – in 1939 – another WPA project would accompany the old tourist booth with a new roadside park – complete with rustic bathrooms hidden tastefully behind some well-manicured topiary. Joining the shaped hedges would be a rugged rock garden, surrounded by a path that looks to have been partially built using old pieces of road asphalt.
More rugged rock gardens and asphalt littered pathways can be found across the street, where the park continues sprawled along the curve of the highway. Here those pieces of old roadway are even more obvious – as some still feature portions of yellow lane striping. Also found here is even more well manicured topiary in the background.
Well impressive, these cone-shaped trees are a harsh juxtaposition to the rugged and make-shift look to the rest of the park. It must have been a 30s thing, as several more Keweenaw parks were given the same treatments around the same time.
Nearby we find more rustic elements, most notable of which is this narrow footbridge carrying visitors over a small stream separating the park from an adjacent parking area. In the background can be seen the park’s central element – the war memorial.
I’m not sure if this memorial is native to the park or not, at least I don’t think it was part of the 1939 design. Today it remembers those Keweenaw residents who have fallen in war – but most of the wars showcased in its panels happened after the park was built. The monument does look the part, however, its stone walls and sandstone highlights resembling other Depression-era projects built in the region.
From here Cliff Drive runs for nearly 7 miles, brushing up the rugged and majestic cliff range in the process. At its northern terminus the old roadway meets back up with the Highway, as both return to follow the original route of the Mineral Range State Road laid out nearly two century’s before. Here the county erected yet another roadside park – officially marking the end of the scenic drive and providing a spot to rest and take in the beautiful scenery.
This park also shares the same rustic sensibilities as its twin, though with far less topiary. Here we find the park’s two main features – a small footbridge over the ditch lining the highway and the “Keweenaw” nameplate resting up along a small hillside.
A closer look reveals the letters to be made of concrete, while the frame consists of thick wood timbers painted with the same brown paint as found along all the county’s road signs and the tourist booth itself. It’s a bit odd to find the name here, since by this time you are several dozen miles into the county. Also weird since the word faces north, and can only be seen by those who have already been in the county for some time.
Joining the sign and bridge are a few more familiar items – the rugged rock gardens. There are three in total, connected together by a series of seemingly random gravel pathways anchored in the middle by the park’s largest surviving piece of formal topiary (seen in the center). A few more manicured trees can be found along the park’s edges however – so all is not lost.
During the Depression years Cliff Drive would receive even more WPA funded improvements and additions. The road was widened and paved, an improved bridge was erected over the Gratiot River, and a large “cut” was dug into Seneca Hill (near present day Seneca Lake) to make the road more accessible. In the decades to follow the old Mineral Range road would only become more popular for both residents and visitors alike. Today its easily one of the most visited roads along the peninsula, joining company of such great scenic routes as Brockway Mountain Drive, Lakeshore Drive, and Sand Dunes Drive.