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What's that Sound? 

Press play to sample the natural sounds of life in the Highland Park dunes. Try to identify the birds you hear or just Zen-out to the sound of waves.

Bird Songs

Before Highland Park

Lumber was one of the main industries in the Tri-Cities from the 1840s to the 1880s. The area had many sawmills and logging companies on the Grand River. Access to Lake Michigan made it an important location for the lumber industry. Unfortunately, people in West Michigan were cutting down old-growth forests faster than they could grow back. People began to understand the problem with deforestation too late. They were afraid of what would happen to their towns when logging companies ran out of forests to cut down. 

W.C. Sheldon found mineral springs in downtown Grand Haven in 1871. The discovery changed the area’s main industry from lumber to tourism. 

His discovery also led directly to the creation of Highland Park. In fact, Sheldon was one of the first members of the Highland Park Association (HPA) and built a cottage in Highland Park called Wickiup in 1890. The HPA is the group that started the resort and continues as a neighborhood organization to this day. The birth and growth of Highland Park shows how the Tri-Cities became important tourist destinations to this day.

Before the Park
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Founding the HPA

Before Highland Park was created, the dunes were often used for rustic camping with tents. When Grand Haven extended Lake Avenue in the 1870s, the land where Highland Park now sits was easier to explore and settle. After locals realized the value of the area, they formed the Highland Park Association (HPA). 


In 1886, the HPA gathered investors who would plan and build a resort in the dunes just south of downtown Grand Haven. The group leased the land from the City of Grand Haven for 30 years. The investors built cottages and facilities that improved the entire neighborhood like the Highland Park Hotel and Pavilion.


Most of the first stockholders of the HPA were wealthy businessmen from the Tri-Cities. Some, like Dwight Cutler I and William Savidge, made their fortunes from the lumber industry. Others were business owners with backgrounds in hotels, dry goods, medicine, and real estate. They wanted to replace the dying lumber interests in the Tri-Cities with a new industry using the beautiful beaches and dunes of the area: tourism.


Camping at Lovers Lane





Camping at Lovers Lane




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Mineral Spring Spas

As a tourist destination, Grand Haven had more than sunsets and sandy beaches. After the discovery of a natural mineral spring on Washington Avenue in 1871, Grand Haven added health tourism to its list of attractions. Drinking or bathing in mineral water has long been thought to cure illnesses such as asthma, indigestion, and gout. Grand Haven became one of several tourist towns in West Michigan that promoted mineral water health spas.


At the same time, people began to see the benefits of spending time in nature. The first National Parks were created in the 1870s as part of a new environmental movement. For the first time, wilderness was seen as something that should be protected and enjoyed. Mineral springs, lake breezes, and a mild climate made Grand Haven a great place for camping not only for fun but also for health.


To house tourists, investors created resorts like Highland Park. Visitors could choose to stay in the Highland Park Hotel for a single night or the entire summer season. If visitors wanted more space or privacy, they could own or rent their own cottage.


Visitors who traveled to Grand Haven to improve their health at Sheldon’s mineral spa called it “taking the waters.”


W.C. Sheldon’s Magnetic Mineral Springs
c. 1890s



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Building Begins 

Building cottages at Highland Park was difficult from the beginning. The steep slopes of the dunes made it hard for people to bring tools and lumber to the lots. Teams of horses were needed to pull the supplies up the rough roads in the sandy dune hills. In some places it was so steep that workers had to carry the supplies by hand. 

The first cottage built in Highland Park was Loch Hame (“Lake Home” in Scots), built in 1887 for Mrs. Sarah Benedict Rhines Saunders. Loch Hame was built on Lake Avenue, which had been extended years earlier to reach the area. This made Loch Hame one of the easiest cottages to start building. Over the next ten years, the number of cottages grew from 3 in 1887 to more than 50 in 1897. The lots on the west side of Highland Park (closest to the lake) were generally built prior to those further inland.

Building Begins
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See the Evolution of Highland Park

Cottage Timeline

Highland Park Hotel

Within a few years of forming, the Highland Park Association built a hotel on the beach to attract more people to the resort. The Highland Park Hotel opened on July 4th, 1890. At first the hotel was owned by the HPA, which hired managers to run it for them.The hotel had 25 rooms for guests and a dining room able to seat about 100 people. 


Even though the hotel was not large, it was beautifully decorated to attract wealthy visitors. The hotel kept records of visitors in their register and published guest lists in the local newspapers. Guests at the hotel spent time enjoying the beach, mingling with each other, and organizing evening entertainment. 


Just a few years after it opened, the HPA sold the Highland Park Hotel. The new owners expanded the hotel, adding more rooms and amenities. Even after the sale, the hotel and its guests were still seen and talked about as part of the broader Highland Park community.

The Hotel
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Early Necessities

People staying at Highland Park needed more than cottages to enjoy their vacations. They needed water, electricity, and telephones. To get these utilities, the HPA had to work with the City of Grand Haven. This was not always easy, as the HPA and the City often argued over who had to pay workers and supply costs. 


These disagreements usually caused a delay between the HPA asking the City to do something and the City actually doing it. For example, The first electric lights in downtown Grand Haven were installed in 1891, but were not installed in Highland Park until 1902.


Before 1895, resort visitors had to use wells or a single water pump provided by the HPA.  The HPA asked the City to connect the resort to the city water system in 1893, but the city did not do so until 1895. 


Telephones were installed in Highland Park cottages as early as the 1890s. At the time there were approximately 0.4 telephones per 100 people in the US. By the end of the 1899 season, the number of telephones in Highland Park totaled about 60.

The Necessities
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Highland Parks and Recreation

Visitors came to Highland Park to have fun and enjoy nature. With this in mind, the HPA left lots open for resorters to use for picnics and games amongst the trees. 


Down by the water, the HPA maintained access to the beach near the Pavilion. Swimming was the main activity for beachgoers. Resorters who did not have their own swimming suit could rent one by the hour from Captain Jack. They also had access to a pier he built and maintained which they could use for fishing.


Outdoor entertainment in Highland Park in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also included public scientific demonstrations. Victorian scientists and inventors often used public demonstrations for educational and entertainment purposes. At least three such demonstrations took place in Highland Park: a water walking machine in 1893, a parachute leap and hot air balloon lift in 1898, and moving pictures in 1902.

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Parks and Play

On the Tennis Court

The first push for tennis courts at Highland Park started in the late 1890s, when resorters had to go to Spring Lake to find a court to play on. In the following years, the resort set up a few grass courts for playing tennis, but they were quite basic. 


Highland Park did not have high quality tennis courts until the 1920s, when a man named Thomas Otley persuaded the HPA to start the Highland Park Tennis Club. The Club raised funds to build the courts, which were finished in 1924. With these new courts, the Highland Park Tennis Club started to host tournaments that allowed talented junior players from the Tri-Cities to play against the top players from around the country. The Highland Park Tennis Tournament became one of the top three junior tennis tournaments in the country by 1931. 


Unfortunately, the courts were neglected as a result of WWII and decayed for many years before being rebuilt in the 1980s. The last renovation project was completed in 1998.


Highland Park Tennis Court
c. 1930

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Tennis Court

Building for Life in the Dunes

Highland Park’s location on the lake shore had many positive aspects. The main issue for cottage owners was the difficulty of building stable cottages on sand dunes. To be successful, owners and builders had to adapt their plans to work with the landscape. They built large porches (especially wrap-around porches) to emphasize the views. Some cottages also had entrances on different levels because of the dune’s slope.


Even with these changes, cottage owners could still express their tastes by choosing designs that fit their style. Most of the cottages constructed in the earliest years of Highland Park were rustic by today’s standards. They were designed for seasonal, rather than year-round use. They were generally not insulated, had basic floor plans, and used simple materials. The architectural styles of these cottages ranged from the most plain (Saltbox, Vernacular, and Folk Victorian) to the more ornate (Tudor Revival, Queen Anne, and Craftsman). 


Cottagers also had to be creative when walking around within the resort. The HPA built a series of boardwalks, bridges, and staircases to connect the cottages to each other and to the main roads in the resort.

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David S. Hopkins and Highland Castle

Some cottages had more unusual designs, most notably Highland Castle. This 1897 cottage was designed by David S. Hopkins, noted Grand Rapids architect. He was responsible for designing the Hackley and Hume Houses in Muskegon and published house and cottage plans used throughout the United States and Canada. Most of his buildings were designed in the Queen Anne style, with elaborate gingerbread trim. For Highland Castle, however, he took inspiration from medieval European castles. Hopkins added features like turrets and crenels to the roofline. The cottage was even located at a high point in the resort, like historical castles that used hilltops to see approaching enemies. The overall effect of the cottage impressed resorters and residents enough to earn a vivid description in the Grand Rapids Herald:

D.S. Hopkins, the architect of Grand Rapids, has built the finest cottage located within the park and finished it in quarter-sawed sycamore, built two fine grates and mantels (the latter are made of pressed brick), has cathedral glass, towers, battlements and is in the shape of a castle, from the tower of which he can see the harbor at Muskegon.


Highland Castle, Highland Park

Unknown Date 



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The Castle

Lakeside Tourist Shops

Highland Park, and other resorts in the Tri-Cities, gave a boost to the local economy and cemented the role of tourism in the area. Local businesses quickly adapted and catered to the needs of the growing tourism industry.


The Highland Park Pavilion, known first as Captain Jack’s, was built by Captain Jack Walker in the late 1880s as a bathhouse for visitors swimming in the lake. Over the years, Walker expanded his services to include ice cream sales and bathing suit rentals. Established businesses adapted to appeal to the needs of summer resorters. Local grocer Gerrit Ekkens, built a second store closer to Highland Park on Lake Avenue and offered delivery service for Highland Park cottages. 

Businesses also added new merchandise to their stores: souvenirs. These souvenirs allowed tourists to take home a reminder of their vacation and spread the word about Highland Park to anyone who saw them. Agnes MacFie, the owner of Beausite Cottage, created souvenir cyanotypes (blue and white photographs) of Highland Park for Lane’s Photography. Captain Walker also sold some souvenir photographs at his bathhouse. G. A. Bottje’s store sold souvenir spoons, which had only just become popular in the United States in the early 1890s.

What's a Cyanotype?

Blue photographs like this are called cyanotypes. Cyanotypes were invented in 1842 and used photo-sensitive paper combined with light exposure to create a copy of an image, either through direct exposure or by projecting the image onto the surface using a camera.

Did you know: One form of cyanotype that remained popular well into the 1900s was one you have probably heard of before: the blueprint. Blueprints were preferred for making copies of architectural or engineering schematics because of their speed, precision, and low cost.

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Touist Shops

Riding the Dummy Line

Getting to Highland Park was a difficult task in the late 19th century. Visitors needed to travel from downtown Grand Haven on a mile of unpaved and sandy roads, to the resort. 


Horse-drawn buses were the earliest option for resorters. These were large carriages drawn by two or more horses (see photo below). Their route took visitors from the Detroit, Grand Haven, and Milwaukee Railway’s Grand Depot to the Highland Park Station at the Pavilion. 


A streetcar called the “Dummy line” was added in 1895. The Dummy line offered service from downtown Grand Haven to Highland Park on the bus route and added a loop at the southern end of the resort. It was powered by a steam charge at the station downtown and ran on tracks. 


In 1903, an electric streetcar called the “Interurban” began running in downtown Grand Haven with a transfer to the Dummy line. Eventually the Dummy line was converted to electric streetcars and stopped running in 1928. 


Today, visitors can ride the Harbor Transit Beach Express bus to the City Beach for $1, continuing the tradition of low-cost travel for tourists in the Tri-Cities.

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The Interurban

Building Community

Word of Highland Park soon spread beyond the Tri-Cities, reaching as far as Chicago and St. Louis. In the 1890s, groups traveling from the same city purchased lots in clusters. Several cottages in the Beechwood section were collectively called “Coopersville” after the number of cottage owners from that city. Cottagers and hotel guests built a sense of community by planning social events like marshmallow roasts, talent shows, and dances. 


Some resorters and cottage owners became unofficial residents of the Tri-Cities because of their extended visits every summer. One such resorter was “Aunt” Abigail Saunders, the widowed sister-in-law of Dr. William G. Saunders and Sarah Benedict Rhines Saunders, of Loch Hame and The Station cottages. Abigail Saunders had visited the resort every year since it opened and became a fixture at Highland Park because of her cheerful personality. 


One of the most beloved members of the Highland Park community was a local dog named Jake. In the early days of the resort Jake was known to ride the streetcar to the beach. 


The shared experiences and friendships helped forge a new community in Highland Park between Tri-Cities locals and long-term resorters.

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Women of Highland Park

Many of the earlier cottages in Highland Park were owned by women. In fact, the first cottage built in Highland Park was owned by Sarah Benedict Rhines Saunders. This was unusual for the time since married women in Michigan were not given the right to own property until 1855 and Michigan women were not yet allowed to vote. Owning her own cottage gave a woman freedom to come and go as she pleased or earn money by renting it out. 


Owning cottages and embracing the freedom this ownership provided was one way women expressed their support for the women's suffrage movement, which was a popular cause in Highland Park. Local suffragists, Grace Ames Van Hoesen and Eleanor V. Rawlinson owned their own Highland Park cottages. Many of the married women who owned cottages in Highland Park were involved, along with their husbands, in women’s suffrage advocacy as well. 

Other women who owned Highland Park cottages include occupational trailblazers like Cora Storrs Clark who inherited Bittersweet Lodge from her mother. Clark was one of the founders of the American Institute of Design and owned her own interior design company in Grand Rapids.

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At Home in Highland Park

Cottage owners have always taken care to personalize their home away from home as a way to create lasting traditions. One way this has been done is by giving cottages names like Loch Hame, Bide-A-Wee, and Bittersweet Lodge. Handmade signs, commemorative souvenirs, and meaningful decorations are all ways cottage owners pass down their history through generations.

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At Home
The Gertrude

The Story of the Gertrude Sign

On August 20, 1989, Gertrude Mersbach visited our cottage at 42 Crescent Hill in Highland Park, Grand Haven, Michigan. When her father, Benjamin F. Otley, bought the cottage he named it after her. 

At the time she was 87 years old. Since the cottage is high on the front dune overlooking Lake Michigan, her daughter suggested she ride up on one of the available trams. She said, “No. I’ve always walked up there and I’m walking up now!” And so she did.

She immediately noticed we had changed the name of the cottage back to The Gertrude. It had been changed by some recent owners to The Columbine. She was pleased with this and asked me to stop down to the cottage where she was living. She said she had something for us. 

The next day she showed me an old illuminated sign made of a thick bronze plate embedded with brightly colored glass stones attached to the front of a wooden box. She wanted me to take it and display it at our cottage. I told her I would return it when the season ended in the fall. She told me “No, it’s yours to keep since you did not change the original name. I want you to have it.”

The story she told of the sign is this: her fiancé had made it as a special gift to her for their upcoming wedding. He had carried it up to the cottage from where the road ended just past the cemetery. It’s heavy. I asked her when was that? she paused a bit and replied, “I don’t remember.” (I guessed that it was probably around 1920 or so.) 

The sign is in its original condition except for replacing the electrical wiring. For the last 34 years we have displayed it, fully lighted, on the front of the cottage which faces westward toward Lake Michigan.


The Gertrude Lighted Sign


Wood, bronze, and glass

On loan courtesy of Sandy Kennedy

Alexander W. Kennedy
February 29, 2020

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Who's Who of Highland Park

Having a cottage on Lake Michigan was as popular in the early 1900s as it is today. As the park became more well-known, it began to attract notable visitors from across the country. People who wanted to keep up with the news of “who was staying where” could read about it in the paper. 


At the time, local newspapers printed lists of who was staying in which cabin, or hotel, in weekly reports. These reports were printed in sections called the “Society Pages.” Each week they published news on the activities of the wealthy and notable members of local society. 


These reports were partly practical—providing a way for friends to be able keep in touch while on vacation. But they were also a great way to get local gossip on special events such as weddings, picnics, marshmallow roasts, and dances.

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Angelus Marshmallow Canister

The Cracker Jack Co.


Late 1800s


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Sunday Resort Report

Grand Rapids Herald

July 21, 1907

Courtesy of the Grand Rapids History and Special Collections Department 

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Who's Who

Disaster Strikes

While the resort was able to avoid any major building losses for the first 15 years, it did not last. Several structures were damaged or even completely destroyed by fire, storms, and erosion.


One of the greatest dangers to Highland Park in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was fire. Most cottages were made of wood, which gave them little resistance to flames. The area was fairly remote and difficult for the fire department to access, particularly with the steep climb up the dunes. Cottagers relied on each other to respond quickly to prevent fires from spreading.


Storms also played a role in damaging cottages. While no cottages in Highland Park were ever completely demolished by a storm, many suffered significant damage due to falling tree branches and harsh winds.


All cottages on Lake Michigan’s shore were vulnerable to erosion, including those at Highland Park. Over time the wind and water washed away sand in front of the cottages. Without regular maintenance, erosion could lead to the dunes (and the cottages on them) collapsing.

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Changes in the 20th Century


Letter detailing changes to be made to
Wilderness cottage in Highland Park
Typewritten Letter

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Several important changes for the HPA took place in the 20th Century, both in terms of land ownership and the landscape of the resort. 


The Highland Park Association’s lease with the City of Grand Haven was renewed and extended several times in the 20th century. That came to an end in 1952, when the City declined to renew the lease for the land. Instead, the City allowed the HPA and its members to purchase the lots, roads, and green spaces that made up the resort. This change meant that the resort was no longer technically city property. Instead, each individual cottage became private property and shared spaces like parking lots and parks were purchased by the HPA for the benefit of all of its members. 


The increasing popularity of automobiles also created changes for the HPA. Several of the empty lots that had been designated as open space earlier were turned into parking areas for nearby cottages. Parking became such a prized commodity that spots had to be assigned for each of the cottages. 

20th Century

Highland Park Today

Highland Park appears to be at the beginning of a slow and subtle transformation from a seasonal resort to a residential neighborhood. Its dramatic landscape and history ensure it will retain its unique character as it has for the past 134 years.

The most meaningful changes to Highland Park are more recent. At first, Highland Park was only intended for summer use. Cottages were closed up each year in August or September and reopened the following May or June. As the years progressed, resorters started arriving earlier and leaving later. A handful of cottagers stayed through the winter months in the early 1900s, but the trend of using cottages as year-round homes did not take off until owners started winterizing them.


The process of “winterizing” a cottage involved adapting the structure so that it would be more comfortable to stay in all year. In some cases, this essentially meant building a new home. While no two cottages were the same, winterizing often included:

  • replacing wood footings with concrete 

  • adding insulation throughout the cottage

  • installing furnaces and air conditioners 

  • replumbing the bathrooms and kitchens 

  • replacing windows and doors

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Highland Park Today
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