Bassett Island - Atlas Obscura

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Bassett Island

This tiny island bears the name of Civil War veteran, fisherman, and local celebrity Richard Bassett. 

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Located some 10 miles north of Traverse City, Michigan, Bassett Island is an almost two-acre island in the form of a tombolo—a smaller island of natural deposition connected by a low-lying isthmus its larger neighbor, Power Island. Bassett Island takes its name from the Civil War veteran Richard “Dick” Bassett, who lived on the island from 1877 to 1900.

At the time of the original survey of the area and islands in 1847, and following corrections in 1851, the small island was not properly “meandered”—surveyed and described—on the federal maps, which would have made it eligible for a claim by land patent.

In 1877, the 39-year-old Dick Bassett, who had worked on the frontier as a cattle driver before and after the Civil War, took up residency on the island and established a fishing camp. Over time, the island was known as “Fisherman’s Island.” Bassett developed the island as his home, farm, and fish camp, netting whitefish and lake trout from West Grand Traverse Bay and growing a sizable garden and orchard.

Through the 1880s, Bassett gained a reputation as an amiable, yet private, character who was reticent to discuss his past. In 1890, the new decade brought the “resort” era to Northern Michigan with an influx of tourists and summer cottagers brought by competing railways.

Local newspaper reporters, some of whom were affiliated with nearby resorts, published accounts of Dick Bassett as “The Hermit of Grand Traverse Bay.” These profiles eventually found a national audience in stories published in newspapers around the country, such as The New York Times. For his part, Bassett continued to sell fish and produce to the nearby resorts and entertained curious visits from locals and summer residents. 

In the 1890s, Bassett secured his Civil War pension. By the end of the decade, Bassett moved into Traverse City to set up a small fish market, supplied by a small group of fishermen working for him.

In 1899, Bassett was introduced to Charles H. Thorne, an heir to the Montgomery Ward retail fortune, who was secretary of the Chicago Yacht Club. Thorne envisioned that  Bassett’s island would become a resort of its own for Chicago Yacht Club members as a destination for sailing and boating.

Thorne and Bassett entered an agreement: Thorne would purchase the island from Basset once Basset could establish a land title.  “Bassett Island,” as the island was now known as, was surveyed and added to the government registers. Dick Bassett then applied and was granted the land patent in 1901, establishing his title to the island.

Bassett, at the age of 64, then completed the sale of the island to Thorne for $2,000 in early 1902. Following the sale, Bassett and his wife, a 32-year-old widow whom he had married in 1899, departed to reportedly settle in the Los Angeles area.

The development of the Chicago Yacht Club resort on Bassett Island subsequently failed to take hold, possibly due to the failure of Thorne to be able to purchase the larger adjoining Marion Island from its owner. In 1906, Bassett Island was sold to a local steamboat line which then built a dance pavilion on the island as a summer attraction in the waning days of steamboat travel on the bay.

The seasonal schedule of the dance pavilion lasted only five summers until 1910. In 1917, Bassett Island was purchased by Henry Ford at the same time as he purchased neighboring Marion Island. Ford would visit the two islands to camp with his small group of celebrity travelers, including Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone, in the 1920s.

Know Before You Go

Bassett Island is located on West Grand Traverse Bay, 7.5 miles north of Traverse City, Michigan, and is accessible only by water. There is no regularly scheduled boat service to Bassett Island or its larger neighbor Power Island, but the islands are a popular destination for boaters in the summer. Both islands are parklands of Grand Traverse County, which maintains five primitive campsites on Bassett Islands, whose use requires reservations.

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August 28, 2023

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