History of cars, er, ‘horseless carriages,’ on Mackinac Island

Published on September 23rd, 2020

Out of more than 4 million miles of public roadway in the United States, there’s an 8-mile stretch on Mackinac Island that stands apart. M-185 is the only state highway in the country where motor vehicles are not allowed.

Instead, the traffic on the road that circles the outer rim of Mackinac Island consists of pedestrians, bicyclists and horse-drawn carriages.

You might say that M-185 is literally almost one in a million. Then again, Mackinac Island is one of a kind. But it could have turned out much differently had Mackinac Island not taken steps to ban “horseless carriages” more than 120 years ago.

It was at the end of the 19th century that the fledgling auto industry was emerging, headquartered in Michigan with Oldsmobile in Lansing and Ford in Detroit. By that time, horse-drawn carriages already had been giving tours of beautiful Mackinac Island for over three decades. They were a key feature of Mackinac Island’s transition from a military outpost and center of Great Lakes fur trade into a popular travel destination.Riding a bicycle around the perimeter of Mackinac Island on M-185 is a popular activity for visitors.

When a smattering of motor vehicles first started appearing on Mackinac Island, a group of carriage men petitioned the village council to prohibit the “dangerous horseless carriages” that were frightening their horses. Village leaders enacted the ban on July 6, 1898 and it has stayed in place to this day!

As automobiles became ubiquitous in the 20th century, the lack of motor vehicles on Mackinac Island has given the place a special character that makes it truly feel like a vacation escape.

It’s an opportunity to leave your fast-paced life at the ferry dock for a few days and slow down to clip-clop speed for a much-deserved breather.

When you get here to experience the peace and relaxation of Mackinac Island yourself, you’ll understand. In the meantime, if you’re curious, here are five fun facts about the history of transportation on Mackinac Island:


  • Horses first arrived on Mackinac Island around 1780 when the British used them to haul parts of Fort Michilimackinac from the mainland near present-day Mackinaw City over the ice to the island. The British sought the high bluffs of Mackinac Island for protection against a possible American attack. Shortly after the Revolutionary War, Mackinac Island became part of the United States. Then, following the War of 1812, the Americans took control of Fort Mackinac for good and the military significance of the island began to wane.

The horse is king on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, where motor vehicles have been prohibited since 1898.

  • By the mid-1800s, Mackinac Island was evolving into a tourist destination and tours by horse carriage became a popular way to see the incredible sights. The first carriage license was issued in 1869. More than 150 years later, Mackinac Island Carriage Tours is the world’s oldest and largest horse and buggy livery, one of a handful of liveries on Mackinac Island.


  • While visitors can’t take an automobile to Mackinac Island, some exceptions have been made over the years. For one, a few vehicles were allowed on Mackinac Island for the filming of the 1979 movie “Somewhere in Time” starring Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour. Also, emergency vehicles are on the island all the time to protect the health and safety of Mackinac Island residents and visitors. In fact, the first and only auto accident occurred in 2005 when a fire truck utility door was damaged by clipping the open door of an ambulance.