Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 11, 2013

Editorial: 'Boardman' doesn't have historical cachet


---- — If history was the only judge, there wouldn't be much of a case for naming the river that runs through Grand Traverse County and Traverse City after Capt. Harry Boardman or his son Horace.

In 1847, the Napierville, Ill., farmer purchased about 200 acres of land surrounding the mouth of what we now call Boardman River on Grand Traverse Bay from the federal government for his son, Horace, then 27, to build a sawmill there.

The mill was not a big success — hard to believe considering the white pine forest that dominated the region — and in 1851 he sold the mill and forest land to the men now considered Traverse City's founders, Perry Hannah and Tracy Lay. The Hannah, Lay & Co. built lumber into the primary industry in the Grand Traverse region until the early 1900s.

Boardman was said to have stored logs for his sawmill in a natural lake on what was then called "the Ottawa River," according to the website of the Boardman River Dams Implementation Team — three dams along the Boardman are being removed.

Now, Grand Traverse Baykeeper John Nelson is floating the idea of renaming the river to honor the river's connection to Native American history.

"The river is being renewed, so why not take back the name it had when it was a natural, free-flowing river?" Nelson asked.

The Boardman name took hold in the 1800s, but historical maps identify it as "Ottaway," believed to be a European translation of words used to describe the river hundreds of years ago or a reference to local Native American cultures and bands

Nelson has said he thinks Ottaway or Ottawa might work if a name change comes into play.

"It was named after a lumber guy who wasn't up here for that long," Nelson said.

He's got a point.

Capt. Boardman sold his son's unprofitable lumbering operation and the 200 acres to Hannah, Lay & Co in 1851.

"But he got the river named after him," said Steve Largent of the Grand Traverse Conservation District.

That's not much of a legacy on which to hang the name of the major river in the area; in fact, it's downright paltry.

But place names frequently reflect the times in which they are created, our sensibilities notwithstanding.

Given that the area was for hundreds of years home to the ancestors of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, Boardman's four or so years is a blink of an eye.

But there it is. And unless Nelson can raise a lot more interest than he has so far, that's probably where it will stay.