High water levels in Lake Michigan are threatening a heritage that dates back to the 1850s.

The working waterfront of Michigan’s Fishtown—one of the few active commercial fishing villages on the Great Lakes—also houses galleries, cafes and boutiques, making it a popular stop for visitors to the Leland area, about 25 miles northwest of Traverse City.

But high water levels in the Great Lakes, the result of several years of heavier-than-normal precipitation, are threatening the docks and shanties. The not-for-profit Fishtown Preservation Society, which owns most of the property in Fishtown, is encouraging supporters to make #givingtuesday donations to help preserve the area and its heritage.

The society, which recently paid off its 2007 purchase of Fishtown properties, had already made plans to improve infrastructure, including docks and three shanties. But “the situation for Village Cheese Shanty and Morris Shanty is now urgent due to the additional damage from high water,” says Amanda Holmes, executive director of Fishtown Preservation.


An anonymous donor has pledged $10,000 to match #givingtuesday donations, part of $1.6 million needed to rehab the area.

“There is no place like Fishtown anywhere in the Great Lakes,” Amanda says. “Fishtown is here today because there have always been people here to ensure its survival. In the past, it was the fishermen and their families who looked after Fishtown, and since 2007 Fishtown Preservation has cared for the core historic parts of Fishtown as well as the commercial fishing operations and the vessels Joy and Janice Sue… Fishtown’s history is one of weathering highs and lows. We are on a journey.”


In summer 2019, lakes Michigan and Huron were at their highest levels in 30 years and only about an inch below their 100-year highs. Lake Superior, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario all set record high water levels. And the early outlook for 2020 isn’t encouraging; forecasters say lake levels could be even higher than in 2019.

Fishtown is only one of the communities affected; beach erosion, flooded roads and damage to lakeside structures have been reported around the Great Lakes this year. In Door County, Wisconsin, a preservation group leased a tractor to ferry summer tourists across a flooded pathway to the Cana Island Lighthouse. In Chicago, the music festival Mamby on the Beach was cancelled due to high water and the presence of endangered Great Lakes Piping shorebirds. Erosion is eating away at the shoreline of the Maritime Heritage Park in Ludington, Michigan.

Climate change is believed to be contributing both to the lakes’ rise in water level as well as the potential of future low-water years. “Volatility is the new normal,” says Daniel Macfarlane of Western Michigan University.

To learn more about Fishtown or to donate, go to https://www.fishtownmi.org/giving-tuesday/.