the 45th Parallel

Cairn Highway, Kewadin, Michigan


Just north of Kewadin stands one of the most unusual 45th Parallel monuments. Here in a tiny roadside park on a country road is a rock cairn built in 1938 as a tribute to Hugh J. Gray, the founder of an early state tourism association. The monument is a polylith made of boulders from each of Michigan's 83 counties, with the source of each contribution engraved on its face, so you can find your favorite.

Midway Between the Equator and North Pole

At first glance it's difficult to tell why the marker is placed on this quiet spot, or what the symbolism of the boulders might have to do with 45th Parallel, which actually lies 3 - 1/2 miles north of here.

Hugh J Gray

Hugh J. Gray

Dean of Michigan's Tourist Activity

1938 State Committee: Governor Frank Murphy, Hon. Chairman; U.S. Senator Arthur H. Vandenburg; U.S. Senator Prentiss M. Brown; Bruce E. Anderson, Gen. Chairman; J. Lee Barrett, Vice-Chairman; Don C. Weeks, Secretary; Murray D. Van Wagoner; P.J. Hoffmaster; Thomas F. Marston; Lee Wilson Hutchins; Geo E. Bishop

This point is halfway between the Equator and the North Pole.

Hugh Gray (1868 - 1943) was the first director of the Western Michigan Tourist & Resort Association, charged with establishing a new economic model in the cutover lands left behind as the lumber industry moved out west. Fortunately, Michigan-made automobiles helped Gray's efforts to bring tourism and money to benefit the towns of Western Michigan in the early twentieth century. As a thank you after over twenty years of service, the association gathered donations of stones from throughout the state and built the cairn which was dedicated following a grand banquet in his honor at Traverse City on June 28, 1938 attended by the luminaries listed on the plaque above. There is a time capsule hidden behind the plaque which contains newspapers and tourist brochures from the area.

Hugh J Gray

The stones contributed by each county vary in size and composition. The Wexford contribution at the center is not a stone at all but a cube of rubber manufactured at a tire plant!

Elk Rapids

US Highway 31 originally ran beside the monument and was the main road along the western side of Michigan. At some point 31 was rerouted a mile to the west of here, bypassing the small town of Kewadin. The Old Cairn Highway became a less-used side road and its namesake monument were gradually forgotten by passing tourists.

South of the monument, you may encounter a few signs of the "Polar Equator Trail", a loose confederation of roads which follow the 45th Parallel across Michigan for over 140 miles from Kewadin to Alpena. In the early 1970s, a group of wealthy Michigan outdoorsmen and big game hunters plotted a route across the state to promote tourism and interest in outdoor opportunities along the 45th Parallel. There are few roads which consistently follow the parallel, so the route is a patchwork of large and small byways which run close to the line. The Michigan Polar-Equator Club put up these red-white-and-blue mile markers at their own expense to guide 45th Parallel tourists along the route. The few markers that are left today are faded and far between.

Polar Equator Trail

North of the cairn, the Old Cairn Highway and modern US 31 rejoin. A little farther along, fully three and a half miles north of the cairn, there is a standard highway sign marking the point where the 45th Parallel crosses the highway:

Highway 31 Sign

45th Parallel

Halfway between
Equator & North Pole

The old rock cairn may not be well-known but it does have a local following. At a fruit stand on Highway 31 near the parallel I was surprised to find a bottle of cherry juice with a logo celebrating the old cairn:

Old Mission Light

The lands near Lake Michigan are dotted with many orchards, taking advantage of the big lake's moderation of temperature extremes which protects the fruit trees from early frosts and summer heat. Apples, grapes and blueberries are grown south of here, but the area around Traverse City is famous for its cherries. This bottle of Cairn Side Juice was delicious!

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