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Island Without Cars Threatened by Success - 2003-05-11

Mackinac Island, Michigan is the only city in the United States where there are no motorized vehicles of any kind on the streets. It's been that way since the automobile was banned by city ordinance in 1898. The island's thousands of tourists go from place to place in horse-drawn taxi cabs. But the island's commitment to a unique way of life is being threatened by its own success.

In 1948 about 100 horses worked on Mackinac Island. That number has grown to more than 400 as the island attracted more tourists, eager to experience a quaint trip into the past. But Bill Chambers, who owns the island's horse-drawn taxi cab company, says there are some things that modern tourists are not prepared to experience. "Thirty years ago people didn't mind crossing the street with manure on the street, they didn't think about it, it's unthinkable today, people today are very offended by horse manure and the smell," he says.

The island has seasonal laborers who shovel the horse droppings from the streets. That's how Mr. Chambers' employee Tom Palmer spends his days. But nowadays, with so much manure, the clean-up crews have trouble keeping up.

Manure from the horses was becoming such a big problem that the city council was ready to allow motor-driven street sweepers to keep the streets clean. But Bill Chambers saw that as the first step down a slippery slope that could jeopardize his horse-drawn cab business, along with the island's way of life. He was determined not to let that happen. The Studebaker Manufacturing Company had made horse-drawn street sweepers at the turn of the century. So Mr. Chambers enlisted the help of a local inventor and together they modified Studebaker's original designs, with a little help from this century.

That's the sound of Mackinac's Island's new horse-drawn street sweeper. The long grey sweeper looks a lot like a farm machine. Its brushes sweep manure into a bin as it moves along. "We also have a small motor on this vehicle only to help turn the brush, because there's so many hills on Mackinac," he says.

Next along comes the horse-drawn street sprinkler. It's a 2,000-liter water barrel made of glossy finished wood, mounted atop huge wheels painted green, red and yellow. The sprinkler washes dust and remaining bits of straw from the streets. "What we did was put battery, massive battery pack on it and put two pumps and manifold on back of it put it under pressure about 60 pounds pressure per square inch. We've reinvented the wheel is what we've done here," says Mr. Chambers.

These machines are more efficient than the original ones by Studebaker. But horses still lead the way. Mr. Chambers says the machines have let Mackinac Island stay true to a slow-paced way of life. "My old great grandfather was the one who originally petitioned the city council here to ban autos in 1888," he says. "If we let our guard down in any area of motorized equipment here we're gonna throw the baby out with the bath water. We're almost now an endangered species, right?"

Bill Chambers says the streets are looking pretty good. Although, he says, anytime you do something new on Mackinac, you'll have your critics. There's less demand for hand street cleaners now, but there's always plenty to clean on the island, and no one's out of work.

The motorized threat is not over yet, however. Facing the prospect of electric bicycles zipping around willy-nilly, the city council has added them to the list of banned vehicles. That's prompted a lawsuit from a disabled resident who wants to replace his electric wheelchair with an electric bicycle. But the city council is sticking to its guns and plans to defend the new ordinance in court.