Road to waterfalls upgraded

SUNDELL – An Alger County Road Commission project under way this week on Sundell Road is expected to increase the number of annual visitors to Laughing Whitefish Falls, a roughly 110-foot cataract celebrated by photographers as one of Michigan’s most beautiful waterfalls.

The falls is situated about 25 miles southeast of Marquette, north of M-94 via Sundell Road, where a 2-mile construction zone will be in effect for the next few weeks.

“The project will provide for two 11-foot lanes, plus an added 3-feet of paved shoulder along each side. With new pavement markings, this extra width beyond the white line will be a benefit to cyclists and pedestrians,” said Robert Lindbeck, engineer-manager of the Alger County Road Commission. “A precast concrete culvert, furnished by U.P. Concrete Pipe and Culvert, will replace the deteriorated metal culvert at the Laughing Whitefish Creek.”

Payne & Dolan Inc. was awarded the work for a low-bid amount of $507,309. The company’s schedule shows that, weather permitting, culvert work will be completed by early July. The existing pavement will be crushed and re-graded into the aggregate base course. Crushing is scheduled to begin July 10, with paving planned for the week of July 15. New pavement markings should be in place by Aug. 18.

Traffic will still be able to access the falls during construction.

“The road commission was out here for the last couple weeks doing trenching on the side and putting the aggregate in, but we started Monday to place the box culvert,” said Tom Ritter, project manager with Payne & Dolan in Gladstone.

The road commission has had its eye on repairing the pot-holed roadway to the falls since 2005.

“It’s not a DNR project, but it’s funded out of the State Park Access Program. That program, there’s about $500,000 allotted annually, it’s for roads to access state parks,” said Lee Vaughn, Michigan Department of natural resources unit supervisor at Indian Lake State Park.

“I’m anticipating it (the project) increasing the use of Laughing Whitefish Falls,” Vaughn said. “I think the condition of the road deterred a lot of people from coming in here to see it.”

Vaughn estimated about 25,000 people visit the waterfalls each year.

The DNR funding program provided 80 percent of the project cost, with locals financing the remaining 20 percent.

Dan Lord, development program manager for the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division, said the State Park Access Program was established through the Trunkline Highways Through State Parks of Property Act 77 of 1929.

Potential projects are identified and prioritized by the DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division and supplied to the Michigan Department of Transportation. Projects are funded from the Federal Public Lands Highway Discretionary Program.

John Hermann, Alger County Road Commission member, said he believes the construction work is a great project for Alger County.

“It gives excellent access to Laughing Whitefish Falls, it’s another tourist attraction to keep people in Alger County and that’s important to us,” Hermann said. “It’s important to the neighbors too, the people that live here, it will get rid of the dust and all the noise and all the rattling, this greatly enhances another road in Alger County.”

Jim Caszatt, district representative for state Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba also praised the project.

“It will be a great addition to tourism I’m thinking because of the beautiful falls up here at the end of the road and this will make it much more accessible and easier to get there,” Caszatt said. “It seems to be centrally-located in the U.P. close to the junction of a couple of major highways.”

Along a foot path to the falls, there are trilliums, pileated woodpeckers and, in the evening, the songs of hermit thrushes and ovenbirds fill the peaceful woodlands.

At the top, the waterfalls are 20 feet wide and, after dropping a distance of about 15 feet, the outflow widens and cascades over stratified rock. When photographed from the bottom, the falls look deceptively small.

There are three wooden observation decks at the falls and, back at the parking lot, a picnic area, rest rooms and a water pump. There are also interpretive displays.

The river flows from the falls, through a massive gorge toward Laughing Whitefish Lake, eventually flowing into Lake Superior. The site was established in 1965 through an initial donation of 100 acres from the Celotex Corporation.

Hermann said without the cooperation of several entities, the project to improve access to the falls would not have been possible.

“It’s a project we would never be able to do ourselves. License plates and gasoline taxes that fund Alger County primary and secondary roads is so limited that it doesn’t leave much room for construction projects, a lot of it’s just basic maintenance and few construction projects get done,” Hermann said. “But if it wasn’t for the cooperation of the township millages and federal and state grants, a lot of roads would just be maintained as is for another 10 decades.”

John Pepin can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 206. His email address is