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The five interconnected Great Lakes (Superior, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Huron) are impressive enough taken singly. Taken as a whole, the Great Lakes form the largest body of fresh water in the world; Lake Superior alone is more than three hundred miles from east to west. The shores of these inland seas can rival any coastline: Superior and the northern reaches of Lake Michigan offer stunning rocky peninsulas, craggy cliffs, tree-covered islands, mammoth dunes and deserted beaches. Such natural amenities and marvels stand in contrast to the areas along Lake Erie, and the southern environs of lakes Michigan and Huron, where sluggish waters lap against massive conurbations and ports that have seen better days.
To varying degrees, the principal states that line the American side of the lakes – Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota – share this mixture of natural beauty and heavy industry. Cities such as Chicago and Detroit, for all their pros and cons, do not characterize the entire region, although the former’s magnificent architecture, museums, music and restaurants make it a worthy destination. Within the first hundred miles or so of the lakeshores, especially in Wisconsin and Minnesota, tens of thousands of smaller lakes and tumbling streams are scattered through a luxuriant rural wilderness; beyond that, you are soon in the heart of the Corn Belt, where you can drive for hours and encounter nothing more than a succession of crossroads communities, grain silos and giant barns.
Getting around the Great Lakes region can be a challenge without a car, but with a little planning it can be fairly manageable, with frequent air and bus connections between the main cities and Amtrak passing through most larger places, if only once daily.
The first foreigner to reach the Great Lakes, the French explorer Champlain, found the region in 1603 inhabited mostly by tribes of Huron, Iroquois and Algonquin. France soon established a network of military forts, Jesuit missions and fur-trading posts here, which entailed treating the native people as allies rather than subjects. After the French and Indian War with Britain from 1754 to 1761, however, the victorious British felt under no constraints to deal equitably with the Native Americans, and things grew worse with large-scale American settlement after Independence. The Black Hawk War of 1832 put a bloody end to traditional Native American life.
Settlers from the east were followed to Wisconsin and Minnesota by waves of Scandinavians and Germans, while the lower halves of Illinois and Indiana attracted Southerners, who attempted to maintain slavery here and resisted Union conscription during the Civil War. As regards culture and ideological inclinations, these areas still have more in common with neighbouring Kentucky and Tennessee than with the industrial cities of their own states.
The demands of the Civil War encouraged the growth of industry in the region, with its abundant supplies of ores and fuel, as well as efficient transport by water and rail. As lakeshore cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland grew in the early twentieth century, their populations swelled with hundreds of thousands of European immigrants and poor blacks from the South. But a lack of planning, inadequate housing and mass lay-offs at times of low demand bred conditions led to the riots of the late 1960s and continuing inner-city deprivation. Depression in the 1970s ravaged the economy – especially the automobile industry, on which so much else depended – and gave the area the unpleasant title of “Rust Belt”. Since then, cities such as Cleveland have revived their fortunes to some degree, although the current economic crisis has hit the region especially hard. Times have remained tough for Detroit, and the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, making it the largest American city to do so.