By Scott Sullivan
Oval Beach goers can now follow a scenic walking trail between the Saugatuck Chain Ferry landing on Park Street and the Lake Michigan attraction thanks to a familiar donor.
The new John A. Woollam Nature Trail fulfills a long-held Saugatuck city vision of a path taking hikers off two-lane and winding Perryman Street — the lone east-west paved route to the beach — through woods to the popular park and back.
Woollam, a West Michigan native who became a Lincoln, Neb., professor, physicist, engineer and entrepreneur, has long taken interest in the area.
The Woollam Foundation was among key donors making possible the City of Saugatuck’s $19-million acquisition in 2009 of the 171-acre Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area between Oval Beach and the Kalamazoo River channel.
He was also a principal in the nonprofit Oval Beach Preservation Society’s $1.5-million purchase of 20.65 acres north of Perryman from Dunegrass developer Dune Ridge SA LP in 2017. The land has since been transferred to the city.
It will remain undeveloped as a public park with no improvements except primitive trails, viewing platforms, benches, steps, stairs or ropes to help pedestrians and erosion control structures, per deed terms.
The mile-long rustic trail starts from its east end on Bliss Street across from the ferry landing and proceeds north of Perryman on a Dune Ridge-owned easement. It crosses the beach road about midway, then passes through the new city land to now 91-acre Oval Beach.
“The views are spectacular,” said OBPS president Keith Walker, who was also instrumental in the acquisition. “It’s a primitive path, steep and narrow at some points — not unlike the (1.6-mile) Ox-Bow path to and from the Crow’s Nest (overview of the harbor mouth) in Tallmadge Woods.
“But that’s what it takes to reach views like that.”
Signs and maps were posted at both ends of the new Woollam Trail last week, following this fall’s Perryman rebuilding. Saugatuck, which will maintain the path, plans in spring to mark Park and Perryman crossings, said city manager Kirk Harrier.
The city also owns the adjacent 100-acre Mt. Baldhead Park. Combined with the 80-plus-acre Tallmadge Woods conservation easement, agreed to in 2008 by the city, north of there and east of the Ox-Bow Art School, outdoors lovers have an extraordinary public-land expanse to explore.
The OBSP formed in summer 2013 hoping to save the 130-acre Presbyterian Camps, largely south of Perryman, from additional development, but fell shy in its late bid to buy the land.
Dune Ridge bought the century-old camps for $10 million in 2014 from the Presbytery of Chicago, fiscally strapped to pay off loans resulting from a 1990’s sex scandal.
The developer is completing work on its 21-luxury home, 56-acre Dunegrass project on the parcel’s westernmost land, a private marina on the property’s eastern river frontage next to the Chain Ferry landing, and studying work along Frederick Street in between. (See related story elsewhere in this issue.)
The Woollam Foundation’s mission is to help protect undeveloped land for future generations through purchases, conservation easements and financial support for conservation groups with a similar mission. Emphasis is on protecting lakes, streams and rivers.
“We are grateful for what Mr. Woollam has done here,” said Harrier.
“This will certainly help with pedestrian safety on Perryman to the beach and add to our outdoor attractions,” he said.