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Situated on the southern shore of the West Arm of the Grand Traverse Bay, extending to the southwest shore of the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay, Traverse City is the county seat of Grand Traverse County, Michigan.

A small portion of the city in the northwest extends into Leelanau County. Traverse City is the largest of the twenty-one counties in the Northern Michigan region.

US-31, M-22, M-37, and M-72 are the chief routes to and from the city.

Cities and villages within twenty-five miles include Lake Ann, Kingsley, Elk Rapids, Suttons Bay, Buckley, Fife Lake, Kalkaska, and Empire, while the unincorporated communities of Archie, Keystone, Greilickville, Crystal Spring, East Bay, Beitner, Chum's Corner, Acme, Grawn, and Yuba are within ten miles.

Traverse City and the surrounding region are known for cherry production. The area was the largest producer of tart cherries in the United States in 2010, and the city hosts the National Cherry Festival annually. The festival was founded as the Blessing of the Blossoms Festival in 1925 and was originally held in early May to take advantage of the cherry blossoms. However, the Michigan Legislature renamed the festival and moved the event to the summer in 1931.

The area is also recognized for viticulture and is a center for the production of wine in the Midwest.

Located near the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as several freshwater beaches, ski areas, and forests, Traverse City attracts tourists and travelers throughout the year.

At various times before its settlement by European-Americans, the area was home to the Ojibwe, Ottawa, and Potawatomi people, who inhabited the area surrounding the Great Lakes. The Traverse City area was known to Native Americans as Kitchiwikwedongsing, which was sometimes shortened to Wequetong, which means "at the head of the bay," a reference to its position on Grand Traverse Bay.

The Grand Traverse Bay was named by 18th-century French explorers, who were referring to the long crossing across the mouth of the bay. The region was controlled by the French, followed by Great Britain, before the Americans gained control as a result of their success in the American Revolution.

William Boardman purchased land along what is now known as Boardman River in 1847 and his son, Captain Horace Boardman became the first American settler when he began logging on his father's land that same year. He and his father, along with a number of employees, build a home and a sawmill near the mouth of the river.

In 1851, Hannah, Lay & Company purchased the Boardman's sawmill. Under the management of Perry Hannah, Albert Tracy Lay, and James Morgan, the sawmill was improved. The expanded mill brought additional settlers to the area, and a community was formed.

The settlement was known as Wequetong until a post office was established on February 7, 1854, with Dr. David C. Goodale as postmaster. Prior to that time, the only post office in the Grand Traverse Bay region was at Old Mission, which was then known as Grand Traverse. The original plan was for the post office to be named Grand Traverse but, as another post office already had that name, Albert Lay, who had lobbied for the post office, agreed to use Traverse City as the name for the new office.

Traverse City was incorporated as a village in 1881, and became a city in 1895.

The Traverse City Railroad, a spur from the Grand Rapids & Indiana line, came through in late 1872, running along the Boardman River and Boardman Lake into Traverse City, where it terminated at a station along the Grand Traverse Bay. Boardman Lake is located partly in the southern part of Traverse City.

Later, the Chicago & West Michigan Railroad (Pere Marquette, Chesapeake & Ohio), and a third railroad came through. The Chicago & West Michigan came up from Grand Rapids through Baldwin and then headed east and north to Elk Rapids and Petoskey, while the third railroad, which had several owners over the years, including the Manistee & Northeastern, extended north from Traverse City into Leelanau County.

Ransom Field, the city's first airport, opened in 1929, offering flights to Grand Rapids. It closed when the new Traverse City Airport was opened in 1936. Ransom Field is now the grounds of Memorial Gardens Cemetery, while Traverse City Airport is now known as Cherry Capital Airport.

Traverse City is laid out in a grid pattern, with major streets running east-west and north-south, the latter being named for people, trees, and geographical locations, while the former are named for numbers and people.

Traverse City neighborhoods include Boardman, Central, Downtown, East Bay, Fernwood, Kids Creek Common, Midtown Centre Condominiums, Oak Park, Oakwood, Old Towne, Orchard Heights, Slabtown, and Traverse Heights.

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