The name Mackinaw has its roots in the ancient Native American language of the Great Lakes. Specifically, it is derived from the word Michilimackinac in the Ojibwa language, meaning "Island of the Great Turtle." Both Mackinaw (the English derivation) and Mackinac (the French derivation where "ac" is pronounced "aw") are derived from this word and pronounced Mak'ino.

The original CGC MACKINAW (WAGB-83) was constructed during World War II in response to the need to keep shipping active during the winter months to maintain production of steel. CGC MACKINAW (WAGB-83) began operations soon after the commissioning on December 20, 1944. Homeported in Cheboygan, MI, MACKINAW provided over 60 years of outstanding service to the communities and commercial enterprises of the Great Lakes. Her age made her very expensive and difficult to maintain. Thus, she was decommissioned in June 2006 where she now serves as a beautiful lakeside museum in Mackinaw City, MI.

The CGC MACKINAW (WLBB-30) was built by Marinette Marine Corporation, a subsidiary of Manitowoc Marine Group. The cutter was assembled indoors in the Vessel Erection Building. This allowed the vessel to be assembled and outfitted in controlled conditions then moved outdoors to the launch ways.

The cutter was constructed in a planned system of modules or blocks that are fabricated and pre-outfitted prior to being moved to the erection building. This method of construction is extremely efficient as it provides easy access to equipment, components, and spaces. The modules are essentially complete prior to final assembly.