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James Davidson
Capt. James Davidson
Capt. Davidson's parents, Joseph and Elizabeth (Smith) were natives of Scotland. They immigrated to Buffalo in 1828. Besides James, they had a son, John, and a daugher, Ellen. (See his Maritime Bio. for more.)

Davidson Family Shipbuilders (1871 - 1932)
Shipyard was located in what is now Veterans Memorial Park.
  • By Alan Flood (August 2003)
  • Davidson
    Three Generations of Heritage

    With the passing of Edward C. Davidson on March 27, 1984, another family name linked with the history of Bay City's early days is gone. The Davidson family's association with this area goes back three generations to Captain James Davidson.

    James Davidson was born at Buffalo, New York in 1841. From his earliest years, Captain Davidson's life was intimately tied with the sea and its commerce. As a very young man, he began sailing on the Great Lakes and became a Master at the age of 19. In his early 20's, he left the Lakes to sail the oceans of the world for approximately two years. On returning to the lakes, he sailed as master and soon became a vessel owner. Shortly after, he spent time at the shipyards of Buffalo and Toledo to learn wooden ship construction.

    James Davidson began shipbuilding operations at West Bay City in 1871 with the building of the schooner E. M. DAVIDSON at the site where the Fletcher Oil is now located. The following year, he relocated his yard in Saginaw. Finding that location unfavorable to shipbuilding, Captain Davidson returned to Bay City in 1873, purchased a site at the foot of Randolph street and began building a sawmill and laying the keel of the steamship JAMES DAVIDSON. Prior to this time, it was customary for a builder to lease a piece of land, build and launch a ship and then move on. The ships in those days were entirely built by hand. The JAMES DAVIDSON was the first ship on the lakes to be built with the timbers cut in a sawmill. While the vessel was still on the stocks, a fire swept through the yard destroying the mill and badly damaging the steamer; the craft, however, was rebuilt and completed for service the following year.

    About this time, a business panic shook the country; and Captain Davidson was obliged to halt his operations here and close the yard. During these uncertain times, he gave his attention to the operation of his vessel interests. In 1880, Captain Davidson returned to his property here with a large equipment of machinery and organized a shipbuilding force. He built the steamship OCEANIA, then the largest craft on the lakes.

    Over the years, Captain Davidson, enlarged his facilities, yard room, etc., to meet the steadily increasing demands made upon the resources of the establishment. In 1887, the yard contained a sawmill and two jig mills, but these were considered inadequate. In January 1888, Davidson completed a new band mill which was "the most thoroughly modern shipmill in the United States" and supplied it with the latest improved machinery for working heavy timber and improved punches for heavy iron work. Fire completely destroyed the new band mill in August of the same year. The premises were immediately rebuilt, however, and furnished with additional tools and appliances to meet the needs of the yard.

    During its heyday, Davidson's Yard employed about 1,000 men and 150 teams of horses. Two side tracks from the Michigan Central Railroad supplied the yard with oak timber, Material by water came from Sebewaing and from up the Kawkawlin River. There were often five or six vessels on the stocks at any one time, and some years he built and repaired as many as thirteen.

    In addition to his shipbuilding operations here at Bay City, Captain Davidson operated an extensive fleet of wooden steamers and schooner barges under the houseflag of the Davidson Steamship Company. He would operate these vessels in the ore, coal, and grain trades in the great ports of Buffalo, Cleveland, and Chicago they would "create the most favorable comment."

    He was involved with grain interests at Buffalo and with the Frontier Iron Works at Detroit which built some of the machinery for his steamers. He was founding member and served on the Board of Managers of the Lakes Carriers Association at Cleveland, Ohio.

    The facilities at the yard reached their peak in 1900 with the building of the drydock. Captain Davidson owned the old "WESTERN WORLD" drydock at another site downriver, but it had become inadequate. As the timberlands of Michigan were being depleted, the focus of year operations shifted from new construction to the repair and rebuilding of the wooden ships. The new drydock was capable of handling the largest vessels afloat on the lakes and brought much repair work to the yard.

    In 1903, Captain Davidson, completed construction of the schooner barge MONTEZUMA. She and her sister ship, the CHIEFTAIN, which was completed the previous fall, were, at 352 feet overall, the largest wooden vessels ever built on the lakes. They represented the last major construction project undertaken at the yard. A few new hulls continued to be built until 1915, but these were small lighter and mud scows which predominately were used in dredging the ships around the yard.

    During the entire span of his shipbuilding activities, Captain Davidson never converted his yard to build iron or steel ships. However, in 1902, in association with his son, James E. Davidson and his son-in-law, G.A. Tomlinson, Captain Davidson was intimately involved in the founding and managing of the affairs of the Tomlinson Fleet Corporation of Duluth and Cleveland. This modern fleet of large steel steamers operated in the ore, coal and grain trades on the lakes and continued in operation with the active Davidson family participation until its demise in 1971.

    The wooden steamers and barges of the Davidson fleet generally wintered here at Bay City, where ongoing maintenance prolonged their lives. By the 1920s, however, the steamers SACRAMENTO and SHENANDOAH, and their consorts MONTEZUMA, CHIEFTAIN, and GRAMPIAN were "the proud leaders of the remaining wooden ships on the Great Lakes." The age of the ships, new modern steel steamers, and changing economic conditions all combined to spell the end of the wooden ship era. One by one the vessels were laid up here at the yard, and at the end of the 1929 season, the Davidson Steamship Company ceased operations. It was said of Captain Davidson, "He has gone quietly but makes no display, seemingly impressed with the maxim that the value of life consists in being faithful in the work undertaken and to the trust imposed."

    On his passing on February 5, 1929, he was eulogized as a pioneer both for his technical achievements in the shipbuilding industry and his efforts towards the prosperity of Bay City and the state of Michigan.

    James E. Davidson

    With the death of James Davidson, the family interests were carried on by his son, James E. Davidson. In addition to his involvement with the affairs of the Davidson shipyard and the Tomlinson fleet, he was actively involved with the local banking community. He was chairman of the board of the Bay Trust Company and President of the People's Commercial & Savings Bank. In 1932, during the great depression, James E. Davidson, through his personal efforts, was able to keep the People's Commercial Bank solvent thus protecting the saving of their investors. His bank was the only bank in town not to fail. These successful efforts of his were reminiscent of those of his father when, during the business panic of 1893, Captain James Davidson had stepped into the breach and kept the local financial firs on a sound footing.

    The Davidson shipyard closed in 1932, but James E. Davidson continued his family's association with the shipbuilding industry as a member of the board of the American Shipbuilding Company of Cleveland.

    Edward C. Davidson, the third generation of this family, was born at Bay City on December 9, 1899. He was raised and attended in school in Bay City and later went on to the University of Michigan where he was graduated in 1922 with a degree in Naval Architecture.

    In 1929, he returned to Bay City to join his father in the firm of James E. and Edward C. Davidson. During the Second World War, he served in the U.S. Navy with the rank of commander. After his father's death in 1947, Ed Davidson continued the family's local affairs in real estate and banking and in June, 1952 he was elected president of the Tomlinson Fleet Corporation of Cleveland. He continued in this position until August 1971, when the vessels of the Tomlinson fleet were sold to the Columbia Transporation division of Oglebay Norton of Cleveland.

    In 1972, the city of Bay City acquired the old Davidson shipyard property from Edward Davidson and was used in developing the present Veterans Memorial Park. In 1982, the city mounted a six ton rudder of the Davidson steamer SACREMENTO and since has developed displays along the river to interpret the history of the shipyard area.

    In 1992, Captain James Davidson was inducted into the National Maritime Hall of Fame at the U.S. Merchant Academy at Kings Point, New York.

    Davidson in the News:

    Michigan Manufacturer & Financial Record, Vol. 2, Iss. 8. March 5, 1910.


    The Davidson shipyards at Bay City have already scheduled enough work to keep the yards running at capacity from the time the ice breaks in the spring until navigation closes again next fall. Serveral vessels of the Davidson fleet will be overhauled, in addition to a large number of other companies' ships.

    One of the first boats to be put into drydock will be the big lumber barge Coon, the property of Capt. Garrey, of Saginaw. She will be brought to the yards as soon as navigation opens and already preparations for his removal are being made. She will be fitted with new decks, new bulwarks, new stanchions, etc. The W. H. Sharp Co.'s steam freighter James Donaldson and lumber barge A. W. Wright will be thoroughly overhauled. The Bryman Dredge Co., of Toledo, will send several dredges and dredge tugs for general overhauling. Later in the season, the 4,000-ton steel freighter Rappahannock, of the Davidson fleet will be brought up from Chicago.

    All through the season boats will be brought in and nearly 200 men will be employed.

    Pictorial History:

    Below page is a slideshow pictorical pertaining to the Davidson Shipbuilding Company.

    The following is a very large image of an article that appeared in the Bay City Times in 1940 which shows the remnants of the once busy Davidson shipyard along with historical notes.

    Click to view full size of photo and 1940s article.
    1940s article.

    Davidson Shipbuilding Pictorial: {View}

    Davidson Menu
    Ships Built Database
    Related Pages
    Davidson Shipyard History
    {Ships Built in Bay City}
    {Bay City Shipwrecks}
    Davidson Shipbuilding
    Maritime History
    Bay City Dry Dock
    1899 Maritime Bio.
    1884 Australasia Steamship
    1886 Shipbuilding Bay City
    People Referenced
    Garrey, Capt.
    Davidson, Edward C.
    Davidson, James
    Davidson, James E.(son)
    Tomlinson, G.A.
    Subjects Referenced
    American Shipbuilding Co.
    Bay City, MI
    Bay Trust Co.
    Bryman Dredge Co.
    Buffalo, NY
    Chicago, IL
    Chieftain schooner
    Cleveland, OH
    Davidson Steamship Co.
    Detroit, MI
    Fletcher Oil
    E.M. Davidson schooner
    Frontier Iron Works
    Grampian steamship
    Kawkawlin River
    Kings Point, NY
    Lakes Carriers Assoc.
    Michigan Central R.R.
    Montezuma schooner
    National Maritime H.O.F.
    Oceania steamship
    Ogelbay Norton
    Peoples Coml. & Saving
    Sacramento steamship
    Schooner Kate Winslow
    Schooner Thomas Cranage
    Shenandoah steamship
    Toledo, OH
    Tomlinson Fleet Corp.
    Univ. of Mich.
    U.S. Merchant Academy
    Veterans Memorial Pk.
    West Bay City
    Western World Drydock
    W.H. Sharp Co.
    Davidson in the News
    The Saginaw Courier-Herald
    July 26, 1900.

    The schooner Pretoria, the largest wooden boat ever built, was launched at Davidson's shipyard this afternoon, in the presence of a vast multitude.

    The Pretoria will carry 5,000 tons of iron ore, 175,000 bushels of wheat, or 300,000 bushels of oats. ... She is very strong and substantially constructed in every way, has steel keelson plates, steel chords , steel arches , and is also diagonally strapped with steel. The vessel is supplied with three masts , each having a topmast , and these are all equipped with sails.

    The Pretoria when launched was ready for sea, and even her sails were bent and running gear all rove off when she went into the water. A large pony boiler is supplied, which is situated stockless anchors . The is built on the main deck , the same as a steamer , and this is entirely in hardwood, cabinet finish. The pilothouse is located aft , and the vessel is steered by the latest improved hydraulic steerer. A large deck hoist and combination pump is situated amidships for use of moving at the dock or hoisting sails or cargo, as well as for pumping the ship. Another large steam pump and steam syphons are situated forward. The Pretoria has a rating of A1 star in the Inland Lloyds Insurance Register, and also has the highest class in all the insurance registers of New York City and London.
    Death of son...
    Saginaw News - Jul. 26, 1947.
    Bay City: (U.P.) -- Funeral services will be held here Tuesday for multimillion James E. Davidson, financier and state Republican leader, who died Friday at the age of 81 in Lake Placid, N.Y.

    Davidson was an officer or director of numberous banks, Great Lakes and ocianic steamship lines and industrial organizations. He had been a member of the Republican State Central Committee since 1902 and was a national committeeman from 1923 to 1940.

    He is survived by his second wife, Helen Forrest Knox of Buffalo, a son, four daughters, two sisters and three grandchildren.
  • Contributed Feb. 2007 by Jim Petrimoulx.
  • Related Internet Resources
    [Segrant.wisc.edu] Shipwrecks, History of Schooner-Barge Pretoria.
    [Burning of the Frank O'Connor.] - The Mind of James Donahue.
    [The Schooner-barge Pretoria.] - Wisconison's Great Lakes Shipwrecks.
    [Baileysharbor.com] Davidson, the last generation of bulk carriers on the Great Lakes.
    Article Sources
    History of Bay county, Michigan - Illustrations and Biographical Sketches - 1883, book, by H.R. Page & Co.
    History of Bay County, Michigan and Representative Citizens (1905) - book, Augustus H. Gansser.
    Ship Building On The Saginaw, pamphlet, 1974, Catherine Baker.
    HISTORY: Bay City was a major shipbuilding center for most of it's first 100 years.