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Lower Saginaw: Pioneer Days of 1850s.
  • Contributed by Jim Petrimoulx. (Transcribed Oct. 2007)
  • Note: Foot notes inserted to provide additional information.

    The Bay City Tribune - Sunday, April 26, 1885


    All About the Pioneer Days of '50s - The Buildings and their Locations
    - The People - The First church Service - A Game of Poker, Etc.

    Written for the Sunday Tribune.


    "Despise not the day of small beginnings."

    In illustration of that homely saying let us for a few moments contract the present of Bay City with its primeval condition as remembered by many now living within its borders. No, not by many, for the reason that in its primitive condition in which I propose to present it, there were but a few to witness.

    Let us turn back to 1850, as that is the date when the writer first set foot on the spot now known as Lower Saginaw (1). Let us take an imperfect picture as it appeared at that date. Let us take a look through Water street, which was a mere country road along the bank of the river. What is now Center avenue was a mere wood road. About where the opera house (2) now stands was a slight elevation in the ground, and there Thomas Rogers, a highly respected and useful citizen burnt the charcoal which he used on the forge of his blacksmith shop, which occupied the ground immediately north of the Watson block (3). His residence was where the Shearer block (4) stands. Between Center and Fifth streets was a small building used as a carpenter shop, and one other, a small one story 18x12, gable front street, with two 4x4 scantling columns, veranda front, and built expressly as a banking house for the Lower Saginaw (Wild Cat) bank. On the corner of Fifth, was a rather squatty two-story dwelling, now enlarged and known as the Globe hotel (5). On the same block was the best residence in the burg, owned and occupied by the family of the late James G. Birney (6), the ground between Third and Fourth vacant; between Second and Third was a rather nice dwelling occupied by Wm. Fitzhugh (7), and one other very plain dwelling. Between First and Second was two neat little dwellings. At the foot of Third street was a small warehouse and wharf. At the foot of Center avenue was another warehouse and wharf and steamer landing. Between Center and Sixth was a building occupied with merchandise. Between Seventh and Eighth was the residence of the now venerable Catlin (8), then postmaster. Mail every Saturday, and it was said for a mail bag the carrier need his overcoat pockets. In front of this place was Mr. C’s (8) saw mill, since destroyed by fire. Between this and Portsmouth (9) were some three or four farm houses – one other saw-mill, now Gates’ mill (10), is about all there was to the now beautiful city of Bay. Therefore, I repeat, "Despise not the day of small beginnings."


    The surrounding scenery, the beauty of the day, the peculiarity of my position, the responsibility I had assumed, so impressed upon my mind on that day, can never be effaced.

    A plant had been made, a permanent business entered upon, it must go on whether for weal or woe.

    It was the first week in September, 1850, and one of those bewitchingly soft days incident only that charming season of autumn. The sun shone from a clear sky. Not a vestige of a cloud could be seen when the writer went forth on that interesting Sabbath morning. The first object to attract attention was the river. Its sleepy, glassy condition – not a ripple disturbed its surface – fringed on either side by dense forests, one could almost fancy a frame for a mirror had been furnished it. But oh, how still. The silence was actually painful. Not a bird even ventured a note, not a sound to bring forth an echo, the proverbial woodpeckers keeping holy the Sabbath. No church going bell had ever waked the solitude of these shores. The ugly screech of the steam-whistle had never startled the denisons of the forest or fields. The boom of cannon had never reverberated through these unbroken forests. Would this painful silence continue? The mind becomes so oppressed with it that a clap of thunder at that moment would have been welcome. At this point relief came in the shape of a part of French fishermen in a four oared boat, merrily singing the boat song, "Row, brother row."

    Strolling along Water street, when reaching the point now occupied by Denison’s new substantial block (12), my attention was drawn to a party of young men sitting by an open door in a little shabby wood-colored building, amusing them themselves at a game of poker, as I judged from the little piles of coin in front of each. This was the only whisky bazaar the place could support. An open game for money and on Sunday was not a matter to inspire a stranger with a large amount of respect for the moral condition of the people among whom he was about to take up his abode. Would he bring his wife and little ones in contact with such depravity and want of morality, where the laws of God and man were so boldly and wantonly defied? For a moment he almost regretted the step taken.

    Soon however, other thoughts intervened. Something like this came before minds eyes. Here is a fine navigable river and only a step to the greatest chain of inland water communication on this globe. Here on either hand immense forests of untold wealth. The restless spirits of these days will speedily change all this, cities will spring up, everything will change, society with its reforming influences will purify this immoral atmosphere. These reflections were occupying the mind while wending his way toward the place where he had been told would be a religious service held, or in other words, preaching. By whom? Let me explain. On the Kawkawlin river, about six miles distant, was a band or fraction of a tribe of Potowattomie Indians, wards of our "Uncle Samuel," for whom in his fatherly protection had provided a teacher to break to them the bread of eternal life, and to put them on the white man’s trail for the happy hunting grounds, of the Indian; a school marm to teach the young Indian idea how to shoot, not the traditional bow and arrow, or the more deadly rifle, but to bring down other game than that roaming the surrounding forests and waters. What success would be reached time alone could determine, but so far it turned out the teachers had been well chosen. A farmer and blacksmith had also been provided nominally to teach agriculture and mechanism, but really to draw salaries. Very comfortable buildings had been provided – a neat little church, school building, shops and dwelling houses. The business of civilization was carried on rather successfully, but these semi-civilized savages about this season of the year would take to their native forests en masse for their annual hunt. This gave their spiritual teacher a holiday, hence this appointment to preach at the little school house "around the corner" where preacher had never stood at the sacred desk to preach Christ and his crucifixion.

    This neck of woods I had been informed had never publicly convened in worship of God.

    Such being the occasion I had expected to see a crowd eager to embrace the golden opportunity. Judge my surprise then on entering to find five persons all told, present, all strangers, but I subsequently learned that among them was the distinguished citizen, the late James Birney, and his estimable lady, another estimable lady present and still inhabitant of this good city, Mrs. Barney (11). The little school house still, no doubt, lives in the memory of many of our citizens. I will not describe it here, more than to say it was a shabby wood-colored weather-stained isolated affair, about 14x16 and 8 feet in the ceiling furnished with a pine table, one chair and benches on three sides for scholars’ seats. This immense audience sat in profound silence for about an hour waiting for the preacher. At length a tall well built gentlemanly appearing man entered, face red and bathed in perspiration, in shirt sleeves, coat on arm and carrying a canoe paddle, all which is explained when known that he had "paddled his own canoe" some six miles against the river current in a hot sun. After a little cooling off he commenced service by reading a portion of scripture, followed with prayer, invoking blessing upon this isolated people with the assurance that "where two or three are gathered in Thy name, there am I in their midst."

    Then followed an excellent sermon, at the close of which a hymn-book was produced and a hymn read. Let me remark right here this was the first time I had ever known a Methodist preacher that had no sing in him. Not seeing any preparation by the choir he naturally looked among the numerous audience for support. Your humble servant standing 6-foot two, able bodied, and believed myself equal to almost any emergency, I must confess a feeling something like a boy shooting his first buck – a good deal shaky. However, as I had when a young lad attended in a New England country village a singing school one evening in a week for three months with my best girl and learned to sing Dundee, Wills, St. Martin, etc., I undertook the job, encouraged by noticing one of the ladies setting as though she would assist. The tune was started, key all right, but it soon turned out we were practicing common meter made to long meter verse. A hale had to be called and a now departure taken. This time the proper measure was selected, but the chorister being a little flurried pitched the tune about three octaves too high and a flat breakdown was the result. At this juncture the preacher, God bless him, came to my relief by saying in an emphatic tone of voice, "Let us pray." After that I was always his friend for getting me out of the most embarrassing position I was ever caught in. I have not done much at leading church music since. The prayer ended, each individual of this vast assemblage went their own way, probably never to forget the occasion. It may be questioned whether the seed sown on this occasion is the parent of all that has followed in that line of work in this city since – one thing is certain, from tat time the feeling of religious devotion has been ardent and aggressive. Soon that little school house, entirely located in its situation, accept a small dwelling owned and now occupied by an estimable lady Mrs. C. (Whose husband gallantly went forth to battle and to die for his country, that his country might live, and after battling and suffering more than the torment of hell, a prisoner at Andersonville, was doomed to mingling his dust with the other thousands of patriots in that so cursed spot only rendered holy by the dust and memory of its illustrious dead) was found too small, and for want of better, an organization that had been regularly formed, held service in a vacant ball alley on Third street. Was that no evidence of a pure devotional spirit that prompted ladies and gentlemen of education and culture, who had often knelt upon the soft cushioned rests of costly fitted churches and cathedrals, to enter such a place and kneel upon bare boards in their worship? What else could sustain their pastor, 12 miles away, to walk that distance to teach, strengthen and uphold his little flock at each appointed time? What else but true christian spirit in the good work of the Master has prompted the good men and women of all sects and denomination to furnish the needful required, to erect these scores of elegant and costly houses of praise in the city whose spires point heavenward

    Foot Notes:
    1. Lower Saginaw - Platted as a village in 1838 in Sagainaw Co. Name changed to Bay city in 1857 when Bay County was organized.
    2. Opera house - Reference to Woods Opera House located on south east corner of Washington Ave. and Sixth street.
    3. Watson block. - Erected by James Watson, the city's first brick building was located on n.e. corner of Washington & Center avenues. James Watson was twice elected elected mayor of Bay City and Treasurer of Bay County.
    4. Shearer Block. - Erected by James Shearer. Located on n.e. corner of Water st. and Center ave. In contemporary times known as the building of the former Mill End store.
    5. Globe Hotel. - Erected by Sydney Campbell initially as a residence when Lower Saginaw was platted in 1838. When Hampton township was organized as a part of Saginaw Co., Sydney was elected its first supervisor defeating James G. Birney.
    6. James G. Birney - Nationally known leader in abolitionist movement. Twice ran for the Presidency under the Liberty Party, the later time while living in Lower Saginaw.
    7. William D. Fitzhugh - Son of Dr. Daniel Fitzhugh, of New York, one of the first land speculators in the Saginaw Valley, and founder of the village of Salzburg. William arrived in 1849 and according to other accounts in conflict with the writer's recollection, William's first homestead was on Center and Washington avenues, which burnt down in 1850. He then built another home on the Washington and 10th street, where present city hall is located (History of Bay County, MI: And Representative Citizens, by Augustus H. Gansser.)
    8. Catlin & "C" - Israel Catlin arrived in 1844. In partnership with James Fraser and Cromwell Barney, he erected a water power mill at Kawkawlin in 1844. He was the first treasurer of Bay County, organized in 1857.
    9. Portmouth - Reference to village of Portmouth platted in 1837 by Albert Miller, now the south end of Bay City.
    10. Gates Mill - Owner by Samuel G.M. Gates, located at the foot of Sixth street.
    11. Mrs. Barney - Wife of Cromwell Barney. Cromwell and family arrived here in 1838 and was hired that year by Sydney Campbell build his residence, which later became the Globe Hotel. The Cromwell family had a farm the area near what is now the north end of downtown Bay City.
    12. Denison block - Located on Water, between Center Ave. and Fifth Street.
    Relate Pages & Notes

    Lower Saginaw
    Plat Map

    Notes. Lower Saginaw, now Bay City, was originally platted for a village in 1838 by the Saginaw Bay Company. This was a year after the village of Portsmouth was platted. Both were at the time a part of Saginaw County. Portsmouth eventually was merged into Bay City.
    Related Pages:
    {Bay City History}
    {James G. Birney}
    {James Shearer}
    {Woods Opera House}
    People Referenced
    Barney, Cromwell Mrs.
    Birney, James G.
    Catlin, Israel
    Fitzhugh, William
    Rogers, Thomas
    Subjects Referenced
    Bay City, MI
    Denison block
    Gates mill
    Globe Hotel
    Kawkawlin River
    Lower Saginaw, MI
    Lower Saginaw Bank
    Opera House (Woods)
    Portsmouth (village)
    Potowattomie Indians
    Shearer block
    Watson block
    Related Images

    James G. Birney

    James Shearer

    Globe Hotel as it looked in later years.

    Shearer Block on right was later owned by the Mill End store.

    Wood Opera House
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.