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Robert Anderson Recalls Early Bay City History
  • Contributed by Jim Petrimoulx - Mar. 2008.
  • Part 6 of 7

    The Bay City Times Tribune - Sunday, July 31, 1927 (Page 3)

    Water Street Was Roaring
    Furnace In Big Fire of '65

    Robert Anderson Recalls When Disastrous Blaze
    Swept Many Buildings on Historic Thoroughfare
    From Fourth Avenue to Tenth Street
    Red Rover, Fire Engine of Early Days Responds
    To Alarm of Disaster, and Tips over; Also Tells of
    First Grist Mills in Lower Saginaw

    (Editors Note-This is the sixth of a series of articles dealing with the early history of Bay City, as told to The Times Tribune by Robert Anderson, aged 84, who came to Lower Saginaw in the spring of 1855 and has lived here ever since. Today’s story tells of the big fire here in 1865, and something about the first grist mill in Lower Saginaw.)

    Water street has known wilderness, the single file of Indians through that wilderness, the coming of the white men. As one of the first streets in the city, it has known the blossom of a budding settlement along the Saginaw, to a city of more than 50,000 population. And if Water street could talk, what it could tell you would fill a pretty big book, perhaps two of them.

    Among the many things it knows about, perhaps would be most willing to tell you, would be the story of the first big fire in this city - the blaze that on Oct. 4, 1865, leveled most of the buildings on Water street, from Fourth avenue to Tenth Street. The loss ran into thousands and thousands of dollars, leaving nothing but smouldering ashes, heaps of ruins.

    Red Rover Tips Over

    Of course, there was a fire department here at that time, Mr. Anderson says, and it was known as the Red Rover. In responding to the fire, the Red Rover met with an accident. The heat of the leaping flames was so intense that the men in charge of the Rover steered as far to the west of Water street as possible in an effort to get away from it. And Red Rover tipped over. Mr. Anderson said that he does not remember just how the firemen worked that day, but he says he is willing to aver that the job was a little too much for them.

    The fire destroyed a mill on the property at the foot of Sixth street which land was later purchased by Gates & Fay, who erected another mill at that location. The office of that mill is still standing and is being used as a tire store and gasoline filling station. The blaze also claimed a planing mill owned and operated by a {Mr. Chilson}, the pioneer recalls, near where the Wenonah hotel now stands, a grocery store operated by Col. McDermott and another man, whose name Mr. Anderson does not recall, at the southwest corner of Center avenue and Water street. McEwan’s mill at the foot of Center avenue and the Arnold bakery next door, the three-story frame building in which Charles Jennison operated a store, at the present location of the Jennison Hardware Co., another three-story frame building, owned by Judge James G. Birney, on the west side of Water street, between Fourth and Fifth avenues, and several other buildings of lesser importance.

    First Brick Store

    Immediately following the fire, an ordinance was approved by the common council forbidding the erection of wooden buildings on Water Street. And as an aftermath to that the first brick store was erected on the east side of Water street, between Center avenue and Sixth street by a Mr. Cooper. Mr. Cooper lost a two-story frame building in the fire and started the erection of the building to replace it, almost before the embers of the old one cooled. Right after that , a number of brick buildings began springing up here and there along Water street. Mr. Anderson says, among them a building put up by Judge Birney at the present location of Herman Merisel & Son. Mr. Jennison replaced his loss with a brick building on the old location. This building also burned down only a few years ago. Again was replaced.

    “About 1865” avers the pioneer “James Fraser built the Fraser house on the southeast corner of Water street and Center avenue, but death came to Mr. Fraser before his beautiful new hotel was opened to the public. It was three stories in height and had a basement. Like the Jennison building, the Fraser house also was destroyed by fire several years later.”

    “I recall that the Munger brothers erected the brick building at the northeast corner of Center avenue and Water street. I was working on the old Bay City - East Saginaw railroad (later the Pere Marquette Railroad) at the time and we used to go to the Munger brothers store, a dry goods establishment for our pay. That was in the spring of 1887, I think, Yes it was in ’87 for I remember that I met George Washington, now publisher of the Bay City Democrat, in the fall of 1866 when he came here from Hamilton, Can., to go to work for Sage & McGraw at their Sandy-Kelly camp at AuGres.

    Recalls First Grist Mill

    “The old McCormick block on Water street was built by James McCormick, a lumberman, a year or so after the fire”

    Speaking of the history of the grist mills here, Mr. Anderson said; “John McEwan, who operated a saw mill near Essexville, also operated the first grist mill in Lower Saginaw. That was either in 1855 or 1856 . I remember that sometime after Mr. McEwan started grinding, a cargo of corn on a boat from Chicago, attempted to come into the local port quite a time after the navigation season closed. The boat succeeded in getting as far as the mouth of the river. The Saginaw was frozen over tight, and it was found necessary to engage a number of teams and sleighs to haul the corn to the McEwan mill, which was to grind the corn for the local lumber camps. The corn was ground right in the saw mill.

    “About 1858 or 1859 Mr. McEwan erected the first real grist mill at the foot of Center avenue. This was consumed in the fire of ‘65. Mr. McEwan having disposed of the mill sometime before the big blaze. J. N. McDonald, who came here from Canada, operated a grist mill on the present location of the World’s Star Knitting Mills, and about two years after the mill started grinding, or in the early ’60’s, an explosion destroyed the mill, killing one man. Mr. McDonald then replaced it with a new mill on the same spot, and years later took as his partner one of the Shearer brothers. They used to sell a brand of flour known as “Gold Dust” . The names Shearer-McDonald appeared on the sacks. The third grist mill to be opened here was the one Chatfields built. Later this was partially destroyed by fire and rebuilt.


    (Next week Mr. Anderson will tell something about the first city and county officers, and the first wooden jail.)

    Part 5 Part 7
    Anderson Memories
    Main Page
    Part 1: Jun. 19, 1927
    Part 2: Jun. 26, 1927
    Part 3: Jul. 3, 1927
    Part 4: Jul. 17, 1927
    Part 5: Jul. 24, 1927
    Part 6: Jul. 31, 1927
    Part 7: Aug. 7, 1927
    People Referenced
    Birney, James (Judge)
    Fraser, James{IMG}
    Jennison, Charles
    McCormick, James
    McDermott, (Col.)
    McDonald, J.N.
    McEwan, John
    Munger bros.
    Shearer bros.
    Washington, George
    Subjects Referenced
    Arnold's bakery
    Augres, MI
    Bay City, MI
    Bay City-E. Saginaw R.R.
    Bay City Democrat
    Chatfield grist mill
    Chicago, IL
    Chilson's planing mill
    Essexville, MI
    First brick building
    Frist grist mill
    Fraser House
    Gates & Faye mill
    Hamilton, Can.
    Herman Merisel & Son
    Jennison building
    Lower Saginaw, MI
    McCermott's grocery
    McEwan mill
    Munger Bros. dry goods
    Pere Marquette R.R.
    Population 50,000
    Red Rover
    Sage & McGraw milol
    Saginaw River
    Sandy-Kelly camp
    Wenonah Hotel
    World Star Knitting
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.