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River Navigation
Excerpt from "Bay County Past and Present" written by George E. Butterfield.
  • Transcribed August 2004.
  • Bay County Past and Present (Centennial Edition)
    Published 1957 by Board of Education - Bay City, MI


    by George E. Butterfield

    In the 1830's the arrival of a boat in the Saginaw River was a big event. Each time the schoonerSavage” arrived he agent of the American Fur Company heralded it with the firing of a small cannon. You may be sure that all who could – men, women and children – hurried to the river to see the boat. It was not until 1850 that there was a weekly boat, the “Columbia,” connecting the Saginaw River towns with Detroit, but by 1854 the river was reported to be fairly alive with boats and the number steadily increased with the development of the lumber industry. There were the canoes, rowboats, and skiffs of the residents; the ferry; fishing and tug boats; the freighters and barges that were ever increasing in size as well as numbers; and finally there were the well-equipped passenger steamers.

    Residents who lived near the river had their own row boats for fishing and hunting trips and for crossing the river. Fishing smacks and other sailboats were numerous on both river and bay, and there were many freight-carrying sailboats called schooners. Some freighters were provided with both steam and sail power. As to steamboats, some were called “propellers” and others “steamers” with a large paddle wheel on each side. The barges were long boats built to carry immense loads of lumber or other freight. Most of them were not self-propelled, but had to be towed by large lake tugs. Reports of that time, however, do mention steam barges.

    It is hard to realize the immense amount of freight — lumber and other wood products, salt and fish — that was carried out of the river by boat during the best days of the lumbering manufacturing era, but we can get some idea of it from the number of boats center and clearing the port. The United States customs office report for 1883 shows that there were 459 propellers and 1114 barges that cleared this port — an average of twelve each day of the season of navigation which lasted about 250 days. But the river traffic consisted of much more than the boats entering and leaving the harbor. The great volume of traffic up and down the river is best shown by the number of boats that passed through the Third Street Bridge. In the single month of July 1868 there passed through the bridge: steamers 326, tugs 1,694, sailing vessels 442, and barges 217 –- an average of 86 per day, or more than three an hour, day and night. And, in 1883, again using July figures, there were 3,312 tugs that passed through the bridge. Imagine the traffic snarl if we had such a river traffic today in the automobile age!

    Bay City had regular passenger service, connecting it with all the important lake ports and also with the towns on the bay shore and up the river. About 1882 there were four propellers connecting Bay City with Cleveland each week, two for freight and two for passengers – “affording a most delightful excursion trip.” There was such competition that the round trip, including board, could be made for less than $5.00. At that same time there were three steamers for Alpena and all points along the west shore of the bay and lake — Tawas, AuSable, Harrisville, Augres; there were three plying between Bay City and Port Austin, distributing supplies to the towns along the east shore of the bay; and a boat left Bay City for Saginaw every two hours. At an earlier date, in the 1860's, the service to Saginaw had not been so satisfactory. There were usually just two trips daily between Bay City and East Saginaw, and there was considerable complaint here that the boat often left East Saginaw before the arrival of the train from Detroit. As there was no railroad to Bay City then, passengers were forced to remain in Saginaw overnight.

    There was a great demand for the service of tugs throughout lumbering days. The older residents of today well remember the constant shrill “choo, choo, choo” and the “chug, chug, chug” of the tugs on the river that could be heard for several miles. These tugs were hard at work towing the great rafts of logs, and helping the heavily loaded freighters in and out of the river. In 1865 tug owners in this area formed the Saginaw River Towing Association, through which they agreed on a scale of prices for towing: from Bay City to the Bay or the reverse, tonnage 100 to 200, $10.00; Bay City to Zilwaukee, $10.00; Bay City to Saginaw or return, $15.00. In the Bay City directory of 1868 a young man, Benjamin Boutell, was listed as a tug owner. As the years passed his business grew until he had a great fleet of river and lake tugs and became one of the best known tug operators on the lakes. Among other well-known tug operators during the lumbering era were William Mitchell of Bay City and Peter C. Smith of West Bay City.

    The United States government aided navigation by making improvements in the river and by protected the entrance of the harbor. Careful surveys had been made before the settlement of Bay County began, and the erection of the first lighthouse was begun by Stephen Wolverton in 1839. In the 1850's and 1860's, under the direction of the War Department and as a part of the Great Lakes Survey, a map was made of the “lower Reach of the Saginaw River and the Bar in Front.” This map gave accurate soundings of the bay at the mouth of the river. In 1865 the channel from Saginaw to the mouth of the river was dredged, and in 1867 the bar was cut through and the channel dredged in the Bay. The large boats could then enter the river without difficulty, making this one of the best ports on the lakes. In 1867 the breakwater just outside the river was built as a protection for the entrance of boats to the river in time of storm. In 1884 and 1885 the channel was again dredged so that the largest lake boats could enter, and about that time the old lighthouse was replaced by a new one. The range light was erected and the gas buoy was placed at the entrance to the channel as a further aid to the many boats entering and leaving. Until 1905 the old lighthouse was used as a residence by the lighthouse keeper. It was then torn down. Since about 1938, Coast Guard Rescue Service has been provided.

    Subject Notes

    George Ernest Butterfield
    Throughout his adult life, Mr. Butterfield associated himself with local education and a deep interest in this community's history. In 1954 school superintendent Paul W. Briggs requested Mr. Butterfield to consider updating an earlier version of "Bay County -- Past and Present," that was published in 1917 by the school system and edited by Mr. Butterfield. The updated version was to coincide with Bay County's Centennial celebration in 1957, and serve as a class book for students on the history of Bay County.
    Related Pages
    Maps Library/
    {1918 Saginaw River Map}
    {Bay Co. History Links}
    - See Industry, Shipping.
    People Referenced
    Boutell, Benjamin
    Mitchell, William
    Smith, Peter C.
    Wolverton, Stephen
    Subjects Referenced
    1st lighthouse
    Alpena, MI
    American Fur Co.
    AuGres, MI
    AuSable, MI
    Bay City,
    Cleveland, OH
    Coast Guard Rescue Svc.
    Columbia, boat
    Detroit, MI
    East Saginaw, MI
    Gas bouy
    Great Lakes Survey
    Harrisville, MI
    Lighthouse keeper
    Lumber industry
    Port Austin, MI
    Range light
    River dredging
    Saginaw, MI
    Saginaw River
    Saginaw River Towing Assoc.
    Savage, schooner
    Tawas, MI
    Third Street bridge
    U.S. Customs office
    War Department
    West Bay City
    Internet Resources
  • Saginaw River Marine Historical Society
  • Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse
  • Saginaw Bay Water Initiative Organization
  • WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.