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Draining Marshlands Along the Saginaw River.
Written by Albert Miller, a pioneer who did it.

1878, by Albert Miller. (Added Mar., 2009)

Report of the Secretary, Michigan State Board of Agriculture,
Year Ending August 31, 1878

Second Evening Session.

Hon. Albert Miller, of Bay City, read the following paper on the


I can convey as correct an impression of the changes that have taken place in the condition of the Saginaw marshes during the last half century, and the efforts that have been made to utilize them, by relating facts and incidents which have come within my knowledge, as by any other method. My personal knowledge of the Saginaw country commenced in the fall of 1831. Then the Saginaw river rolled between well defined banks, and the creeks and bayous were confined within much narrower limits than at the present time; and from observation and information derived from Indians, and other who had previously known the county, I am satisfied that there had been much lower stage of water in the Saginaw river and bay during the half century next preceding the time above referred to, then there has since that time. At that date there stood on the bank of the river below Carrollton, some very large apple trees that must have had fifty or sixty years' growth, that were destroyed by water more than forty years ago. In the first grove of time on the prairie which the railroad passes north of East Saginaw there stood a green pine tree two feet in diameter, and much of the timber then growing in that grove was beech, maple, and white oak, all of which has long since disappeared. The grove of timber still further north (which is within the embankment I shall hereafter mention) was called Pine Island on account of the predominance of pine timber. In the early days of my residence at Saginaw the Indians raised corn on Crow Island and on a small island near the junction of the Shiawassee and Tittabawasee rivers, and on other lands known to the present inhabitants as only low and worthless. In 1833, on the 29th day of March, Judge Jewitt, late of Saginaw, and I commence to plow on Green Point, and with one plow we broke up thirty acres of prairie land, all of which we planted with corn that season. We had no reason to complain of the growth of our crop, but it being the only field in the country it hardly sufficed to feed the millions of black birds that preyed upon it; sometimes darkening the sky in their flight to and from the field. After the corn was in the milk, we spent our time in the field with horns, bells, and guns, in the vain endeavor to protect our crop; in the fall we gather off the butts of the ears sufficient to fatten forty-seven hundred wight of pork.

The land above referred to was cultivated up to and including the year 1835, since which time a large portion of it has been unfit for cultivation on account of high water. It is impossible for me by any description I can give, to convey to the minds of my hearers an idea of the beautiful appearance that our prairies presented in the summer of 1835. The whole expanse was covered with blue joint grass about four feet high, near the banks of the river being decked with peablossom, morning glory, and other beautiful flowers, presenting to the eyes of those passing up and down the river, or riding on horseback over the firm prairie ground, an enchanting view, which so captivated those from the east who visited our valley that summer, that some of them made large purchases of the land which so delighted them.

It was in the month of June that year that Dr. Daniel H. Fitzhugh made his first visit to Saginaw, and his name so frequently found on the tract books of the valley will testify to the attractions it had for him. In the summer of 1835, Albert H. Dorr (a member of the then wealthy firm of Tucker & Dorr, of New York city) came west with a view of investing in government lands. On his arrival at Detroit, after looking at the map of Michigan, he determined to locate lands on the Saginaw river. The tract books at the land office showed him several vacant fractions of land on the immediate banks of the river which purchased, and then came to view his purchases, which he found not valuable, principally lying at the mouth of the river, is now wholly submerged, not a foot of land to be seen, owing to the change that has taken place since the government survey. But nothing daunted, Mr. Dorr purchased other tracts, among which was the land lately improved by Thomas H. McGraw (through diking and pumping) and a tract of eight hundred acres in the vicinity of Crow Island, which latter tract he determined to make immediate use of for stock farm. At that time the price of cutting and putting up prairie hay was one dollar and fifty cents per ton. Mr. Dorr left one hundred and fifty dollars with parties at Saginaw to pay for putting up hay, and went directly to Ohio to purchase stock of cattle and horses. Parties at Saginaw with whom Mr. Dorr came in contact, had little faith in his being able to carry out his plans for stocking his farm, and neglected to cause the hay to be put up. When he arrived in the month of November with a stock of one hundred and fifty head of cattle and fifty horses he found no provision made for their winter's food, and being a stranger in the country, with so large an “elephant” on his hands he became somewhat disheartened, greatly desiring to get the whole thing off his hands so he could return to New York. Cold weather had set in early that season, killing the wild grass, leaving very little for stock to subsist upon. After a day or two spent at Saginaw City in the vain endeavor to make some disposition of his stock, Mr. Dorr came to my house at Green Point, on Thanksgiving day, wishing me to take a lease of his farm and stock for ten years. This I consented to do, on conditions proposed by myself, one of which was that I should receive no stock on the lease till after the first of the succeeding May. On Mr. Dorr's departure for New York, the next day, he gave me three hundred dollars to provide food for the stock during the winter, with which I purchased all the hay and grain that was then for sale in the Saginaw valley. This enable me to keep the stock alive till the ice on the creeks and bayous became sufficiently strong to bear, after which I drove the whole number to the rush beds on the Quonicasee river, ten or twelve miles east of Bay City. Here I erected a log shanty to shelter the men I left in charge, visiting the place myself once a week. The cattle throve nicely and were in good condition in the spring, some of them having been slaughtered for beef in June. Some of the horse died towards spring from having remain-too long feeding on the green rushes.

In the meantime, I removed my frame house from Green Point, on the ice, to a point at the southern extremity of the grove of timber on the east side of the river opposite Crow Island, a distance of seven miles, and prepared fencing to enclose the prairie, intending to cultivate portions of it, for that year, 1835. All the land between Bay City and Saginaw, except the creeks and bayous, could have been cultivated. Benoit Tromble raised a fine crop of corn and potatoes that year between the grove of timber last referred to and the river, on the present site of the Oneida salt and lumber company's improvements. A heavy body of snow fell during the winter of 1835-6, but it commenced to thaw early, so that in April I broke up some of the prairie preparatory for cropping, and gathered the stock with a view of having it inventoried on the lease. But as the warm weather continued the water arose rapidly, floating away my fencing timber, and on the first of May, when my lease should have commence there was not an acre of land on the whole tract that was above water. I had previously driven the cattle and horses to the highland to provide for themselves. The water remained high during most of the summer of 1836, and I wrote to Mr. Dorr, describing the situation and requesting to have the lease cancelled, which he consented to, and authorized the stock to be delivered to other parties, to be sold for his benefit. I abandoned the place, and no attempt has since been made to cultivate it. The water rose to a higher stage in 1837 then it attained in 1836, and in 1838 it was higher than I have ever seen it before or since. The low lands were flooded during the whole summer, destroying large tracts of timber, especially a variety of valuable ash timber that skirted the prairies. From 1838 the water gradually receded, till 1850 it was quite low again. In the spring of 1852 it arose to almost the hight it attained in 1838, but did not remain high so long. Before coming west I had heard of a regular periodical rise and fall of the waters in the great lakes. My experience has shown me that there is a great difference in the height of water at different periods, but the periods of the rise and fall are not at all regular.

Before mentions the improvements made by Mr. Daglish and myself, I will give a brief sketch of the work done by Thomas H. McGraw, of the late firm of John McGraw & Co. He was really the pioneer in improving the Saginaw marshes, by pumping the water from them. Having been relieved from the expense of diking by reason of the main track of the F. & P. M. R. R. and a branch of the same, running to McGraw & Co.'s mill. This made an embankment on two sides of a triangle, which encloses a tract of about three hundred and fifty acres of marsh land, which is bounded on the third side by high land and the mill improvements. In 1877 an attempt was made to pump the water from the inside ditch of the branch railroad, but the work was abandoned on account of a leakage in the bank. It was ascertained that the leakage occurred at a point where edging had been put into the embankment. Mr. McGraw caused a trench to be cut across the edging and filled with puddle clay, thus make the embankment secure, when he again commenced pumping in the latter part of July, 1878. He used a screw pump two feet in diameter and thirty feet long, which was worked with the power from the engine in the planing mill, with which the water was drawn from the surface of the ground, two hundred and fifty acres of which was covered about four inches deep, and settled in the ditch five or six feet below the surface of the river, in two week's time. Afterward the ditch was filled with water and was emptied by three days' pumping. It is now thought that under any contingency the water can be drawn down by three days' pumping sufficiently low to leave the drain tile, that intends to put in, six inches above the surface. A ditch has been dug through the lowest part of the prairie, nine and one-half feet broad at the surface, four feet deep and two hundred rods in length; also one hundred and eighty rods of smaller ditches. In making the ditches, the humus or vegetable matter was thrown on one side, and the marl or lower strata on the other. The last named substance after the ground was plowed was hauled on to the land and dumped in cart-loads, to be spread in the spring for a fertilizer. Mr. McGraw plowed quite a large tract of this prairie land last fall, to be ready for a spring crop. This improvement is prosecuted under the superintendence of Mr. McGraw's father-in-law, Mr. Uberhurst, who is a practical farmer, and a graduate from the Agricultural college of Prussia. He formerly had charge of the stock-feeding department of the Prussian government farm, where six hundred cows were fed, for the sole purpose of ascertaining by experiment, what food for them could be grown and used to the greatest profit. Mr. McGraw has capital to carry out any plan of improvement he desires to make, and with such practical and scientific knowledge as is possessed by Mr. Uberhurst, to direct the outlay of capital, we may expect to see the model farm of the State, on the Saginaw marshes, and to hear of results form practical operations, that will greatly encourage those who intend improving marsh lands.

In 1860, upon ascertaining that the salt rock underlaid the whole of the Saginaw valley, Mr. Daglish and I anticipated an extensive business in the manufacture of salt. The only methods then known for reducing the brine was by solar evaporation and the old fashioned kettle blocks. Believing that the prairies would be extensively used for evaporating works, and the navigable waters for transportation, we purchased a sufficient quantity of swamp land to secure two miles of the navigable portion of the Cheboyganing creek, with a view of its future use for purpose above referred to; but time developed a cheaper process for making salt than even by solar evaporation, so the idea of using the land for that purpose was abandoned. We never doubted the practicability of improving the land by diking and pumping, but the only data within our knowledge upon which to base an estimate of the expense of diking, was the contract of the Bay City and East Saginaw railroad company with Capt. Smith for grading their track across the low prairie. Capt. Smith was to receive one hundred dollars per day for furnishing and running his dredge, and in prosecuting the work he averaged one hundred lineal feet per day. At that rate the expense would preclude the possibility of a profit on the cost of the improvement, so the matter rested, till 1877, when upon consulting with dredge owners, we ascertained that the work could be done at a price that would give a reasonable prospect for a benefit on the outlay in improving the land. After determining to prosecute the work, we secured the service of Mr. Joseph I. Forcier, through whose practical knowledge of the work of dredging and untiring industry in prosecuting it, our operations have been greatly facilitated. By Mr. Forcier's advice we hired the dredge from the corporation of East Saginaw at the rate of ten dollars for each working day it should be in our possession. After fitting the dredge for work, Mr. Forcier hire his assistants and commenced work on the eleventh day of May, 1878, and during the next ninety-six working days excavated a ditch thirty feet wide, averaging nearly six feet deep, three and a quarter miles long, throwing the earth outside, making an embankment of thirty feet wide at the base and five feet high, which has proved effectual in keeping out the water. The depth of the water on the land for about two-thirds the length of the line of ditch, was from one to one and a half feet, under which, for the first foot and a half, was a layer of decayed vegetable matter of the color of black snuff, under that was one foot thick of substance (largely intermixed with decaying shells) which partakes of the properties of the layers directly above and below it. The layer below I supposed was a fine quality of clay for brick-making till I learned from Professor R. C. Kedzie, after he had analyzed a sample of it, that it was marl, containing thirty-six parts of carbonate of lime and sixty-four parts of clay, or a matter that was insoluble in acid, and that it was valuable as a fertilizer of land; and also, that upon a test by burning like other lime, grinding and mixing with sand, it might prove valuable as a water lime. No actual test has yet been made of it for any purpose. The ditch and embankment of the south line of our improvement is over one mile in length, running from the creek directly east to the timbered land. In running our ditch back from the creek we found so great a rise in the land we were unable to float our dredge, so we made a dam across the ditch and improvised a pump, by making of plank a box sixteen feet long and ten feet wide, leaving one end open and having a valve in the bottom of the other end; this we balanced across our dam with a hoisting apparatus affixed to the valve end, by which, with horse power, after filling the valve end of the box we raised it, causing the water to flow out of the other end above the dam, which enabled us to keep the dredge afloat, and supply water as fast as the dredge displaced the earth. It was there that we had the first practical demonstration of the sufficiency of our bank to hold water.

We were obliged to throw the earth on each side of our ditch, and after filling it fifteen inches higher than the water in the ditch below, or on the surrounding land, the water settled only one inch during the night while operations were suspended. The earth at that point was as porous as at any other part of our embankment, so we were satisfied that the weight of the bank pressed so hard on the surface of the ground that there was no chance for the water to penetrate it. The land gradually rises from the creek to the timbered land from two to two and a half feet, the lower portion of the land (except where the water was so deep as to prevent the growth of vegetation) is covered with a heavy growth of rushes, reeds, and flags, and as the land rises the character of the vegetation changes, first to sour grass, then blue joint, and on portions near the timber there is a growth of buffalo grass and rosin weed. As you pass back from the creek the soil gradually becomes firmer, and the higher portions have the appearance on the surface of being hard clay, but dredging through it has demonstrated the fact that there is a depth of two feet of rich dark clayey soil before coming to the harder substance. There is no part of the tract with a sandy soil except a portion of the grove of timber containing fifteen or twenty acres referred to as formerly having been known as “Pine Island.” Our ditch and embankment surrounds on three sides seven hundred and sixty acres of land, about six hundred acres of which is prairie and fit for the ploy. One the southeast it connects with our partially cleared timbered farm of one hundred and sixty acres. In constructing our embankment along the margin of the creek we passed a small bayou in which the water was about three feet deep and the substance below the water was so soft that it was difficult to make a sufficient bank of it; after making an excavation eighteen feet deep and only raising the bank three feet we left it to be finished by piling and cribbing for a distance of about seventy-five feet.

The substance taken from the bayou is similar to the middle strata of soil heretofore described, and I think will prove valuable as a fertilizer. After completing our embankment we procured a twelve-horse power steam engine and two of Rumsey's rotary section pumps, one with a discharge four thousand gallons per minute. We commended pumping about the fifteenth of September and run our pumps night and day for six weeks in clearing the water from the surface of our land, and settling it in the ditch, six feet below the surface of the river. That tested the sufficience of our bank to hold back the water; we found no leakage through any part of it. After pumping out the water, as above stated, we commenced a series of ditches through our land all running to the main ditch. From the northwest to the southeast corner we made a ditch four feet wide at the surface, two feet deep and one and a half feet wide at the bottom. This ditch runs nearly parallel with our northeast line, into which all the water coming from the east will flow. From the main or dredge ditch on the west, to the one above mentioned, at an interval of each forty rods, is a ditch three feet wide at the surface and one and one-half feet deep, and one and one-half feet wide on the bottom, making of small ditches six miles. Upon ditching on the lower portion of our land we found it porous, and like a sponge filled with water, but after a few days of drainage through the small ditches it settled and became so firm that a horse could be driven over it without difficulty, and with a small additional outlay for small ditches, we think our drainage sufficient for all practical purposes. No doubt but under-drainage would be beneficial and may be adopted hereafter but there is less necessity for it here than there is for it on much of the uplands. It will be readily seen that the ditch and embankment make an effectual fence for all purposes as far as they go. In addition to the above it will require three miles of fence on the east and northwest to enclose our seven hundred and sixty-acre tract. We have built one comfortable farmhouse on the land, which is all the building yet erected, except an engine house. And as I have been requested to give a detailed account of the character and cost of our improvements, -- I suppose for the reason that others who are inclined to undertake a like enterprise may profit by our experience, -- I will state that all our expenditures, including the cost of dredging and ditching, the cost of the engine and pump, and the pumping that has been done, also of the house and the estimated cost of a gate and sluice between the ditch and creek, and for completing our embankment, and enclosing the whole with a fence, amounts to a trifle over seven dollars per acre for the seven hundred and sixty acres enclosed and drained.

In setting up our pumps were were obliged to raise the discharge pipes so high, in order to keep the belts out of water, that we used about double the power in emptying our ditch than was absolutely necessary. We expect to improve our pumping apparatus so as to clear our ditch the second time in half the time and at half the expense before required. We first intended to have made a ditch and embankment on the east line of our tract to prevent the water from flowing on from the timbered land; but on examining our surroundings we find a heavy ditch passing on our north line, which prevents any flow of water from that direction, and in less than a mile on the east there is another heavy ditch being constructed, which will carry all the water that would flow from that direction south of our embankment; so by pumping the water that falls on a little larger surface we save the expense of the ditch and bank above referred to. In ordinary seasons, after the spring rains are taken care of, there will be no pumping to do.

Now for our plans and expectations for the future. We think our plans carried out will provide effectually for a thorough drainage, and we have no misgivings as to the quality and productiveness of the soil. After completing our small ditches, we discontinued our pumping, allowing our large ditch again to fill with water. As soon as warm weather commences we intend to start our pumps and empty the ditches, so we expect to keep it down and have our lands fit for cultivation as soon as the uplands are. With the drainage we have through the small ditches, much of our higher land is fit for cultivation without any pumping. In the spring we intend to commence ploughing on that, and continue our operations as the land becomes dry enough, and put in such crops as shall indicate the greatest profit by production, or in subduing the turf for future cultivation. We do not expect large crops for the first or second year.

Our intentions are to stock down a large portion of it as soon as the soil is in fit condition, to such grasses as will be profitable for stock feeding. On some of the lowest part of our land, which is covered with a heavy growth of reeds and rushes, we shall try the experiment of burning, and harrowing in grass seed without ploughing.

From what I have written of the past and present condition of the Saginaw marshes, it will be seen that they are of very little practical value without further improvement. All the profit that has ever been derived from them is the cutting of a small amount of wild grass for hay, and that practice has been nearly discontinued as the uplands become cleared. But I anticipate a different state of things for the future. I believe that every acre of ground between Bay City and Saginaw is capable of producing the largest crops that can be grown in this latitude. It is now half a century since the Saginaw county first became known to the whites, but the marshes between Bay City and Saginaw present a less pleasing view to the beholder than they did when the eye of the white man first glanced over the broad expanse. But I believe that whoever passes over our thoroughfares between the towns above mentioned fifty years hence, will be presented with far different views. Instead of the unsightly appearance of reeds, rushes, wild grass and pools of water, the traveller will behold large fields of waving grain, and extensive meadows covered with nutritious grasses for stock feeding, and herds of cattle resting the shade of groves which dot the landscape, with occasionally a farm house to relieve the eye from the monotony of so much natural beauty.

Related Pages & Notes

Judge Albert Miller
Click Images to Enlarge

Michigan & Great Lakes 1835

Wet Wetlands Early 1800s
People Referenced
{Link} - opens in new window.
Daglish, Mr.
Dorr, Albert H.
{Fitzhugh, Daniel H. Dr.}
Forcier, Joseph I.
Jewett, Judge
Kedzie, R.C. Prof.
{McGraw, John}
McGraw, Thomas H.
{Miller, Albert}
Smith, Capt.
Tromble, Benoit
Uberhurst, Mr.
Subjects Referenced
Agr. College of Prussia
Bay City, MI
Bay City & E. Saginaw R.R.
Carrollton, MI
Cheboyganing creek
Crow Island
Detroit, MI
East Saginaw, MI
F. & P.M. Railroad
Green Point
John McGraw & Co.
New York, NY
Pine Island
Prussian Gov. farm
Oneida salt & Lumber Co.
Quonicassee river
Saginaw, MI
Saginaw Bay, MI
Saginaw River, MI
Saginaw Valley, MI
Shiawassee river
Tittabawasee river
Tucker & Dorr
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.