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Shipbuilding at Bay City (1886)
  • Contributed by David D. Swayze of Lake Isabella, MI (September 2004)

  • Detroit Tribune - June 7, 1886

    Ship-building at Bay City.

    The Men Who Have Followed It and the Vessels Put Afloat.

    A statement of the ship-building industry on the Saginaw river, even for a single year, without a condensed history of the men who have prosecuted it and been instrumental in establishing it, and expanding it to its present important proportions, would be something like the play of Hamlet with "Hamlet" left out, especially as they are among the self-made men of this country, and have risen to their present positions, and attained their prominence in the business and accumulated their property through their own zealous efforts.

    Ship-building, like lumbering, seemed to have commenced at Bay City because it was a necessity, as well as because of its natural advantages and contiguity to timber, its immense shipping business, either present or prospective, and other inducements which could not be overlooked. It became apparent to far-seeing men a quarter of a century ago that the prospective lumber business, then in its infancy, would by natural development make the city lying at the head of Saginaw bay and at the head of deep water navigation on the Saginaw river an important shipping point, and hence a proper place for repairing vessels, building new craft, and all other business incident to successful shipyard industry.

    It was not until 1869, however, that any vessels of extensive proportions were commenced. In that year George Carpenter laid the keels, completed and launched two barges, which were considered at the time very large vessels; they were named the Samuel Bolton and J. L. Ketchum, were 1,000 tons burthen each, and their combimed cost was $60,000, or $30,000 apiece. This was considered a large undertaking at the time, and aroused great anticipations in regard to the future, but the finish of the contract closed Mr. Carpenter's labors at Bay City as a shipbuilder.

    In 1870 Capt. Tripp stepped in and built the schooner E. T. Judd of 1,000 tons and costing also about $30,000.

    About this time Moore, Ballentine & Co. commenced operations quite extensively, at the point where F. W. Wheeler's extensive industry is being prosecuted at the present time. The firm, during the continuance of their business, built four very large and excellent vessels which were considered genuine leviathans, two schooners and two steam vessels. They were named respectively the steamers Kershaw and David Ballantine, and the schooners A. B. Moore, now the Northwest, and the H. W. Sage; their average tonnage was about 1,000 and their average cost about $75,000, or $300,000 for the four.

    The above vessels and the propeller George L. Colwell, built by the Bay City dry dock company in 1880, are the only vessels set afloat here by other parties than those at present engaged in the business, Frank W. Wheeler and Capt. James Davidson, whose operations have been quite extensive as will be seen hereafter. (12)

    Capt. James Davidson, owner of the Davidson shipyard in West Bay City, has carved his fortune by the labor of his hands and has built up his his business which is one of great importance, not only to himself, but to the city in which he is located, and has set afloat some of the great marine monsters of the great inland seas; in fact, his vessels have, several of them, been the largest craft afloat on the lakes, and he owns today some of the largest steam vessels plying on fresh water.

    Capt. Davidson was born and raised in the city of Buffalo, N.Y. So soon as he was old enough he worked at shipbuilding winters, and followed his chosen calling as a sailor during the summer months. This was continued at Buffalo and other places until he branched out at Wenona from West Bay City in 1871, in the spot near where F. W. Wheeler's shipyard is now located, and laid the keel of a vessel of 700 tons burthen, the E. M. Davidson, which when launched and ready for service cost $25,000.

    He then removed to East Saginaw and built the large schooner Kate Winslow, which was launched in 1873, and at that time was the largest vessel on the lakes. She was 1,500 tons capacity and cost $60,000. Being dissatisfied with his location, and feeling satisfied that West Bay City was the most desirable location for the prosecution of the business, he returned to his first love, in 1874, and located his present yard in the fourth ward, where he has since conducted his extensive operations. His first venture in his new location was the steamer James Davidson, which was considered a very large vessel at the time. He owned and sailed her for six years. She was 1,900 tons capacity, and cost $105,000.

    In 1880 he laid the keel of a still larger vessel, exceeding the capacity of any vessel yet afloat on fresh water. She was a steam vessel named the Oceanica, was of 2,100 tons capacity, and cost $118,000. She was sold to the Lehigh Valley railroad company after the completion. His ambition in the direction of large craft was still unsatisfied, and in 1881 he laid the keel of the steamer Siberia, which exceeded all his former efforts. She was of 2,250 tons capacity, cost $120,000, and was launched in 1882. He owned and ran her for three years and sold her to Moore & Bartow of Cleveland. The same year, 1882, he built on contract the tug W. H. Alley for Mr. Gardner of Chicago. She cost $11,500. In 1883 the steamer George T. Hope was built and launched at a cost of $130,000. Mr. Davidson still owns this vessel and runs her on his own account.

    In 1884 he built the steamer Australasia, the largest vessel afloat on fresh water. She is 2,600 tons freight capacity and cost $140,000.

    In 1885 he laid the keel of a tug still on the stocks, not yet named (Washburn), and also built and launched the schooner Polynesia, of 1,900 tons capacity and costing $45,000, which vessel he still owns. The same year he built for Eddy Brothers and Capt. John Shaw the schooner John Shaw. She cost $39,000, is 1,800 tons capacity and rate A1*. During the present year he has built for the Emery lumber company and has just launched the large lake tug Temple Emery, named after one of the owners. She cost $17,000 and is to tow the singular craft below described.

    The log boat Wahnapetae, which was launched on Wednesday, June 2 inst., is a curiously constructed craft. She is the longest and widest vessel afloat on fresh water, but has only 12 feet depth of hold, which is almost completely taken up with gunwales and other contrivances to strengthen her for the terrible strain to which she is doubtless to be subjected. She is an experiment in the business in which she is likely to engage, but the projectors and owners, the Emery Brothers, are practical lumbermen, and are sanguine as to her being a success. She is 3,500 tons capacity, and cost $55,000. Her extreme length is 275 feet, she is 51 feet beam, and 12 feet depth of hold. She was projected and built for the purpose of carrying new saw logsfrom the Georgian bay country and other points, to supply the saw mills at Bay City with logs, in view of the exhaustion of the timber which has heretofore been tributary to the Saginaw river mills. The novel craft carries her load all on deck, and will, it is estimated, easily transport three-fourths of a million feet of ordinary logs, or she will carry 2,500,000 feet of manufactured lumber, which proves conclusively that she is a veritable floating monster. She has steam and machinery and all other appliances on board to load logs expeditiously, and is so constructed that the logs can be made to load themselves; hence there will be little delay at either end of the route, and it is therefore positively anticipated that she will be a success, financially and otherwise. She has five center gunwales from bottom, all edge-bolted, the same as a center-board box, diagonally braced on each side of each gunwale, and bolted through braces and gunwales, and forelocked on gunwales, which, it is thought, will give her the required solidity and strength to which she will be subected by the great rollways of logs which are to be piled on her decks. She is named the Wahnapetae [sic].

    The employees at the Davidson shipyard the present season have numbered 150, and in busy seasons that number of men are constantly engaged.

    The yard has ample room for the successful prosecution of business, and with all fixtures and apparatus is valued at about $30,000.

    The following is a list of the vessels, with the tonnage and capacity built by Mr. Davidson since he commenced operations in 1871: (13)

    E. M. Davidson700$ 25,000
    Kate Winslow1,50060,000

    W. H. Alley11,500--
    Temple Emery17,000--

    Steam Barges
    James Davidson1,900105,000

    Log Boat

    The tug Temple Emery, still on the stocks, about ready to launch, and the log boat Wahnapetae are the extent of the operations at this yard during the season of 1886.

    Frank W. Wheeler has also come up to his present standing from a small beginning, and has climbed the ladder from a sort of chore-boy in his father's yard.

    In 1876 Mr. Wheeler removed to Bay City and launched out on his own account with a sectional dry-dock, which was located on the west side of the river, just north of the present free bridge. His work at the time was principally repairing, but during the year he built his first two boats, the Luther Westover and Mary Martini. He continued the business of repairing and building small craft up to the year 1880, when he turned over to his father the repairing business and devoted his whole time and attention to building new boats, and during his operations has put afloat the following list of vessels:

    1876Steamer Mary Martini80$ 6,500
    1876Steamer Westover15012,000
    1878Steamer Christie Forbes605,000
    1879Tug Marion Teller304,000
    1879Barge Hannah B1206,000
    1880Propeller Lycoming1,850100,000
    1880Propeller Conemaugh1,850100,000
    1880Tug C. W. Liken306,000
    1880Tug C. Cuyler407,000
    1881Propeller Saginaw Valley70060,000
    1881Steam barge Fred McBrier70050,000
    1881Tug Maud S607,000
    1882Schooner Galatea1,10030,000
    1882Propeller Osceola1,00060,000
    1882Tug Handy Boy305,000
    1883Propeller Kittie M. Forbes1,30070,000
    1883Tug Sarah Smith607,000
    1884Schooner Alta1,60040,000
    1884Schooner F. W. Wheeler1,40035,000
    1884Propeller W. A. Avery1,900100,000
    1884Tug Tempest304,000
    1885Steam barge T. S. Christie70045,000
    1885Steam barge A. Folsom1,00060,000
    1885Steam barge B. W. Arnold1,40070,000
    1886Schooner H. A. Hawgood2,30060,000
    1886Propeller Ossifrage24025,000
    Propeller for Ward's Lake Superior Line1,50090,000
    Steam barge for Bay City & Cleveland transportation company1,000 60,000
    Schooner for Capt. William Forbes2,30060,000
    Totals (15)24,430$7,785,500

    It will be perceived that during the year 1886 he has completed and now on the stocks five vessels, four of which are of mammoth proportions, the five costing $295,000. The Ossifrage is a passenger propeller built on his own account, running between Alpena and Black River.

    James Roberts, whose office and dock is at the foot of Center street, Bay City, is one of the best known vessel agents of the state. His facilities and dock accomodations are very fine, and as agent for the Saginaw transportation company, Bay City and Port Austin, and Saginaw River lines of steamers, is directly into communication with some of the more important vessel lines trading to Bay City. The Saginaw transportation company's vessels, Saginaw Valley and Sanilac, trading between Bay City and Cleveland, have a very extensive patronage, the Saginaw Valley especially having remarkably fine passenger accommodations in addition to her freight capacity, and during the summer season she makes regular stops at Goderich, Ont. This is a very delightful trip during the warmer months of the year, and is yearly enjoyed by thousands of people - the Bay City and Port Austin line making three round trips weekly, is a very popular line for both freight and passengers. These steamers call during the pleasure season at Caseville, Port Crescent, and Port Austin, and meet with an extensive patronage among tourists and those in search of a few days' cool and refreshing recreation during hot weather. The Saginaw river line is composed of the steamers Wellington R. Burt, L. G. Mason, and Lucile, each of which make three round trips daily between Bay City and the Saginaws.

    In addition to his vessel agencies, Mr. Roberts likewise does a very extensive business in coal, wood, shingles, hay, straw, cement, carbon and lubricating oils, fine brick clay, cedar posts, etc., and the most prominent business firms in the city are among his hundreds of customers. He makes a speialty of handling elm and ash hoops, staves, headings, etc., and has built up a very large business in this direction. Of these latter, he ships very largely to Buffalo and the interior cities of New York state, and has practically the largest trade in this stock in the Saginaw valley. During many years' business experience in Bay City, Mr. Roberts has won for himself an enviable reputation for his honorable dealing and straightforward business methods. He stands well commercially, and is held in the highest esteem by his fellow-citizens and by the business community. On of the well-known land-marks of Bay City are the docks and office of Mr. Roberts, than whom no vessel agent is more deservedly popular.

    Marine engine and boiler work is conducted at Bay City only to a trifling extent, notwithstanding the fact that there is every facility for the work, and as good work has been accomplished as has been brought here from Buffalo, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Detroit, and other eastern points: the practice seems to have grown and become settled that the large class of vessels built on the Saginaw River must be fitted out with boilers and engines from the points named. The probability is that the enormous amount of sawmill work, replacing and repairing pays better than competing for new work with the extensive establishments east. At all events, the boiler and machine shops seem to be continually busy.

    Notes by David D. Swayze:

      12. The writer failed to do his homework on this one. At least 85 other significant vessels were built in and around Bay City before 1886 by at least 27 builders, including such luminaries as Theophilus Boston and S. J. Tripp. William Crosthwaite alone built 13 large vessels at Bay City before that date (plus another 10 or so at Saginaw).

      13. WAHNIPITAE was Davidson's hull #14 and the list shows only 10. The missing ones are the tug WASHBURN (apparently finished but unnamed at the time), the barge IRON RANGE (a 170 ton barge or lighter about which almost nothing is known), the schooner JOHN SHAW, and his first hull, LAURA BELL. The construction of the latter was not at Bay City or Saginaw. It was overseen by Capt. Davidson at the Bailey Bros. yard in Toledo in 1870. Later in life Davidson claimed her as his first ship, though the builder shows elsewhere as Bailey Bros.

      14. WILLIAM H. STEVENS, W. R. STAFFORD and MABEL WILSON, respectively.

      15. The typesetter apparently misread the 1's as 7's. The actual total of the cost column is $1,184,500
    Related Items & Notes/b>

    (click to enlarge)
    1903 photo: Launching of the vessel Thomas Cranage at James Davidson's shipyard in West Bay City.
    Related Pages:
    Davidson Shipyard.
    Bay City Shipbldg. 1875
    {Bay History Links}
    -- Shipping/boating.
    Salvage of Globe (1867)
    People Referenced
    Carpenter, George
    Boston, Theophilus
    Crosthwaite, William
    Davidson, James (Capt.)
    Forbes, William (Capt.)
    Roberts, James
    Shaw, Joh (Capt.)
    Tripp, S.J. (Capt.)
    Wheeler, Frank W.
    Subjects Referenced
    Alpena, MI
    Bailey Bros. Shipyard
    Bay City
    Bay City Dry Dock Co.
    Black River
    Boston, MA
    Buffalo, NY
    Caseville, MI
    Chicago, IL
    Cleveland, OH
    Davidson Shipyard
    East Saginaw
    Eddy Brothers Co.
    Emery Lumber Co.
    Georgian Bay
    Goderich, Ont.
    Lehigh Valley RR Co.
    Moore, Ballentine & Co.
    Moore & Bartow Co.
    Philadelphia, PA
    Port Austin, MI
    Port Crescent, MI
    Saginaw Bay
    Saginaw River
    Saginaw Transportation Co.
    Saginaw Valley
    E.M. Davidson
    George L. Colwell
    Laura Bell
    Saginaw Valley
    Wahnapetae (log boat)

    Iron Range
    J.L. Ketchum
    Samuel Bolton

    A.B. Moore
    E.T. Judd
    H.W. Sage
    John Shaw
    Kate Winslow
    New York

    David Ballantine
    George T. Hope
    James Davidson
    L.G. Mason
    Wellington R. Burt

    Temple Emery
    W.H. Alley

    (See tables for others.)

    Toledo, OH
    West Bay City
    Internet Resources
    Great Lakes History
    by Dave Swayze:

    Huge historical database of shipwrecks and information related to shipping.
    - CD Shipwreck database available for purchase.
    Maritime History of the Great Lakes:
    Extensive historical resource.
    - Includes Great Lakes Marine, a series of 1886 articles on major ports.
    Saginaw River Marine Historical Society:
    Preserving nautical history.
    Saginaw River Rear Range Lighthouse:
    Images, history, lighthouse keepers, etc.
    WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.