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The City on the Ice.
-- Describes early ice fishing on the Saginaw Bay.

Ice Fishing Shanties near Essexville. (1911)

1890 article - Added Dec., 2009.

Fores's Sporting Notes and Sketches, Vol. VI - 1890


By Wilf Pocklinton

You have never heard of the City on the Ice? Well, there are many who have not. Come up and spend Christmas with me, and I will give you some good sport among the ducks and fish, and also show you the City on the Ice, which has not its duplicate in the world.'

The speaker was Charlie Denman, a man who had made a good deal of money in the lumber trade, and who now lived retired, near Bay City, Michigan, on a hillside that overlooks the site where Gabriel, the lover of Evangeline, made his camp.

Accordingly, as the old year waned, I made my way westward to Michigan, to find the sedges of the Saginaw River alive with birds; and the river itself laden with ice three feet thick, while Saginaw Bay, a vast body of water, many miles in extent, was frozen hard as solid ground. Of the sport we had with the duck in the sedges, or the rabbits and foxes in the open, this article will not treat, but will confine itself to the City on the Ice, which is situated on Saginaw Bay every winter, being located about the middle of October, and breaking up about April, when it vanishes in a day like magic, or is swept out to the inland sea of Lake Ontario in a sudden break of the floes.

The birth of its somewhat idyllic name is not known, but it is derived from the fat that the fishermen of the cities along the Saginaw River congregate in the bay every winter in their curious movable houses, and by sheer numbers establish a fair sized city on the ice, with a population of from two to five thousand.

As soon as the ice in the Saginaw River is strong enough to bear a sleigh, a number of strange-looking vehicles may be seen moving between its banks. These are the houses of the fishermen, measuring about ten feet long, by six wide, and seven feet high, and they are drawn by dogs along the ice from place to place, many of them coming from great distances along the river and its tributaries to the rendezvous of the Bay. Wives, families and sweethearts are all left behind for many months, and in some cases for ever, the casualties being large every year through the carelessness of the men, and numbers are drowned, frozen, lost in a blizzard, driven out to sea, or devoured by gray wolves, which frequent this part of the country in large numbers. The weather up here is very cold, often falling to forty below zero for several days at a time, and great snow storms occur that place several feet of snow on the level in a single night. The fishermen lay their houses side by side, not in streets, but in circles and squares (there being many divisions and coteries), and as these are constantly varied in shape by the restless proclivities of the owners of the houses, the city never twice presents the same sight.

I went to it day after day for many weeks, and never seemed to grow weary of its infinite variety. The men are brawny and muscular, and during the summer remain at home with their families, and hunt ducks for a living. On the ice it is difficult to tell one man from another, owing to the fact that all dress nearly exactly alike, adopting a kind of uniform suitable to the climate, and very picturesque. The costume consists of a pair of bright red mackinaw trousers, which are nearly an inch thick, made of a coarse woollen material resembling the coarsest stuff used in cheap horse-blankets; the shirt is of the same material, but of a bright blue colour, and the waist is girdled by a bright red woollen scarf; the black and gray stockings are as thick as the shirt and trousers, and the boots are a species of Michigan lumber boots, coming up to the knee, and having large spikes on the souls and heels; the usual head-covering is a broad brimmed felt hat, in shape like a cow-boy's, or, when the weather is very severe, a kind of wollen hood, fitting close to the head is worn, making the men look like Esquimaux. Attired in this picturesque dress, the dweller of this ice city presents a curious sight to a stranger, upon whose thin clothes and voluminous wraps of fur they look with disdain and contempt.

The houses are built of rough pine, and having a slanting roof might easily be mistaken for a lean-to wood shed, or a large dog-kennel, in which there is one small door, hinged with two pieces of leather, like a boy's rabbit hutch. The interior, occupied by the fisherman and his one or two dogs, is cosy and warm. It contains a box for a seat, a rude stone fire-place, or perhaps a small stove, and a bed like a sailor's bunk, composed of boards and blankets, a sort of shelf being just above it, on which rests a bar of soap, plenty of tobacco, several corn-cob or clay pipes, a tin plate and cup, a knife and fork, some salt and pepper, some ink and paper, and a pen or two, a roll of wound rags, several very old newspapers, and some boxes of cheap sulphur matches. From the roof dangles three or four chunks of good bacon, a small bag of flour, and innumerable festoons of fish lines – thick twisted ones – capable of playing a fifty-pound muscalonge or tarpon. On the walls are prints out of newspapers, and quaint carvings done by the owner to pass away spare time. One of the huts this winter attracted great notice by being papered inside with the cuts appearing in Fores's Sporting Magazine, which I gave the owner, and which he speedily arranged in curious frames made of black paper, twisted and pinched into various designs, and then fastened on the wall of his house, round the pictures. The various phases of English sport portrayed awoke considerable interest, and I was always in demand to tell yarns describing them.

The floor of the hut is covered with planks; this is both for comfort, and to prevent the fire from melting a hole; in the centre, just by the side of the bed head, is a square opening lie the entrance to a cellar, cut in the boards, which, being fitted with a handle, can be lifted up when desired, and then will disclose a small square hole cut clear through the thick ice. In this lid are a number of holes, through which pass the fish-lines, so that the floor is always intact, and it is safe to mover around without the danger of falling into the hole. The lines have their hooks baited, and are dropped with heavy singers attached into the water, and the wooden trap-door closed; the ends of the lines are attached to queer little three-legged twigs, which are cut from any bush or small tree; these are placed upon their three legs, and when a fish is hooked, its struggles pull the twig over on its side, and so give notice to the fishermen. These are called “tip-ups” and are in universal use in ice fishing. The fisherman lazily lays on his back on his bed, and reads the old papers, or any letters he may receive, every now and again casting his eye at his “tip-ups,” and when necessary leaning over and drawing up the caught fish, or re-baiting the hooks. The dogs as a rule are very intelligent, and watch the “tip-ups” quite as assiduously as their masters, and when a fish is caught they pounce upon the line, and if the door of the hut is open, will run out, drawing the line taut, until the fish is at the surface.

For the storage of the fish caught, large tanks are cut into the ice, being about two feet deep, having a small hole bored through the ice to admit a constant supply of fresh water to the fish, but so small that no fish can escape through it; these tanks are covered by a slab of ice, and are large enough to contain one to two hundred fish. By this means the fish taken are kept alive and in good condition. The varieties generally caught car the giant perch, silver whitefish, pickerel (3 in. to 4 in.), pike, sand-pike, giant sun-fish, bass, muscalonge, cat-fish, sturgeon, eels, and bull-heads.

Twice every week a large flat-bottomed scow, or barge, placed on runners, and drawn by eight horses, comes from Bay City, calling at each hut, collecting all the fish, paying so much per pound for it in the lump (except where some phenomenal take has occurred), and returning home, the fish is shipped to Detroit, Buffalo, and the East. Private consumers and local dealers fetch their fish from the Ice City as they need it. The fish are plentiful, and bite easily and well, so that good wages are made by the men in this careless lazy way, the money made running from three to ten pounds a-week per man, according to his luck and the work he does. Many of those who earn the larger wages go in for “flagging,” that is, they make a number of holes about the bay, and have as many as fifty lines out at once; to each of the “tip-ups” of these is attached a bright-coloured flat made of flannel or silk, and the owner is kept quite busy running from one to the other with his hand sleight. Wednesday or Thursday are the busiest days at the “city,” for then the fish scow comes in, and the visitors from the mainland usually take advantage of the auction of fine fish held on that day.

Sunday is an off day; what little fishing is done is more for the benefit of visitors than for the actual catch. On this day the dogs drag the houses around for the occupant to make his calls; he does not live his house; and every here and there in the city will be found a dozen or so houses all grouped together in a ring, the owners sitting on their boxes having a social reunion and chat. Some of the men are musicians, and have an instrument of some kind along, and over the clear, frosty air, will coming ringing the quaint characteristic melodies only heard in the backwoods and the lumber camps. And they are sweet and full of sympathy, but they need the free open air, the smell of the bursting pine bud to be appreciated; none but a Vandal would endeavour to transplant them to the drawing room or concert.

This gathering together is called “clustering,” and if the day is moderately calm, open-air games are indulged in; the favourite games appears to be a kind of “tag,” in which they dodge from one hut to the other. It is curious to see men finding so much amusement in the now nearly extinct games of the English boy. When it rains, the huts are “clustered” still closer, and one of the party relates a story, or reads from a paper or book, each one remaining in his own hut. There is scarcely a day that large numbers of visitors do not visit the city, which seems to possess a strange attraction. Some come in the large ice-yachts that go skimming over the frozen surface, taking no heed of cracks nine feet wide, but flying over them at a rate of forty miles an hour; others come in sleighs, or on skates, many of the large sleighs accommodating forty passengers.

The huts are fastened at their stations by means of a wooden peg passing through the hind part of the runner into the ice, and a common practical joke is to withdraw this peg, and tow the unsuspecting somnolent inmate some miles away from the city, and so astonish him when he awakes. In the sudden and fierce storms which descend without warning upon these waters many houses are blown loose from their stakes, and driven before the gale like a piece of paper. Then it is that the casualties come on; if they are blown out many miles, and a heavy snow falls; the dogs cannot drag the house back over the snow; and food failing, the unfortunate fisherman starves to death, unless rescued by some of the ice boats that come out in search of him.

In the stretch of water extending between Saginaw Bay and Lake Ontario, are situated three islands, called the Charity Islands. These are inhabited by a few of the Kohkahlin tribe of Indians, who subsist on hunting and fishing. To these islands the fishermen make their way before an expected storm, and it is no uncommon thing to see the whole city moving en masse in that direction. Year after year many of the fishermen are lost, but no experience seems to make them wise. The profit attending the bay fishing is so great, and the work so easy, and the good times so many, that, instead of clearing away when the first symptoms of ice melting appears, they hand on and on until the frail ice gives way beneath them, or the floe breaks, and they are driven helplessly into the great lake before the force of a great storm. Some of these reach the lake, but many are crushed between the cakes of ice as they “pack” or rise upon one another in the straits between the bay and the lake. All along these straits the country people light large bonfires directly the ice begins to go out, and have organized parties of rescuers to catch the houses as they drift past, and so get the occupants to shore; many scores of men are thus saved every year. It seems as if it would always be so, unless legislation compels them to quit the ice before a certain date, and that is not likely.

When the greater portion of the ice has gone out, and the river becomes navigable, large boats, fitted up with every appliance and convenience for restoring life, and carrying a competent doctor and nurses on board, steam out into the great lake, and often spend two weeks search for the unfortunate men who have drifted out, and who are frequently recovered in the last state of exhaustion. One of these boats is call the Music, and is a large tug, having an enormous propeller, that was built for the purpose of towing the great million dollars rafts of lumber. Owing to her stout build, and the great power of her engines, she is eminently fitted to cruise about among the loose ice, at a high rate of speed, in search of the lost ones. All night a large electric light is carried at her peak, and eager lookouts are on the watch day and night for signs. When recovered in many cases, the poor fellows have been so reduced that they have eaten their dogs, and even the leather hinges of the door of their huts. It will scarcely be credited in England that, although every one along the Saginaw is perfectly well aware that these things happen every year, no one takes any very great notice of them, and even the local press regards them more as everyday occurrences, to be dismissed with a brief mention rather than as an item of news.

One of the men who had been saved by the Music, gave me the following reminiscence of the occurrence: --

“Signals had been hung out, of the ice above the bay moving, but I did not think it was coming down for another week, and wanted to make the most of my time, as fish were biting freely. On the third day, as the sun sank, dark clouds were hanging along the horizon, and I looked to my stakes with more than usual care. I went to bed, however, and slept soundly. I was awoke by a jarring and rocking of my bed, and jumping out, I opened my door and found, to my dismay, that the ice in the bay had broken up, and that the piece my house stood on was not more that thirty feet square. Judging by the stars we were moving along at about ten miles and hour, and soon the bay was crossed and the river entered. Bonfires were blazing along the banks, and several house that floated nearer the bank than I was were reached by the ropes thrown them by the country people, and slowly drawn to the side. I was beyond the reach of the ropes, and my only hope was in running on the Charities, to which I was being carried in a direct line.

“Day now broke, and just as my piece of ice neared the shore of the first island, another large case jammed in front of me, and slewed me off into mid-stream again, and there was no help for me but to enter the great lake. I had food enough to last me three days, and was equally beset by two dangers; one was the being carried out too far into the lake to reach the shore if another hard frost set in, as it often does, and the other was the current carrying me too far into the lake for the Music to come for me. Four days passed, and having no food, I killed my poor dog and eat him. On the tenth day I gave up all hope; I was starving, had no fuel for my stove, and turned in for warmth, never expecting to be saved. Next morning I fancied I heard a hail, but was too weak to move. I do not remember any more until I recovered consciousness on board the Music, where there were eighteen other fishermen all rescued that trip. I am here again this year, and I expect will be every winter while I live. One forgets a danger when it is past.”

That is the general sentiment, and when one sees the picturesque city and its gaily clad, stalwart men, one forgets to think of its dangers and perils. In the summer one thinks less still of it; the vast bay is like a sheet of rippled silver under the bright sun and balmy breeze, and the hunter sighs in anticipation at the sight of the “butterball,” the “whistle-wing,” the canvas-back, the teal, the mallard, the grey and the black duck, the red-headed duck, and the many others that at the end of the close season people its waters. The City on the Ice is an experience not easily forgotten by one who has seen it, and is probably, as my friend said, without a duplicate in the world.

William Patenge of Essexville buying fresh fish. (1911)
Related References & Pages

{1877 Scalable MI Map}

Related Links:
Black Bass Fishing
Grayling Fishing
People Referenced
Denman, Charlie
Subjects Referenced

Bay City, MI
Buffalo, NY
Charity Islands, MI
Detroit, MI
Fores's Sporting Magazine
Ice Fishing
Ice shanties
Kawkawlin, MI
Kohkahlin Indians
Lake Ontario, MI
Saginaw Bay, MI
Saginaw River, MI
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.