Bay City's Remarkable Armstrong Family.
by Marvin Kusmierz - June 28, 2011.
From Sailors to Explorer, Playwright, Famous Artist and Hollywood Actor.
Captain Armstrong's Fire Tug Geyser
A Unique History
has recently been discovered about an Armstrong family that resided in Bay City, Michigan for nearly 30 years in the late 1800s. While Captain Richard Armstrong, the head of this family, appears in early history books, his biography is represented in a single paragraph, which states he was an owner of lake vessels, sailed on sea and Great Lakes ships, and served in the Civil War with the Third Ohio Regiment. Also mentioned is his wife, and there three children -- the latter being the primary subjects of this disovery.
The Armstrong Story Begins
in St. Clair, Michigan, were Captain Richard Armstrong married Harriet E. Scott he 1865. The following year they had their first child, a son named William. In 1868, a daughter named Chilula was born in 1868, and a year later another son named Paul. The following year the Captain uproot the family and moved to Bay City., which was experiencing rapid growth as the center of Michigan's lumber boom. The city's population which was only 700 a decade earlier, was not over 7,000. It's deep water port was ideal for lumber mills and shipping. There the Captain set up a vessel business, which prospered dramatically from the city's rapid growth, which by 1880 had a population of over 20,000.
The Captain and His Wife, Harriet
at this time had three children: son William, age 14; daughter Cholula, age 12; and son Paul, age 10. The sons at an early age began learning the skills of sailo under the totur-ship of their father. When they each ready,the Captain put to work in his boating business, which consisted of a number of steam ships, including one that ran passengers between Bay City and Saginaw several times each day. Later on the Captain added fire-tug-boats to his fleet, releiving major concern for wood mill owners who constantly threaten by the breakout of a fire, which often happened prior to the introdction of the Captains fire-boats.
The Captain's Boating Business
, became a family business. At at early age the Captain began tutoring each of his sons at an early age in the skills of being a sailor. When each was ready they were put to work in the business. Initially helping doing menial chores, then in aiding the operations of the fleet, which consisted of steam ships and tug boats. This included passenger ship that ran several times daily between Bay City and Saginaw. One of the most profitable was a fire-tug-boat service that provide fire protection to the lumber mills along the water front. The business prospered until the railroads began expanding their lines for passenger and transport services to cities, which ultimately domed the Captain's passenger boat service on the Saginaw River. The fire-tug service also declined when water plants in Bay City and Saginaw expanded and the city fire-departments were able provide fire protection to the mills on the river front. Consequently, the Captain had more steamships and tugs than necessary, and began selling them off and eventually closed the business.
By the 1900 Census was taken,
Captain Richard and Harriet had moved to Detroit, with a new son, John S., who was ten years old. The captain lived only three more years, dying in 1903. This major change set in motion the separation of the rest of the Armstrong family as they scattered to various destinations to carry on their own lives. Harriet and her son John S. did as well.
Their Daughter Cholua
was now married to John C. Streng, and they had a five-year-old son named Wallace, and were now living in Milwaukee. Her widowed mother Harriet was living them.
William, the Eldest Son,
married Minnie Lahman and they had a nine-year old son named Robert, and were located in Seattle, Washington during the 1910 census. From there William did some prospecting for gold in Alaska, in this connection had a remarkable opportunity in 1906, to be a member of Cook's second expedition to Mount McKinley. While Cooke claimed he had reach the peak of Mount MiKenly, many experts thought he didn't. Some year later was drawn into raucous. He wrote an article that appeared in The New York Times base on his knowlege of the expedition, and said there was no way Cook could have made it to peak. Eventually Cook admitted he hadn't.
Cook's 1906 expedition to Mt. McKinley, Alaska.
Paul, the Second Son,
found work as reporter for a Chicago newspaper, while he had success, he wasn't satisfied and quit the job and moved to New York City to try his luck as a playwright. A move that eventually proved to be a wise one, as after getting of to a shakey start, he work caught on and went on to become one of the top playwrights during that time period. There are many old stories from The New York Times mentioning that are available on the internet.
The Youngest Son, John S.,
left Detroit for Chicago where he attended art school, and after graduating he went to New York and found work doing commercial artist working under the name of Rolf. Perhaps the biggest break that brought his work to the forefront was landing a job doing paintings of pretty girls for a calendar company during WWII. There wasn't a soldier who didn't like his work. In the world of art, Rolf is ranked among the best America's best artist. His paintings are easly found on Internet.
The Last of These Armstrongs
was a grandson, Robert, the son of William and Minnie, who was born in 1890 in Saginaw. While living with his parents in Seattle, he was attending the University of Washington for law degree, when he was offered a job in the playwright business of his uncle Paul. Robert didn't hestitate, he dropped out of school and headed for New York City. A fortunate move that later would lead him to hollywood, where he became a supporting actor in moviews. His big break came when he landed a starring role in the classic film "King Kong.”
Indeed, the achievements of this Armstrong family,
that spent the greater part of their early living in Bay City, were remarkable. Who could have imagined that a family of sailors would later enter careers in fields that many dream about when growing up ... being an explorer, a popular playwright, Hollywood actor or a famous artist.
-- See their individual history pages for more.
This Remarkable History,
may never have been discovered except for the internet, and a bit of luck in stumbling upon the family connection through their individual stories. One of the first biographies that I published on Bay-Journal was that of the artist Rolf Armstrong in November, 2002. At that time, all I knew was that he was born in Bay City in 1890, then moved 10 years later to Detroit with his parents, and went on to become a famous pin-up artist. Then in 2008, I found out that his father Richard owned a fleet of vessel s while living in Bay City. Still I had no further awareness of other members of this family until now. -- I wonder how many more interesting histories related to Bay City are waiting to be discovered?
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