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Greater Bay City Was Formed One Century Ago.
by Marvin Kusmierz
April 9, 2005

Judge Albert Miller was the first to plat for first village settle on land that he bought from Benoit Trombley. He erected a sawmill there the following year having to bring in materials from Detroit by boat.

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Sketch looking east at Bay City area. Shown is the Third St. Bridge connecting Bay City and the village of Wenona on the west side. The Sage & McGraw is just south of the bridge. To the right is the Middle Grounds and across from it on the east side is the village of Portsmouth.

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An amazing panoramic view of early Bay City taken from the steeple of the Baptist church on Madison and Center avenues. (See Pictorial Library for larger images.)

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abt. 1880s:
The McGraw Sawmill located on Harrison near 40th street was the largest mill on the river.
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After local forests were depleted logs were hauled from far away forests to the river mills in Bay City and Saginaw by train or hauled in by ships towing barges.
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Fire Dept. headquarters on west side of Washington ave. between 4th and 5th streets in Bay City.

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Map of Bay City still showing duplicate street names many years after the merger. Notice Washington north of Midland.

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View North of Water St. from Center Ave. Shearer Block (now Mill End Store) on right, on left is Union Block and Birney Block in what is now Wenonah Park.

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abt. 1910:
This coal mine located in Salzburg area was one of many scattered around the valley.

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Launching the Shenandoah at Davidson shipyard. This 305' long steam ship was of many constructed out of wood.

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View of abandoned Davidson Shipyard as it looked before being developed into Veterans Memorial Park.

Bay City's new branding logo.

April 10, 1905 marks the date when two cities divided by the Saginaw River become one to form greater Bay City. It was a major decision intended to merge the assets of West Bay City and Bay City that was essential to the future well being of each. The merger was aimed at competing with the city of Saginaw which fifteen years earlier was created when Saginaw City and East Saginaw consolidated in 1890.

The matter wasnít a certainty. Leaders and prominent businessmen from both communities had to convince their citizens that it was in their best interest to give up the sovereignty for the benefits of a large community that many perceived wouldnít bring a personal benefit to them. One can only wonder what each would be like today if this faction had their carried the vote their way. They did not and great Bay City was created.

Consolidation History.

Most anyone that has grown up or spent a fair amount of time visiting Bay City, has at one time or another wondered, "What was the city planner thinking when he laid out the city's streets?".

The reason why many of the cityís streets take a quick zig-zag or are unexpected turn into a new name is due to the many consolidations of smaller communities that represent todayís Bay City.

Up until 1836 when Judge Albert Miller platted for the village of Portsmouth there was no formal community, in fact, the area was still a wilderness with only a few white settlers scattered along the river bank. Judge Miller correctly speculated that this area north of Saginaw and closer to the Saginaw Bay was the ideal spot for future growth. The river was deeper here and was without the sand shawls that made navigation more difficult for ships to reach Saginaw.

Judge Miller wasnít the only one with this vision. The following year a group of investors, operating under the name of the Saginaw Bay Company, platted property north of Portsmouth for the village of Lower Saginaw. Both frontier villages became instant competitors to establish their village as the largest one north of Saginaw. Portsmouth lost that battle and in 1873, most of its property was annexed into Bay City.

During the period when the two villages on the east bank of the Saginaw River were fighting it out, on the west bank the villages of Wenona, Banks and Salzburg sprung up. Wenona which had its beginnings in 1865 as the company town of the Sage and McGraw sawmill, was the largest of the three. It was centrally located between the other two west side villages and directly across the river from Bay City. The annexation of Portsmouth village by Bay City may have raised considerable concern with businessmen on the west side that led to the consolidation of the three villages in 1877 that created West Bay City. The new city immediately put the west side on a level playing field with Bay City. Both were similar size in geography and population, and both had a strong industrial base driven by the growing lumbering boom.

It took less than 70 years from the time Judge Miller established the first village in this wilderness when greater Bay City became a reality in 1905. During the first 20 years of that period the territory was still within the jurisdiction of Saginaw County. A fact that many pioneer businessmen considered a hindrance to the growth of this community. They knew decisions made by businessmen living in Saginaw would favor their home community and keep them from reaching the potential of their efforts. After lobbying the state for several years, they succeed in getting Bay County organized in 1857. One of the first official actions taken was changing the name of Lower Saginaw to Bay City.

Had navigation on the Saginaw River not favored Bay City, itís almost certain that its growth would have been substantially less than it was. The river provided the only means to transporting a substantial amount of goods in and out of the valley. Railways were many years away and the only roads were the ancient pathways created by the Indian nations long before the French arrived and began exploration of the Great Lakes.

The river was more than adequate for navigation by the early schooners. Over the years larger schooners had problems entering the mouth of the river which had a natural depth of 8 feet. In 1867 the government stepped in and dredged to entrance to a depth of 13 feet that removed this hindrance to progress. Then in 1882 the river was dredged again to a depth of 14 ft all the way to Saginaw eliminating the sand shawls that worked to Bay Cityís earlier advantage. However, by this time a massive network of railroads had already been established to serve lumber interests and that competitive had already been minimized.

The primary competition was between the interests of the two major business centers on the river that were only 13 miles from each other. When greater Saginaw was created in 1890 by the merger of Saginaw City on the west river bank and East Saginaw, Iím sure it shook up businessmen in Bay City and West Bay City, and that eventually led to the consolidation that created greater Bay City in 1905.

What Times Were Like Around 1905.

The lumber boom reached its peak years in the late 1880s. By 1905, nearby local forests were depleted and lumber was being hauled to the large sawmills on the Saginaw River by railway or barges from the forests in northern Michigan and as far away as Canada. Had these mass transport means not existed when they did, lumbering interests in Bay City and Saginaw would have closed much earlier in favor of tapping western forests. Having these methods of transporting lumber long distances saved both cities from rapid downsizing by giving each sufficient time to adapt an industrial economy that was totally dependent on lumbering.

Bay City's natural location of being closest to the Saginaw Bay made it the choice for shipbuilders. The early large shipyards of F. W. Wheeler and James Davidson relied on the sawmills for building their large wood schooners, but by 1905 iron was the material of choice for shipbuilders and this kept shipbuilding going strong in Bay City. In fact, 1905 was the year that Harry Defoe began his shipbuilding career that became the Defoe Shipbuilding Company and the largest in this cityís history. The company closed its doors in December 1972 ending the long history of this city as a port where world class ships were built.

The railroad industry that helped to keep local lumbering going in Bay City was a major factor in the growth of another world class manufacturer. The Industrial Works began operations in 1873 building steam engine boilers used in the sawmills. Within a decade it switched to manufacturing locomotive cranes becoming one of the largest builders of them in the world. Large cranes moving on rails grew right along with the railroad industry as it opened up new frontiers around the world. The endured as the most popular construction machine well beyond the development of self-driven track cranes, also made by in Bay City by the former Bay City Shovels.

The lumbering industry spurred the development of several lumbering related businesses, including the Bousfield Wooden Ware Company which survived as the largest manufacturer of its type in the United States until it closed in 1916, and the property was purchased by the Hanson Veneer Company. The later manufacturer furniture as well as veneer panels for the early automobile industry.

The sawmills gave support for the development of a new type of business, the pre-fabrication of products that customers could finish building themselves at a substantial savings. Clifford Brooks grasp the concept and started making knock-down boat kits, and in 1906, William Sovereign employed the same concept with homes that made his Aladdin Company the nations largest suppliers of them for many years to follow.

The natural assets of the valley went beyond its trees and the Saginaw Bay water basin. Deep in the soil sat the largest coal deposit in Michigan, and under the shorelines of the river of large deposits of salt existed. Both carried over well beyond the peak of the lumbering.

Fishing was among earliest enterprises and while industries hampered the quality of fishing on the river, the bay continued to provided a viable living for many. Before the capabilities of our modern food stores, and relatively recent awareness of contaminated fish due to pollution, fish caught in the bay were sold at local stores specializing in fresh fish.

Merger Pains

Each consolidation created some havoc for the citizens involved. The larger the communities were when it happened, the number of streets with duplicate names became increasing problematic. The merger of West Bay City and Bay City was by far the largest of them all creating headaches for city planners in deciding on which street would name would be changed and what the new name would be.

In April 18, 1890, an article in the Bay City Tribune entitled, {Those Horrid Streets}, describes some of the frustration duplicate street names were causing in West Bay City thirteen years after it was formed. If this subject has peaked your curiosity youíll find a history on these changes in the Heritage/Directories/ {Street Names & Changes of Bay City}.

The merger of the two cities didnít eliminate competition between those living on the west side of the river and those on the east side. While most of the businessmen of the community correctly focused their competitive concerns towards Saginaw, it did nothing to dampen the neighborly feuding among citizens regarding which side of the river was best. The in fighting was manifested itself mostly in sports competition between the schools. The biggest rivalries took place in high school football. The competition between Handy and Central annually determined which side of had bragging rights for a year. That rivalry ended when Handy was converted to an intermediate school, but the bickering continues among those who still recall its importance to an earlier time.

Uncertain Future

A century later, Bay City and Bay County is no longer facing economic challenges from Saginaw or any other community in Michigan. The challenge today is survival in a world economy where itís nearly impossible to predict what the next threat to our local economy will be. While we face a different world than our ancestors, and solutions to improving our future may be more difficult to define, we can learn from their boldness by embracing change and thinking big.

Growth will be the reward of communities that are shedding themselves of the shackles created by local feuding over territorial power. It shouldnít be a matter of concern where a business locates in this area when it will create jobs that will employ workers living in a nearby community. If we resist change, we will weaken the economic future not only for ourselves, but our children.

The days of investors finding us are gone. The Saginaw Bay is the only natural asset that we have left unless oil somehow comes spurting out of a natural gas well. Thatís not likely and we donít have the convenience of time to wait for something good to fall in our laps. We need to simultaneously sell ourselves while restructuring our assets to meet todayís challenges.

We can think big by aggressively pursuing means to reduce the cost of living in our area. We can begin by evaluating all public services to determine if consolidation is a more cost effective solution to than having several specific entities servicing a smaller population base. Would one water system be more economical than several? Would metropolitan police and fire departments provide a better return? Is it time to move beyond the local interests of cities and townships, and the control they have on the throttle that effectively determines the overall well being of the general economy?

We can think big in selling ourselves by employing a regional approach that crosses county borders. Developing a Saginaw Valley economic alliance staffed with full time experts whose sole mission is to market our collective assets and seek out new businesses would give us a presence in the world. This is nothing new, it has been going on in other locations for 30 or more years. Silicon Valley in California and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina are but two successful examples.

The economic good times may have passed us by for for a decade or so, but itís only because we have yet to act big and force change to get back in the thick of the race. We donít need another merger based on geography, we need a merger of our minds to open up the possibilities for a brighter economic future.

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