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Recalling Bay City's Wenonah Twins.
by Marvin Kusmierz
April 1, 2006 (Updated Oct. 25, 2007)

Young adults may not be familiar with the old Wenonah Hotel that was located on the block where the Delta College Planetarium is today. The Wenonah Hotel went up in flames in 1977, which brought an abrupt end to the finest hotel structure in the history of Bay City.


Planetarium.

Many not be aware that the Wenonah Park wouldnít exist today had the Wenonah Hotel not been built. Instead of a beautiful river front park downtown, the property might still be occupied by business buildings as it was before the Wenonah Hotel came into being.

The park and hotel were conceived as twin propositions by the planning commission comprised of local business executives. Their challenging goal was to build a world class hotel on property formerly occupied by the old Fraser Hotel. That was the easy part. Including an adjoining river front park was another matter. Using that property for park would require relocating businesses and demolition of many buildings. In doing so, they dramatically redefined the old business district along Water Street at the foot of Center Avenue to what it is today. It was a bold and expensive undertaking the gave birth to the cityís first river font park.

The Background.

At the turned of the 20th Century, Bay City enjoyed a robust economy of new businesses built as a result of the lumber boom during the latter half of the 19th Century. Many of these businesses had established themselves as leaders in the products they produced. These were exceptionally good times, and such boldness was embraced by most everyone in the community.

The nearly doubled in size during 1905 when the citizens of West Bay City decided to give up their soveignty and merge into Bay City, which is essentially the geographical of Bay City today. The result was Bay City became the third largest community in Michigan, surpassing Saginaw which had pulled way ahead of Bay City with its own merger of Saginaw and East Saginaw. The bitter historical rivalry dates back to the late 1930s when a group broke away from the Saginaw settle to form Lower Saginaw which later became Bay City.

The Hotel.

It is this background that motivated leaders and businessmen of community push for a new hotel to replace the Fraser Hotel which had fallen into a state of disrepair. To businessmen it was a source of embarrassed to have customers visit the city in endure such horrible accommodations. This was same thinking that motivated James Fraser to build his hotel in 1865. However, the estate owners who took over the operations of the hotel after his death, resisted the clamourings of the community and there was nothing that could be done about it.

That all changed on December 23, 1906. The Fraser House went up in a blaze and was totally destroyed. The headlines in The Bay City Tribune the next day read:

NOW IS THE TIME TO BEGIN THE WORK FOR A NEW HOTEL
FRASER HOUSE IS NOW A PICTURESQUE RUIN.


A. E. Bousfield.

Alfred E. Bousfield {Bio}, who owned a wooden-war manufacturing business, took the lead to begin that work. He invited the cityís top businessmen to his home on Center Avenue to discuss plans for a new hotel. There was no question about it being done, only what it should be. The consensus of this group called for a hotel facilities that would be equal in quality and stature found only in the much larger metropolitan cities. However, The boldest part of the plan called the demolition of the old business district so a new river park could be created across the street from the hotel.

The city leaders agreed to with their proposal, and the Wenonah Building Company was organized. Alfred Bousfield was chosen as the chairman to head up the project. Other member were W. L. Clements, W. L. Churchill, C. R. Wells, W. D. Young, C.A. Eddy, C. F. Eddy, S. O. Fisher, H. B. Smith, Thomas Cranage and H. G. Wendland.

On November 9, 1908, the Wenonah Hotel opened to an invitation only guest list of about 1,000 people. The Bay City Tribune provide substantial coverage of event, which include the ceremony celebration, and detailed description of the new hotel's grand accommodations. (Links to these articles are at the bottom of this page.)


(Images from Wenonah Hotel promotional brochure.)

The hotelís prosperity began to decline around the 1950s as more and more travelers opted to use motels for their acommodations. They were convenient and less expensive choice. The passage of the Interstate Highway Act in 1956 pushed by President Eisenhower not only expedited the demise of the railroad industry and created a natonal trucking industry, it also hurt hotel businesses as well. Travelers were delighted to have the new national highway system which by-passed cities and ease the way for traveling across America.

The Wenonah Hotel had 200 rooms, and they had little choice, but to turn most of them rental units. When the hotel was destroyed by fire in 1977 it was essentially an apartment complex. About the only exception was the ballroom which continued to be used on occassion by large groups. I have some fond memories from the late 1950s of the dances I attended there on weekends as a teenager.

The Park.

The Wenonah Park wasnít completed in time for the opening of the hotel. It was still going through the condemnation procedure to remove businesses from the property This process linger well into 1909. I wasnít able to find an exact date of when the park opened, but my best guess is that was about 1910.


(Photo courtesy of Bay County Library System.)

The above photo dated 1911, shows what the park looked like shortly after it opened. New trees and shrubs have been planted. Two piers along the river bank, one at Fifth Street and the other at Sixth Street. In between is a sandy shoreline along the rivers edge.

(Click Image For Details)

Original Plan of Park - 1909.

In later years the matured trees, shrubbery and flower beads made the making an appealing an popular place for enjoying the river front. Over the years additional improvements added, such as the Eddy Pavilion erect in 1916. It was located in the center of the park and provided rest rooms for visitor along with large covered area for protection during bad weather.

(Click images to enlarge.)

Eddy Pavilion - 1916



View of Park - 1930s
Memorial Plaque - 1977

The plaque located at the base of the flag pole reads...

"In Memory of the Bay County Heroes of the all the wars and in honor of those who have given their service to the cause of humanity. This memorial is dedicated in gratitude and affection by the Anne Frisby Fitzhugh Chapter of the American Revolution, Bay City, Mich. May 30, 1922."

In the 1980s the park was give a major renovation that totally changed it original design. Many of the park's old trees and shrubs were removed so that the city could install and underground water retention basin. This is when the features of the present park were added.

Photos (left to right): View of Ring of Friendship fountain at entrance. - View north with band-shell to left and fountain on right. - View of shoreline.

Plans are underway today for another renovation of the park. The goal is to make the park a destination point for families, and to create a more historical look that would complement its large number of heritage business blocks. A new permanent fence made of rod-iron would be added, eliminating the temporary fencing used to control crowds when attending paid events at the band shell. The band-shell is to be expanded with the exterior being redone along providing a more historical appearance. he proposed plan also calls for a new entrance off Water Street that could eliminate the Ring of Friendship fountain. The plan, which is not finalized, would be done in phases as money becomes available.

Opinions.

I like the idea of giving the Wenonah Park a more historical look, however, Iím not so sure this is the best time to spend money on the park. The park as it stands now is not an eye sore except for the temporary fencing. My suggestion would be to put in the rod-iron fencing and hold off on updating until another time. There are other areas in the city that I believe have a higher priority for improvement than the park. One along Washington Avenue in the area of city hall and the museum. It's an eye sore that is in need some landscaping, and decent parking area for visitors to these two buildings.


1915: View north of Battery Park from s.s. of Center Ave.

Another area that I believe needs attention is Battery Park. The new Alice and Jack Wirt Library has all but destroyed the geographical reference of what represents the city's oldest park which was laid out in original plat of the city in 1837. In realty of new library building has dramatically the half of the in front of their building, but the effect to me is that of a large lawn greating visitors to the library. The city has done nothing in decades to properly maintain Battery Park, which at one time feature fountains and Civil War cannons that made it unique an interesting to visitors. There is nothing appealing there today. With a few improvements to the grounds such as a well groomed similar to what the library now has, along with some flower beds, shrubs and new benches - it could become a nice rest area for visitors to the library, county building and downtown area. The small park could feature an educational heritage theme, utilizing various display methods to memorialize the founders and other prominent pioneers of the community.


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