INCREDIBLE HISTORY: Tourists Hear Tales of Bygone Bay City
July 17, 2016
By: Dave Rogers
Launching of Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party at the Armory here in 1912 is one of Bay City's best stories.
Hundreds of tourists on dozens of buses have descended on Bay City, drawn by the Tall Ships Festival and eager to learn local history.
As one of several local historians, yours truly has been privileged to act as a step-on guide for several of the buses this week.
The tourists come from all over the Midwest, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa. Most stay in town although some camped out in Birch Run, Frankenmuth or other outlying locations, coming into busy Bay City just to see the Tall Ships or tour the USS Edson museum ship.
City tours focus on Hell's Half Mile, Washington Avenue, Pine Ridge and Elm Lawn Cemetery and Center Avenue.
What could possibly interest these visitors about our fair city? For one thing in broad brush strokes, it is a place of considerable historical significance.
Informed by my journalistic experience of 50+ years, my stories reach back to the so-called beginning of time and race on through the eons to modern days.
Beginning about 12,000 years ago humans began to come here -- the Paleo Indians sustained themselves by hunting in teams to bring down the animals that had evolved -- mammoth, mastodon, caribou, giant beavers, moose, elk and deer. Their cooperative methods were important to more advanced civilization.
Following were the Old Copper People, the Woodland tribes and the Moundbuilders whose burial mounds were scattered about here on its banks to be discovered by pioneers. Those huge mounds when opened revealed cooking pots and typical artifacts, but also skeletons, some of the Adena People who grew to be seven feet tall when most humans the world over were under five feet.
The prehistoric Sauk Indians were an Algonquian language tribe originating in the St. Lawrence River area of New York. The Sauks dominated the Saginaw Valley until the start of the Beaver Wars about 1642.
Later Indian tribes told stories of huge beings that I theorize in my book, "Paul Bunyan: How A Terrible Timber Feller Became a Legend," started the imaginations of writers like Seattle Lumberjack Author James Stevens, who wrote the first Paul Bunyan book in 1925 and -- after taking five years to figure he should do his research -- came here in 1930, stayed a year gathering lore, and wrote the definitive Paul Bunyan book entitled "The Saginaw Paul Bunyan."
Hardly anything tops the tale of James G. Birney, twice abolitionist candidate for President, who came here in 1842 and organized like-minded political types in Michigan who in 1854 formed the Republican Party. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 led to the Civil War and the end of slavery, finally fulfilling the late Birney's admirable legacy.
You can see that it is a legendary land, larger than life as they say. This is one of the oldest sites of human habitation in North America, stretching back about 12,000 years.
The Saginaw River draining millions of acres from here 50 miles south to Flint, has always been the focal point of human attraction to this area. It has been pretty much the same since the last of several glaciers receded a million years ago.
The glaciers wiped out the animal life of the time--dinosaurs, who left only their bones decaying in vegetation far beneath the surface of the land. And underground rivers of vast salt brine that later attracted Herbert Dow to Midland and British chemists to Bay City.
In 1642 this river was the watery highway that helped launch the Beaver Wars. Canoes loaded with Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potowatomi warriors coming from the north, while the Iroquois from the south invaded the Sauk Indians' main village on the west bank of the river, massacring the Sauks and leaving piles of skulls and bones on what became known as Skull Island. The bloodbath was carried to 12 other sites, Midland, Saginaw, Owosso, Flint -- nearly every county history in this region has a Sauk massacre tale.
In 1675 the first white man, Jesuit missionary Father Louis Nouvel, was brought here in a cold November from the Straits of Mackinac by Ojibwa in a half dozen canoes. He stopped near Saginaw and said Mass on Christmas Day. He stayed with the Indians for a year at what is now the Tridge in Midland at the confluence of the Tittabawassee, Tobacco and Salt rivers.
But even the saintly Jesuits would not stay long in the Saginaw Valley -- said to be haunted by the ghosts of the thousands of dead Sauks. Surviving Sauks had taken refuge with the Fox Indians in Wisconsin and Illinois and eventually faced another massacre, in 1832, by American soldiers including Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis. Think of that irony! Those two men later led rival "countries," North and South, in the most devastating Civil War ever fought in North America, 1861-1865.
The Sauks were lost to history here until a curious newspaper reporter, sent to Oklahoma to a press school in 1980, telephoned the reservation, located halfway between Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Here's that conversation: "Sac and Fox Indians; Is the chief in? No, he's only a part-time chief and he's only in on Tuesdays and Thursdays, can I have him call you?" The next day the phone rang at the press school. "This is Chief Thorpe, how can I help you? Thorpe? Any relation to the great athlete Jim Thorpe? Yup, he was my father."
So, you get the picture. People love stories, and we have them in spades.
Five thousand lumberjacks and river hogs descending on Bay City each spring, pockets stuffed with the season's pay, thirsty, feisty and looking for what came in bottles and corsets;
The Block 'O Blazes, featuring the Catacombs, three story sin den at Third and Water, now St. Laurent Bros. candy and peanuts; saloons like the Blood Tub, the Idaho, the St. James and hundreds of others whose taxes at $100 a month supported city government;
And the tales of humanity, many tragic:
The prostitute Emmeline Baldwin who died in a jail cell in the basement of what is now the political watering hole Old City Hall; details of her gruesome end are too lurid to repeat here;
Little Robbie Waldo, 11 years old, who fell 75 feet from the roof of City Hall, abuilding, in 1896, leading finally to a city child labor law;
The Bonnie & Clyde gang members captured in 1932 at the roller skating rink still evident above the Bay City Auto Company on Water Street, leading to the infamous Midland bank robbery and the last execution in Michigan history, that of Anthony Chebatoris in 1938;
The 1943 slaying of Floyd Ackerman, manager of the Regent and Bay (now the State) theaters by Johnny Woos, and his subsequent release from prison 25 years later when attorneys Dave Skinner and Gene Penzien convinced the court of error in his trial;
One of the best stories of industrial success, the Industrial Works, later Industrial Brownhoist, that built the world's biggest cranes on a 48 acre site along the river; that brownfield is now the $50 million plus sparkling new Uptown at RiversEdge development, leading Bay City into the future.
Stories like the St. Stans church war of 1896, the Steve Madaj-Violet Eichhorn love story about a killer who went straight after 41 years in prison, the Capt. James Davidson, Wheeler, Defoe and other shipbuilding legends, Louis Chevrolet's heritage at the local General Motors plant, and on and on....
Watch for another installment, there's just too much to talk about at one time, OK?
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at email@example.com)
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