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Chippewa Indians working on a WPA pipeline project at Saganing during the Depression.

HISTORY TOUR: Visitors Amazed at the Panorama of Bay City's Past

August 27, 2017       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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(NOTE: People often ask me "what do you tell visitors about Bay City the tours you give? The Central High Class of 1957 was the last group to take the tour last Saturday, and giving it recalled the amazing history that not all folks even in town have shared. So, here goes.)

You are about to tour one of the most historic cities in the Midwest. We will talk about the Indians, the Pioneers, lumberjacks, the Political giants, the tycoons and Hell's Half Mile, the street you are now on.

After the last of the glaciers wiped out the dinosaurs a million years ago, a series of Paleo Indians settled here beginning about 12,000 years ago. The had come over a land bridge at the Bering Strait from Asia.

The Saginaw River, that remains much as it was in ancient times, was attractive to the Paleo Indians because of the wild rice and plants, fishing, as well as hunting that the early peoples did in packs with spears. They could bring down moose, caribou, elk, bear, deer, huge hogs that existed then and could defend themselves from predators like wolves and saber-toothed tigers. Bay City, therefore, is one of the earliest sites of human habitation in North America.

I have written six books about this area or the historic figures who lived here, making the case that the Republican Party and the Bull Moose Party (Progressive Republicans of Teddy Roosevelt) originated here. Also, a Bay City lumberjack named Fabian Joe Fournier was the main model for the legends of Paul Bunyan, the most recognized folklore hero in American history.

This was the hunting grounds of ancient peoples going back about 10,000 years. The Moundbuilders left burial mounds containing the skeletons of a race of giants about 7 feet tall. Anthropologists theorize the Giants may have been the Adena people who populated areas of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia in the Early Woodland Period 800 B.C. to 1 A.D. They were the first people in this region to settle in small villages, cultivate crops, use pottery vessels, use copper and marine shell to make ornaments and jewelry, and bury their dead in conical burial mounds. My book "Paul Bunyan: How A Terrible Timber Feller Became a Legend," theorizes that Indian tales of the huge humans evolved into the Paul Bunyan stories.

Last of a series of pre-historic tribes here was the Sauks, a violent warlike people who were massacred here and in 12 other sites by the Chippewa, Ottawa and Potawatomi tribes in 1642. It was the start of the Beaver Wars pitting the British and their Indian allies against the French and their allies. Piles of bones and skulls of the Sauks from the massacres were found by pioneers on island in the Saginaw River in South Bay City and in Frankenlust Township.

Contrary to the claims of revisionist historians who claim the Sauks were never here, the Sauks themselves, as well as the tribes which massacred them, have confirmed their presence. I visited the Sauks, known lately as the Sac and Fox Indian Tribe, at their reservation in Oklahoma. "We have oral history going way back that locates our origin in the Saginaw Valley," said Jack Thorpe, son of the noted athlete Jim Thorpe, tribal chief at the time.

In December 1675 the canoes of a party of Chippewa with Father Henri Nouvel passed by this very spot en route to Midland where they spent the winter. Their journey from the Sault took 22 chilly days. He was the first known white man to visit the Saginaw Valley.

In the Treaty of Saginaw in 1819, the Chippewa signed away this area and six million acres from Kalamazoo to Alpena for $3,000 in silver down and $1,000 a year "forever." Forever lasted 17 years until 1836 when the treaty was renegotiated and the Indians were moved to cut-over timber land on six townships in Isabella County and two townships in Arenac County. After nearly starving for a century and a half, the Chippewa were allowed by the federal government in 1984 to open a bingo hall at Mt. Pleasant. Bingo soon led to slot machines, and then blackjack and poker. Today the Chippewa Soaring Eagle Casino and the Eagles Landing Casino at Saganing take in millions of dollars a year -- pretty sweet revenge for the tribal insiders who control the purse strings.

In 1837 a dozen Detroiters including Stevens T. Mason, first governor of Michigan, and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, noted Indian agent, paid $30,000 for 240 acres that now comprise downtown Bay City and invested in a speculation village that was located just to your left in what is now Wenonah Park. The unoccupied village was soon hit by the Depression of 1837 and was abandoned for five years until the arrival of James Birney.

After this brief introduction to Historic Bay City we will visit some sites, old and new, that are prominent on a very popular Ghost Tour we have been giving for nearly 20 years.

Noted abolitionist James G. Birney, a native of Kentucky, came here in 1842, distraught and seeking isolation after his overwhelming defeat in the 1840 Presidential race. His 7,453 votes, were a pitiful showing compared with more than a million for the Whig candidate William Henry Harrison and Democrat Martin Van Buren.

Obviously, the nation was nowhere near ready to end slavery, or even to consider ending the evil practice. Only five families lived in Bay City then. Birney found his solace in this wilderness but the Liberty Party found him again in 1844.

Neither was there a national appetite for a Third Party anti-slavery candidate in the 1844 election. However, Birney's 62,000 votes on the Liberty Party ticket swung the 1844 Presidency from Henry Clay to James K. Polk. Birney spent the next decade organizing abolitionists in Michigan, resulting in the 1854 founding of the Republican Party "Under the Oaks" in Jackson.

We are now on Hell's Half Mile heading for the notorious Block 'O Blazes, now the noted St. Laurent Peanut and Candy Shop, favorite stop of the singer Madonna when she visits her birthplace.

You are now seeing the notorious Hell's Half Mile -- where 5,000 lumberjacks caroused every May after the log drive on rushing rivers in lumbering times;

--Bay City Auto Co., the site of the arrest of two members of the Bonnie & Clyde Gang in 1932;

--Federal Court, site of the trial and sentencing of Anthony Chebatoris, last person executed in Michigan;

State Theatre, where a seat is reserved for the ghost of Floyd Ackerman, the manager killed in 1943 by Johnny Woos, who was imprisoned for 24 years until freed by the Michigan Supreme Court in 1967 based on improper legal representation;

--Uptown Bay City, $100 million development on the brownfield site of the former Industrial Works that made the world's largest cranes and operated from 1872 until 1977;

--Center Avenue, 25 blocks with 225 historic homes of lumbering and other tycoons dating back to the 1800s;

--Elm Lawn Cemetery, and mausoleum of tycoon James E. Davidson and 10 relatives;

--The USS Edson, destroyer museum ship displayed here in honor of the former Defoe Shipbuilding Co., that built 170 warships in World War II;

And, if we have time we can see the barracks for German prisoners in World War II and the former home of John List, notorious murderer of his entire family in 1971 in New Jersey.

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Dave Rogers

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

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