A Short History of
Dozens of rivers in Michigan empty into the Great Lakes, and most such locations have spawned settlements of some kind. The mouth of the Kalamazoo River, in Allegan County, is no exception. The first settlement in the area was a fur trading post established in 1825, followed four years later by the founding of Saugatuck, and shortly thereafter the settlement of Singapore, located on the river very near to the Lake Michigan shore. Oshea Wilder, founder of Singapore, envisioned that his settlement would soon rival Chicago as a lake port and city.
In 1846 two Great Lakes sailors purchased the heavily wooded south bank of the Kalamazoo River as a town site. They cleared the land and waited for settlers to move in. Not much h appened until 1851 when the owner of a recently burned lumber mill in Singapore decided to move his operation to a new location on the south side of the river in Douglas. The lumber mill was the forerunner of several businesses to occupy the site, provid ing employment for hundreds in the local economy.
Life was rough in Douglas for the first 20 years; people were mainly concerned with survival rather than prosperity. But by 1870 the population had reached 600, and many civic projects were on the planning board. The pioneers wanted to improve their streets, start schools, get medical care and build a bridge across the river to Saugatuck.
One of the first projects involved putting a Michigan (sawdust) pavement down on Center Street. It soon become evident that the community needed a new form of organization that the village of Douglas had to become incorporated, which occurred on October 4, 1870.
At this time the entire area was deep into the lumber business, and prosperity was evident. In 1870 the Douglas Hotel was built, and the local mill was producing and shipping more lumber than Saugatuck. Then, one of the most important events in the history of the area occurred, the Chicago fire of 1871.
The demand for lumber to rebuild Chicago was almost beyond belief. Every mill in Michigan responded to the strong market, including those along the Kalamazoo River. The demand was so great that the mill in Singapore cut everything in sight, removing all trees from the coastal dunes in the area. This proved a fatal mistake. Within four years the dunes had buried the village of Singapore. Many buildings were moved to other locations in the area, but the story persists that one resident refused to move, even as the sand enveloped his home. Eventually he had to enter and leave the dwelling by a second floor window, and he stayed until the sand reached the roof!
One result of the lumber boom was an increase in shipping to Chicago. Many lake boats were put on the route. Harbor improvement began in the late 1860's, and continued through the lumber boom. But by 1877 the last sawmill was closed in the area, and the giant Douglas mill converted its production to baskets.
In 1877 the basket factory was purchased by the Weed family. The area from Douglas i nland was fast becoming a fruit growing complex of major status. The fruit growers needed to package their goods, in baskets, and ship them to markets in the west like Chicago and Milwaukee. By virtue of having the basket factory, Douglas was able to capture most of the fruit trade of the late 19th century.
In 1877 the factory produced more than 128,000 baskets. Finally Douglas had reached parity with its larger neighbor to the north, Saugatuck. Douglas was first to organize a fruit grower\rquote s cooperative, and by 1880 was shipping five times more fruit than Saugatuck. By the turn of the century the E.E. Weed company was making more than a million baskets per year, and employed more than 400 people in Douglas.
The fruit business kept many boats on the Chicago run. Soon the boats were taking fruit to Chicago, and bringing summer tourists back. As early as 1878 Illinois parties were constructing "summer cottagesalong the Douglas lakeshore, something which became quite common by the 1890's.
One local story reports that when an out-of-state party offered to buy some land from William McVea, he ran to the newly installed telephone and placed a call to a surveyor insisting that he come first thing in the morning saying These damn fools want to pay $500 for a pile of sand in my cow pasture.
Lakeshore Road was only a two track in the early when Elizabeth Shorey purchased some fifty-foot lots on the lake and built the first house. In 1899 a group of professors from the University of Kansas purchased a tract known as the Knolls, which was soon subdivided and resold to resorters from Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois and St. Louis. Though a number of boarding houses were built on the shore, most of the land on the lake in Douglas was purchased by Chicago and St. Louis people who built rather substantial summer homes which have remained in their families to the present time. Today, during the summer season Illinois and Missouri license plates outnumber those from Michigan along elegant Lake shore Drive. This is one of the differences between Douglas and Saugatuck. Saugatuck became a magnate for short-term visitors and built many hotels and amusements for them, while Douglas had relatively few day-trippers, but many conservative residents w ho stayed for the entire season.
Chicago can be very hot during the summer, especially the inland suburbs like Oak Park. And St. Louis can be absolutely unbearable! It is no surprise that the affluent from these areas would seek the natural air condition ing of the lakeshore in Southwest Michigan. By the late 1880's many passenger ships were leaving Navy Pier in Chicago for the six-hour trip to Saugatuck. The Ira Chafee was among the first passenger ships to serve the harbor, ultimately followed by the twin super-steamers, the North American, and the S.S. South American.
This was an elegant era when well-to-do families would leave the city for a month or two in the summer, and enjoy themselves on the Lake Michigan beaches, climb the dunes, and partak e in a variety of evening social events. One not too wealthy visitor to the area was a young Amelia Earhart who attended summer camp for several seasons before WWI.
The Great Lakes cruise liners were as elegant as anything afloat at the time. Beautiful ballrooms, mahogany trim, skylights and open decks on the fantails. The food was served in elegant dining rooms and featured local fare such as Lake Superior whitefish, and desserts from the Michigan fruit belt.
An example of a cruise ship is docked at Douglas, and open for tour. The Keewatin is the last great passenger ship to ply the lakes, making its last voyage in 1965. Though it never called on Saugatuck, it is an excellent example of the luxury enjoyed by Lake Travelers.
Built in Scotland in 1909 , the ship crossed the Atlantic to Montreal, where it was cut in two, and towed through the old Welland Canal, being reassembled at Buffalo. Then the ship wailed to Owen Sound, Ontario where it became part of the Canadian Pacific Railway's transcontinental service. Passengers would leave Toronto for the 3-4 hour trip to Owen Sound; then take The Keewatin day trip across Lake Huron, through the Soo Canal; and then down the length of Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where they would get back on the train for their journey west to Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver.
A tragic accident on a Canadian ship precipitated new regulations and standards for passenger ships. The Canadian Pacific Railway felt the cost of the modifications to The Keewatin were too high to be justified, so they discontinued the service in 1965, and sold the ship for scrap.
When learning that the ship was to be scraped, local businessman Roland Peterson decided to drive to Canada and try to buy it as a tourist attraction and floating museum. He succeeded, somewhat surprising even to himself, and had the huge vessel towed back to Douglas. Today the 288 passenger, 86 crew member, 3,300 HP ship is the second largest ship on exhibit in the United States (only the Queen Mary in Los Angeles is larger).
By 1909 the tourist business had grown to the point where local people decided to found the Saugatuck Amusement Company, and build a pavilion of unmatched size. The project was backed by Douglas businessman Elmer Weed (of the E.E. Weed Basket Company), and Saugatuck real estate man D.F. Ludwig.
The Pavilion was located on the Saugatuck side of the Kalamazoo River. The 230 by 105 foot wooden building was erected in less than 12 weeks by a crew of 75 workmen. It's main structure consisted of 7 semi-circular wooden arches which spanned 105 feet and reached a height of more than 70 feet from the floor. The exterior was covered with battenboard and the entire structure painted red. At the time, the Pavilion was the largest wooden bu ilding in the country (a distinction now held by the Superior Dome in Marquette, Michigan).
The huge size of the building, its red color and four giant corner turrets with their large flags blowing in the wind immediately won landmark stature for the Pavil ion. When it was opened in 1909, electricity was not yet available in Saugatuck, but the Big Pavilion was equipped with its own power station. The building had 10,000 lights and could be seen halfway across Lake Michigan at night. The electrical room w as described as being like \ldblquote something from the Wizard of Oz . Multi-colored lights were switched in such a way that light shows could be presented with musical performances.
One of the first entrepreneurs to work the pavilion was 12 year old Danny Ludwig. Young Dan started selling popcorn to the visitors, a business that he parlayed over the next 60 years into a major fortune - as a matter of fact D.K. Ludwig became the richest man in the world, owner of a shipping fleet about the size of the British Navy! And D.K. bought his first boat right on the Kalamazoo River. The Big Pavilion hosted such events as Farm & Barn Parties, dance contests and beauty contests. On Lindbergh Night in 1927, two thousand toy airplanes were released from the Pavilion ceiling. The Big Pavilion reached its zenith in the 20's and 30's. Waltzes gave way to jazz, then to the Big Bands of Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Wayne King. By 1927 radio airwaves were sending Music Live from the Big Pavilion throughout the Midwest.
\Through its life the Pavilion added restaurants, movie theaters and a roller rink to its long list of accommodations. The Pavilion was not only the largest dance hall in Michigan, but it was the largest in the United States east of California!
The Pavilion's career came to an end in 1960 when residents saw smoke pouring from its windows. The fire was so intense that the roof that the roof collapsed in only 11 minutes. One observer likened the conflagration to the explosion of the Hindenburg. To date, this great structure has not been replaced. The story of the Pavilion, along with a scale model, can be seen at the Saugatuck / Douglas Historical Museum.
Today the Saugatuck area remains a Mecca for tourists from around the country. During the su mmer as many as 800 artists converge on the area to practice their painting, drawing and sculpting. A dozen or more local galleries handle works from around the world. Performing arts are also practiced in several local theaters, which have helped the careers of actors like Robbie Benson and Burt Reynolds.
Many Restaurants and shops are present on both sides of the Kalamazoo River. Saugatuck has the best-known establishments, but Douglas has come a long way in recent years. New settlers from all part s of the country have purchased the buildings in downtown Douglas, stripped them of their 60's vintage Alpine facades, and restored them to their original Victorian splendor. The new Douglas has fine shops specializing in high quality antiques.
This area is also the Bed & Breakfast capital of Michigan, with more establishments in Saugatuck, Douglas and Fennville than any other part of the state. Accommodations range from the old to the new, from the minimum to the ultra-luxurious. The area has recently become part of the international tour circuit, where local innkeepers will host European tourists as they bus their way through our state. Tour operators say that their clients would rather experience a real American B&B than spend a night at the Amway Grand Plaza.