- Historic Sites
An excerpt from a new bicentennial history of his native state
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
So the pressure on the industry was unceasing. King Hiram was forever out of date, and mill towns were becoming mechanized islands in an all-embracing wilderness. Sawmills, less than a generation away from the handoperated pit saw, began to look like factories that Eli Whitney or Samuel Colt would have understood, and (hey attracted men who knew machinery and taught other men what machinery could do. Flint, which began strictly as a sawmill town, found itself with factories making buggies and carriages. Pontiac, another lumber town, built factories to make wagons and developed foundries to serve its industrial plants. Grand Rapids, isolated above the rapids in the Grand River, presently was operating the world’s greatest furniture factories. There were shipyards at Bay City, Port Huron, and Grand Haven, and railroad passenger cars were being built at Saginaw. These beginnings were slow and many of them came late, and none of these cities had yet freed itself from reliance on the abundance of cheap lumber. But the climate in which industrialization could take place had been created and it was beginning to have effects.
In addition to all of this there were the railroads, which touched the lumber industry like a bucket of turpentine tossed on a fire. Sign of their coming was the appearance of thriving lumber towns that had virtually no proper logging streams to rely on—places like Clare, Farwell, and Cadillac. It was the railroads which finally enabled the major lumber operators to escape from the primitive conditions that compelled them to idleness for half of each year. Now they were able to go on a full-time basis.
This did not happen all at once, of course, yet the process really was not long-drawn-out. It began when people noticed that the Michigan Central and Lake Shore railroads, privately owned and completed to Chicago, were making excellent profits; it was also noticed that these railroads brought better times to the regions they served and left regions not served to struggle along as best they could. For a brief example: farmers in the western part of the state’s bottom tier of counties raised much wheat, which was their only cash crop, but had trouble getting it to the port of St. Joseph, where boats could take it to the Chicago market. To avoid a ruinously expensive wagon haul, farmers living near the St. Joseph River built what they called “arks”—big square boxes of cheap lumber, some (if them forty feet long, resembling boats only in that they would float. These were piled full of wheat, and with a man or two to guide them (and very little guidance was possible, aside from fending them off of the shallow places with long poles) they were floated down to the docks at St. Joseph. The arks were so little regarded that they were either sold for what their lumber would bring, which was next to nothing, or were simply abandoned and allowed to drift wherever they chose out on Lake Michigan. The new railroad relieved the farmers of this burden, no more arks were made, and the cash position of the man who raised wheat improved.
So the pressure for more railroads became strong, and results were soon evident. At Toledo the Lake Shore already hooked up with a line to Cleveland, the Michigan Central made connections with Buffalo via Ontario’s Great Western Railroad, and in the early i85o’s Buffalo had a regular railroad route to Albany and thence to New York. Of more immediate importance to the lumberman in Michigan was the fact that before the Civil War a line was pushed through from Detroit, by way of Pontiac and Grand Rapids, to Grand Haven, on the Lake Michigan shore. At the same time the general enthusiasm for railroads induced Congress to make lavish grants of public land to subsidize railroad construction, and Michigan was awarded more than 3,800,000 acres, which the state authorities promptly augmented by making an additional grant of more than i ,500,000 acres. After some spirited infighting among various interested parties—with a pie of this size being cut, everybody came running to the table—a number of routes were blocked out and construction was started. There was inevitably much delay, waste, and lost motion, but the upper peninsula got lines tying Marquette in with both Escanaba and Ontonagon, and in addition to lower peninsula lines aimed at the Straits there was a road that connected Port Huron, Flint, and Saginaw with the booming lumber town of Ludington, at the mouth of the Pere Marquette River on Lake Michigan. This road was in full operation by 1874, and the first step away from half-time lumbering was taken.
For it quickly became obvious that a logger need not be compelled to get his logs to a river, and that a sawmill town did not need to be situated at the river’s mouth. If the lumber camp was on a railroad the logs could come out regardless of the rivers, and if the mill town was on a railroad it could get the logs and ship out the boards. Water transportation was still cheaper, but it was no longer an essential.