Portals to the Past: Bay City

Born from regional troves of freshwater and vast stands of towering timber across the Great Lakes State, Michigan’s historic ports express rich legacies of industry and distinctive shoreline charms.
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Bay City Historical Postcard
Bay City Historical Postcard - Courtesy Vintage Views

Bay City. Nourished by Saginaw Bay’s bounty of freshwater rivers and streams, dense forests of white pine, oak, elm and other species once blanketed the Saginaw Valley, where Native Americans including the Chippewa, Ottawa, Ojibway, Hopewell and Potawatomi settled first along the Saginaw River. In the mid-1800s, Bay City’s earliest pioneers took root and flourished too, thanks to vast natural resources that fueled one thriving industry after another, from logging, milling and shipbuilding to mining, farming and fishing.

Bay City Harbor Festival
Courtesy Vintage Views

Today along the base of the Saginaw River, this dynamic, ever-burgeoning waterfront bustles with eco-tourism, cafes and the arts, serves as Michigan’s only official host port for the majestic TALL SHIPS CHALLENGE® and upholds an architectural legacy built on fortunes made during Bay City’s booming lumber days.

Bay City Historical Harbor
Courtesy Vintage Views

Originally called “Lower Saginaw,” the village of Bay City was incorporated as a city in 1865 when regional lumbering hit full stride. Using the Saginaw River as an efficient means to move colossal logs to mills and amass great wealth, early industrialists crafted grand mansions in an array of architectural styles, inspiring tides of new arrivals to follow their lead. While Bay City buzzed with over 50 active mills at lumbering’s peak, new industries including railroads and shipbuilding bloomed in its wake, the latter branching from wind- and steam-powered schooners made of wood and steel freighters to power boats, U.S. Destroyers and luxury yachts.

Bay City Harbor

After clearing away seas of stumps left behind, immigrant farmers also nurtured rich agricultural bounties like soybeans, corn and sugar beets from the region’s fertile soils: Bay City is home to the Michigan Sugar Company, a century-old agricultural cooperative that processes beet sugar and sells it under the brand names Big Chief and Pioneer.  

“Bay City’s earliest pioneers took root and flourished too, thanks to vast natural resources that fueled one thriving industry after another, from logging, milling and shipbuilding to mining, farming and fishing.”

Throughout much of the 20th century, Bay City served as operating base for the pre-cut, mail-order house industry. In 1906, the Aladdin Company began selling affordable pre-fabricated housing known as “kit homes.” The industry’s greatest success came when a company established a town around a mine or mill. Two other Bay City-based companies (Liberty and Sterling) later expanded the local industry. 

Today, Bay City’s Center Avenue Historic District offers a rich look at these and varying other architectural-styled houses.

Bay City Historic Highlights

• Held at September’s end in Bay City’s Veterans Memorial Park, the annual River of Time Living History Encampment draws re-enactors from across the Midwest who portray Michigan’s past through interactive camps and events along the Saginaw River, from a colonial skirmish and cannon firings to tomahawk tossing and the Gettysburg Address. Time periods expressed for 20,000-plus spectators of all ages convey pre-contact Native Americans, Voyageurs, the Revolutionary War, Westward Expansion, French and Indian War, Civil War, two World Wars and Vietnam, complete with mandolins, river battles and Little John’s Root Beer (riveroftime.org).

• Created by Bay City lumbermen, ship builders and industrialists, the Center Avenue Historic District — listed on the National Register of Historic Places — features 875 structures in an array of styles including Gothic Revival, Second Empire, Greek Revival, Italianate, Queen Anne, Richardson Romanesque, Tudor Revival, Georgian Revival, Arts & Crafts and Stick designs. Also seen and of special note are the many “kit homes” here, pre-built by local companies including Aladdin from their base of operations in Bay City (canabaycity.org).

• Rated “The Best” by AAA and open seven days a week, the block-long Bay Antique Center in downtown Bay City caters to discerning collectors with over 100 quality dealers and an impressive mix of merchandise, from primitives, pottery and license plates to glassware,
comics and architectural salvage (bayantiquectr.com).

Learn more about this dynamic port at gogreat.com and tourbaycitymi.org.

By Roger L. Rosentreter and Lisa M. Jensen, Michigan BLUE Magazine.

Photography courtesy Jason Romo/Great Getaways TV; Vintage Views; Thinkstock

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