The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.
By Charles R. Starring
Since Singapore was not more than 14 miles from the settlement made in 1847 at Holland, it is not surprising that Dutchmen began to appear in Singapore, finding employment in the mills or in the store. As early as 1847, one Dutch family, the Strengs, had been landed at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, where they had lived for a while in a warehouse, walking over the sandhills to buy supplies at Singapore. Two years later the Dutch people were holding religious meetings conducted by Jan Pees, probably in houses, since there is no record of a church building in Singapore. Before their own sawmill was set up, the people of Holland got their lumber from the Singapore mills by floating it down the river to Lake Michigan, then north to Black Lake.
In the time of the Civil War, Singapore seems to have been regarded more as a sawmill community than an established town. The Michigan Gazeteer, published in Detroit in 1863, does not mention Singapore; though Saugatuck is listed as a town of 400 persons, with two tanneries, one flour mill, two stave factories, four lumber yards, and six saw mills. It was clear by that time that Saugatuck, not Singapore, was to be the permanent settlement near the mouth of the river. Two of the sawmills and two of the lumberyards in Saugatuck were owned by Stockbridge and Johnson, who in 1859 had formed the partnership of O. R. Johnson and Company. They owned most of the good pine lands as far up the river as Allegan. Just after the war, this company bought out the Singapore mills and pushed those operations to their greatest development. Both Johnson and Stockbridge were Maine men, and both became wealthy from their lumbering operations in Michigan. In 1874 Stockbridge bought a pretentious mansion at the corner of Carmel and Main Streets in Kalamazoo, and went into politics. In 1887 the legislature elected him to the United States Senate, where he was serving at the time of his death in 1894.
The O. R. Johnson and Company mills were busy in the years following the war, and when their Singapore mill burned in 1868, it was soon replaced by a modern plant that could turn out 60,000 feet of lumber in a day on its circular saws, siding machine, and edger. This is the mill that appears in one of the only two known pictures of Singapore, probably taken in 1869. The superintendent, B. B. Hazelton, directed a crew of 28 men, most of whom lived in Singapore in the spring and summer, implying a population of perhaps 100 persons. In winter this population was considerably reduced when many of the men found work in the beech and maple forests around East Saugatuck, cutting charcoal wood for Michigan ‘s iron furnaces. By 1870 the store had closed; the people did their trading in Saugatuck, which they usually referred to as The Flats. Singapore then had probably fewer than 20 houses, with board walks leading from each house to the sandy road. A map printed in 1873 shows 22 buildings. Two of them were the mills, the Stockbridge and Johnson mill at the east edge of town at the river ‘s edge, the older mill about 900 feet downstream in the extreme southwest corner of the settlement. Of the other buildings, 14 were on the north side of River Street, four on the west side of Detroit Street.
By 1870 the days of pine lumbering in the Kalamazoo valley were numbered. The best stands were approaching exhaustion, and the lumbering men, including O. R. Johnson & Co., were moving into the richer stands to the north and in the west. In 1870 exports from Saugatuck – Singapore exceeded those from any port on the west shore of Michigan except Grand Haven. The collector of customs reported 672 vessels had cleared from the mouth of the river, carrying 30,000,000 feet of lumber, 31,000,000 shingles, 2,000,000 lath and pickets, besides cordwood, ties, and staves. O. R. Johnson & Co.’s Singapore mill was the largest in the area, and the company had three schooners plying between the Kalamazoo River and Chicago.
But this activity was a last gasp. Probably the rebuilding of Chicago after the fire of 1871 accelerated the cutting of the remaining stands. Harrison Hutchins and his father, who were in the business of cutting logs on contract and would not cut a stand estimated to produce less than two-thirds good lumber, found no more tracts of that quality after the 1880-81 season. Towns along the river without railroad connections were losing more and more of their business. In 1868 the Kalamazoo, Allegan, & Grand Rapids Railroad reached Allegan, and three years later the Chicago and Michigan Lake Shore sent its first train through Fennville and New Richmond. Both these railroads reduced the already diminishing volume of traffic on the lower river.
When, in 1873, the O. R. Johnson & Co. sold its Saugatuck mill to the Saugatuck Lumber Company for $30,000, along with some of its pine lands for an additional $169,000, the days of the Singapore mill were plainly numbered. In August, 1875, the company began making arrangements for moving the mill, and on Wednesday, September 29, their new tug Flora, with the schooner O. R. Johnson and the steamer Saugatuck, sailed out of the mouth of the river carrying mill machinery from Singapore to the company’s new operations on Point St. Ignace in the upper peninsula.1 0ne month later the Lake Shore Commercial Record of Saugatuck lamented, as well it might, “nothing remains of a once thriving village but a few scattered houses, and hereafter Singapore must be considered among the things that were.”
This, briefly, is the story of Singapore. It is a fair conclusion from the record that Singapore was never much more than a lumber-mill camp. It came into being at the very tail-end of the boom of the 1830s, just in time to fall a victim to the depression of 1837. Its first phase ended about 1840, when Oshea Wilder ‘s dreams of a prosperous port at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River collapsed with the bank and the mill. As business revived in the middle 1840’s, Singapore took on a new life, and as long as good pine remained in the river valley, the saws at Singapore and Saugatuck cut it into lumber for Chicago, Milwaukee, and other lake ports. But there were never more than two mills standing at one time at Singapore, and usually only one was doing much business. There seems never to have been a postoffice at Singapore, the Astor House was more accurately a boarding-house, and the wild-cat bank managed a dubious existence for less than a year. There was but one store and no church. The population was just sufficient to operate the mills and the very minor allied activities, and probably never exceeded 200, or perhaps 300 as an extreme upper limit. Even as the town was enjoying a brief prosperity after the Civil War, the shadow of death was already over it; and with the removal of the mill machinery in 1875, it died. The sand dunes were moving in as the mill moved out.
What happened to the buildings of Singapore? They seem to have been left to salvage, sand, and decay. There are occasional recorded glimpses in the years since 1875. When Mrs. J. E. Brown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, visited Saugatuck in 1883, she wrote to the editor of her home-town paper that “ten or twelve houses, without paint or sash, mark the spot. The hotel is there and the remains of a . . . mill. The buildings are partly buried in the sand and in good shape. Not a person lives there.” In 1888 a writer mentioned “a few deserted, decaying houses . . . with the sand blowing over them as if to bury the last vestige of the place, while the wild waves breaking on the beach a few rods away chant its requiem.” These observers either overlooked or failed to mention the last inhabitants of Singapore – the family of James Nichols, a fisherman who built boats on the side. This family had taken quarters in the Astor House. As the sands mounted, the family sought higher quarters. By the summer of 1892 they had reached the third and last floor, and when the sand began to run into the chimney top, the Nichols menage moved out. On Christmas Day of 1894, Ray Nies and a companion found a portion of the roof of the old hotel projecting from the sand, and, as boys are likely to do, set fire to it. In the summer of 1896 a smoldering fire was burning in the remains of the old dock, which still held “hundreds of cords” of slabs and piles of sawdust. In the fall of that year the wood in and on the dock was salvaged. This was the fate, over the years, of most of the good lumber in the remaining buildings. As recently as the time of the first World War, the tops of the picket fence around the cemetery could be seen above the encroaching sand.
Some time around the turn of the century the site of Singapore was bought by David C. Cook of Elgin, Illinois, a publisher of Sunday School literature. He built a large house on the slope overlooking the site from the east, and probably cleared out visible ruins. In 1905 the Federal Government bought from him a right-of-way for the present channel, which begins its course close to the site of Wilder’s mill. Three or four cottages were built on the site of Singapore, along the path traveled by fishermen walking from the dug-out road to the government pier on the north side of the new channel. These frame buildings, unused for several years, became the victims of time and vandalism; and when David A. Bennett of Chicago bought some 400 acres on both sides of the river mouth in 1945, he had these wrecks torn down, except one, which he remodeled as a guest house. He spent much money on the building and grounds of the old Cook house, which, with its white pillars, became an impressive sight on the high north bank of the river. Then, annoyed at the behavior of persons who parked or picnicked on the land in front of his guest house, he built a strong wire fence across the old Dug Road that led along the river to Singapore. Some of the older inhabitants of Saugatuck challenged his right to do this, alleging the Singapore road was an established public road. The case was appealed from a justice court to the circuit court of Allegan County in 1949. On February 17, 1951, Judge Raymond L. Smith found that, while a road had been used west of Bennett’ s fence, it had never been a well-defined public road, and the fence was allowed to stand. Feeling over this matter was high for a while. Mr. Bennett died in his home by the river on April 19, 1953, and the fate of the site of Singapore is at present uncertain.
Are there buildings buried beneath the dune that covers much of the site of the old town? There may be parts of frame buildings that escaped salvage and decay; parts of the Astor House might appear as the sand shifts eastward. But at present there is no indication whatever of any such remains. And grievous disappointment awaits the antiquarian who digs into the site 2000 years hence expecting to find docks, log houses, stores where Indian women bought their calico, and a wild-cat bank that issued notes without gold to back them. Such discoveries will be made in the future, as in the past, only in Sunday feature articles and pamphlets written for the edification of tourists.
- Mr. Henry Randall believes the new location was on the Black River near Cheboygan. I have followed the contemporary account in the Saugatuck Commercial Record.
SOME NOTES ON THE SOURCES
Harrison H. Hutchins, himself a second-generation pioneer of the Singapore-Saugatuck region, for several years kept a record of interviews with surviving early settlers. Then, adding material from his own long and active life, he wrote about 35 sketches of the history of the Singapore area. These were published in the Saugatuck Commercial -Record between 1919 and 1925, and have been collected in a scrapbook in the Allegan Public Library.
Bound volumes of the Saugatuck Commercial-Record (the title changed occasionally) are in the office of the present editor, Mr. William R. Sinnnons, in Saugatuck. Except for two volumes, the file is complete since the first issue in 1868. The issue of December 3, 1875, has a brief history of Singapore, published soon after the last sawmill had been moved away. Of scattered and not always useful items in other papers, the feature articles in the Detroit News for October 26, 1930, and in the Detroit News-Tribune of May 6, 1917, deserve mention.
A record of Wilder ‘s work as agent for the New York and Michigan Company appears in the Knowles Taylor Letter Book in the Burton Historical Collection in Detroit. In these copies of letters sent by Wilder to Taylor are found an almost day-by-day record of his activities between 1836 and 1839, including Wilder ‘s sketch of the mouth of the Kalamazoo River and details of company organization. Wilder ‘s journal of his 1831 trip to locate land in Michigan is in the Michigan Historical Collections in Ann Arbor. Some details of his life in Eckford Township, Calhoun County, are found in William A. Lane’s Homer and Its Pioneers, and in several articles in the volumes of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society ‘s Historical Collections. A letter in which Wilder gives figures on the output of his Singapore mill is printed in the November 1, 1839 issue of the American Railroad Journal and Mechanics ‘ Magazine.
Mrs. May Frances Heath, Early Memories of Saugatuck , Michigan, 1830-1930 , contains several valuable Singapore items. The author is the grand-daughter of one of the earliest of the Saugatuck pioneers. The Netherlands Museum, in Holland, Michigan, has a sheet of uncut Singapore bank notes. Mr. Peter T. Moerdyk , curator of the museum, has translated an article in the January 14, 1912 issue of De Grondwet, containing the story of the Streng family. V. R. Wadsworth , Trials of Pioneer Life, published in Fennville, is an excellent memoir of early settlement in the lower Kalamazoo River valley
These are useful for maps: I. M. Gross, Map of Allegan County, Michigan, 1864; and J. Lake, Atlas of Allegan County, Michigan, 1873. Both have plats of Singapore. Considerable information is found in John T. Blois, Gazetteer of the State of Michigan, 1839, and in Charles F. Clark, Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1863-64. Dr. Henry P. Thomas, A Twentieth Century History of Allegan County, Michigan, is a more than average useful work of its kind. All these items are in the Burton Historical Collection.
I have not tried to untangle the complicated relationships of the New York and Michigan Company, the Boston Company, and the Singapore City Company; the Allegan County records would undoubtedly reward further research along that line. The Updike Abstract Company of Allegan has a photostat of the original plat of Singapore; the original drawing has disappeared. The papers of Francis B. Stockbridge and Otis R. Johnson, if they exist, would furnish more details of Singapore lumbering operations. Unfortunately, I have found no trace of them. There is a brief sketch of Stockbridge in George W. Hotchkiss, Industrial Chicago: the Lumber Interests.
Of several persons who have contributed from their own knowledge, Mr. Henry Randall, a native of Singapore; Mr. Ed House; Mr. William R. Simmons; and Mrs. May Frances Heath are residents of Saugatuck. I thank them all, and many others, for their friendly help.
-C. R. S.
About the Author: John Borman was born and raised on Put-in-Bay and knew Captain Parker all his life. John even helped raise three of Captain Parker’s grandchildren and wrote, “I am very proud of them!” Borman has many fond memories of riding alongside Parker in his wheelhouse.