Singapore: Michigan’s Imaginary Pompeii – Winter 1953

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Charles R. Starring

In its Sunday issue of October 26, 1930, The Detroit News informed its readers that

Michigan’s Pompeii lies nearly forgotten at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River . . . Perhaps 2,000 years from now antiquarians will dig into the dunes over Singapore to obtain an inkling of its departed glory, and learn how its people lived. The searchers of the future would find many things to excite their interest. Under the sands is a tavern, where James Fenimore Cooper sketched the outline of “Oak Openings.” There are docks where schooners, with sails furled, waited for cargoes. They would find log houses, stores where Indian women bought their calico, and a “wild cat” bank that issued notes without gold to back them. They would find peavies, cant hooks, and other rusted implements used for logging on a river now devoted to industry; kettles, cranes and additional articles from the kitchens of pioneer women. Their machinery would unearth evidences of a sawmill that turned out lumber for the rebuilding of Chicago, after Mother O’Leary’s cow kicked over the lamp in its barn (if it did), and started a disastrous fire.

Singapore, MI in its heyday.

To compare a rough sawmill town with the Roman city buried under the ashes and lava of Vesuvius may seem a little pretentious, and the suggestion that beneath the sand lie extensive remains of the domestic and commercial activities of a frontier community is a greater tribute to the enthusiasm of the feature writer than to the carefulness of his historical research. Yet Singapore did exist, and its intriguing name continues to keep its memory alive. There is living today at least one person born there, and a recent law suit in the circuit court of Allegan County, Michigan, put its name briefly in the newspapers again. The real story of Singapore is a revealing footnote to the beginnings and growth of southwestern Michigan.

Many other towns than Singapore were platted in Michigan in the boom years of the 1830’s. Some of them grew into important cities. Others, like Superior and Port Sheldon, finding no reason for existence, languished and died; Singapore lived nearly 40 years before it joined them. Situated about one mile from what was then the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, protected by sand hills from the storms that swept westward over Lake Michigan, Singapore seemed to have the natural location for a town that would surely grow out of the traffic from a river flowing more than 100 miles through a potentially rich land. Singapore began as a typical frontier speculative effort in 1837, just as the panic of that year struck the country. It was the product of the dreams of Oshea Wilder, who put his money and the best efforts of his mature years into its founding. He was a superior type of pioneer and deserves to be better known.

Oshea Wilder was born in Gardner, Massachusetts, probably in 1784. His father taught him blacksmithing and he learned surveying. Surviving letters show he learned to write clearly and accurately for his purposes. He saw some service in the War of 1812, married in 1813, and spent about two years (1821-23) in London, with some traveling in France. Upon his return he moved to Rochester, New York, where he engaged in the crockery business. In the fall of 1831 he went out to Michigan and located on 80 acres in Eckford township, Calhoun County, about four miles southeast of Marshall on the Homer Road. In 1832 he brought out his wife and children – five sons and one daughter. Another son, Daniel, came out later and helped his father in the Singapore enterprise. The Wilder house stood beside a stream still called Wilder’s Creek. In the summer of 1833 he built a sawmill on this stream, and in the next two years added a blacksmith shop, a wagon and chair factory, and a tavern, which he leased with the condition that no liquor should be sold therein. Called by one of his contemporaries “a man of refinement and more than ordinary culture,” he was elected or appointed to various offices: supervisor of the township, postmaster, and delegate to the state Democratic convention of April, 1836. He soon caught the frontier enthusiasm, for as early as 1833 he wrote letters to a Detroit paper urging the building of the railroad chartered in the previous year to join Detroit with the mouth of the St. Joseph River. With Cyrus Lovell and Isaac Crary he was appointed by Governor Mason a commissioner for organizing Allegan County, and he surveyed that part of the village of Allegan lying between the river and the hills on the western side. As these activities acquainted him with the lower Kalamazoo River valley, his active mind soon decided that the mouth of that river was a natural site for a town. He interested eastern friends in the project, and between 1836 and 1840 gave his chief attention to its development. In 1837 he began a sawmill at Singapore, opened a bank there in 1838, and, after the failure of these enterprises in 1839-40, returned to Eckford, where he died in 1846.

Such is a summary view of Wilder’s life. The founding of Singapore is revealed in a close examination of his activities between 1836 and 1839.

In April, 1836, Wilder made an agreement in New York with four men, including S.V. Wilder, probably his brother, and Knowles Taylor, the leading spirit. These four men subscribed $25,000 for investment in lands in Michigan Territory, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin Territory. These lands were to be selected by Wilder, whose share was to be one­third of the profits realized on the venture. The company would divide its profits within five years, pay Wilder’s expenses, and charge him 6 percent on funds advanced until he invested them. For five years Wilder was bound to buy no land for himself for any purchaser other than the New York and Michigan Company.

Soon after his return to Michigan, Wilder began buying land in the Kalamazoo River Valley, some of it at the Kalamazoo Land Office, some from speculators who had gotten ahead of him. Convinced that the growing population around the south end of Lake Michigan would be dependent on Michigan pine lumber for many years, his purpose was to acquire as many acres of pine lands as his authorization permitted. With pine lumber selling at $17 per thousand in Chicago, he figured a profit of at least $180 per acre from pine lands bearing only 15 trees an acre, and for such land he could afford to pay as much as $60 to $70 an acre. He found good pine lands for much less. He bought 2000 acres near Dunningville for about $10 an acre, 320 acres along the Rabbit River for $5. Altogether he bought 5015.31 acres in the valley for $36,714 (apparently his credit had been increased), an average price of $7.32 an acre.

A seven-week trip to Chicago and Green Bay in May and June of 1836 convinced him the Michigan pine lands were worth twice as much as he had thought, and upon his return from this exhausting trip by horseback he advised Taylor not to sell his lands to take a speculative profit, but to build a sawmill at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River and sell pine lumber to the Chicago and Milwaukee markets, where he had found both demand and price increasing. Only Chicago and Milwaukee were potentially more important than the mouth of the Kalamazoo, he advised, though he gave Grand Haven the advantage of a better harbor. He sounded out Horace H. Comstock on the purchase of Comstock’s platted village, called Kalamazoo Harbor, between the north bank of the river and Lake Michigan. The owner wanted at least $ 50,000, and would not give Wilder a satisfactory option on the property.

In September or October Wilder went to New York for a conference with Taylor. The outcome was an authorization to buy an undivided half -interest in 110.2 acres of land at the north bend of the river about a mile above Comstock’s plat. The other half-interest was owned by the Boston Company, of which Sidney Ketchum of Marshall was the agent. The evidence suggests that Wilder paid $10,000 for his company’s interest, $3,000 of It in specie.

In December, 1836, the effects of the Specie Circular, which Wilder called the “greatest of humbugs that any Government ever invented,” were causing the eastern banks to restrict their loans, and Taylor instructed Wilder to draw no more drafts on him. The 5015 acres already purchased were in Allegan County, on both sides of the Kalamazoo River between Dunningville and the present Swan Creek dam, with scattered holdings along the Rabbit River between Burnips and Dorr, and about 3 miles above New Richmond. Wilder estimated saw and planing mills using logs cut from these lands would earn the company a profit of $76,000 for 200 days of operation in the year. To cut the logs, to build and operate the mills to earn these profits, the New York and Michigan Company was now reorganized into a 200-share corporation of $100,000 book value. The number of stockholders was increased from 4 to 14. Although Wilder was not one of the stockholders, he was probably paid suitably for his work thus far, perhaps by the 10 shares entered in the name of his son Daniel. On December 26, Oshea wrote that he had rented his mill and farm at Eckford, and “was making every disposition for moving to Singapore.” This is the first discovered use of the name of the town. The presumption is that it had been agreed upon during Wilder’s visit with Taylor in New York. Perhaps Taylor, who evidently had a fair amount of capital to invest, was interested in the China trade and suggested the name out of that background.

On January 28, 1837, Wilder sent Taylor a sketch map of the site of Singapore. The west half of the plat he described as a handsome plain, inclining to the river; the east part as hilly and covered with timber. At the end of January, through snow three feet deep, he set out for the “pinery,” intending to make Singapore his permanent home. He believed land values at the mouth of the river would increase 300 to 400 percent as soon as operations began in the spring. In March he urged Taylor to send his agent, Mr. King, out as soon as possible, and that he bring with him all the unskilled labor he could find, as well as carpenters and a ship builder. Laborers, he reported, were getting $20 a month, carpenters $1.50 to $3.00 a day and board. Money was scarce, but, considering the season, there was no depression. He was buying enough lumber for the temporary shanties they would need to house their workmen until their own mill would get into production. The Boston Company, he reported, had offered to sell its undivided half, and he had offered Ketchum $ 50,000 for it. He urged Taylor to approve this offer, pointing out that while the New York and Michigan Company would do almost all the work in building Singapore, the Boston Company would get half the profits unless the New York Company bought them out. And he estimated that $150,000 could be made from Singapore.

Soon after the Michigan legislature passed the general banking law on March 15, 1837, Wilder decided Singapore should have a bank with a branch in New York. He suggested a bank of $100,000 capital, two­thirds of it owned by Taylor and his eastern associates. As four of nine directors he proposed himself, his son Daniel, Taylor’s agent King, and the cashier. The bank could issue from $20,000 to $50,000 in notes payable in New York, and the time required for them to reach New York would allow ample opportunity to arrange for their redemption.

Singapore Bank notes

On January 8, 1838, the Bank of Singapore was chartered by Oshea Wilder and Company. Daniel Wilder was president, Robert Hill the cashier. The bank was housed in a frame building containing a vault of glazed or pressed brick shipped from the east at considerable expense. Of the $50,000 authorized capital, apparently about $45,000 was paid in by Oshea Wilder and James G. Carter, a banker of Lancaster, Massachusetts. One account says the bank issued $50,000 worth of notes. It is not clear whether the legal requirement of $1 ,000 in specie for a capitalization of $50,000 was observed. It is extremely unlikely that it could be, in that part of the country at that time. An often-told story, probably true, suggests the bank had a difficult time in finding enough specie to satisfy the examiner on his tour of inspection.

The law of 1837 required that each bank be inspected once every three months. Considering the remote locations of many of the banks, and the means of travel in those days, this requirement imposed a difficult task on the three examiners. In the story told of the Singapore bank, the specie reserve had been checked at the Allegan bank. When the examiner was safely on his way, the specie was entrusted to an Indian to be taken by canoe to Singapore. Somewhere below New Richmond the canoe capsized, and the gold went to the bottom of the river. The Indian reported his misfortune, and the examiner was entertained at New Richmond while a blacksmith fashioned a drag-hook with which the gold was retrieved and sent on its way to Singapore in time for the examiner’s delayed inspection.

The Singapore bills must have depreciated early. Many years later an old settler remembered his father paying $40 for a darning needle in Singapore bills, though he had accepted them at par only a short time before. Levi Loomis ordered a supply of boots from an eastern jobber. He sold about 200 pairs to Singapore workmen, accepting Singapore bills in payment to the amount of about $600 only after he had been assured by the bank the bills would be redeemed in time for Loomis to pay his eastern creditor in specie bills. But the bank repeatedly put off the day of redemption, until Loomis took desperate measures. The cashier of the bank, Robert Hill, roomed at Loomis’ house and, Loomis was sure, kept the bank’s good bills under his pillow at night. One morning, after the other roomers had left, Loomis went to Hill’s room, locked the door, drew a pistol, laid the Singapore bills on the bed, and told Hill they must be redeemed on the spot. Hill protested that he would have to go to the bank. Loomis told him the only way he could get out of the house was to be carried out – unless he redeemed the bills. Thus motivated, Hill pulled a roll of sound bills from under his pillow, paid Loomis his $600, and received the Singapore bills in exchange.

Much stronger organizations than the Bank of Singapore succumbed to the terrible depression of 1837 and the following years. The Singapore bank lasted less than a year. One evening late in 1838, after the bank had closed, Loomis and a neighbor were called to the home of an officer of the bank to witness the destruction of the unissued notes of the bank. On a table about 4 feet square were stacked packages of bills from 3 to 6 inches deep. At the request of the officer, Loomis and his neighbor, Mr. Moulton, burned these notes in a stove. With the failure of the bank, Wilder and his associates presumably lost their investment as well as the mortgages they had posted with the state auditor. Probably the loss was not too critical to James Carter, but it must have been disastrous to Wilder.

In the meantime, Wilder had been completing the mill. By the late spring of 1839 two rotary steam engines had been set up to drive six upright and four circular saws. Actually, only three upright saws seem to have been operating, though possibly three more began cutting before the summer was over. Between May 22 and June 26, 1839, three saws had cut 307,861 feet of lumber, an average of nearly 14,000 feet each working day. This mill represented an investment of about $60,000, and was undoubtedly the best mill on the Kalamazoo River below Allegan. It cut the logs floated down the river, and the lumber was carried by small sailing vessels to the Chicago and Milwaukee markets.

What progress had been made with the town of Singapore in the meantime? Only the west half, containing 55.1 acres, had been platted. On December 1, 1837, the New York and Michigan Company sold its interest to Pliny Cutler and Samuel Hubbard of the Boston Company, retaining an area in the southwest corner for the mill property then being developed by Wilder. Cutler and Hubbard built a store and a hotel before selling out to the Singapore City Company. This company, formed by the stockholders of the New York and Michigan Company on January 25, 1839, had a nominal capitalization of $100,000, divided into 100 shares. Oshea Wilder was given 15 shares as payment for his work, and the company retained the services of Cutler and Hubbard as agents, hoping to make profits from the sale of city lots and from the operation of the hotel and store. The hotel, called the Astor House, was a 40′ x 60′ frame structure, three stories in height. Its assembly room was the center for such social life as Singapore may have enjoyed in its brief life. Probably the hotel was more nearly a boarding-house, for it is not likely that enough transients would have come to Singapore to make a three-story hotel profitable. One of the visitors in the Astor House was James Fenimore Cooper, who stayed there while looking at western lands and collecting material for “Oak Openings.” He left, it is said, because he didn’t like Indians standing around to watch him at dinner.

Oshea Wilder had surveyed the town. The plat was recorded in Allegan on February 5, 1838, and a copy was filed with the Commissioner of Deeds in New York City on April 16. With a frontage of about one­third mile on the north bank of the river just as it turned south (east of the east end of the present north pier), the plat of Singapore shows a grid of rectangular streets extending 140 rods north of the river.1 Running east and west along the river was River Street, 80 feet wide; in three blocks on the north side of this street were most of the buildings of the town. Perpendicular to River Street at its eastern end was Broad Street, also 80 feet wide. The other east and west streets, from River Street north, were Oak, Pine, Chestnut, Walnut, and Beech. The north and south streets, from Broad Street west, were Detroit, Cherry, and Cedar. In 1844 the New York and Michigan Company and the Singapore City Company either sold or forfeited their holdings to James G. Carter, the eastern banker who had supplied most of the capital for the bank. The mill had closed down in 1840 or 1841, a victim at last to the depression that Wilder and his associates had been fighting since 1837. The closing of the mill and the bank must have been a bitter blow to Wilder.

He was now, in 1840, a man of 56 years, old to begin a new venture.

The years immediately following the closing of the mill must have been lean ones indeed for the people in Singapore. In the fall of 1842 hardly enough food was on hand to carry them through the winter. Fortunately for them, their scanty store was supplemented in November by the wreck of the schooner Milwaukee on the Lake Michigan shore. The Milwaukee, carrying a partial cargo of high wines, had anchored outside the bar at the mouth of the river to take on flour brought down the river from Allegan and Kalamazoo. The loading done, the captain took his ship out into a severe gale and snowstorm. The helpless craft was driven ashore and pounded to pieces in the surf just west of the town. The seven members of the crew who lost their lives were buried in one grave. The salvage of the cargo was directed by William G. Butler. During the unusually long and bitter winter, the flour served to soften the distress of the population, though it is reported that some Indians came to an untimely end by their concentrated consumption of the wine. That winter was long remembered; before it was over, teamsters in the woods had defended themselves with sled-stakes against the attacks of famished hogs, and when men went to town meeting in the first week of April, the snow was still four feet deep.

In 1844 James Carter came out to Singapore to manage his property. By that time the country was well on the way to recovery, and once more there was a market for lumber. Carter paid his millworkers $16 per month, with board. In 1846 the mill burned, and in the following year Carter sold out to his brother Artemas and Francis B. Stockbridge, who rebuilt it. They are said to have paid their workers half in cash and half in merchandise from their store. In 1847 another mill was built by Wade and Carter about 900 feet east of the older one. When the Wade and Carter mill burned in 1849, that property was taken over by Stockbridge and Carter, who rebuilt the mill and launched the first three-masted schooner on the lake, the Octavia from their Singapore yard. In 1850, Stockbridge bought out Carter. The decade of the 1850’s, except toward the end, was a period of prosperity, and presumably Stockbridge’s mill operated steadily and profitably on the logs that were floated down each spring from his large holdings in the lower Kalamazoo River valley. In 1857 he sold some of his property to a Kalamazoo group headed by Thomas P. Sheldon, and two years later he formed a new partnership with Otis R. Johnson. These moves may have been related to the depression of 1857.

(This article will continue next week!)

1. Singapore was situated in Town 3 North, Range 16 West, in the NE * of the NW * of Section 4 of Saugatuck Township in Allegan County, Michigan.

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About the Author: Mr. Starring is an associate professor of history at Western Michigan College in Kalamazoo, and a trustee of the Historical Society of Michigan. A native of Kalamazoo, he has spent much time on the dunes and the river in the Singapore region. From the time he saw, as a boy, the name Singapore on a three-dollar note in the Kalamazoo museum, he was curious to learn what sort of place it was with so intriguing a name. His chief interest at present is in a study of Hazen S. Pingree and the beginnings of progressivism in Michigan.

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