St. Joseph–Benton Harbor and Vicinity

-A A +A

The twin cities of St. Joseph and Benton Harbor straddle the mouth of the St. Joseph River on the sandy southeastern shore of Lake Michigan. This location greatly influenced the early development of both cities. So did economic and cultural ties to Chicago and to South Bend, Indiana, located upstream on the St. Joseph River. Sometimes the two cities worked in concert, but often they worked as rivals. Today, they are separated by racial unrest. The rivalry predates the racial differences, however, and influenced the growth of the cities and their buildings.

St. Joseph was platted in 1831 on the high southwest bank of the river. It was the early business and shipping center. At first, Benton Harbor had only a few scattered homesteads on three bluffs surrounding the lowlands that merged into marshes on the northeast side of the river. The opening, in 1836, of the territorial road from Detroit to Benton Harbor and the federal dredging of the river sparked the growth of shipping and brought travelers from the east. Plans to build a railroad terminating in the west at St. Joseph encouraged land speculation and further growth until 1843, when it bypassed the two cities and was routed farther south, through Niles to Chicago. From 1843 until 1869, when a railroad did reach the twin cities, the economy slumped. The area was rural, agricultural, and conservative.

Among the earliest points of dissension between the two cities was the refusal of St. Joseph to help rebuild a bridge linking the cities that had been washed out in 1858 and a dispute over docking privileges in St. Joseph. In 1860 Benton Harbor started building a road across the marsh, a new bridge to St. Joseph, and a shipping canal. Benton Harbor grew. Its business district developed on the large central lowland, and the residences, on the bluffs that surround the city in three directions. But St. Joseph was landlocked on three sides by the lake and the river, and it could only grow to the south. As its business district expanded, early homes and buildings were either torn down or moved south.

In the 1890s the two cities united in an effort to acquire the county seat for St. Joseph. The cities became more industrial and less agricultural. Tourism became an important industry, as Chicagoans escaped on large excursion boats and trains to Michigan beaches, dance halls, river resorts, hotels, and cottages. By 1950, Benton Harbor had eclipsed St. Joseph. It had the largest open-air noncitrus fruit market in the world. The House of David, a religious colony founded in 1903, attracted international attention ( BE8, BE9).

The need, in the 1930s and the 1940s, for cheap labor in the foundries of the twin cities and in nearby fruit farms encouraged African American migration from the South. Today, Benton Harbor is largely an African American city and St. Joseph is mostly Euro-American. The business district of Benton Harbor is nearly deserted, as merchants have left for St. Joseph and the mall. New building is occurring in St. Joseph and in the suburbs of Benton Harbor. There are beautiful old houses in the Pipestone-Colfax area of Benton Harbor.

The Heritage Museum and Cultural Center, formerly the Fort Miami Heritage Society at 601 Main Street, seeks to participate in planning and preserving the twin cities' working waterfront.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

If SAH Archipedia has been useful to you, please consider supporting it.

SAH Archipedia tells the story of the United States through its buildings, landscapes, and cities. This freely available resource empowers the public with authoritative knowledge that deepens their understanding and appreciation of the built environment. But the Society of Architectural Historians, which created SAH Archipedia with University of Virginia Press, needs your support to maintain the high-caliber research, writing, photography, cartography, editing, design, and programming that make SAH Archipedia a trusted online resource available to all who value the history of place, heritage tourism, and learning.