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Saginaw is sited on a ridge of dry land, unusual along the otherwise swampy course of the Saginaw River. The town grew in economic importance in the 1820s when the American Fur Company and other fur buyers established trading posts. When the transfer of Indian lands was completed by treaty in 1819, settlement of tradesmen and farmers followed. Military protection at Fort Saginaw was initiated in 1822, and the first land was platted on the west side of the river in 1830. Many of the new residents came from New York State or Canada and were of German, Scottish, or English descent. Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited the community while traveling on the steamboat Superiorin August 1831, recounted in “Two Weeks in the Wilderness” that Saginaw was “the northwesternmost point of the vast Michigan peninsula to be occupied by Europeans. It can be seen as an outpost, a sort of sentry box that the whites have stationed amidst the Indian nations themselves” ( Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont in America,2010).

Lumbering and the closely linked industries of salt production, machinery manufacture, and shipbuilding began in the 1850s. Growth soon overflowed the west side of the river, and two separate and competing communities were established: Saginaw City, incorporated on the west side in 1857; and East Saginaw, incorporated in 1859. The development of the west side seemed marked by a conservatism that allowed East Saginaw to sprint ahead. James M. Hoyt of Eli Hoyt and Company in New York City invested in Saginaw timberlands during the 1850s and purchased lands on the east side of the river. Bolstered by this early infusion of eastern capital, East Saginaw quickly matched, and then surpassed, the development of the west side. By 1900 Eastsiders had created a larger commercial district, a more diverse industrial base, and neighborhoods of grander homes. Fortunately, the two towns were amalgamated by state law in 1889 and during the lumber boom's peak years from 1875 to 1900, residents were forced to work together. Cooperation, along with economic diversification, softened the blow from lumbering's demise at the turn of the twentieth century. Lumbermen shifted their emphasis to the manufacture of wood products.

As a lake port that rivaled Bay City in importance and as the hub of five railroads by 1881, Saginaw became a transportation and distribution center. Between 1900 and the Great Depression, the city promoted the development of agriculture, sugar manufacture, and, most important, heavy-metal-based industries linked to the automobile industry. Today Saginaw continues to lose its economic base and its population declines. Many parts of the city are abandoned. “Right-sizing” efforts to make the city smaller are underway in 2010 with thoughtful intervention from the National Trust for Historic Preservation so as to consider the historic merit of neighborhoods and landmarks.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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