Before 1830, settlers avoided the area that would become Bay City, because they had heard of its impenetrable forests and insect-infested river swamps. Timber speculators recognized, however, that the dense forests and watery surroundings made it a prime target for lumbering. Bay City stands on both sides of the Saginaw River, a naturally wide, deep, navigable river, which, at the time of settlement, drained over eight thousand square miles of timberland. Beginning in 1837, sawmills proliferated and workers arrived. By 1859 Bay City had growing salt and shipbuilding industries, was formally established as a village, and had the shops, schools, churches, and roads that attracted settlers. By 1870 more than 7,000 people lived in the city and the area's lumber boom began in earnest. Fortunes were made and reflected in fine houses, business blocks, and civic improvements. At the turn of the twentieth century, Bay City's 30,000 residents faced a declining lumber industry. However, businessmen and financiers exercised the same speculative skills that had carved the city from the swamps in the 1840s. Sugar beets became the new basis for the area's economy, and factories were retooled to produce sugar, animal feed, and high-proof spirits. Lumbermen turned their stripped acreage into farmland, coal was discovered, and iron foundries, knitting mills, gristmills, canning factories, brickyards, and woodenware manufacturers sprang up. Delta College, established in 1961, and Saginaw Valley State University, chartered in 1963, are located in University Center in Bay and Saginaw counties. A loss of population in the twenty-first century has left Bay City with a surplus of housing and commercial space.
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