The Thumb

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The Thumb of the mitten-shaped Lower Peninsula is itself a peninsula surrounded by the waters of Lake Huron, the St. Clair River, and Lake St. Clair. The land juts out into Lake Huron with Saginaw Bay on its west side. On the east, the waters of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River form the international boundary between the United States and Canada.

The economic basis of the Thumb has been lumbering, commercial fishing, grindstones and salt, maritime commerce, shipbuilding, farming, and tourism. Flat and rolling fertile agricultural and small-game hunting lands are found in the Thumb's interior. The northern cities are marketing centers for grains, vegetables, and beans; the southern portion lies in a fruit-growing belt and livestock area. The Thumb and Saginaw Bay area show strength in beet sugar production.

Interstate 69 runs west to east from Flint to Port Huron where it connects with the Blue Water Bridge ( SC13, SC13.1) that spans the St. Clair River and joins the Canadian highway system. The Grand Trunk Railroad, from Chicago to Port Huron, takes a nearly parallel course to I-69 through the southern portion of the Thumb and follows the St. Clair Tunnel ( SC14, SC14.1) beneath the St. Clair River to connect with the Canadian Via Rail System.

Port Huron is the largest city in the Thumb and one of the oldest cities in Michigan. The territory at the outlet of Lake Huron and at the source of the St. Clair River was noted by French missionaries and explorers in the seventeenth century, recognizing its strategic location for the domination of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. Here in 1686, French trader and explorer Daniel Graysolon Duluth built Fort St. Joseph to keep English fur traders from traveling up the Great Lakes. The French abandoned the fort in 1688. On the same site Americans built Fort Gratiot in 1814 to protect residents of the Upper Great Lakes from the British and to control trade and travel on the river. Fort Gratiot was abandoned in 1879 and dismantled in 1882.

French settlers from Detroit drifted into the Port Huron area in 1782. Anselm Petit and seven others moved north from Detroit in 1790 to settle at the mouth of the Black River. They speculated in land, fished, and trapped beaver. Settlement at Port Huron and along the St. Clair River in St. Clair County began in earnest from the 1820s and the county was set off in 1820 and organized in 1822. Lapeer and Sanilac counties were established in 1822 and organized in 1833 and 1848, respectively. Tuscola and Huron counties were established in 1840 and organized in 1850 and 1859.

Sparked by construction of the federal turnpike from Fort Gratiot to Detroit, which began in 1826 and was completed to Mount Clemens by 1831, people rushed to acquire land in the Port Huron area. In 1832 the Black River Mill Company erected a large steam-driven mill and in 1837 settlements at the confluence of the Black and St. Clair rivers merged to form Port Huron. Soon other communities along the St. Clair River were settled. Growth of the Thumb's interior lagged due to the absence of major roads, to reports of hostile Native Americans, and to an unhealthy climate.

Lumbering was the first major economic activity in the Thumb. The Black, Pine, Clinton, and Belle river systems furnished a means of transporting the logs to mills and a source of power to operate them. Logs from the pine forests of Lapeer County were floated down the Flint River to sawmills at Flint or on to Saginaw and Bay City. As early as 1780 a sawmill operated at Marysville. After fire destroyed the village of Detroit in 1805, four other sawmills were built to supply the lumber needed to rebuild the town. In 1837 there were thirty sawmills in St. Clair County. The lumber industry peaked in the early 1870s. Docks at such harbors on Lake Huron as Huron City and Port Hope hummed with the arrival of people and supplies and the export of lumber and millwork.

In the fall of 1871, fire raced across the central Lower Peninsula, burning large areas of the Thumb. A worse fire, the Great Forest Fire of 1881, fueled by extensive piles of slashing on its cutover lands, spread across the Thumb, destroying some thirty-four thousand buildings. These two fires caused severe damage, but they cleared cutover lands for farming and agriculture developed in earnest in the Thumb. Corn, dry beans, oats, wheat, barley, and potatoes were cultivated, and cattle and dairy cows were raised. In the 1890s sugar beets were introduced and, beginning in 1898, sugar beet factories and refineries were opened. In the twentieth century, navy beans became the leading farm product.

Commercial fishing began in the Bay Port area and on the islands in Saginaw Bay around 1850. The town of Bay Port was established in 1885 when the railroad was extended to this point to pick up limestone and sandstone at the nearby quarry and to transport tourists to a newly built hotel. The Gillingham family, who had settled on North Island and taken up fishing, moved their operations to Bay Port and built necessary fish shanties. Saginaw investors formed the Bay Port Fish Company in 1895. This company and the Gillingham Fish Company operated a fleet of forty-two fishing tugs and made Bay Port the largest freshwater fishing port in the world during the 1930s and 1940s. Herring and walleyes were shipped out by boxcar to eastern markets. Structures for making nets, building boats, processing fish, and storing ice and twine lined the point of land.

New industries developed as lumbering waned. Port Huron became a center for shipbuilding, maritime commerce, and rail transportation. The resort industry grew as Detroiters and other city dwellers built cottages and hotels along the Lake Huron shore—at Gratiot Beach, Harbor Beach, Port Hope, Huron City, and Pointe Aux Barques—and along Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River, at Harsens Island, and the St. Clair Flats. Others came to fish and hunt duck and small game.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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