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Saginaw River Has 220 Year History of Tall Ships Dating to the Trombleys

Early Bay City Shipbuilders Vied With Top Great Lake Ports

July 20, 2006       Leave a Comment
By: Dave Rogers

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Squarerigger John Kilderhouse was built in Banks in 1867.
Capt. James Davidson's Schooner No. 101 had a four mast rigging plan.

Tall ships often come back to Bay City.

There is nothing new under the sun, or under sail, around here.

But the sight of Tall Ships remains as spectacular as it must have when the Chippewa Indians and early settlers saw the billowing clouds of sail on the river more than a century ago.

The tradition of sailing vessels calling on the local port, being built here and conducting trade in the Great Lakes goes back more than 200 years.

The fact that thousands of spectators have turned out to view the tall ships in harbor here follows a longtime heritage that links the past, present and perhaps the future.

Schooners used in the fur trade were built at the mouth of the Saginaw River in 1787-88 by Louis Trombley, grandfather of the Bay City pioneers Joseph and Mader Trombley.

Tall ships currently in port in Bay City harken to the squarerigger John Kilderhouse, built here in 1867. Kilderhouse was one of dozens of tall ships that came off the ways along the river in that era. William Crosthwaite built the 168 foot long Kilderhouse, of 500 tons burden, at his yard in Banks that was later sold to Frank W. Wheeler.

Capt. James E. Davidson built sailing vessels here that dominated lakes shipping from 1871 until the early 1900s, competing vigorously with rivals from Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania, Toledo, Ohio and other ports.

The first ships built here were used in fur trading between the Saginaw area, Detroit, Michilimackinac and St. Mary's Falls. The first local shipbuilder, Trombley, was reported lost near the mouth of the Saginaw River in 1792. By some accounts he was killed by an Indian in a dispute over a muskrat spear.

The schooner North American traded along the river and bay shore in 1837, the year Michigan became a state, stopping at preset locations, responding to a hail from shore or a signal by bonfires set by settlers.

"The 30-ton sloop, Savage, of the American Fur Company, traded between Detroit and Saginaw starting in 1830 with her last trip in 1842," according to the late local historian Catherine Baker.

It took a week for the schooner Lorraine to work through low water from Saginaw city to the bay with a load of shingles for Detroit in 1840.

Several barquentines were built in Saginaw in the early 1850s by Stephen Kirby and barks and brigatines were constructed in Essexville by Samuel J. Tripp in succeeding decades.

Schooners of around 200 feet long sailed out of the Saginaw River in the decade after the Civil War, 1865-1875, under craftsmanship by Chesley Wheeler, William Dixon, J.M. Ballentine, Tom Boston and William M. Kelley.

One of the greatest of lakes shipbuilding firms started here in 1871 when Capt. James Davidson rented the Ballentine yard opposite the northern limits of Bay City below Sage's Mill.

The 138 foot schooner E. M. Davidson was the first of 32 similar vessels ranging up to the 341 foot Chieftain and Montezuma, of more than 2,700 gross tons, built in the Davidson yard. Capt. Davidson reportedly used about 20 train car loads of oak in building one ship.

"The 1903 construction of the Montgezuma consumed the last of Davidson's oak supplies suitable for large vessel construction," wrote David J. Cooper and John O. Jensen in their 1995 book, "Davidson's Goliaths."

In 1881, Henry Hall, special agent for the federal government, visited the Saginaw River shipyards and noted them as the "finest shipyards for wooden ship-building in the United States."

Hall made particular mention of the F.W. Wheeler yard in West Bay City. In 1890 Wheeler built the 242 foot long schooner Newell A. Eddy, 1,270 tons, sunk in Lake Huron in 1893 with a cargo of corn bound from Chicago to Buffalo.

The massive sailing rigs and schooner barges built by local shipbuilders for more than a century are mainly memories, with a only few artifacts remaining to interest sailing buffs.

The Tall Ships of today are moored along the river near sites of historic shipyards and the hulks of a handful of marine leviathans.

The only visible artifact to visitors and Tall Ships crews is the massive rudder of the Sacramento, looming straght up in Veterans Memorial Park like the maritime antique that it is, an ironic and iconic symbol of bygone sailing days.

Sacramento was a 307 foot Davidson steamer built in 1895. It is buried in a former slip in Veterans Memorial Park, subsumed near the sunken hulks of eight other vessels in the river, visible only during low water.

Rumors persist of a ghost captain who stalks the riverfront, hoping for a call to command one of the long dead vessels once again and a renewal of the glory days of Bay City ships on the Great Lakes.##

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Dave Rogers

Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at

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