BY DAVID NICHOLAS
News Director / Morning Edition Host, CMU Public Radio
Bay City is very proud of its maritime history… and legacy. Travel on the Great Lakes was made possible, in large part, by the boats built on the Saginaw River.
The gateway is the mouth of the Saginaw River and for years, boats and ships were guided into and out of the channel by a unique “range light” system.
“Supposedly, this was developed by a fourteen-year old boy here in Bay City whose mother and dad were light keepers here,” said Don Comtois, president of the Saginaw River Marine Historical Society.
“There’s some toss up on that, but, we’re laying claim to it here. First for the Great Lakes,” said Comtois.
“This was supposed to have been developed over in Europe, so we’ve been told, but, you know, everybody likes to claim a piece of history. We’re claiming it here for the Great Lakes -out of Bay City.”
Restoration continues on the so-called back light of the range light system. You can tour it when you come to Bay City for the Tall Ships Celebration later this week. As the boats got bigger, the channel was not only deepened, but also straightened – making the front light obsolete.
Don took me through the top floor of the Bay County Historical Society Building. There is a room that tells the story of the boat makers, loggers and industry shippers that put this town on the map. It is here that you learn about three of the most significant boat builders: James Davidson, Frank Wheeler and Harry Defoe.
“Like here we can see the Thomas Crainage,” said Comtois. “Davidson built some of the largest wooden ships ever to sail the Great Lakes – uh, three…like the Crainage here, it’s a steam ship – three hundred and five feet long – a mammoth ship for its size – it would take approximately twenty-eight acres of oak to build one of these vessels.”
And as the ships got bigger, the demand for lumber put a strain on the resource. Davidson stayed with wood, but Wheeler shifted his building to steel and eventually bought out the Davidson operation. Wheeler sold the company in 1900 to the American Ship Building Company who renamed it West Bay City Shipbuilding and then AmShip Bay City. It was closed in 1908.
From then until around 1917 it was operated by Defoe Boat and Motor Works. Defoe’s yard lasted longer because they evolved more than his predecessors – everything from pleasure boats to the torpedo chasers they built with a government contract in WWI. They also built “rum runners,” used during Prohibition and PC Boats during WWII.
Defoe’s best known yacht was built in 1931. Named the Lenore, but later dubbed the Honey Fitz when she became the presidential yacht for John F. Kennedy. The boat has been restored and is privately owned – to date, the price too steep to bring her home to Bay City.
One Defoe that did come home is stored at the Do-All Center – the Marine Historical Society leases space there at the old Bay City Armory.
“Here we have the Defoe launch – it was built in 1913 – it’s an 18 foot launch,” explained Comtois. “It’s been just about completely restored. It has some new frames in it, a new transom, uh, new gunnels but you see the wood is all original. The skin is all original in it…most of the… 90 percent of
all the ribs are original – we do have the engine for this boat.”
While a 1913 boat won’t be, in Don’s words, “running around the Saginaw River”, he thinks when the restoration is done, there might be a trip past the site of the old Defoe yard where she was built before it would be then be put on permanent display to help preserve the history.
In a small room back on the Historical Society’s fourth floor, there are housed thousands of artifacts that Don Comtois says should also have a home.
“The only reason we got the Dafoe boat is the guy that had it – it was going to go to Chicago- the guy was going to paid more money for it – but he said I want it to stay here in Bay City because it belongs here in Bay City,” said Comtois.
“He said if it goes to Chicago, it’s a bragging rite – it isn’t because it has a home where it’s going to be loved. And that’s with all this stuff in here, you know, like this chad-burn there’s enough brass in here, you could go have a nice steak dinner and then some, but you know, people, they get – we get attached to this stuff because it – it’s part of our history – it’s part of our lives.”
“And unfortunately, we are selling our heritage down the drain, and we can’t afford to lose it,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to get a maritime center going here, a research – at least for the research part of it, uh, like I said, you know, we’ve got fifteen thousand pieces of photographs – negatives – slides – and that’s not counting the hundreds of thousands of articles in these scrapbooks – you know – all tell a story. You can’t tell a story without a beginning and the end of the story unfortunately ends up in the
For Don Comtois and others whose passion has been and continues to be the ship building legacy of Bay City, hope remains for the reality of a maritime center – a permanent home to pass on the story that flows through this Great Lakes town.