On the River • A Fascinating Flashback to Summers in Saginaw

The Castle Museum of Saginaw County Offers an Engaging Exhibition about the Magical Recreational Uses of the Saginaw & Tittabawasse Rivers from 1890s to the Great Depression

    icon Jul 17, 2019
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The Castle Museum of Saginaw County currently has a fascinating exhibition running through September 15th titled ‘On the River’ that offers an engaging and interactive experiential history lesson about what summer recreational life was like on the Saginaw River and its tributaries during the Lumbering Era up through the 1950s, which for thousands of years have been not only a source of food and transportation, but also a place of fun and pleasure for residents to take a vacation at home.

 Featuring photographs and rare artifacts, the exhibit tells the stories of houseboats, raft races, excursion boats and much more. “It’s like a scrap box of the river, which between 1650 and 1850 shaped the county by not only providing access but also a means of transportation for raw materials,” notes Museum Curator Tom Trombley. “Barges transported products needed across the state through the river system and in actuality, the standard of timber was judged not by the quality of the wood but equally by its proximity to the river system, as 50% of the cost of lumber involved transportation to the mill.  This is why Hartwick Pines contains standing virgin timber, as it was not near a river system and therefore not desirable.”

“Apart from exploiting the rivers for commercial use, the rivers of Saginaw County were also used as a means of recreation,” he continues. “Boating, fishing, swimming were all common, but after the Lumbering Era when Saginaw becomes an industrial center, we see an incredible boom in the use of the rivers throughout the county for recreation. Some of the shallower rivers like the Bad & Cass Rivers were not viable for these uses, but the area we’re sitting in with the Saginaw & Tittabawasee Rivers witnessed a boom in the late 19th and early 20th century as places to build summer cottages and plant houseboats.”

According to Trombley, the typical owner of these houseboats was a professional or businessman who would use it as a means to get away on the weekend. “Mainly, they consisted simply of rafts upon which a shack was constructed, contained an outhouse, bunks, stoves, dining areas; and some of them were quite elaborate. Houseboats really exploded during the Great Depression and people lived on them year round, as they were a means of low-cost housing; and you could see them next to the docks in Downtown Saginaw as well,” he continues. “They remained on the river until 1962, which is when the last houseboat could be found. Obviously, plumbing was an issue and before the Depression the City of Saginaw tried to ban them, but were unable to do so as they also provided a way to circumvent land laws to a degree, especially when it came to prostitution and gambling.”

“Houseboats were floated to their desired location and required a tug boat for towing,” notes Trombley. “Once one of them got free and was floating down the river and a passenger carried an infant to the shoreline. Usually they had a couple rooms and didn’t offer much privacy and you could see a proliferation of them across from Riverside Park, where a lot of summer cottages existed.  People owning houseboats weren’t people who could afford to go to Higgins Lake in the summer, but upper class professionals with enough money to own and maintain one of these floating cottages.”

An interesting artifact discovered from the period was from Barnard Realty, which owned and developed Adams Boulevard, and consists of a ledger for the George Lockwood Boathouse, which offered canoe rentals on the river. Many times canoes were used as a means of transportation to the boat houses; and the larger house boat cottages found on Shiawassee and the Tittabawassee Rivers across from Riverside Park, which was located where Green Point Nature Center is today, up through the old Germania Club golf course, functioned as floating party palaces.

Riverside Park was an amazing get-away fantasy featuring a casino (or dance & vaudeville hall), roller coasters, carousels, and numerous other summer activities.  It was started in 1894 by the Union St. Railway Company and developed as an amusement area within easy access of Saginaw residents as a way to sell railway fares to the destination over the weekends. Originally, you could get free admission to the park with purchase of a railway card. Located on the west bank of the Tittabawasse River, the park was situated to take advantage of the river and was an easy commute for the city’s residents.

The Brooks Brothers boating company, which originally was from Bay City and moved to Saginaw, actually offered Houseboat kits that would allow customers to build their own house boat for only $500.  And two of the most phenomenal and amazing houseboats displayed at this Castle Museum exhibition consist of the Wapadi and the Capitola, which were more like private yachts.

The Wapadi was designed for the Isaac Bearinger (owner of Saginaw’s Bearinger Building) and was an impressive 100 foot long vessel that he kept rebuilding and refining over the years.  An lest people think that so-called ‘Fake News’ is a current phenomenon, according to Trombley: “Back in 1892 or 1893 on August 25th an announcement was made by fired cook that the Wapadi was lost in Georgian Bay and Bearinger’s’ family had been killed.  The disgruntled cook sent a telegram that the Chicago Tribune picked-up and embellished, saying Bearinger had come on shore half-drowned.”

Meanwhile, the Capitola was an even more impressive 150 foot boat commissioned by the Wickes Brothers. Constructed in 1904 For Harry Wickes by Craig Shipbuilding of Toledo, the steel-hulled vessel had five staterooms and space for a crew of 10. She had 600 horsepower steam engines with bunkers that held enough coal for two weeks of cruising - 27 tons.  When Harry Wickes died in 1931 it was not used much after that; however, his daughter and son-in--law used it in the summer of 1936 and left it closed as protection from the elements. It sat on the dock and then during a draught when the river went down about 8 to 10 feet, the Capitola capsized and that was the end of it.

As for Riverside Park, which in addition to the amenities mentioned earlier, also featured baseball, bowling, pony rides, a merry-go-round, a fish pond, shooting gallery and café, houseboats and cottages blossomed and flourished across the rivers surrounding it.  Eventually, the Great Depression put Riverside Park out of business, until it was later bought by the Hickey family - a leading auto dealer in the region.

As with today, the river really kept the county together back then and this is truly a worthwhile and engaging exhibition not to be missed. 

The Castle Museum of Saginaw County is located at 500 Federal Ave. in Downtown Saginaw. Admission is only $1.00 for adults and 50 cents for children. Museum hours are Sunday: 1-4:30 PM and Tuesday - Saturday 10 AM - 4:30 PM.  You can phone the museum at 989-752-2861.





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