“A Brief Historical Review of the City of Port Huron,” 1915, by Wm. Jenks

William Lee Jenks (1856-1936). The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (Vol. XVII. 1920), page 189 (filtered).

The following article is from The Port Huron Times-Herald, February 20, 1915, pages 18 and 22.  Two words had typos and it was decided to correct the spelling, but the temptation to add commas was successfully avoided.  If you are unaware of Jenks, he was the author of the 1912 St. Clair County, Michigan, Its History and Its People (two volumes), and was a member of the Michigan Historical Commission, among other things.  In one place below  a corrected date is shown.  This had to have been an editorial typo since Jenks and everyone else who knew the history of Port Huron knew the year; it was at least somewhat common knowledge.

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The great success of the recent campaign to bring back the Grand Trunk shops to Port Huron, and the result it has had in unifying and bringing together in concerted action all sections of the city, seems to make this an appropriate time to look backward for a moment, and trace the general course of our city from its beginning.

Few cities in the entire country can boast of a beginning so far back as 1686, the year in which Duluth built his fort within the present city limits. We shall have to admit, however, that there are objections to our claiming such antiquity, as the fort was destroyed in 1688 and for nearly another century the only occupants of this vicinity were the Indians with whom it was a favorite locality for fishing and hunting.

About 1780 [sic, 1790] a few Frenchmen began to straggle in, along Black river or River Delude as it was known to them, and found a precarious livelihood in fishing and hunting for peltries. In those days the skins of fur bearing animals were the universal currency in this part of the world.

By 1800 there were perhaps ten families settled around the mouth of Black river. Fourteen years later Fort Gratiot was built and this helped to bring a few more families into the vicinity. In 1871 Jeremiah Harrington and Judge Bunce came and the following year the public land included within Port Huron township was first opened for sale and the first indication of the future city was given by the purchase in 1818 by Joseph Watson of 80 acres on the south side of Black river east of the Indian Reserve upon which he laid out the town of Montgats. He was a little premature, however, and sold but one lot, which included the land on which the Wastell block now stands. The Indian Reserve had been surveyed out in 1810, and remained until 1837, as a reserve, thus precluding any growth westward of the east line which began in the south side of Black river just east of Military street bridge and ran in a southwesterly direction for more than a mile. When the census of 1820 was taken what is now the county of St. Clair was practically a part of Macomb county and the census taker took notes of but three families on Black river, although there certainly were several others.

In 1825 the Fort Gratiot light house was built, which brought Geo. McDougall as the keeper, and an assistant. About the same time T. S. Knapp of Detroit built a store and trading house on the north bank of the Black river near the mouth, and James H. Cook came up to operate it. Louis Facer moved into the future city in 1827 and the following year Jonathan Burtch for whom Burtchville was named, came to town and opened up a store north of Black river and west of where Huron avenue now is. In 1829 Reuben Hamilton moved up from St. Clair, and by 1830 there were at least twelve families within the present city limits in addition to about 75 soldiers at the fort. As families were of the old fashioned size the future city probably contained nearly 200 inhabitants. The military reserve was definitely established in 1828 and thus the prospective city was hemmed in on the north and the west.

The only post office in the vicinity was at Fort Gratiot with the light house keeper, McDougall, as postmaster.

From this date matters began to move somewhat more rapidly. Lumbering along Black river had already begun with three water mills in operation. Handmade shingles had replaced furs as a medium of exchange, and although the settlement had [ ? ] as on the north bank of Black river settlement, the town of St. Clair, the county seat, began to fear a rival. The first real impetus came in 1832 when Mr. Browning of Detroit began building the Black River steam mill on the north bend of Black river near the corner of Erie and River streets. This enterprise brought a number of men to work and live here and houses were built and shops and stores and taverns opened, and when in 1833 [?] the post office of Desmond was established in the store of Jonathan Burtch, and the bridge across Black river built completing the military road from Detroit to Fort Gratiot, the little community might well have thought itself on the high road to prosperity and a great future. The era of land speculation was beginning, and people in the eastern states began to turn eager eyes toward Michigan.

The decade from 1830 to 1840 was a most important one to this vicinity both in its permanent results and in its disappointments. It saw the beginning and the end of the Northern railroad which was to be built by the state and extend from Port Huron to Grand Haven; and the building of the first school house and church. It saw the rise and collapse of the speculative land movement, the laying out of the town of Huron covering the entire McNeil tract and providing for a ship canal from Lake Huron to Black river, which should also furnish water power, and the platting of the four town or village sites—Peru, Desmond, Gratiot and Port Huron, which were all in 1837 united under the one name of Port Huron, and included the territory south of Military reserve. That same year saw the name of the post office changed to Port Huron and the establishment of the first newspaper, the Lake Huron Observer, and although the community contained only about three hundred souls it had all the necessary elements of a foundation for a large and flourishing city. It still lacked in population and the wide spread financial depression following the panic of 1837 was a serious handicap.

The following decade saw a considerable development in the lumber industry, four saw mills were built within the present city limits and the village of Port Huron was incorporated by the legislature in 1849, and when the census was taken in 1850 the village had a population of 1584.

From 1850 to 1860 there was a growth in population, in business and in religious and in educational enterprises. The Port Huron Commercial was established in 1851. Four additional saw mills were built. Port Huron became a city in 1857 and it became one of the most important lumber manufacturing points in the state. At the end of this period the city had a population of 4371 and was a busy thriving place. It no longer depended solely on water communication as the Grand Trunk railroad was built to Detroit in 1859 and with its line through Canada brought the community many valuable advantages.

The next ten year period showed a continuance of progress. The first street car line was opened from the center of the city northward through the Military reservation to the Grand Trunk depot. The Port Huron and Lake Michigan Railroad predecessors of the Grand Trunk Western began building under the leadership of William L. Bancroft. The Port Huron Times was established and the city developed as the seat of shipbuilding, about 60 boats having been built here during that period. During all the time from the beginning, the Military reservation lay at the north of the city, preventing all further growth in that direction, and acting as a deterrent in other ways. North of the reservation a considerable settlement had grown up, largely connected with the railroad. In 1868 the first act was passed by congress to sell a part of the reservation and in March 1870 the city was presented with Pine Grove Park, and in December of that year the first sale of reservation lots was held, with great success.

By 1870 the population had reached 5977. The following year Port Huron became the county seat after nearly 50 years of struggle. The end of the lumbering industry, dependent upon the timber along and adjacent to Black river was in sight, and during the following decade the city underwent the serious change always attendant upon a city largely devoted to a single industry, which, by natural necessity, ceases to exist, and which therefore must look for new industries to take its place. Many adapted only to the old industry will seek for other places where it still subsists, and it requires time, patience and proper spirit to undergo the change, and not lose in ambition and hopefulness as well as population. On the whole Port Huron stood the strain well.

After a long and bitter opposition the city water works were installed in 1873 and in the same year the new city hall was built to provide not only for the city needs but county offices and court rooms as well. During this decade the government building was constructed, and the Gas Company began operations.

By 1880 it had gained 2906 in population, the present Grand Trunk Western Railroad was in full operation and the enterprising citizens of Port Huron had begun the construction of the Port Huron and Northwestern Railway, a road very important to the city’s growth and interests.

In that year the telephone exchange was opened and four years later the electric light plant was established. In the same decade the Saginaw and Almont branches of the Pere Marquette Railroad were built, the railroad tunnel was begun and nearly completed, the Upton Manufacturing Company was brought over from Battle Creek, and when 1890 came it found a population of 13,543 showing much the largest increase during a like period up to that time.

In 1893 the city of Fort Gratiot ceased to exist and became incorporated into Port Huron, and during this same decade the city limits were extended to the south so that the city took substantially its present form. The old electric road in the city was rebuilt and extended and the construction of the electric road now a part of the Rapid Railway System began. It was during this decade that the largest growth in the city’s history occurred, largely due however, to the addition of Fort Gratiot, the total population in 1900 being 19,158.

Since the beginning of the present century there have been reverses as well as advances, the loss of the Block I shops, the removal of the locomotive shops to Battle Creek, kept the population nearly stationary so that in 1910 there appeared a net loss of 295 during the ten year period. That same period, however, saw improvement in many ways, much new and permanent pavement, the new library building and the adoption of the present charter, which is generally conceded to be in spite of its weaknesses and defects an improvement upon the former system.

A few only of the important events in the city’s history have been touched upon, but they indicate that we have a secure and wide basis upon which to build a large and thriving city, that with a people united as never before, and with a determination not to rest upon Port Huron’s natural advantages—as has been too much the case in the past—the future holds a bright promise, and the end of another decade will see the most substantial advance the city has ever made.

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