“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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Wm. Soutar Collection, Letters from Wife 1880, 1881, & 1915 Note

The William Soutar (1842-1918) Collection is discussed briefly in two previous posts, one presenting letters from his employer Wm. Jenkinson, and the other, letters from his friends.  Below are scans of letters–written in pencil–from his wife Agnes (an obituary refers to her as Ann Bell; The Times Herald March 25, 1918, page 5).  They are from Rattle Run, Michigan, where Agnes lived on a farm during a period when her husband made income while being employed elsewhere.  Agnes’ writings give a little glimpse into rural life as well as what was, apparently, customary social exchange between husband and wife.  A baby was born during this time, and in her excitement (probably coupled with exhaustion) Agnes forgets to date the letter.

The envelopes that were with these letters are addressed to William, via Henry Batchelor (or Batchelor & Son) in East Saginaw, Michigan.  An empty envelope from 1881 (not shown) is addressed to him alone, in East Tawas, Michigan.  We don’t know if the box of letters and receipts that make up this collection were the only ones saved by the Soutars, or the only ones that happened to survive, but there is a note included at the end from 1915, a full 35 years after these 1880 (and one 1881) letters.  William was living in Port Huron by 1883, so perhaps his family finally joined him.

The images that are grainy and dark are those that have been greatly enhanced in order to read them, as the writing in pencil is extremely light.  Click on the images to see the large uploads.  If using any of our images, please give a proper citation.  The remainder of the collection is a large number of letters from various family members back in Scotland.  We hope to have these available in the future as well.

Unknown girl. There is no writing on this photo, so while it is included in with the wife’s letters, it may not be one of the Soutar children. It could be a niece or a friend’s child, or . . .

March 12, 1880, page 1.

March 12, 1880. Page 2.

A boy is born! No date; outside envelope is marked April 5, but year cannot be made out.

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Histories of Fort Gratiot and Port Huron Townships (including Marysville) from an 1876 Atlas

For reference purposes, the following word-for-word histories of Fort Gratiot Township and Port Huron Township (including Marysville) are provided here.  From the Combination Atlas Map of St. Clair County Michigan . . .  by Everts & Stewart, Philadelphia, 1876, pages XVII and XVIII.

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Fort Gratiot Township was organized as a township in the year 1866, with H. Stevens as the first Supervisor.  It is situated in the eastern part of the County, at the foot of Lake Huron.  It is a fractional township, and is designated Town 7 north, Range 17 east; it is bounded on the north by Burtchville, east by Lake Huron and St. Clair River, south by the city of Port Huron and Port Huron Township, and west by Clyde Township.  The surface of the country is mostly level, with some marsh land, and was originally timbered with pine and hemlock.  The soil is of a sandy nature, producing wheat, oats, hay, potatoes, and corn.  It is traversed by the Black River in the southwestern part.  T. Lymburner is the present Supervisor; and the population numbers one thousand three hundred and sixty-one.

Fort Gratiot, the principal village and post-office, is situated at the foot of Lake Huron, on the line of the Grand Trunk Railway, at the point where it crosses the St. Clair river, and contains a population of about eight hundred.

It is one mile north of the city of Port Huron, and sixty-three from Detroit, and derives its name from the fort of that name which is located here, on the site of the old French trading-post [this had been disputed and is not supported by the 1989 archaeological study of Fort Gratiot by Bruce Hawkins and Richard Stamps].  It is of importance as being the point where the traffic of the Grand Trunk Railway crosses the river, and contains one Methodist Episcopal church, a union schoolhouse, stores, hotel, express-office, and telegraph-office, and was settled as early as 1817, although the trading-post was established here many years prior to that date. This place is also of some notoriety as being the distributing-point for large numbers of emigrants who come direct from Portland [Maine, apparently].

Portion of page 32 of the atlas, showing the Fort Gratiot area.

Port Huron Township was originally known as Desmond, and was organized in 1828 (with J. Herrington as the first Supervisor), although the area embraced within these limits was settled many years prior.  It is reduced in size by the organization of other townships, and is fractional in its dimensions.  The city of Port Huron, within the original limits, now forms a distinct organization.

This township contains at present a population of one thousand and seven, and is designated Town 6 north, Range 17 east, and is bounded on the north by Fort Gratiot Township, east by the city of Port Huron and St. Clair River, south by St. Clair Township, and west by Kimball Township.  Its proximity to the St. Clair River and city of Port Huron makes it desirable as a place of residence.

This, like all the other portions of the County, was a timber region, in which pine, black ash, and hemlock abounded.

The characteristic feature of the soil is sandy, with considerable marsh land, producing corn and oats.

Among the pioneers of the township are Judge Z. W. Bunce, James M. Gill, B. Sturgis, S. Huling, A. F. Ashley, and James Young.  Judge Bunce located on the same place where he now resides (five miles south of Port Huron) in 1817, and has been prominently identified with the interests of the County ever since his settlement here.

The principal village post-office and shipping-point is Marysville (formerly Vicksburg), situated on the river St. Clair, in the extreme southeastern corner of the township, six miles south of Port Huron, and about the same distance from St. Clair.  It contains a population of about three hundred, and is the headquarters of the Mills’ Transportation Company, which is an extensive corporation.

Ship-building was formerly carried on at this point to a considerable extent, and it is a regular stopping-place for all river and lake boats, and has immediately in the village two large steam saw-mills, and two more closely by.

There is also a Methodist Episcopal church, a union school-house, store, hotel, and telegraph-office in the village.  The Chicago and Lake Huron Railroad, and the Grand Trunk Railway, both traverse the township, and the Black River touches the northeast corner.

There are many interesting facts connected with the early settlement of this section that will be treated in the history of Port Huron.

Portion of page 45 of the atlas, showing the layout of Vicksburg, now Marysville.

History of Port Huron from an 1876 Atlas

For reference purposes, the following word-for-word history of Port Huron (city) is provided here.  From the Combination Atlas Map of St. Clair County Michigan . . .  by Everts & Stewart, Philadelphia, 1876, page XVIII.

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In the year 1819, when the Hon. D. B. Harrington came to this place to make it his abiding place, nothing but a vast wilderness met the eye on every side.  The Chippewa tribe of Indians were the occupants of this region; and during the fishing and hunting season they congregated at the mouth of the Black River in large numbers; and their huts and wigwams dotted the shores for a long distance north and south.  There were at this time a few French families scattered around, whose names are mentioned in the early history of the County, and who at times were seriously annoyed by the Indians.  The propensity to steal was largely developed among them.

The first house ever built in Port Huron, or, as it was then called, Desmond, was located near the Hogan House, in Court Street, and was occupied by Anselm Petit.  The second building was occupied by a half-breed named John Riley, and was located on the site of William Stewart’s hardware store.  These two buildings comprised the village in 1819.  There were no inhabitants north of Fort Gratiot at that date, on the eastern slope of the lower peninsula, with the exception of three or four families scattered along the Black River and Mill Creek.  On the Canada side a wilderness prevailed, with nothing to indicate the presence of humanity except the wigwams of the Indians.

The village of Port Huron was originally in Desmond Township, embracing all that part of St. Clair county north of Township 5.

The first meeting held to effect its organization was at Fort Gratiot, on the first Monday in May, 1826, when the following officers were elected:  Martin Pickens, Supervisor; Jeremiah Harrington and Isaac Davis, Assessors; Morris McGarvey, Isaac Davis, and Richard Sansbury, Highway Commissioners; Reuben Dodge, Lewis Facer, and Francis Duchein, Constables.  The first village plat was made in 1835, by Mr. E. Petit, and was called Peru.  The next made was in the fall of 1835, by D. B. Harrington, and the lots sold by White & Harrington.

In 1837 the third piece of land was platted and sold by Major John Thorn, and called Paris.

The name of Port Huron is accredited to Mr. D. B. Harrington in 1835; and the projectors of the other village plats followed his example, and the whole assumed the name which it has since borne.

The first school-house erected was by Francis P. Browning, and was located on the west side of the park and north of Black River.  The first hotel built was of logs, in 1827, on Quay Street.

Early map of Port Huron showing the park west of which was built the first school. This early era area of Port Huron is now taken up by McMorran plaza and the community college.
Detail from the 1859 Geil map of Macomb and St. Clair counties.

In 1833 the road now known as Military Street was built, and a bridge erected across Black River.  In 1832, during the Black Hawk war, the citizens of Port Huron rendered effective service in palisading the fort.  John B. Phillips built the first steamboat at this place.

The village of Port Huron became a city under a charter obtained April 8, 1857, at which time the City Council met for the first time, W. L. Bancroft presiding as Mayor.  The city of Port Huron of to-day looms up grandly beside the little straggling hamlet that nestled on the shores of the St. Clair River forty years ago.  The natural advantages possessed by this place surpass by far those of any other section of the County, and it is only a question of time when this city shall take a prominent position among the first cities of the State in population and business interests.

It has a very large lake and river traffic, and the great railroad lines centering here bring a heavy trade to this point.

The Grand Trunk, and Chicago and Lake Huron Railroads on the Port Huron side, and the Great Western Railroad on the Sarnia side, give to it an air of busy importance.  For Gratiot is located on the northern limit of the city, and was occupied in 1814 by a detachment of United States regulars and militia, under Major Forsyth of the regular army.  Captain Gratiot was the engineer officer who built the first fort, and after whom it is named.  Its original cost was three hundred dollars.  In 1822 it was abandoned, and the buildings turned over to two Presbyterian missionaries named Hart and Hudson, who occupied them until 1828, when they were reoccupied by the Government, and the buildings and grounds were enlarged and strengthened.  The fort has since been occupied as a military post, with the exception of a period during the Mexican war and the war of the Rebellion [the Civil War].  The date of the first village organization is not clearly established, but from the most reliable information obtained, it was incorporated about the year 1842, and the first paper published was in 1835 or 1836, by D. B. Harrington, and was called the “Lake Huron Observer.”  The most important business interests here are the cutting of lumber and ship-building, furnishing employment to large numbers of men.

The marine interests of the city are large; many officers and sailors residing here with their families, and many vessels being owned here.  A large wholesale trade is also being rapidly developed with the country north and west, especially in the grocery and hardware lines.  This is the market for the produce of St. Clair, and large portions of Sanilac, Lapeer, and Macomb Counties.

The city has a population of eight thousand three hundred, and is rapidly increasing.  It is the County seat of St. Clair, and contains among its public buildings and enterprises three public or graded schools, two on the south side of Black River, and one on the north side; a very handsome structure occupying the site of the one burned in 1873, with two more contracted for, and to be speedily erected, one in the Fifth and the other in the Sixth Wards.  A new city hall and court-house, and engine-house on Water Street, a new custom-house of elegant design, Pine Grove Park, city cemetery, now water-works building, all owned by the city, except the custom-house, which is a Government building.  The fire department consists of one stream and one hand engine.  The water-works are of the Holly pattern, with four engines, having a pumping capacity of three million gallons per day.  The city is divided into six wards, with regularly laid out streets and fine side-walks, principally of wood.  There are street railways, and the city is well supplied with gas.

There are eight churches, two large iron bridges spanning the Black River, two lines of ferry-boats plying between Port Huron and Sarnia, Masonic, Odd-Fellow, Good Templar, and other lodges, besides stores, hotels, and shops in large numbers.  The United States Signal Service Bureau have also established a station here, and render excellent service to the shipping interests.