Site No.18: The City of Saugatuck

Audio: Introduction to Northern Segment
Audio: Site No.18

What’s in a name?   William Butler was the first settler here in 1830. Early maps of the town show it being called Kalamazoo.  But the legislature gave that name to another town, so the town was then called Newark.  However, the postmaster had been calling the town Saugatuck since the post office opened in 1835! That was the name of his hometown in Connecticut, which happened to be appropriate because it’s an Indian word meaning “mouth of the river”.  When the town was incorporated in 1868, the name Saugatuck became official.

Like many Michigan towns, Saugatuck started life based largely on the stands of virgin white pine, which covered the landscape. By the late 1860’s, eight lumber mills were going full-blast shipping lumber to Chicago and other cities around the Great Lakes. Saugatuck lumber helped rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871. But by 1880, round-the-clock clearcutting had finished off the area’s white pines. Fruit growing then replaced lumber as the area’s main resource. By 1884, it was a major producer of peaches, with many of them being traded and shipped through the Fruit Exchange in Saugatuck. 

Old Saugatuck New Saugatuck Saguatuck at night

During this same period, boat building became a major industry, with more than 200 vessels being built between 1880 and 1910.  But by the early part of the 20th century, both the boat building and fruit growing booms were over, and a new type of industry started to emerge ... tourism. The area’s natural beauty provided an escape for Chicago and other Midwestern big-city residents. Enticing more tourists to come, even just for the day, was The Big Pavilion which was built in 1909. Billed as the second largest dance floor in America, the Pavilion catered to as many as a thousand people a day during its heyday. Also emerging at this time was Saugatuck’s reputation as an artist colony when a group of Chicago artists established the Summer School of Painting at the Ox-Bow lagoon. The Ox-Bow School still exists and is now formally part of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Docks at Saugatuck

The best way to explore Saugatuck is on foot where you will find that it is a town rich with historical architecture and character, as well as good shopping and restaurants. The Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society’s award-winning self-guided Walking Tour is available at the Information Booth downtown, across from City Hall. Also, each year, the Society’s award-winning museum, which has been called “the best little museum in Michigan”, mounts an exhibit on some aspect of local history and culture.


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