For centuries, the Potawatomi summered in the region. Fur trappers and traders began exploring the area in the early 1800s, and in 1825 a fur trading post was established. But Saugatuck's story officially begins in 1830 when William Butler and his wife, Mary, sailed into the Saugatuck harbor and dropped anchor. They platted a village on a small, level area at the foot of a clay bluff called "the flats."
The first industries were related to the area's rich natural resources: pine trees for lumber and shingles, fishing, hemlock trees used for tanning hides, land speculation and sailing/ship building. One of the town's more remarkable early tales revolves around the Milwaukie, a ship that went down during a violent storm in 1842. During the terrible gale, the crew mutinied, killing the captain. Crewmembers who perished during the storm are buried near the big oak tree at the rear of the lot on Water Street next to the Village Hall.
By the 1850s, Saugatuck (which is possibly a Native word whose meaning has been lost to the sands of time) was bustling, home to lumbermen and mill workers harvesting and processing Michigan's famed white pines. Much of the wood was shipped across Lake Michigan to Chicago. It also was used to build attractive Greek Revival-style homes in Saugatuck (some of which still stand).
One of the era's features that still exists is a chain ferry across the Kalamazoo River. A wooden drawbridge originally spanned the river at the point the ferry now serves; it was replaced by a wooden ferry in 1838. The current ferry, built in 1965, is propelled by handcranking it along a chain that stretches across the river. It has the distinction of being the last such specimen to survive on the Great Lakes.
For fifteen years (1865-1880), lumber was king. In 1867, eight lumber mills were churning out product. In 1870, one year before the great Chicago fire, 34 million feet of lumber were exported from Saugatuck. Massive rebuilding efforts after the Windy City fire kept demand for lumber high for several more years.
Interestingly, Saugatuck was spared the devastating fires of 1871 (nearby Holland burned to the ground) or any other major fires. As a result, the city is home to a rare array of historic architecture. From Italianate Commercial to Colonial Revival to Arts and Crafts and more, Saugatuck is a treasure trove of preserved homes and businesses.
Once the region's forests were cut, the lumbering boom went bust. Saugatuck's last sawmill closed in 1877. Even the giant mill in Douglas, across the river from Saugatuck, converted its production to baskets. The city needed to reinvent itself.
Saugatuck's next fortunes were built on fruit and ship-building--both of which were often tied together as Chicago residents clamored for fresh produce from Michigan's "fruitbelt." In 1850, Chicago's population was just under 30,000 people; a half century later it stood at more than one million. The urban market was the enormous appetite that Fruit Belt farmers needed. Called "Michigan Gold," peaches became a sure ticket to financial success. By 1884 nearly a quarter of all of Michigan's peaches came from Saugatuck and the surrounding region (there were more than 134,812 trees under cultivation). But farmers also exported apples, cherries and a host of other fruits and vegetables to urban centers.
At the same time that farmers were making money, shipbuilders were doing the same in Saugatuck. According to the Saugatuck/Douglas Historical Society's walking tour of Saugatuck, "In 1871, 672 vessels entered the port of Saugatuck and more than 200 ships and boats were built here between 1880 and 1910."
But the popularity of railroads in the late nineteenth century had a negative impact on Saugatuck's ship building industry. Once again, Saugatuck needed to reinvent itself. …