Friday, January 18, 2013
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A flat-bottomed boat lazed along the river's bank on a summer day in 1860. An observer could be forgiven for not realizing the lone occupant was a youth who would grow to dominate two Michigan industries, log towing and sugar manufacturing and foster a number of companies in other industries that would add immeasurable wealth to Michigan's developing economy.
The skiff bobbed in a ceaseless to-and-fro motion, influenced by waves that washed against the bank and then receded in accordance with the movement of steamers and sloops that churned the Saginaw River's channel. Its skipper, sixteen-year-old Benjamin Boutell, sighed in sleepy contentment. The rocking motion of the river lulled him deeper into slumber as he basked in the sun's warmth, dreaming of sea adventures in which he was the central figure.
He did not hear the sounds of sawing and hammering, the hailing of ships from shore, and other boisterous dock activity common to Bay City, Michigan in 1860. In ten years, the city's population had exploded from a mere fifty souls to more than three thousand, with more arriving each day from Canada or Detroit to take jobs in one of fifteen sawmills clustered on the riverbank. Before the lumber drew to a close forty years later, thirty thousand people would call Bay City home and more than one hundred sawmills lined the riverbanks from Bay City to Saginaw, twelve miles distant.
His father, Daniel Boutell, owned one of the hotels situated within hailing distance at the southeast corner of Water and Third streets. Not long before it had been the Sherman House. Situated across from the Detroit Steamboat Company's landing, it was often the first stop for newcomers to the city. Daniel Boutell had moved his family thirty miles north from Birch Run to take over the hotel, and after extensive renovations hung a new shingle near the entrance. Now it was the Boutell House, a home away from home for Great Lakes sailors who were made to feel more like family guests than hotel patrons because many of the Boutells' nine children shared the hotel with them
Fascinated by the stories the sailors told, Ben grew to love the river and the great Saginaw Bay, the doorway to the Great Lakes, a doorway he planned to pass through one day. Meanwhile, he earned his way by remaining on call to the Protection Fire Company where he served as first assistant foreman and helped his father at the hotel where he badgered sailors with questions about schooners, sloops, barges, and tugboats. An infectious grin and a sincere interest loosened tongues of sailors who enjoyed Ben's enthusiasm; they gladly shared accounts of their adventures and knowledge of all things nautical.
Having learned much about the nature of goods that moved from port to port on the Great Lakes, he began to pay special attention to the movement of logs towed by powerful tugboats. The task of moving felled trees to mills situated in one of the state's principal sawmill towns, Saginaw, Bay City, or Muskegon, was critical to the success of the timber industry. Water transport provided the least costly solution. Logs carved from Michigan's forests were floated downstream, collected at river mouths, sorted into floating corrals, called "booms," and towed by tugboats to sawmills that lined the river from Saginaw to Bay City. From forests along Canada's Georgian Bay shoreline, tugboats towed booms containing thousands of logs across Lake Huron and into the Saginaw Bay for shipment to waiting sawmills.
Tugboat captains faced many perils: sudden storms that would threaten to shatter the delicate lacing of logs that formed the boom, shipboard disasters, exploding boilers, and fires that could leave crews abandoned to chilling water far from rocky shores. The idea of taking the helm of such a craft fired the imagination of the hotelkeeper's son.
His ambition gained impetus in his twenty-first year when fire destroyed the Boutell House. Dan Boutell fought the blaze until only smoldering rubble remained. His lungs seared by smoke, he declined in health until death claimed him the following year. The family's livelihood in peril, Ben immediately signed on as a full-time sailor on the steam tug Wave. Within the year, he was the Wave's mate and in the following year earned papers conferring upon him the responsibilities of a ship's master.
This post was written by: Franklin Manuel
Franklin Manuel is a professional blogger, web designer and front end web developer. Follow him on Twitter