Saturday, February 24, 2024

The Story of Singapore: Michigan’s Buried Ghost Town

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There are many reasons why Michigan is great. The Motor City moved the world and gave us the soul of Motown. There’s nothing quite like a hiking or camping trip up north. We have great (or used to be great) sports teams. The list goes on.

But what is the biggest reason? the Great Lakes. And, of course, all the small beach towns that dot America’s “Third Coast” along Lake Michigan.

Tourists and locals alike flock to the countless tourist towns located in the hundreds of miles between New Buffalo and Mackinac City. Every Michigander has a favorite spot along the great lakes, including Charlevoix, Frankfort, Grand Haven, South Haven, Leland, and Ludington.

But we can’t forget Saugatuck. This artsy little town near the mouth of the Kalamazoo River features small, locally owned shops and restaurants, a great beach, and beautiful sand dunes along the lakeshore.

Once one of Michigan’s best-kept secrets, Saugatuck has received a lot of praise in recent years. The city has received many positive reviews, with various publications calling it “the best beach town” and “the best weekend getaway.”

USA Today even named Saugatuck “America’s Best Small Coastal Town.”

It’s easy to see why, as people come from all over the Midwest and beyond to spend their summers in Saugatuck’s sister city, Douglas. However, many of them may not know that there was once a town just north of Saugatuck that was intended to “rival” the likes of Chicago and Milwaukee as a great lake port.

This is the story of the buried town of Singapore, “one of Michigan’s most famous ghost towns.”

The Michigan State Historic Site sign outside Saugatuck City Hall tells the story of Singapore's history.

The Michigan State Historic Site sign outside Saugatuck City Hall tells the story of Singapore’s history.

Photo credit: Zach Clark/WWJ

history of singapore

By the mid-19th century, as the country’s population grew and began to move westward, places like Chicago and Milwaukee became bustling port cities on the lake.

America was in the wooden era. Virtually everything was made of wood. And on the other side of Lake Michigan from Chicago and Milwaukee was Singapore.

Although not as large as originally imagined by the New York land speculators who first settled here in the late 1830s, by the 1870s Singapore had indeed become a bustling timber town. I was there.

It sits at the northernmost tip of the Kalamazoo River’s swash, where the river essentially makes a 180 degree bend before exiting to the lake. In the early 1900s, a new channel was dug and the “Oxbow Lagoon” across from the settlement was closed. This area was once home to the thriving community of Fishtown and is now home to a vibrant art school and residencies.

With several factories in the city, Singapore was known for its shipbuilding and cutting of building materials, construction timber, wooden roofing sheets, etc. It had its own bank and printed its own banknotes. This bank was one of the so-called “wildcat banks” in Allegan County.

Empty ships arrived at the port and departed with wood products to help build the Midwest. It was a big business in Singapore, accommodating several hundred people in about a dozen buildings.

When a great fire destroyed Chicago in the fall of 1871, along with Milwaukee, Holland, Michigan, and other parts of the state, Singapore and nearby Saugatuck (then known as “The Flats”) were lucky. also escaped damage.

Singapore got serious and shipped timber to help rebuild the fire-ravaged city.

1969, a vibrant sawmill and sawmill.

1969, a vibrant sawmill and sawmill.

Photo credit: Saugatuck-Douglas History Center Archives

the end of singapore

Dr Eric Golannek, director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Historical Society, said the period after the devastating fire of 1871 was an “incredibly prosperous time” for Singapore.

“Because there are so many fires and America is in the wood era. Every part of a building comes from wood in some way,” Goranek told WWJ’s Zach Clark, host of the Daily J Podcast. Told.

Singapore was in a position to sell many timber products and construction materials. And they did.

However, by 1875, Singapore had run out of wood. Goranek said the high demand for timber after the fires likely depleted commercially viable stands in the Kalamazoo River Valley.

The area was almost completely deforested, and in 1875 it was decided to physically demolish Singapore’s main factory. It was loaded onto boats and transported to St. Ignace on the Straits of Mackinac, where it was to be operated in a larger factory complex. About 20 more years in the Upper Peninsula.

So there were no factories, no wood, no jobs. Economic livelihood is not possible in Singapore. When the lumber industry left Singapore, the people also moved, mainly to nearby Saugatuck and Douglas.

By the mid-1870s, both were incorporated as villages with their own shops, inns, and industries.

There were other factories, including a building that is still used as a restaurant, the flour mill that later became the Butler Hotel, and shipbuilding was still going on. In addition, the area was known for its fruit cultivation and was heavily agricultural, so Singaporeans did not have to travel far.

Singapore was almost deserted and the region’s beautiful sand dunes had far less protection from the elements. And Mother Nature did her thing.

“Sand dunes are a very fascinating landscape. The sand is constantly changing,” Goranek said.

By the end of the century, their shifting sands filled Singapore as the vegetation and dune grasses could not be replanted and the process could not be stopped.

“It becomes this enchanted place, because when you go outside, even in the late 19th century, people observe that there was once this settlement in this place, but now there are no traces of it. Not at all,” he said.

Similar to the urban legend that Old Lady Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern and started the Great Chicago Fire, local legend has it that a man was able to escape from his Singapore home even as it slowly buried itself in sand. He reportedly refused to come out. Legend has it that he entered and exited through a second-story window and remained there until the sand reached the roof.

Buildings almost completely buried under Singapore's sand

A building is almost completely buried under the sand in Singapore (Photo dates from the late 19th century)

Photo credit: Saugatuck-Douglas History Center Archives

Part of the building is buried in sand in the 1870s

This photo shows sand slowly moving around buildings in Singapore Port in the late 1800s.

Photo credit: Saugatuck-Douglas History Center Archives

What is left of Singapore?

Some buildings were dragged from the city, placed on rafts up the Kalamazoo River, or slipped on frozen ice to Saugatuck or Douglas in the winter, but they were moved, salvaged and recycled. What was missing was left buried.

If you used a giant store vacuum to suck up all the sand on the North Shore, you’d be left with the remnants of a once-bustling port town. Goranek said that because the sand drains so well, it likely preserved the heavy wooden structures very well.

Over the years, shifting sand and changing water levels have re-exposed some of the buildings and artifacts. But no extensive archeology has ever been done, so we don’t know exactly what was left behind, Goranek said.

Although the settlement itself is long gone, Singapore’s heritage lives on, hidden in plain sight just a mile or so downstream from Saugatuck.

Several Singaporean buildings still stand in Saugatuck. The Bank of Singapore building is now a bookstore and art gallery on Butler Street, while several other houses in the city have been integrated into the neighborhood.

The name itself can be seen in various places around the city. The Singapore Yacht Club pays homage to the lost city, giving boaters the chance to enjoy the modern-day treasures that ultimately transformed the region.

The settlement is now privately owned. Although it cannot be legally reached on foot without the owner’s permission, it can be seen from two of his popular attractions: the paddle boat, the Star of Saugatuck, and the Dune Schooner Ride.

Singapore Yacht Club sign in Saugatuck

Singapore Yacht Club sign in Saugatuck

Photo credit: Zach Clark/WWJ

Does Singapore have a future?

Of course Singapore has a future. No, it won’t rise from the ashes to become a city again, but this place definitely has a future of its own.

But what its future holds is up for debate. For years, developers have been trying to exploit the land. Goranek said these efforts date back to the 1960s and ’70s in the form of high-rise hotels and event centers.

Plans for a marina, golf course, stables and shooting range in the 2000s by Oklahoma billionaire Aubrey McClendon

Several homes have been built on the property north of Kalamazoo over the years, but local residents are pushing back against new plans for a marina and more than 20 homes.

Where are you planning to excavate the marina? Pass through a buried village in Singapore. The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance has been fighting not only to protect the environment, but to protect an important piece of history.

“The proposed marina would destroy Singapore’s historic sites. This is why the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Saugatuck Dunes one of America’s 11 most endangered sites.” SDCA says the website.

The Alliance notes that the proposed development is subject to numerous local ordinances, including local zoning that states, “The state shall not in any event excavate canals or watercourses for the purpose of increasing the waterfront required by this section.” It alleges that it violates state law.

Patti Beery, a lifelong Saugatuck resident and current owner of a store in downtown Saugatuck, says it’s been “an uncomfortable conversation for a long time.”

“They have been fighting this problem for years and will continue to fight it,” she said. “It’s going to be a good fight. I don’t think I’ll ever see that in my lifetime. I hope it doesn’t happen.”

You can follow the Alliance Fight to Save Singapore Sites on our Facebook page.

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