“Retreating glaciers carved the Great Lakes, and our geologically young dunes blow up against moraines, drifts, and outwash plains. Under the sand are the limestone beds of a Paleozoic sea, piled up over millions of years before the coming of vertebrate life. Sand upon sand is the way I like to think about history.”
By James Schmiechen
Sometimes we need to look in the rearview mirror in order to make clear sense of how to move forward. While most of the commentary about the merits of not disturbing this shoreline dunes property has centered on the ecological nature of the site, that is, its natural history, I propose that we also consider the merit of preserving the site because it is a key part in a series of interconnected stories in human history that were played out along the Saugatuck coast over a century and a half. As we would a Civil War battlefield, I suggest that we consider preserving our dunes because they tell grand stories about heroes and ordinary people, as well as about flawed thinking.
To see the big picture, let us hike south from the Felt Estate, through the Saugatuck Dunes State Park and the Dune Schooner property, proceed along the shore of the North McClendon property to the old lighthouse site, the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area, Oval Beach, and the Presbyterian Camp. Then let us trek east from Lake Michigan to the spaces called Ox-Bow and Mt. Baldhead and on to our beloved Chain Ferry and the Kalamazoo River. Within this space of over 2,000 acres, there are no less than 15 historic “story sites” that tell something about how, over time, we humans interacted, for better or worse, with the physical environment.
The lands within this “coastal district” tell stories about Indian life that predated white settlers: about trails and burial grounds, about hundreds of birch-bark canoes drawn up along the banks of the Kalamazoo, and about using Mt. Baldhead for their annual “White Dog” sacrifice. There are stories of the founders of Saugatuck who lived among the Indians, of Indians’ cornfields and the grave of Chief Wamnus somewhere nearby. We need to learn more, but we know that enough Indian activity existed here to keep the great American writer James Fennimore Cooper living here for some time—gathering notes for his book Oak Openings.
Several settlements existed inside our dune lands—warehouses (with a tavern) around the lighthouse and two little fishing settlements on the old harbor. The principal settlement was Singapore (1837)—once called “Michigan’s Pompeii”—a lumber village buried by the blowing sands of Lake Michigan because clear cutting of nearby pine forests for its mill left the village unprotected. Its exact location is along the riverside on the 320-acre North McClendon property—still to be seen as one approaches Lake Michigan by boat. Over time the settlement had three or four mills, a platted “village” with boardwalks connecting a general store, schoolroom, a cemetery, a large boarding house, a number of houses and its famous “wildcat bank.” Singapore was a sort of Michigan “Ellis Island” port of entry for immigrants from all over the America, Canada, and Europe. One of its schooners was known in its day as the fastest and smartest on the lake. Materially, what lies beneath the shifting sands at Singapore is unclear, but the hundreds of families who can trace their ancestors to this place know that it is near sacred.
The ill-fated and now legendary Singapore is only part of the bigger tale of the battle between man and nature found amid storms and shipwrecks and blowing sand. The old harbor channel posts are still visible, but the powerfully built 1859 lighthouse was destroyed by a tornado that came off the lake. Blowing sand turned the harbor entrance into a dune, land-locking another “lost village,” Fishtown—the early fishing settlement that soon went belly-up. A second nearby fishing settlement, Shriver’s Bend, suffered a similar fate. Soon trees were planted on Mt. Baldhead to stop it from moving eastward.
The good news is that at about the time that sand covered the last roof in Singapore, another story was unfolding on the opposite shore of the old harbor—one that proved to be a more sustainable example of human industry, the Ox-Bow Summer School of Art. Here, we see one of the most important innovations in American art history: a place where a new and youthful passion for painting nature outdoors was played out—and still exists as the oldest summer art school in America. With cottages and studios discreetly nestled into the landscape, the artists of Ox-Bow work and breathe in the beauty of their surroundings.
As we turn the page and move southward into the 300 acres of woods and open dunes to what are today the Oval Beach, Mt. Baldhead and Presbyterian Camp areas, the same veneration of landscape and nature that inspired Ox-Bow drives a number of additional stories—one about how a Chicago social reformer, inspired by Jane Addams and Christian stewardship, founded the “Forward Movement” camp for poor children from the city. The camp is a place that continues today to inspire thousands of visitors annually. Add to this anthology the story of how in 1884 the Saugatuck village fathers purchased the great dune, Mt. Baldhead and then (1936) the now world famous Oval Beach, for the promotion of good health and public enjoyment.
Saugatuck’s coastal district is indeed a vast library that houses our collective memory. The new Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area almost always allowed full public access even though it was private for many years. The Felt Mansion, now in the public trust, is the story of a millionaire “preservationist” who reforested the land and created a working farm—not unlike another Chicago millionaire who created a working farm that is now the Belvedere hotel. The old Pump House along the riverside is the story of a public works project to provide access to clean water and fire protection (and currently continues its public function as the Saugatuck-Douglas Museum). And it was O. C. Simonds—one of the landscape architects of Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive and park system who provided us with the first lessons of dunes protection and preservation at his gardens at Pier Cove. The Saugatuck Dunes State Park and the Dune Schooner Rides are additional brilliant stories of public access that have allowed us to live with, learn from and enjoy our natural environment.
So how do we assign value and meaning to our dunes? One path forward is to look backwards, to “read” the stories of other days and deeds and valuing them as lessons learned. Singapore is not just a romanticized blip on our historic radar screen, but a part of a larger land use story that can help us understand that upsetting the balance of nature for immediate human needs can have tragic and far-reaching consequences.
Smart thinking is about regarding our Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Area as many narratives with one big theme—the battle between humankind and nature—showing how sustainable relationships are those that respect nature.
Bulldoze one part of the story and the rest begins to fall away. Let us look to the nearby nature-friendly land use sites, such as the Felt estate, Ox-Bow School, Oval Beach, the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area, Tallmadge Woods, Mt. Baldhead Park, the Presbyterian Camp and the Saugatuck Dunes State Park as lessons in sustainable relationships between us and nature. This is also smart economic thinking.
If you have never done so, take a Saugatuck Dune Schooner ride or take a ride on the Star of Saugatuck and check out one of the most amazing landscape views in America. Then think backwards and forward. Just as we protect and preserve battlefields in this country, why would we want to bulldoze our most important historical spaces?