Relics of Shipbuilding in Bay City.
by Marvin Kusmierz
February 1, 2006
Once you know the history its hard to stroll along the river front in downtown Bay City without wondering what it must have been like during the 100 plus years when ships were being built there.
The last of three major shipyards was the Defoe Shipbuilding Company that was located just north of Woodside Avenue on property that is now a part of the scrapyard of Omni Sources. They closed their operations in 1972. That's only 34 years ago. So there are many today that can recall what they experienced in seeing a ship launched into the Saginaw River at the Defoe's shipyard. Some of them may have been shipbuilders as the yard was one of the city's top employers.
The Defoe shipyard was a dream of Harry J. Defoe when he was a youth growing up in West Bay City where the other two shipbuilders were located, Davidson and Wheeler shipyards. James Davidson's yard was located in Veterans Memorial Park just east of the present Bay County Community Center. Wheeler's yard was on the other side of Midland Street. Each was within walking distance of where young Harry lived and he often went to these yards to watch the ships being built.
Davidson Shipyard 1890s: Launching of Shenandoah.
James Davidson was the first to establish a his shipyard. His first yard opened in 1871 and it was a small operation located on what is known today as the Fletcher property between the river and Marquette Street. He was only at this location for about a year when he decided to move his business to Saginaw. However, he returned to the Bay City area a year later to the property that is now a part of Veterans Memorial Park. Davidson's specialty in the beginning was building majestic looking wooden schooners of considerable size for hauling goods. These beauties with three tall masts must have been quite a site to see as they navigated the river out to the Saginaw Bay. When the steam engine became popular, Davidson made the switch to building wooden freighters using this method of power. Davidson's affinity for wood vessels ultimately lead the demise of his yard. When others shipyards were making the switch to building vessels using iron and steel, Davidson never did. His business ended in 1929.
Wheeler Shipyard 1890: Ship Iosco.
Frank W. Wheeler was the second of the major shipbuilders in Bay City. His yard north of Midland Street opened in 1877. Prior to that he worked with his dad who had a floating dry dock business. Wheelers business got its start as a partnership with Albert Crane and Henry W. Sage, the later put up $3,000 to get the business started. Sage, a millionaire, owned a huge sawmill south of the property where Wheeler's yard began operating. In 1889, the company was doing very good and that year it became a stock corporation. Wheeler's approach to the shipbuilding business was just the opposite of Davidson. Frank was quick to expand to the latest methods and materials used in building ships. However, this required a great deal of capital to accomplish and kept Frank busy finding ways to pay for his huge debts. In 1899, Frank ended up loosing his business to the American Shipbuilding Company headquartered in Cleveland. They purchased the assets of the yard and created a subsidiary company known as West Bay City Shipbuilding Company, to operate the yard under the direction of the parent company. Frank was given the position of vice-president in the new subsidiary. Within a relatively few years the shipyard had been plumaged of valuable assets to support other holdings of the American Shipbuilding Company and the yard was closed.
Defoe Shipyard 1941: Launching of Burdo.
In 1905, young Harry Defoe made the leap from his comfortable position as principle of Park school to start his own shipbuilding business which he called, Defoe Boat and Motor Works. This business was located on property that is now a part of the Wenonah Park in downtown Bay City. In 1908, the Wenonah Hotel opened and Harry to move his business as the hotel plans called for a new city river front park to be called the Wenonah Park. Harry moved his operation across the river near the yard of the West Bay City Shipbuilding Company.
Bay City at this time now had two major shipbuilder, and Harry's up start boat works that specialized in much smaller vessels.
As business at the Davidson and Wheeler's former yard declined, Harry's business was growing. A key year was 1917, that year Harry landed a major government contract that led to another shortly thereafter. He suddenly found himself in need of a larger yard to handle the new business. A deal was struck with the New York Central Railroad who own a large tract of land just north of Woodside Avenue, and Harry moved his operation there. Another major period of growth for the Defoe yard was during the WWII. The became a major supplier of cutter class ships to the Navy and ships were being built and launched in a matter of weeks. After the war business at the yard slowed down to a more normal pace and they found plenty of work in building yachts, laker freighters, along with some major orders for military ships. By the 1960s the competition in the shipbuilding business was substantial and it was having its ill effects on the Defoe yard. The last of Bay City's shipbuilders came to an end in 1972.
You won't find many remnants of Bay City's former shipyards. About best that can be seen are the remaining skeletons of some of the vessels built by the Davidson shipyard and one of that yards slips. Both are incorporated into the landscape of the Veterans Memorial Park. The park also features a huge wooden rudder nearly twenty feet tall. There is nothing noticeable that is left of the Wheeler yard, but one can the old launching slip of the Defoe yard from the height of the Liberty Bridge. It is now fully overgrown with vegetation disguising its former use.
If you have an intereest in seeing some artifacts and taking an informational tour through the nautical history of this area, the Bay County Historical Society Museum has an excellent display on this subject. Another is attending a the meetings of the Saginaw Marine Historical Society. Their meetings are open to the public and each meeting typically features a presentation associated with marine history. Joining the society gets you a quarterly magazine call the