(This column includes corrected information from its earlier publication on construction of the ships.)
Fire was the ever-present fear for those who owned or worked in the scores of sawmills up and down the Saginaw River in the 19th century.
With thousands of machines and saw blades whirling and whining, any spark could ignite the tons of sawdust that accumulated in mountainous stacks. Some fires became major disasters as the one in 1892 that engulfed nearly 50 square blocks of the South End killing one resident and leaving hundreds of families homeless.
Each month, it seemed, fires big and small tasked the fire departments on both sides of the river to their limits, and it was with extreme bravery that the firemen were able to limit the damage and loss of life.
Besides the lumber industry, West Bay City, the community opposite its big brother on the east side of the river, was home to the largest shipbuilding operations in Michigan. Between the two major shipbuilders, Wheeler and Davidson, most of the best and larges Great Lakes ore and freight carriers plying the waters were constructed here.
Tons of lumber were needed to construct the ship’s superstructure and interior, from pilot house on down to the sub-decks and frame. Davidson’s yard produced some of the largest wooden ships ever built on the Great Lakes.
To plane and cut the lumber to size required a major supply of raw-cut wood, sawyers, and planing mill operators. So the possibility of fire also was a danger in the shipyards.
One hundred twenty years ago this month, the Davidson shipyard could have disappeared in smoke and flames except for the extraordinary efforts of local firefighters.
Shortly after noon on April 21, 1896 flames ignited near one of the kilns being operated to treat the wood ribs and quickly spread, engulfing two kilns and then the planing mill itself. According to news accounts, a general fire alarm was sounded and three West Bay City fire companies responded.
Two of the hose companies arrived first to put water on the growing conflagration with the other minutes later, and then two more companies from Bay City responded to assist.
One of the ships under construction, a schooner identified only as “No. 73” had been due for launching and stood on the stocks within 30 feet of the burning mill. The framework of the 285-foot keel caught fire, but firefighters quickly doused the flames limiting the damage.
Officials said the repairs could be made including scraping of the hull and the delayed launch would take place.
An investigation was ordered to determine the exact cause of the fire. Damages were sizeable, estimated to be $20,000.