Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Other Singapore - A Tale of Shipbuilding and Baby Food

Those of you who thought there was only one place in the world called 'Singapore' may be surprised to learn that there are in fact two.

More precisely, there were two, one of which is now buried in sand dunes. The other Singapore was established in the mid-1800's by timber interests and situated on the Kalamazoo River, downstream from Saugatuck, near the shore of Lake Michigan. Its first house was built in 1837.  The area had been originally inhabited by Ottawa Indians.

Unlike its South East Asian cousin, the US version didn't produce nutmeg but was renowned for its sawmills, planing mills, ship builidng, barrel factories and other wood products. When Chicago was devastated by the Great Fire of 1871, much of the replacement timber came from Singapore and its neighboring  timber (lumber) communities.

Once the white pine trees were all clear-felled and no longer available, and its protective windbreaks lost, the American Singapore was abandoned and gradually buried by drifting sand dunes.  It now only exists in legend as one of the state's 'lost cities'.

In an excellent April 2010 article, James Schmiechen describes the town thus:

"Singapore existed for about a half century, from about 1837 to the early 1880's. It began, as one pioneer descendant called it, as "an oasis in the woods" - a very early lumber/immigration port and shipbuilding town that tells of how an environmental disaster resulted from the clear cutting of nearby forests and the blowing sands that eventually buried the town. It was, in short, an early American 'disaster city'. Its first mill was constructed in 1835, being surrounded on the north and west by wooded virgin forest and on dunes rising to a height of about 50 feet. Like most of the area settlements, it started as a lumber milling camp and tried desperately to become a town but in reality its handy proximity to Lake Michigan turned out to be a disadvantage".

He also sheds  light on the immigrants who arrived by boat and made up the population of Singapore:

"Singapore was a sort of Michigan "Ellis Island" port of entry for immigrants from all over America, Canada, and Europe. Dozens of Saugatuck area families trace their Michigan origins to Singapore - many of them tradesmen (e.g. bricklayers, carpenters, sailors, engineers) who stayed on in the settlement for a time before moving on to opportunities (particularly land acquisition) in other settlements. Around 1850 the boarding house held families from Ireland, Holland, Norway, Germany, and Canada. Daniel Gerber, the founder of the Michigan family that invented processed baby food arrived in Michigan by way of Singapore in 1863. Early Dutch settlers of the nearby settlement that became Holland, Michigan came to Michigan by way of Singapore".

Singapore also had its own bank and these were often known as "wildcat banks" because of the localised worth of the currency they printed (see examples below) and volatile nature of their businesses.

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that prosperity can be a fleeting thing if you abuse your natural resources and don't plan for a sustainable future.  

The Singapore of Michigan didn't heed this advice and is now lost in the sands of time.  The prosperous Asian Singapore that we know today has a solid focus on renewable and human resources and continues to thrive.

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