Bay City in Michigan – What the Grisdales found

Posted: May 6, 2014 in American History
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When Wilfred Grisdale and his family arrived in Canada from Cumberland in 1816, they probably had no idea what the future would bring.[1] They just hoped for a better life. Over the years Wilfred’s children spread out from North Monaghan all over Canada and into the United States. Some helped build the first Welland canal and fought the Irish.[2] Others became farmers in Isabella County in Michigan.[3] Some worked on tug boats. Later several were to die fighting in the First World War.[4] A whole group of the family made their way from Canada to Bay City in Michigan in the second half of the 1860s. They were sawyers, loggers and ‘boom men’. Rather than tell their individual stories I would here just like to give an impression of the life and town they found in Bay City. Of course I have never been to Bay City (and only once to Michigan) and thus I’d like to acknowledge the work of many fine local historians for enabling me to give a flavour of what this Grisdale family probably  saw and experienced.

We are primarily concerned with the fifth child of Wilfred Grisdale and his wife Jane Bell: James Grisdale, who was born in 1812 in Carlisle in Cumberland and arrived in Canada aged about four.[5] Like some of his siblings James moved away from the woods of North Monaghan and Peterborough County to Thorold in Welland County, Ontario. Sometime around 1833/4 James married Jane Eliza Green, either in Fort Erie or Thorold. Children followed, born in Fort Erie and later, for sure, in Thorold. What James initially worked as we don’t know. His older brother Gideon had helped build the first Welland canal and later became a lock keeper on the canal.[6] Maybe James did this too. Whatever the case, by 1861 at the latest James was working as a sawyer in a sawmill In Thorold.

But in the 1860s America’s mid-west was witnessing a logging boom. One of its primary centres was Michigan and particularly the Saginaw Valley.

Michigan logging crew

Michigan logging crew

Geographic factors played an important part in the development of Michigan’s lumber industry. White pine, the wood most in demand for construction in the nineteenth century, grew in abundance in northern Michigan forests. The state was also crisscrossed by a network of rivers which provided convenient transportation for logs to the saw mills and lake ports.

By 1840 it was apparent that the traditional sources of white pine in Maine and New York would be unable to supply a growing demand for lumber. Michigan, the next state west in the northern pine belt, was the logical place to turn for more lumber. The first commercial logging ventures in the state utilized eastern techniques, capital, and labor, but Michigan lumbering soon expanded beyond the scope of anything previously known and established itself as one of the state’s most important industries…

The production of Michigan lumber increased dramatically during the middle decades of the nineteenth century. The Saginaw Valley was the leading lumbering area between 1840 and 1860, when the number of mills in operation throughout the state doubled, and the value of their products increased from $1 million to $6 million annually. Rapid growth continued, and by 1869 the Saginaw Valley alone was earning $7 million yearly…

By 1869 Michigan was producing more lumber than any other state, a distinction it continued to hold for thirty years.[7]

Workers flooded into Michigan from all over the United States, from Canada, from Poland and from Germany and elsewhere.

In the second half of the 19th Century, Bay City was the lumber capital of the world. The booming lumber mills were providing Bay City with wealth and jobs and many people flocked to Bay City and West Bay City to make a living.[8]

James Grisdale and his family were one of these; they arrived in Bay City in 1865/6. With his experience in a sawmill in Thorold James no doubt expected to find similar work in Bay City, which he did. In 1870 he is working as a sawyer in a sawmill in the Portsmouth township of Bay City, living with his wife Jane and some of his children (Gideon, Anna and John) in a house worth $400. Some of his older children (David and Jane) had stayed behind in Canada, while sons James and William Champion had also, I believe, come to Bay City at the same time.


James was also joined by his older widowed brother Gideon (who married widow Hannah Raby in 1869 in Bay City and stayed a few years before returning to Welland in Canada), plus his younger brother Joseph with his family. In 1873 we find all these Grisdales living and working in Bay City. James was a ‘laborer’ probably still in a sawmill. His son William Champion Grisdale was a sawyer in the ‘Pitts and Cranage’ mill and living at Bay City’s first hotel, the Wolverton House, with his wife and two children. His newly married son Gideon was working as a ‘piler’, i.e. a pile driver, for ‘Watrous Brothers & Co.’. His son John was a labourer with ‘Richards, Miller & Co.’, as was his older brother Gideon, his younger brother Joseph and Joseph’s son, also called Joseph. A veritable Bay City Grisdale clan!

But what was the Bay City they had come to?

Bay City was a boomtown, with lumbering and sawmills bringing in fortunes. With the immediate prosperity came all the vices of human nature. Hells Half Mile included saloons, sporting houses, (places where gambling and prostitution co-existed), and variety theaters where bawdy performances were common. The area contained a network of underground passages that connected of the buildings leading to the nickname “catacombs” for the entire area. Often lumberjacks, who spent all of their money, could sleep in the passageways where the owners put down blankets and mats for 5 cents a night. [9]

Eddy Brothers sawmill, Bay City

Eddy Brothers sawmill, Bay City

But ‘jobs in the mills were dangerous, and before long small strikes started breaking out as laborers tried to improve their working conditions. Most of the strikes were short-lived and were failures. Then, in 1870, a more serious strike shut down production in a few mills, signifying that the workers were becoming restless and unified.’[10] James Grisdale and his family were no doubt either involved or at least witnesses to this strike.

The 1870 strike drifted into memory and still the mill workers were unsatisfied. Over the years their mood grew worse, fifteen years later a devastating strike would hit Bay City because labor issues had been ignored for so long.[11]

This was the famous Bay City strike of 1885.

When Bay City’s sawmills opened in 1885, mill owners notified workers that wages would be 12 to 25 percent lower than in 1884. On July 6, 1885, Bay City millhands began to walk off the job. Their slogan, “Ten Hours or No Sawdust,” represented the demand for a ten-hour day, higher wages and semi-monthly pay.[12]

But this is to run ahead of ourselves.

In 1907 Stewart Edward White published a wonderful book called The Blazed Trail, in Chapter 26 he tells us about Bay City ‘the Lumber Town’. I will quote him in full because I think it gives us a feel of what the Grisdales found in Bay City.


A Bay City saloon

A Bay City saloon

A lumbering town after the drive is a fearful thing. Men just off the river draw a deep breath, and plunge into the wildest reactionary dissipation. In droves they invade the cities, — wild, picturesque, lawless.

As long as the money lasts, they blow it in.

“Hot money!” is the cry. “She’s burnt holes in all my pockets already!” The saloons are full, the gambling houses overflow, all the places of amusement or crime run full blast. A chip rests lightly on everyone’s shoulder. Fights are as common as raspberries in August. Often one of these formidable men, his muscles toughened and quickened by the active, strenuous river work, will set out to “take the town apart.” For a time he leaves rack and ruin, black eyes and broken teeth behind him, until he meets a more redoubtable “knocker” and is pounded and kicked into unconsciousness.

Organized gangs go from house to house forcing the peaceful inmates to drink from their bottles. Others take possession of certain sections of the street and resist “a l’outrance” the attempts of others to pass. Inoffensive citizens are stood on their heads, or shaken upside down until the contents of their pockets rattle on the street. Parenthetically, these contents are invariably returned to their owners. The riverman’s object is fun, not robbery.

And if rip-roaring, swashbuckling, drunken glory is what he is after, he gets it. The only trouble is, that a whole winter’s hard work goes in two or three weeks. The only redeeming feature is, that he is never, in or out of his cups, afraid of anything that walks the earth.

Michigan loggers

Michigan loggers

A man comes out of the woods or off the drive with two or three hundred dollars, which he is only too anxious to throw away by the double handful. It follows naturally that a crew of sharpers are on hand to find out who gets it. They are a hard lot. Bold, unprincipled men, they too are afraid of nothing; not even a drunken lumber-jack, which is one of the dangerous wild animals of the American fauna. Their business is to relieve the man of his money as soon as possible. They are experts at their business.

The towns of Bay City and Saginaw alone in 1878 supported over fourteen hundred tough characters. Block after block was devoted entirely to saloons. In a radius of three hundred feet from the famous old Catacombs could be numbered forty saloons, where drinks were sold by from three to ten “pretty waiter girls.” When the boys struck town, the proprietors and waitresses stood in their doorways to welcome them.

“Why, Jack!” one would cry, “when did you drift in? Tickled to death to see you! Come in an’ have a drink. That your chum? Come in, old man, and have a drink. Never mind the pay; that’s all right.”

And after the first drink, Jack, of course, had to treat, and then the chum. Or if Jack resisted temptation and walked resolutely on, one of the girls would remark audibly to another. “He ain’t no lumber-jack! You can see that easy ’nuff! He’s jest off th’ hay-trail!”

Ten to one that brought him, for the woodsman is above all things proud and jealous of his craft. In the center of this whirlpool of iniquity stood the Catacombs as the hub from which lesser spokes in the wheel radiated. Any old logger of the Saginaw Valley can tell you of the Catacombs, just as any old logger of any other valley will tell you of the “Pen,” the “White Row,” the “Water Streets” of Alpena, Port Huron, Ludington, Muskegon, and a dozen other lumber towns.

The Catacombs was a three-story building. In the basement were vile, ill-smelling, ill-lighted dens, small, isolated, dangerous. The shanty boy with a small stake, far gone in drunkenness, there tasted the last drop of wickedness, and thence was flung unconscious and penniless on the streets. A trap-door directly into the river accommodated those who were inconsiderate enough to succumb under rough treatment.

The second story was given over to drinking. Polly Dickson there reigned supreme, an anomaly. She was as pretty and fresh and pure-looking as a child; and at the same time was one of the most ruthless and unscrupulous of the gang. She could at will exercise a fascination the more terrible in that it appealed at once to her victim’s nobler instincts of reverence, his capacity for what might be called aesthetic fascination, as well as his passions. When she finally held him, she crushed him as calmly as she would a fly.

Four bars supplied the drinkables. Dozens of “pretty waiter girls” served the customers. A force of professional fighters was maintained by the establishment to preserve that degree of peace which should look to the preservation of mirrors and glassware.

Bay City's Arlington Hotel opened in 1883

Bay City’s Arlington Hotel opened in 1883

The third story contained a dance hall and a theater. The character of both would better be left to the imagination. Night after night during the season, this den ran at top-steam. By midnight, when the orgy was at its height, the windows brilliantly illuminated, the various bursts of music, laughing, cursing, singing, shouting, fighting, breaking in turn or all together from its open windows, it was, as Jackson Hines once expressed it to me, like hell let out for noon.

The respectable elements of the towns were powerless. They could not control the elections. Their police would only have risked total annihilation by attempting a raid. At the first sign of trouble they walked straightly in the paths of their own affairs, awaiting the time soon to come when, his stake “blown-in,” the last bitter dregs of his pleasure gulped down, the shanty boy would again start for the woods..[13]

The main hub of all this revel was Water Street, known as Hell’s Half Mile. ‘It was a notorious strip for lumberjacks too let loose after many long months in the woods.’

Water Street, Bay City

Water Street, Bay City

After the spring thaw, shanty boys wandered out of the woods and hitched a ride to “Hell’s Half Mile,” along the river in Bay City. Thousands of dollars were made off these foolish shanty boys. Most of the locals condemned this “yearly torrent of wickedness.” Others took advantage of it, draining the men of most of the money that they had made over the winter.

It was not just saloons that raked in the benefits of this yearly onslaught of lumbermen. Dance halls, gambling dens, resorts and, of course, brothels tapped into their pockets.

Saloons even hired “runners” to entice the shanty boys to their businesses. There were plenty of saloons to choose from. In 1880, Bay City had a population of 27,000 with 162 saloons opened day and night in the city, and even 26 more on the other side of the river on the West Side. Water Street, “Hell’s Half Mile,” contained the raunchiest, most prostitute laden, and the most popular saloons in town.

Brothels also ran along the infamous Water Street. “Ma Smith” ran a home of 12 to 20 girls and even the town marshal in 1875 owned a brothel. Prostitution was legal during this time and saloon keepers, businessmen and law enforcement did little to regulate it because it was good for business, anything to get the $150-200 a shanty boy would bring into town.

How did “Hell’s Half Mile” get its name? History often focuses on the violence in the Wild West, but lumber towns were just as bad, if not worse. Bay City was notorious at the time for tolerance of and association with vice and violence, even the town marshal owned a brothel. Since it was the first stop on the railroad, the city got its fair share of shanty boys, even giving the city the nicknames “Tramp Heaven” or “Bum City.”

One thing that Bay City had that Western cities lacked was brawling. “Free fights” (for absolutely no reason whatsoever) were common between 20 to 30 men, often leading to serious injury and death. Bay City had less homicides than Western cities, just more fighting for no reason.

After the shanty boys ran out of money, things quieted down. They went to work in mills and farms over the summer, later to return for more fun the next year.[14]

Bay City sawmill

Bay City sawmill

Returning to the sawmill workers’ strike of 1885.

Less is known about the backgrounds of the men who labored in the sawmills in the late nineteenth century, but it is likely that they followed the same general pattern as the loggers. Like the men in the woods, mill hands worked long hours. They did not face the isolation of the logging camps, but their working and living conditions were often worse: noisy, dirty mills and dingy, cramped housing. Although mill workers received higher wages than loggers, from $30 to $50 per month, they had to provide their own room and board. They were also more likely to have families to support than were the loggers.

Like workers in other American industries, those employed in lumbering made attempts at organization during the decades following the Civil War. Union organization was most successful among the mill workers because they were concentrated in the towns. Prior to 1884 there were scattered unsuccessful strikes in Michigan mills. They did little to unite the workers but which effectively consolidated the mill owners against the workers.

The largest strike occurred in the Saginaw Valley in 1885. Mill hands demanded an immediate shift to a ten-hour day (which was due to occur soon anyway as the result of a recently enacted law) and more importantly, that the change not be accompanied by a reduction in pay. Within a month, in many mills in Saginaw and East Saginaw, the strike had been broken, but the workers in Bay City, the source of the strike movement, held out for another month. The mill hands had shown a willingness to cooperate in relieving some of the financial hardships caused by the strike; they were less successful in uniting to negotiate with the mill owners. Nor did this strike spur the growth of the labor movement. By the mid-1880s the forests of the Saginaw Valley were nearly exhausted, and as jobs became more difficult to find, disruptions became fewer.[15]

markerIn 1884, James Grisdale, the ‘head’ of the family, had died aged 72. His son William Champion Grisdale had worked for the Pitts and Cranage Mill in 1873, and was probably still there in 1880 when he was  a ‘sawyer’ in a sawmill. But William had moved on to other things by 1885, he became a wholesale fish merchant. Nevertheless, William would no doubt have watched the events of the strike unfold, including at his old employer Pitts & Cranage:

By the end of the first day the crowd had swelled to over four hundred men. They gathered at Madison Avenue Park to listen to several men who claimed leadership of the strike. One of them, D.C. Blinn would become the force behind the strike. He would be present at nearly all the major events and was constantly rallying his men. Blinn was a firebrand, the editor of a newspaper called the Labor Vindicator, and on that night he was calling for the men to shut down all of Bay City’s industries.

The crowd must have been energized, because the next day they used even more pressure. The workers at Pitts & Cranage had resisted them the day before, but now they stopped work and joined the ranks. As time went on the crowds became more aggressive and those still working began to worry about their safety. Many joined up, but later said they did so out of fear.[16]

So this was the life these Grisdales had come to in Michigan. Was it a better life than in Ontario or even Cumberland? Who knows? But at least it was a springboard for some of the family, as I will show at a later date. James’s son James, for example, eventually became a logging millionaire in Kitsap in Washington State. Of course all this logging, here as elsewhere in the United States, was just another case of freewheeling American capitalists coming into an area, stripping it of its resources (whether via mining or logging) and moving on, leaving behind an ecological disaster. But that is the story of America, as indeed it is of elsewhere in the world.

In their haste to move on to new cutting sites, loggers usually gave little thought to the lands they were leaving. By the 1870s stumps and branches already littered much of northern Michigan. There was no longer any barrier to erosion on cutover land, and the dried debris created an enormous fire hazard. At the end of the dry summer months fires frequently broke out, sometimes moving into still uncut timberlands or settled areas, as in 1871 and 1881, when fires broke out across the state. These dangerous conditions in the former logging districts inspired, in large part, the first attempts to conserve Michigan’s natural resources.

Lumber companies had no desire to own already logged parcels of land and thus found themselves trying to sell large tracts of land in the 1880s and 90s. They vigorously promoted the former forests as good farmland, ready for the plow, but experience soon proved that this was not the case. Most of the land simply could not support continuous farming, and its fertility was soon exhausted. Families that had put all their savings and hopes into such a farm often had no alternative but to give it up when they could not pay their taxes. Tax delinquent land as well as acreage simply abandoned by lumber companies was thus acquired by the State of Michigan, forming the basis for its early efforts toward reforestation and land management…[17]

Michigan logging camp

Michigan logging camp

Perhaps I should finish with the first two lines of one of the many sons the lumber workers of Michigan sang:

Come all you sons of freedom and listen to my theme. Come all you roving lumberjacks that run the Saginaw stream.[18]

And just by way of genealogical interest, in 1885 at exactly the time of the famous Bay City strike my great grandmother Agnes Grisdale, the granddaughter of William Grisdale the brother of the Canadian immigrant Wilfred, married my great grandfather Frederick Lewis in Southport, Lancashire.


Notes and references:







[7] Maria Quinlan, Lumbering in Michigan:,4570,7-153-54463_18670_18793-53133–,00.html

[8] Victor J. Mobley, BAY CITY’S LONG SUMMER: The Labor Strike of 1885, June 11. 2011:

[9]  Bay City History:

[10] Victor J. Mobley. BAY CITY’S LONG SUMMER: The Labor Strike of 1885, June 11. 2011.

[11] BAY CITY’S LONG SUMMER: The Labor Strike of 1885.

[12] Ten Hours or No Sawdust:


[14] Jana Irving, Hell’s Half Mile: Shanty Boys, Brothels and Geysers of Booze (2013):

[15] Lumbering in Michigan.

[16] BAY CITY’S LONG SUMMER: The Labor Strike of 1885

[17] Lumbering in Michigan.

[18] Songs of the Michigan Lumberjacks, Library of Congress, Washington, 1960.


    Hello –   what do you know about this marriage: John Borranskell    marr:   Jane Grizedale     ISELL 11 September 1703 I am not sure where John B fits into my tree. At Isell there was a large Quaker community

    Thanks for your very interesting  Grizedale stories.

    Joan Borrowscale…  


    • Stephen Lewis says:

      Hello We’ve been in touch before. I’ll look into this more. By the way the usual and original spelling of the family name is Grisdale, only a few later clerks spelt it with a z.


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