Sebewaing Fishtown

An Amazing Sebewaing Fishtown on Saginaw Bay 1878

On the borders of Lake Huron, where its, waters dash up against the thickly wooded shores of the State of Michigan, is an inlet known as Saginaw Bay. Visit this inlet any time before the long winter sets in, and you will see the bay dotted over with innumerable small fishing boats, whose white sails resemble so many graceful sea-gulls skimming over the water; in these boats are the fishermen dragging their nets for Mackinaw trout.

Hundreds support themselves in this way through the season when the lake and bay are free from ice; but a time soon comes when, for twenty miles out from the shore, an ice bridge forms thick enough to sustain a whole village. When the mercury seldom rising above zero from the last of November until the first of March, the fishermen and their families would be quite destitute as soon as the bleak Winter commences, had not a mode been established whereby they could fish all the Winter through. As there was no work to be accomplished, there was, of course, much suffering, and an opportunity offered to prove the proverb that “necessity is the mother of invention.”

Many ways were devised, and much cogitating racked the brains of the poor until they, at last, concluded to try the experiment of each man building himself a house and moving on to the lake, directly the ice formed.

A Winter Settlement on the Ice In Saginaw Bay, on Lake Huron

Fishermen on their way to erect the winter village on the fishing grounds.

It was no sooner thought of than put to the test, and several hundred families moved out from shore, and by cutting a larger square hole through the solid floor into the dark waters, they were enabled to drop their nets and secure the fish. It seems almost incredible that it is possible for so large a number of people to live at once upon the ice, but it is a favorite haunt of Jack Frost, and he comes puffing and blowing from his home in the Spitsbergen regions with a blast that not only bites fingers and noses and tingles ears with a cruel nip, but keeps a solid foundation for the ice city for many months.

If you never have been upon the shores of Sebewaing Fishtown in mid-Winter, you never have felt truly cold weather. The renown of this curious city reached us long before we were willing to accept the truth of the report, and it was not until we had visited it and beheld the markets and green groceries, the odd little log-dwellings containing only one room, with a stove perched upon a shelf to prevent the ice from melting, and had peeped through the large square hole in the floor where the men were dragging in the fish, could we believe such a city really existed-scarcely even then could we feel certain that it was not a myth, or a fairy village, that would soon slip away and leave, where were now roads and houses, taverns and markets, but angry, treacherous waters that would bear not a trace of the hundreds of busy workmen so recently living above them.

A night scene in a fishing shanty

The houses are built on wheels, much after the fashion of a photographer’s portable house; have a door and a chimney, are furnished with very little comfort, and generally, contain from four to five people in each. The village lies ten miles from shore and includes, besides a large number of dwellings, many markets, and stores. We did not expect to see so many happy-faced people in such a dreary. desolate place possibly it might have been because of the unusual excitement that prevailed at the good fortune of bringing in ten-pound fish, or it might be owing to the clear Western Sebewaing Fishtown climate, that we beheld so many sturdy people; but, I take it, it would lie quite impossible to find a city lad who could outstrip a Michigan boy in a long run-here he thinks nothing of skating twelve miles to shore and back then of walking two city blocks on a frosty morning.

The clear atmosphere is invigorating and healthful, such a disease as pulmonary complaint never having been known. Once, two fishermen more venturous than the rest, remained a night too long in the fast-ebbing: village, and in the morning not a trace of ice could be seen beyond the small cake upon which they floated; fortune, however, served them a good turn, for, after floating in the lake for two days and nights, a cold east-wind prevails which was sufficient to form a new bridge; and upon then they skated ashore.

The lives‘of the inhabitants are thus fraught with danger, as a sudden change in the temperature may leave them at any time without their city; therefore. it seems to present constant fluctuation. The owners of the cabins, not being burdened with much furniture, are ever ready to close their doors and at a moment’s notice drag their families to terra firma. But this does not often happen, as Jack Frost‘s visits are generally so prolonged as to leave no doubt regarding the safety of the city. It seemed to us. who were unaccustomed to so cheerless an existence. that the living in such a bleak, dreary town must of necessity be very demoralizing; but we found the men and boys enjoying themselves with cards, spinning yarns, and singing in a very sailorly manner. and apparently enjoying life quite as much as “ lubberly landsman.”

Christmas is celebrated, too. in these humble dwellings, and we found scarcely a house undecorated with a bit of pine and holly; the inmates rejoicing over the day Christ was born with as much real enjoyment as though they could celebrate the advent with gifts befitting the wealthiest.

Carrying fish to the Storehouse

The fishermen find their employment almost as profitable in Winter as in the Spring and Summer and haul twice a day. The nets are sunk with weights and stretched to their uttermost, being fastened to sticks laid across the opening in the ice. The hardy sons of the ice seem far more contented with their mode of living than we could imagine possible and are a far better class of men than the gangs who hew timber in the Michigan forests, to be floated down the rivers in the Spring to the lumber-mills that line the Saginaw River.

Weighing fish to send to market

The road that leads to Sebewaing Fishtown carries the traveler trough many tracts of unbroken snow and across plains and desolate country. The wind was blowing a steady gale during our daily journey in the family sleigh and made us well wish to shorten the fifteen miles of travel, before we stepped upon the frozen bay, after which we must still ride ten miles before reaching the phantom city.

But in due time it was accomplished, and we beheld what we have already described. The vicinity of Fishtown, upon the shore, is wild and uninviting-looking, and we were glad enough to turn our faces homeward, to find a warm, cheerful fire to welcome us, congratulating ourselves that the perilous journey need not be again repented, and grateful that our lines lay in pleasant places than these of the fishermen whom we had just visited, ten miles out upon the ice.

Fishtown on Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron


Taken from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 16, 1878

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Michael Hardy

Mike Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. It started in 2009 as a fun-loving site covering Michigan's Upper Thumb. Since then, he has authored a vast range of content and established a loyal base of 60,000 visitors per month.

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