If the founders of Caseville came back today, I’ll bet they would barely recognize the place. In the mid to late 1800s, the little towns along the Great Lakes’ shores were gritty little industry centers. The Upper Thumb was no exception.
The shore was too sandy to farm, so land next to the water was undeveloped unless a river ran close by. Indeed, except for Bay Port and Grindstone City, all the Upper Thumb towns grew around the river mouth. This included Port Austin, Port Crescent, New River, Huron City, Sebewaing, and Caseville. No discussion of Caseville’s history can be made without a review of its industrial era.
Caseville History of Industry
On the site of what is now the Saginaw Bay Marina and along Riverside Drive sat the Pigeon River Salt and Iron Works, built in 1873. The investors were S. O. Edison, uncle of Thomas Edison, Sanford, and Francis Crawford. The furnace was moved there from Black River (now Lorain), Ohio. The iron ore was mined from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and shipped from Marquette and Escanaba. The blast furnace had a capacity of producing 30 tons of pig iron daily. The brick chimney must have been an impressive slight over the harbor basin and Pigeon River; at 45 feet high with a 9 ½ foot base, it was the town’s tallest structure.
Caseville’s Ties to the US Presidency
Caseville’s history also includes the father of a United States president. According to local lore, William McKinley Sr. invested in the operation and has superintendent of the operations until his retirement in 1876. McKinley was notable for being a pioneer of the iron industry in eastern Ohio.
The ironworks was run about a year, and then due to the Long Depression (1873-1879), depressed iron prices, and high fuel prices, the operation ceased. The furnace stood vacant and idle for years. The red brick kiln was torn down, and each brick was cleaned for reuse. Today some of these bricks can be seen in several buildings in Caseville. The Blue Water Inn is one of the most notable businesses where the original chimney bricks were used.
Caseville’s Crawford Mansion
As an early founder of Caseville, Francis Crawford was one of the wealthiest men in the Upper Thumb. In 1856 he built a large Italianate mansion on the top of the bluff overlooking the harbor and town.
Francis Crawford died in 1885, and the mansion was turned into the DeFord Hotel. The 150-ton house was moved in 2001 next to St Roch Catholic Church, refurbished, and was used as a funeral home and a health clinic.
Related Caseville History Stories
History of Ship Building in Caseville – Shipbuilding in the Great Lakes was also an important industry. In 1861 Francais Crawford built a lake schooner. The “Frank Crawford was a large masted schooner that plied the waters all over the Great Lakes in the late 1800s.
History of Coal Mining in Sebewaing – Discovery of surface and shallow coal veins resulted from grist mill construction in 1835 west of Jackson, Michigan. State geologist Douglas Hougton confirmed the existence of coal deposits in 1837. Over the next two decades, residents took surface coal for personal and local use. After the Civil War, shallow mine shafts were dug all over Michigan. Sebewaing was a chef producer of coal well into the late 1800s.
The Upper Thumb led in the Production of Salt – Towns such as Caseville, Port Crescent, Port Austin, New River, Port Hope, Harbor Beach, and White Rock on the south side of Saginaw Bay; and Tawas City, East Tawas, Au Sable, and Oscoda to the north all started salt operations. By 1888 there were 127 companies listed in Michigan producing 5.2 million barrels of salt annually. Michigan produced almost half of the nation’s salt.
History of the Sebewaing Brewing Company – Sebewaing Brewing Company, was a local Michigan beer company that served the Michigan Thumb market. Six-packs of long necks cost a little less than a dollar plus deposit. True to its German roots, the brewery offered an all Malt Pilsner, Lagers, and Bock style beers.
History of Caseville Harbor Compares to Leland’s Fishtown – The Caseville Harbor history photo was likely taken from the railroad bridge that once crossed the Pigeon River. The plat map from a 1935 WPA project shows the village and railroad lines leading into the area known today as Caseville Beach. In 1964 the Caseville Harbor break wall was built. It was made with huge boulders and rubble fill an extended 1,780 feet into Saginaw Bay.