Bay Port Fisherman

The Amazing History of The Bay Port Commercial Fishing District

The following is a painstakingly extracted application from the National Register for Historic Places Inventory – Nomination Form for the Bay Port Commercial Fishing District. Issued in September 1977. Unless you’re specifically looking for information in the archives, much of its content is never found by searching the Web. Other than correcting for some minor errors from the typewritten application, the text is taken verbatim.

The Present and Original Appearance of Bay Port

The Bay Port Retail & Processing House Today

Surrounded by flat agricultural lands in Michigan’s “Thumb” area, the small, unincorporated town of Bay Port provides a pleasant visual change with its tree-lined residential streets and shoreline location. On the northeast shoreline, the large homes of Bay Port’s affluent citizens create a stylish townscape, while smaller summer homes define the “resort” section to the southwest. Downtown Bay Port, an area bisected by State Route M-25, is made up of a few small businesses encircled by residential housing dating from the first quarter of this century. Although only five hundred people live in Bay Port year round, thousands of tourists pass through the town en route to other attractions in the Thumb area.

The fishing operations are centered on an area of land approximately six hundred feet in length and one hundred to five hundred feet in width that extends out from Bay Port into Saginaw Bay. This small peninsula, now named the Bay Port Commercial Fishing Historic District, was artificially created by excavating on either side of a low point of land to form channels into which fishing boats could enter and dock. The adjacent shoreline of the Bay Port area is low and marshy, so commercial development has not been feasible along the mainland. Several lush, off-shore islands complement the beauty of this virgin shore area and provide essential wildlife retreats.

The expansion of the peninsula’s fishing facilities followed the railroad’s arrival in 1886. Indeed, the Gillingham Family expanded their operations by 1930 that the western side of the peninsula and the adjacent shoreline were lined with boats and well-constructed buildings. Creating a nearly self-contained operation, that family’s facilities for boat-building and maintenance, net making, net-repair, fish processing, and marketing and ice production filled the area. The Bay Port Fish Company not only constructed many similar facilities on the eastern side of the peninsula but contracted for company houses to be built for employee use.

Bay Port Commercial Fishing District Office
Bay Port Fish Company Offices

Today, only seven buildings remain standing in the district. Located at the southern base of the peninsula, the Bay Port Fish Company Office Building is the most visible of these extant structures (Photo #2, Sketch Map #1). Set on cement foundations and capped with a gable roof, this two-story wooden building not only houses the company offices but serves as a storage area. Although built around 1920, the office building is in good condition and little altered beyond the construction of a dormer-like addition on the roof.

Bay Port Commercial Fishing District - FIsh Processing House
#3 Fish Processing House

The one-and-one-half-story Twine House stands directly north of the Fish Company Office Building on the peninsula’s eastern shore (Sketch Map #2). Built in 1945, after a disastrous fire burned down most of the wooden structures in the district, the new house was completely constructed of corrugated metal sheeting. The building rests on cement block foundations and is capped by a sheet-metal gambrel roof accented by dormers. The one-and-done-half-story Fish Processing Plant is also on the eastern side of the peninsula but located at the district’s northern end (Photo #1, Sketch Map #3). Like the Twine House, the structure is supported on cement-covered block foundations sunk into the water, built of corrugated sheet metal, and protected by a sheet-metal gambrel roof. Since 1945, the structure has supplied shoreline facilities for the unloading of boats, the processing of catch, and the public sale of fish.

#4 Bay Port Storage and Net Shed (No Longer Remains)

The Storage and Net Shed are located on the peninsula’s western shore (Photo #4, Sketch Map #4). This single-story structure is created by two connecting sheds; both built with corrugated metal siding and gable roofs covered with tar paper. Though the building once housed the steam machine used to soften and shape hull boards and the equipment used to repair fishing boats, it is now in disrepair and good only for storage.

The Gillingham Boat and Net Shed are directly across from the Fish Company Office on the western side of the peninsula’s base (Sketch Map #5). Once utilized as a facility for building and repairing boats and nets, the structure is now used for storage. Although built at the turn of the century, the two-story, gable-roofed, wooden structure remains in good condition. The Night Watchman’s House and Outhouse are two small wooden shacks of uncertain age located near the center of the peninsula (Sketch Map #6). Simply constructed with clapboard siding, gable roofs, and doorways, the structures are purely utilitarian.

The Bowman House is the only site off the peninsula but is included in the historic district (Sketch Map #7). Located on the mainland across from the eastern shore of the peninsula, this wooden twine shed was named after the fisherman who built it in the 1920s. Covered by a gable roof with a lean-to attached at the back, this one-and-one-half-story structure stands in desolate, marsh-like surroundings. Unlike the other fishing facilities of the historic district, the Bowman House is free of the tar boiling cauldrons, the remains of railroad tracks, the discarded fishing equipment, the charred remains of buildings, and the shells of abandoned boats that clutter the peninsula.

Inventory of Structures Located Within the Bay Port Commercial Fishing District

Bay Port Commercial Fishing District Map
Bay Port Commercial Fishing District Map

1. Bay Port Fish Company Office, built circa 1920: two-story, wooden building with cement foundations and gable roof. · Now used as company offices and storage areas.

2. Twine House, built-in 1945: one-and-one-half story structure of corrugated sheet metal siding, cement block foundations, and gambrel roof with dormers. Now used for twine (net) storage and repair.

3. Fish Processing Plant, built-in 1945: one-and-one-half story structure of corrugated sheet metal siding, cement-covered block foundations, and gambrel roof. Provides facilities for unloading boats, processing catch, and selling fish.

4. Storage and Net Shed, construction date unknown: single-story structure of corrugated metal siding and gable roofs covered with tar paper. Presently used for storage.

5. Gillingham Boat and Net Shed, built at the turn of the twentieth century: two-story, gable-roofed, wooden structure. Now used for storage.

6. Watchman’s House and Outhouse, construction date unknown: two small wooden shacks with clapboard siding, gable roofs, and simple doorways. Structures serve the original purposes.

7. Bowman House built circa 1920: one-and-one-half story wooden structure with gable roof and lean-to. Present use unknown.

Historical Significance Bay Port Commercial Fishing District

Although Bay Port was settled in the early 1860s, the small community was an agricultural rather than a fishing center for the “Thumb” area of Michigan. Some fishermen did work the Saginaw Bay, but without a good transportation system, their catch could only be locally marketed. With the railroad’s arrival in 1886, however, commercial fishing for a broader market became a viable industry.

Fisherman unloading a box of fish 1976 in Bay Port

Attracted by the rail system established in the Bay Port area, Charles Gillingham and his family moved their fishing operations from North Island to the mainland. Setting up equipment and storage sheds out on an artificially created peninsula, the family soon developed a fishing district perfect for unloading boats and processing and shipping fish.

Following Gillingham’s lead, local investors established the Bay Port Fish Company on the east side of the peninsula in 1895. Both enterprises rapidly expanded as they developed the district and added to their fishing fleets.

The Boom Days of Bay Port’s Fish Operations

Packed in ice-filled railroad cars, the resulting harvests of lake herrings, walleyes, and whitefish were shipped to consumers throughout the eastern half of the country. Express train service was even established so that fresh and salted. Herring, Bay Port’s specialty, could reach consumers within twenty-four hours. On return trips, the boxcars carried the heavy poles needed to secure the companies’ fishing nets, the salt for preserving fish, and the boxes used for shipping the processed catch.

Bay Port Railway Depot

By the 1920s and ’30s, Bay Port was commonly known as the “largest freshwater fishing port in the world.” Crowded together on the small peninsula, crews from over thirty fishing boats mingled with the representatives of large, eastern wholesale businesses. In the company offices, a constant stream of telephone conversations between Bay Port and the large East Coast cities helped officials determine prices and shipping arrangements. On the docks and in the processing plants, ton after ton of Saginaw Bay fish was quickly and efficiently- prepared for market.

The bustle never stopped because the Bay Port peninsula had become a self-contained operation. Besides processing their catch on this small point of land, the companies also built and repaired their own boat nets and fishing equipment. Even advertising and promotional programs were handled by the district. Indeed, when faced with a surplus of herring in 1949, Henry Engelhard and his cadre of company salespeople successfully introduced the area’s first fish sandwich. When herring became short in supply, the same promotional team got the public to accept sucker as the main ingredient.

The Massive Bay Port Fire

Bay Port Commercial Fishing District in 1940
Bay Port Commercial Fishing District in 1940

Unfortunately, on January(15th) of 1945, a disastrous fire destroyed most of the Bay Port Fish Company buildings and equipment and forced the business to close. Although much of the Gillingham operation was also burned, the family directed Otto Schmidt, the president, to rebuild a new net shed and processing plant. Business resumed under Schmidt’s direction, but a general economic decline never allowed the district to regain its former productive capacities. To divest Gillingham’s of the huge amounts of land acquired early in its history, Schmidt liquidated the company in 1949 and formed two separate enterprises to sell the land and operate the remaining facilities. In 1965, Schmidt sold his interests to both Henry Engelhard and Mel Dutcher, but by 1973, Engelhard was the sole owner.

The original  Bay Port fish sandwich stand
The original Bay Port fish sandwich stand

Despite obstacles, Mr. Engelhard continues to operate with a small fleet of five boats. Rough or “underutilized” species of fish such as carp, catfish, suckers, bass, sheep head, and perch are harvested instead of the once plentiful herrings and walleyes. The huge crowds of sales representatives, boat crews, and on-lookers have dwindled to a few visitors and eastern buyers who still have interest in the peninsula’s operations. As long as the Bay Port Commercial Fishing District continues to function, an important facet of Great Lakes heritage will not be lost. With recognition, preservation, and interpretation of such a district, Michigan’s citizens can understand the contribution that commercial fishing made to the state’s cultural and economic history

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Bay Port Historic Fishing District
Bay Port Historic Fishing District

Michael Hardy

Michael Hardy is the owner of Thumbwind Publications LLC. Michael was born in Michigan and grew up near Caseville. In 2009 he started this 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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