Saginaw’s claim to historic fame was its fabulous lumbering era and it was “Uncle Harvey” Williams who started it all. He was the pioneer blacksmith, the pioneer manufacturer of agricultural implements, the pioneer engine builder and the pioneer lumberman of the Saginaw Valley.
He was born in Worcester County, Massachusetts, in July of 1794. At the age of 16, he went to Boston, where he was apprenticed to a blacksmith and wagon maker. During the War of 1812, he served in the Boston Militia. After a brief stay in Albany, New York, he joined his parents and siblings in Detroit. Getting to Detroit in 1815 was no easy trip. First he had to travel to Buffalo by wagon. From there, he took a sailing schooner to Detroit, a voyage that took thirteen days.
Once in Detroit, Williams opened a blacksmith shop that was immediately successful. He made steel traps, axes and plows. He set up the first stationary steam engine in the Michigan Territory which he used to pump water for the citizens of Detroit. A three-inch pipe was big enough to supply the whole city.
Williams also built the engine for the first steam mill operated in the Territory and built two steam engines for the steamboat Michigan. He made the iron work for Detroit’s First Presbyterian Church and for the French Catholic Church. He also fabricated forty tons of ironwork for Michigan’s first substantial jail. Before long, the young blacksmith’s shop was earning over $10,000 a year, a vast sum.
In the fall of 1822, the troops stationed at Fort Saginaw were running out of provisions and the U.S. Quartermaster in Detroit called on Williams to get four tons of supplies from Detroit to Saginaw. Again, it was no easy trip. There were no roads, only Indian trails. There were also no bridges so they had to ford the Clinton River five times and then ford the Thread, the Cass, the Flint, the Pine and the Elm. By the time they reached the Saginaw garrison, the troops were famished.
While he was there, Williams talked to some soldiers who predicted that Saginaw would be an important city. He kept those predictions in mind and finally, in 1834, Williams decided to give it a try. His first job was building a steam sawmill for his nephews, Gardiner and Ephraim Williams. Located at the foot of Mackinaw Street, it was the first sawmill on the Saginaw River. Its steam engine had originally powered the first steamboat on the Great Lakes, Walk in the Water.
Next, Williams built a big new mill on the east side of the river for himself. Some said he was a fool—that it was far too big for any future demand. They couldn’t imagine that, in Uncle Harvey’s lifetime, the river would be lined with sawmills and Saginaw would become the lumber capitol of the world.
But that was in the future and in 1837, disaster struck. The Panic of ’37 was the worst depression the nation had ever seen and Saginaw was hit hard. Writing about it years later, C. D. Little noted that hundreds of mechanics and laborers who had enjoyed great prosperity, were thrown out of work. “Employers, who considered themselves millionaires, were reduced to laboring men…and paper currency, once considered ‘good as gold’ couldn’t be sold for a dollar a bushel.” Many left. Harvey Williams had to close his mill (it would reopen in 1848 when Curt Emerson bought it) but he still had faith in the area.
Years before, Williams had been a leader in the movement to get a lighthouse at the mouth of the Saginaw River. Now he became its first keeper. Michigan’s lakes and rivers were teeming with all kinds of fish from tasty little bluegills to 100 pound sturgeon. Williams started a very successful fishery. He even sent a package of “Mackinaw Salmon Trout” to Abraham Lincoln, whom he greatly admired. Williams had been a lifelong Democrat but in 1864, at the age of 80, he made a 40-mile trip in his fishing boat to vote for Lincoln. He treasured Lincoln’s thank you message.
In the winters, Williams traded with the Chippewa Indians. Little wrote, “No man ever possessed the confidence of those Indians that Uncle Harvey has and certainly no man could be kinder and more generous to them than he.”
In 1819, Harvey had married Julia Fournia, a wonderful woman who stood by his side and shared his hardships and successes for 57 years. She was compared to the great women of the Old Testament and it was said that the poor and needy were never turned away empty from her door.
In 1864, Harvey and Julia returned to Saginaw and lived for a time in East Saginaw before moving to the Penoyer Farm. He died there in 1876 at the age of 82. A close friend wrote, “His strict integrity and honest industry is a legacy he bestows on a later generation, an honorable inheritance that should be cherished and emulated.”
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