Tour Hell's Half Mile with the Historical Society

“I’m buying a ticket to hell!”

This was the cry of lumberjacks, timber fellers, and shanty boys as they came out of Michigan’s northern woods after a winter of bringing down the massive pines that sawmills turned into “white gold” for 19th Century lumber barons.

Local historian and journalist Sam Fitzpatrick will lead the walking tour of the notorious Hell's Half Mile.Hear the spectacular stories and experience the places where it all happened. Join local historian and journalist Sam Fitzpatrick on July 27 for the “Hell’s Half Mile” walking tour sponsored by the Bay County Historical Society.

Fitzpatrick will explain how the Russians, Poles, Italians, French-Canadians, Irish, Germans and runaway farm boys arrived in Bay City. They were dirty, unkempt, lonely, and done with the rigors and brutality of felling trees. They were looking for a good time and a place to find it. That place was “Hell’s Half Mile,” a six-block strip of women, liquor, and wickedness a railroad ride away in Bay City.

Between 1865 and the turn of the century, more than 5,000 men came to Bay City each year during the spring thaw. On any given day between March and May, a thousand lumbermen would be drinking, cussing, and raising hell on Water Street. They worked all winter and came to town with $150 or so in their pockets.  The underbelly of Bay City welcomed them and their hard-earned cash. The bars and brothels, the crooks and conmen, made sure the money was gone in a few days.

Every spring between 1865 and the turn of the century, thousands of lumbermen left the woods and came to Bay City to celebrate the end of the season. Those who arrived before 1900 saw this view of downtown Bay City. There were hundreds of bars on Water Street between Center and Third Street. Legal and illegal entertainment could be found on the streets and in the darkness of underground catacombs. Brawls were all-day occurrences. Lumbermen had worked for months in cruel conditions. When they came to town, they let loose.

The good citizens of Bay City pretty much stayed home during this time. The violence and debauchery occurring along the riverfront was something they couldn’t control. So they closed their doors and waited it out, knowing that the city economy would benefit from the money these men left behind.

Historical Society Director Mike Bacigalupo is excited about this first in a new series of historic walks. “Sam Fitzpatrick has a passionate talent to make the past really come alive. This is going to be something special. You’re hearing this from me first. The tour will happen come rain or shine, unless there’s a monsoon!”

The Third Street Bridge was built near downtown in 1893.The walks come at the same time the historical society celebrates 100 years of serving Bay County. “The society is here for people who are interested in our local history. Anytime someone brings a Bay County artifact to the museum, if it can be preserved, we will find a way to store it and keep it in perpetuity for the donor. We also help patrons identify old items and determine their historical significance. We use the facilities and personnel at our research library for that. Many come in to find out about their family history or who once owned the house they now live in.”

There are some big changes underway at the society. The Butterfield Library is being significantly expanded to allow for computer-based research, reading areas, and access to material that currently there is no room to bring out for public viewing. Completion is slated for mid-2020.

Museum exhibits are being re-created to make the experience more vibrant and interactive. The society will again be part of the Hell’s Half Mile Film Festival, Sept. 26-29. During the festival, films are going to be shown in a theater in the Heritage Room, complete with movie chairs, big screens and surround sound.

Patrons pose inside the New European Hotel at Third and Water Streets in Bay City. The building is now home to St. Laurent Brothers. When asked what he thinks people aren’t aware of about the Bay County Historical Society, Bacigalupo expressed some frustration, “They just don’t know we’re here. People are surprised; ‘There’s a museum in town?’ Yep, it’s right down the street on Washington Avenue. And it’s free! Bay County is incredibly rich in history. The museum celebrates the people and events, times of change and courage that so hugely impacted the entire history of the United States. Come see us. Get involved. Become an ambassador for your city.

The inaugural “Hell’s Half Mile” walking tour starts at the Bay County Historical Society, 321 Washington Ave. on Saturday, July 27 at 1 pm. Tickets are $10 per adult and $5 for children under 12. Limit is 25 participants. Hats, water, and walking shoes are advised. For more information go to: www.bchsmuseum.org or call (989) 893-5733.

 

 

 

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