A flat-bottomed boat lazed along the river’s bank on a summer day in 1860. An observer could be forgiven for not realizing the lone occupant was a youth who would grow to dominate two Michigan industries, log towing and sugar manufacturing and foster a number of companies in other industries that would add immeasurable wealth to Michigan’s developing economy.
The skiff bobbed in a ceaseless to-and-fro motion, influenced by waves that washed against the bank and then receded in accordance with the movement of steamers and sloops that churned the Saginaw River’s channel. Its skipper, sixteen-year loi bai hat -old Benjamin Boutell, sighed in sleepy contentment. The rocking motion of the river lulled him deeper into slumber as he basked in the sun’s warmth, dreaming of sea adventures in which he was the central figure.
He did not hear the sounds of sawing and hammering, the hailing of ships from shore, and other boisterous dock activity common to Bay City, Michigan in 1860. In ten years, the city’s population had exploded from a mere fifty souls to more than three thousand, with more arriving each day from Canada or Detroit to take jobs in one of fifteen sawmills clustered on the riverbank. Before the lumber drew to a close forty years later, thirty thousand people would call Bay City home and more than one hundred sawmills lined the riverbanks from Bay City to Saginaw, twelve miles distant.
His father, Daniel Boutell, owned one of the hotels situated within hailing distance at the southeast corner of Water and Third streets. Not long before it had been the Sherman House. Situated across from the Detroit Steamboat Company’s landing, it was often the first stop for newcomers to the city. Daniel Boutell had moved his family thirty miles north from Birch Run to take over the hotel, and after extensive renovations hung a new shingle near the entrance. Now it was the Boutell House, a home away from home for Great Lakes sailors who were made to feel more like family guests than hotel patrons because many of the Boutells’ nine children shared the hotel with them
Fascinated by the stories the sailors told, Ben grew to love the river and the great Saginaw Bay, the doorway to the Great Lakes, a doorway he planned to pass through one day. Meanwhile, he earned his way by remaining on call to the Protection Fire Company where he served as first assistant foreman and helped his father at the hotel where he badgered sailors with questions about schooners, sloops, barges, and tugboats. An infectious grin and a sincere interest loosened tongues of sailors who enjoyed Ben’s enthusiasm; they gladly shared accounts of their adventures and knowledge of all things nautical.
Having learned much about the nature of goods that moved from port to port on the Great Lakes, he began to pay special attention to the movement of logs towed by powerful tugboats. The task of moving felled trees to mills situated in one of the state’s principal sawmill towns, Saginaw, Bay City, or Muskegon, was critical to the success of the timber industry. Water transport provided the least costly solution. Logs carved from Michigan’s forests were floated downstream, collected at river mouths, sorted into floating corrals, called “booms,” and towed by tugboats to sawmills that lined the river from Saginaw to Bay City. From forests along Canada’s Georgian Bay shoreline, tugboats towed booms containing thousands of logs across Lake Huron and into the Saginaw Bay for shipment to waiting sawmills.
Tugboat captains faced many perils: sudden storms that would threaten to shatter the delicate lacing of logs that formed the boom, shipboard disasters, exploding boilers, and fires that could leave crews abandoned to chilling water far from rocky shores. The idea of taking the helm of such a craft fired the imagination of the hotelkeeper’s son.
His ambition gained impetus in his twenty-first year when fire destroyed the Boutell House. Dan Boutell fought the blaze until only smoldering rubble remained. His lungs seared by smoke, he declined in health until death claimed him the following year. The family’s livelihood in peril, Ben immediately signed on as a full-time sailor on the steam tug Wave. Within the year, he was the Wave’s mate and in the following year earned papers conferring upon him the responsibilities of a ship’s master.
As Captain Boutell, he assumed command of the Ajax, a steam tug that had lately become the property of the First National Bank of Bay City. The bank had acquired it in the manner banks often acquire assets – via defaulted notes. The twenty-two-year-old novice captain enlisted the aid of an engineer named Samuel Jones, whose salary, like the captain’s, was conditional upon the ship’s revenue, and a cook he addressed with affection as Aunt Kitty and who possessed both an impressive girth and a disposition for adventure. Ben, Jones, and Aunt Kitty ran the tug that fall with Ben handling with equal ease mundane chores such as cutting wood for its boiler and management of the boat’s business. The trio cleared for the owners $6,000 (about $84 thousand in 2009 dollars), giving the young captain a reputation as a can-do ship’s master with a first-rate knowledge of the Great Lakes.
Bold competence won the attention of Captain William Mitchell, master of the tug Union. Mitchell admired the rangy youth with the engaging smile whose energy seemed to expand to meet any challenge. The two became fast friends and business partners, acquiring over time a fleet of tugboats, barges, schooners, and freight haulers that eventually numbered more than fifty. Boutell organized great rafts containing as much as four million board feet of lumber, making him the single greatest hauler of timber of the lumber era. Altogether, log rafting and other towing work for his tugs employed the services of five hundred people. He counted himself among them. Even as his assets and his reputation grew, he stayed on at the helm of one tug or another, five years alone as captain of the Annie Moiles, until finally responsibilities created by his rapidly growing wealth kept him on shore.
Although Ben never left behind the boy who probed the riverbanks aboard a small skiff, the capital he amassed as boat owner and captain on Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and the Georgian Bay would eventually generate additional fortunes. When Ben Boutell, William Mitchell, and future partner, Peter Smith linked themselves to the lumber industry they had tied themselves to a star that would rise but a little distance before flaming out. When the white pine forests melted under the onslaught of axes and saws, the need for Boutell’s tugs disappeared. For a time it was his plan to continue where he had begun, hauling logs from Canada. However, prohibitive duties ended any hope of profiting from Canadian timber. With a sinking heart, Ben, who once transported an average of one hundred million board feet of timber in a season, watched his boats loiter at the docks.