Cruisin' Down the River

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Appleyard Collection

There it is! After a leisurely voyage across Lake Michigan from Chicago, the lighthouse on the south pier of South Haven is sighted. The great steamship, SS City of South Haven, slows to enter the busy harbor. On the right is the U.S. Life Saving Service station; on the left is the Donahue Boat Livery. On the hill above the U.S.L.S.S. station, renowned lighthouse keeper Captain Donahue waves from the yard of the keeper’s dwelling. The cable ferry darts across the river, connecting South Haven’s north and south sides. A few old schooners, such as the X-10-U-8, are docked as lumber is loaded in their holds at the John Noud Lumber Yard at the foot of Maple Street. A steam locomotive chugs along the riverfront, ready to pick up passengers heading to inland destinations.

The SS City of South Haven ties up at the Dunkley-Williams docks near the Dyckman Avenue Bridge. Another passenger steamer, the SS City of Kalamazoo, which was built on the banks of the Black River in South Haven, has already discharged its enthusiastic passengers; they are off to explore all that the little town has to offer. Some gather for lunch at the Silver Hook restaurant; others visit the shops and movie houses while many spend their vacation time on the beautiful sandy beaches. Families board surreys that take them to the numerous resorts such as the Marsland or to guest farms such as Sunnybrook for their stay. Others hurry across the bridge to the Chautauqua, perhaps to ride the roller coaster, picnic in Oakland Park, or board a covered launch for a leisurely excursion up the river.

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“Dreamland Resort on Black River. Cottages and Tents to rent. Board and Rooms by day, week, month or season” Jeanette Stieve Collection.

The launch trip is the choice. The handy little vessel Swan, with its 15 passengers, must wait for the Dyckman Avenue Bridge to swing open for the trip upstream. Above the bridge we first see the Merlin-Winkel Piano Company on the left, then a saw mill on the right. Here logs from the Michigan forest become lumber to build growing cities such as Chicago. It is said that the river was once cleared for nearly 25 miles for the log runs. Now branches of large trees sweep low over the water. Soon, Cold Springs Resort can be seen to the north. Some visitors choose to “rough it” and stay in tents at small campgrounds cleared in the woods at the waters’ edge. Herds of cows graze in farm pastures and a bounty of fruit grows in orchards, producing apples, pears and peaches.

Further up the Black River, the launch glides under the Michigan Central Railroad trestle, taking the south branch of the river. Soon it reaches Riverside Park, with Mooney’s Park nearby. Passengers are off to enjoy a day of dancing, vaudeville or just to picnic. A one-legged entertainer, Charles Kilpatrick, performs stunts on his bicycle. Several families choose check into cozy accommodations along the way, such as the Dreamland, Vineland or Happy-Go-Lucky Resorts.

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Jeanette Stieve Collection

When the visitors must return to their reality, the launch travels down the Black River, passing the mills, the resorts, the campgrounds and pastures. The people board the great ships of the day, including, perhaps, the SS Eastland. When a vessel reaches Chicago first, the tune “The Girl I Left Behind” can be heard across the waves by the slower vessels.

Little can these visitors imagine that, in 100 years, all these sources of their pleasure would be gone. The Chautauqua would be replaced with a maritime museum, railroad tracks would become a bike trail, waterfront businesses would evolve into upscale homes and condominiums, lumber docks and coal piles would be replaced with a municipal park. Passenger docks would be a restaurant and shopping district. International freight ships would come and, also, disappear. Large yachts, speed-boats, sailboats and fishing craft will command the river. Perhaps one facet could be experienced again. Might visitors again experience a covered launch ride up the Black River on a beautiful summer day?