Stag Island was formed when large boulders were deposited by a glacier at the island’s head. These rocks diverted the river’s strong current and encouraged silt deposit, which gradually built up over thousands of years. Stag Island, as we now know it, had its early beginnings as Isle aux Cerfs, which translates very simply to Deer Island. The Chippewa name for the island is Saw-Ge-Too-Yawn. (Isle of the Hart)
The name “Stag Island” was adopted from the large deer population on the island that was eagerly hunted as a food source by the Chippewa population. Some of this venison would find its way to the soldiers at the Fort Gratiot garrison.
The island contains some 440 acres of which about half was covered by oak and hickory trees.
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In 1818 the British government purchased 2.2 million acres of land from the Chippewa Nation. This purchase was part of Treaty 29, signed in July 1827. The treaty created four reserves and ceded land to the water’s edge, which meant the Chippewa retained the islands in the St Clair River, Stag Island being one of them.
The Chippewa band had given up 400 acres of sugar bush in the Treaty of 1827. This land was in Enniskillen Township near what is now Petrolia.
In the 1840s, the Chippewa wanted these 400 acres of bush returned. There they could begin a venture into the sugar business. The Department of Indian Affairs who had purchased the land traded these 400 acres to the Chippewa of the St Clair River for Stag Island.
The first occupation of Stag Island was in 1842 by David McCall. He had obtained a Crown Patent for the island in 1857.
The development of Stag Island as a tourist destination started in the 1890s. The following ad was published on August 5th, 1896.
Above you will find the schedule for the ferry between Port Huron and Stag Island. You can see the fare was twenty cents back in 1901. The ferry ride to Stag Island was 40 to 50 minutes and the ferry ride back 60 minutes as the current of St Clair was only favorable in one direction, and still is.
On July 1st 1901 the Steamer Comfort began making regular trips from Marysville, Mi. to the island.
Nelson Mills, a Canadian living in Marysville, Michigan, would build a resort on the island. Mills was born on January 15th, 1823, in Nova Scotia of English parentage. He had initially purchased the island to provide pasture for his draft horses when they returned from their hauling logs in the lumber industry. I had mentioned earlier in my “Deerlawn Story” that Nelson Mills owned three specialized lumber mills on the St Clair River near the mouth of Mud Creek. Mills had also purchased the Myron Williams lumber mill in Marysville, where Henry McMorran began his career. Myron’s daughter Emma Caroline Williams would eventually become Henry McMorran’s wife. Myron’s other daughter Mary married Nelson Mills in 1862. Henry McMorran and Nelson Mills were brothers-in-law and shared a lot of the same investments.
Below is an advertisement that Mills posted in the Times Herald on August 5th, 1901. There is quite an assortment of activities, including golf. One would think that judging by the compact size of the island that the golf course was most probably a “short test” of golf, aimed at us “duffers.” Other activities included bowling, tennis, fishing, bathing, boating, cycling, shooting, and yachting, quite an eclectic mix for both the old and the young. The ad is being directed to Detroit and its suburbs, featuring “A delightful three hour trip from Detroit via Electric railway along the St Clair River.”
The Griffon Hotel could accommodate 200 guests and its outlying 23 cottages varied from 6 to 8 rooms. Later, a 24 room annex was built and was named “The Nelson.” Nelson Mill’s Stag Island resort also included a pavilion with a large and elegant dining hall. Stag Island was advertised as having an excellent orchestra for nightly dancing. The island advertised special rates for children and servants.
Also interesting is the statement that the electric light plant is connected. Stag Island had its own electrical generating station, a steam-operated waterworks, and its own sewage system. The island also had its own telephone service. The telephone cable to the mainland was taken up every fall and laid back down in the spring to prevent damage from the massive amount of ice that flows southward during the spring thaw.
As a young lad in the 1960’s I can remember traveling to Stag Island, along with my father and two brothers. We had the task of removing the telephone exchange.
If my memory serves me right, however, it does not always commit to that task, we carried a wooden telephone exchange with lots of plug-in cables and several dozen wooden crank phones out to the ferry for a ride back to Corunna. To this day I do not know what became of the telephones nor if I earned any money for that endeavor. I did, however, enjoy the five-minute ferry ride back and forth and my first taste of the island.
The first ferry business from Corunna, Ontario, to Stag Island was begun by the David brothers Ed and Fred and their dad Theophilus. The ferry consisted of a small boat in which the two sons would row passengers back and forth from the mainland to the island. As you can well imagine, this became a very tiring task, especially with the strong currents of the St Clair River tugging at their oars. In the fall of 1890, they ventured to Port Huron, where they purchased the steam yacht “Delila” which they rebuilt into “the best ferry in the area.”
The palatial steamer Tashmoo offered daily trips from Detroit to the island in the summer of 1902. The trip took four hours and provided some wonderful scenery along the shores of the St Clair River. The Tashmoo, part of the White Star Line,” was known as the White Flyer because of its speed. In 1936 at Amherstburg, Ontario, the Tashmoo would find a watery grave after hitting a rock. It was eventually scrapped.
There were several ships who met their last days off the shores of Stag Island. The J S Ruby, a 123 tonner burned at the island in 1891. The Superior caught fire and burned in 1920. She was twice the size of the Ruby. The Mineral Rock, built-in 1856, a former passenger steamer, was cut down to a lumber steamer in 1880 and abandoned by Mills Transportation at Stag Island in 1896.
There were numerous ferry boats running to and from the island. Some of them included the Hiawatha, the James Beard, the Wauketa, the Harley, the boats of the Port Huron and Sarnia Ferry Company, the City of Toledo, and the Omar Conger and others from the White Star Line.
Nelson Mills died on March 16th, 1904. He had lived a full and exciting life, a life that I will historically visit in more detail sometime in the future.
His estate was said to be worth in excess of one million dollars at the time of his death, a considerable sum back in 1904. The estate continued to operate the resort until 1912. In the fall of that year, the island had been traded to R M Burrows for the Fern Hotel in Cleveland. The resort remained in Burrows’s hands until he sold the land in January of 1918 to the Fraternal Fellowship Association. Memberships in the association were then sold to the order of Oddfellows, Masons, and Knights of Pythias.
J L Boyer of Detroit would manage the island, with its 200 rooms and numerous guest cottages. The dancing pavilion was overhauled with dances planned for afternoons and evenings during the summer. The bowling alley would be in operation, and the baseball diamond had seen a major improvement.
There was gossip about the installation of a “movie theatre apparatus” to provide further entertainment in the evenings.
Gasoline launches will operate daily between the island and Marysville. The White Star Line and the Sarnia and Port Huron Ferry Company will also cooperate in this task. During and after World War 1, visitation to the island would gradually diminish. In the 1920s, work was started on a system of canals and dikes on the island. It was an attempt to build a “Venice” like community of houses and shops in Stag Island’s south section. Boaters passing by and visitors have often seen these canals and wondered what they were and why they were there. The project was canceled during the Great Depression as a business on the island continued to fall on hard times.
The Griffon Hotel burned down in 1942. Ferry service to the island from Marysville ceased in 1963 when U.S. Customs stopped providing inspectors.
Today the F.F.A. group still owns 400 acres of the island. There are another 40 acres that are public land managed by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.
The cottagers own their structures but do not own the land. However, they all have shares in the F. F. A., making them “communal” owners of Stag Island. Their dwellings must be modest in size, and automobiles are not allowed; however, there are a few golf carts available to manage certain tasks
A small ferry boat is privately owned that provides daily summer service to the island from the Corunna dock, which is just off Corunna’s main intersection.
The 100 plus cottage owners are both Canadian and American citizens. One of the Canadian cottage owners, who spent many years on and off American soil, is featured in the following paragraph.
A young boy walked out of his parent’s cottage on Stag Island. He glanced up at the bright moon hanging in the eastern sky. On one of the island’s few televisions, he had just watched Neil Armstrong, and then Buzz Aldrin step out of the lunar module onto the moon’s surface. He heard these words from Neil Armstrong, “one small step for a man, one giant step for mankind.” It was July 20th, 1969, and it was then that this precocious nine-year-old named Chris Hadfield would decide he would take his own giant step and become an astronaut. This small moment in time had awakened a desire in Chris to pursue his career in space. After many years of study and a considerable amount of training and hard work, he would find himself aboard the Shuttle Atlantis as a Mission Specialist heading to MIR. Colonel Hadfield’s career would include three space missions. He would be the first Canadian to walk in space and was a commander onboard the International Space Station in 2013. He was probably the first person to take a picture of Stag Island from outer space. The Hadfield families continue to enjoy their time on Stag Island during the summer months.
So if you are ever asked what the International Space Station and Stag Island have in common, now you know! It’s not those unusual canals carved into the soil on the south part of the island.