1889 to 1909
By Derek Smith
Harsens Island was an entertainment and vacation hotspot back in the early 1900s. It was St Clair County’s version of “Atlantic City, New Jersey”. There were over 10 hotels/clubs that boasted first-class accommodations and superb dining. They afforded magnificent views of the river, its delta waters, and the island. Some of these complexes included the Old Club, the Hotel Mervue, the Rushmere Club, Marshland Club, Muir House, Kehl’s Public House, Riverside Hotel, Star Island House, and Joe Bedore’s. One could enjoy hunting, golfing, swimming, fishing, boating, billiards, baseball, lawn bowling, lawn tennis, dancing, hiking, bird watching, and many other activities for those so inclined.
Getting to the island itself was very simple, as there were numerous local ferries, private boats, and several steamers, making stops along the banks of the beautiful waters surrounding Harsens. The steamers Idlewild, Cole and White Star’s Tashmoo, and Wauketa were daily visitors to the island. The steamers used the docks at Maple Leaf and Sans Souci to disembark and embark passengers and cargo. Sans Souci was the island’s only village. The name means “without worries” en Francais.
For those arriving by land there were lots of options such as driving if you were fortunate enough to own a car, biking, by carriage or horse or you could take the Rapid railway which ran between Detroit and Port Huron. From the port at Algonac, you would board one of several naphtha launches or perhaps Raymond’s ferry, which traveled to and from Harsens every 45 minutes. It was advertised that the trip on the Rapid railroad from Port Huron to Algonac, or return, would take about 1 ½ hour and the journey could be made at almost any hour day or evening.
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The island itself has a long and colorful history. It was purchased by Jacob Harsen from Native North Americans in 1783. Originally it was called Jacob’s Island. Harsen was of Dutch descent and migrated there in 1779 from the state of New York. I will write in greater detail on the history of the island in a future story.
Around 1872, a club was established at Grande Pointe (northern Harsens Island), to promote hunting and fishing on the island and the St Clair Flats area.
The original membership fee was $25.00 with a limited membership of 200. Dues per year would vary somewhere between $15.00 to $30.00. Fred Wells, Henry Howard, and Port Huron Times owner, editor, and namesake of Sherman Woods, Loren Sherman, were some of the original members. A clubhouse was erected, that served as the headquarters for this group of hunting and fishing enthusiasts.
Over the following years, it was decided that a new building should be erected, a facility that yielded more favorably to the social, recreational, and vacation requirements of both the outdoorsmen and their families.
It would become part of the Grande Pointe Improvement Company’s development plan, a plan that included a multifaceted tourist destination at the north end of the island. The cost of the development, along with associated furnishings was published at $30,000.00.
Captain H G McQueen of Algonac had acquired 500 acres of land at the north end of the island, he then sold some of his property to the company mentioned above. Seventy of those acres were immediately platted, the plans of which included an 8-acre garden area, a hotel with surrounding grounds, and 103 building lots. Several channels would be dredged in the front and some at the rear of these lots, to provide water slips for small boats and safe swimming areas. It was anticipated that more than ½ of these lots would have waterfront locations. No boat houses would be allowed but there were no objections to an uncovered dock. Carriage drives would be built along the banks of the canals to provide easy access to the waterfront lots.
The Grande Point Hotel was completed and open for business in the summer of 1889.
It was a colonial-style structure featuring 3 floors with 60 guest rooms, handsomely decorated, all with water views of the North and or South Channels. The first floor housed the reception area, office, parlor, and a grand dining area big enough to seat 150 guests. A Large well-equipped kitchen was in place, designed to handle the hundreds of guests arriving on a weekly basis.
Along the front of the hotel, there was a 300-foot veranda that afforded wonderful views of the South Channel and its daily queue of marine traffic, while at the same time sharing its shade with the hotel’s contented onlookers.
There were plans in place for the “Grande” to hire a gardener and to eventually produce its own flowers and plants and to supply the hotel with fresh produce. Also, there was to be a farm located on the premises which would supply fresh eggs, milk, butter, cheese, and other kitchen staples.
The sale of intoxicating liquors was prohibited on the grounds of the hotel, so plans for a bar were not included in the original design.
Mr. Oscar F. Morse was chosen to manage the facilities. He was previously employed as steward and manager of the Oakland Hotel in St Clair. He would bring with him considerable experience and a loyal following of customers to Grande Pointe.
Unfortunately, for whatever reasons, the management of the Grande Pointe Improvement Club proved not very successful, and its monetary obligation to the mortgage company was not being met.
In 1892, F. B. Dickerson, the postmaster for the City of Detroit, purchased the property for the cost of the mortgage.
He was one of the investors and past president of the island Rushmere Club.
On a side note, one fateful day, Dickerson’s two sons, were drowned near the Rushmere, so being there had become increasingly difficult for Dickerson and his wife. The facility was now full of unpleasant memories for the two of them. They eventually spent less and less time at the hotel.
The purchase of Grande Pointe would give them a new project, something to keep their minds occupied, at the same time providing them with a fresh start, a new adventure.
Dickerson, along with 15 other business associates/ friends, would incorporate the “Grande Pointe Club”. Shares would be limited to 200 and each member could purchase only one share. Dues would not exceed $25.00 per year. The shareholders would be entitled to use all the facilities at Grande Pointe. It would be the member’s home away from home, during the warm days of summer. A place for relaxation and entertainment, for both them and their guests. A place where one could forge new alliances and friendships, a place of comfort and convenience. The cost of the board including the room was a mere $1.50, I think a bargain even 115 years ago.
It was the intention of the president and the board of directors to equip the hotel with the best furnishings and amenities. The hotel was lighted using gas, which was a modern luxury back in the day. It was also equipped with electric call bells, a commodities kitchen, and a special dining area for nurses and children.
In June of 1893, the Grande Pointe Club announced plans for a large new boathouse. It was to be 30 feet wide and 80 feet long and two stories high. The second level would accommodate a billiard room and some new sleeping quarters. It would be located north of the clubhouse on an artificial channel that had been dug in previous years. The view from the front of the clubhouse would remain unobstructed. Over the winter the clubhouse had been repainted, inside and out. Sales of its memberships were brisk and nearing the limit, which had been set at 200. Things were “grand” at the Grande!
For some reason, unknown to myself, on November 9th of 1901, the Dickerson Group sold their interest in the Grande Pointe Hotel for $35,000.00 to Dr. D.J. Kennedy of Detroit. Kennedy had plans for a $20,000.00 addition which would expand the hotel to 125 rooms and would also include some modern improvements such as an electric lighting plant, bowling alleys, and several stylish bathrooms.
A Mr. J. L. Stone would be the new manager.
During the next few years, Kennedy would complete the expansion, things would proceed well, business was good. There were new and regular visitors registered at the hotel. Everyone enjoyed the comforts and grandeur of the hotel’s facilities and the scenes afforded by its waterfront location.
There was a long list of vacation activities available to keep mom, dad, and the little ones occupied, while at the same time providing all with enjoyable family moments and fond memories. New friendships and new associations would be formed, some of which would continue well beyond the “Grande”.
The ad below depicts the types of activities available. It mentions the elegant outside areas and also features the Grande Pointe’s own farm which supplied fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. Rooms were $2.50 to $3.00 per day or $17.50 for a whole week!
Suddenly and unfortunately, on June 3rd, 1909, the unthinkable occurred. The Grande Pointe Hotel burned to the ground. I remark unthinkable, but certainly not unusual. The wooden structures of the early 1900s were certainly welcome venues for fire. There were few if any, structural fire codes in place to help prevent such tragedies. Fire equipment was rudimentary, and or nonexistent. There were no flame suppression systems or fire retardant building products. This, along with a host of many other fire-related issues, plagued the man vs fire scenario back in the early1900’s.
It was reasoned that the fire was caused when careless workers were getting the hotel ready for summer use. Some of these workers were burning swallows nests out of the hotel’s chimneys. It would have been possible that one of the embers from the burning nests, fell onto the roof, which then ignited.
I do not know if they had a fire marshal to investigate such occurrences. I certainly have not read of any such thing, so all this will remain a mystery.
Harsens Island’s wooden structures of that time were particularly susceptible to fire since there was not a fire department on the island, and very little fire equipment or trained personnel. The island did not have instantaneous access to the mainland, which would have been required, for more people to assist with these combustible events.
The usual line of fire defense was a trained “bucket brigade”, a human chain of people passing buckets of water back and forth to douse the fire.
The Grande Pointe Hotel burned in 1909, the Rushmere, which I mentioned earlier, in 1908, The Old Club in 1926, and the Marshland in1929 and 1931,
The island was also susceptible to marshland fires. In the fall and early winter, the marshland grasses would become dry and tinder-like and could be quickly set on fire by careless duck and muskrat hunters. Some of these grasses extended to the doors of cottages, so they became the fuse to ignite these homes. The usual means of fire suppression in this instance were broom and shovel.
It is for these reasons that it was illegal to fire marshland grasses.
With no tangible means of fighting fires, the big insurance companies of 1909, suspended the insurance for dwellings on Harsens Island and in the St Clair flats.
Dr. Kennedy was devastated by the loss of his hotel. He had put a great deal of time, money, and heartfelt effort, into making it one of the most magnificent hotels in the area.
There was chatter about Kennedy re-building the Grande Pointe Hotel, but his disappointment surrounding the loss, and some recent health issues would override such lofty ambitions.
The “Grande” would be no more, burned to ashes, and buried like many of her beautiful sisters. However, if it is any conciliation, her memories from those glorious days, remain with those of us, still curious about the past, while planning our way to the future!