Prior to the 19th century, the area now know as Saugatuck, Michigan, served as a summer retreat for the Pottawatomie Indians, with fur traders beginning to frequent the area in the early 1800s. Permanent settlement began in 1830 with the arrival of William Butler and his wife, who laid out a village on the flats at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River.
Visitors cross the Kalamazoo River on the 1912 Chain Ferry, Saugatuck, Michigan. (Photo courtesy of City of Saugatuck)
Natural resources were abundant, and by the 1850s, local villages supported a thriving mix of sawmills, barrel factories, and other wood product firms, contributing much of the lumber used to rebuild Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871.
By the late 1800s, round-the-clock clear-cutting had finished off Michigan's famous white pines, and the economy turned to shipping and fruit growing. Hundreds of ships were built in Saugatuck shipyards, and the town was a haven for ship captains.
Saugatuck is unusual among Midwest frontier towns in that it did not experience the destruction of the fires that hit most towns in the mid to late 1800s or the railroad that brought modernization and urban growth. Because of this, the city provides a rare opportunity to observe pre- and post-Civil War Greek Revival and Italianate architecture, together with later structures in the Arts and Crafts and Colonial Revival styles.
Key to the area's history and popularity is its natural environment, nestled on the shores of Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River and defined by steep, rolling dunes to the west and lush orchard country and farmland to the east.
Though the lumbering, shipbuilding, and fruit farming industries that once prospered there helped to shape Saugatuck's character, it is best known as a resort community with a strong appeal to artists and artisans-a tradition that still thrives.
A resort, tourist, and "cottage" culture emerged in the 1880s and grew significantly in 1910, when a group of Chicago artists established the Summer School of Paintings on Ox-Bow Lagoon and a huge dance hall was builApril 29, 2009 of well-known artists and architects led to a wave of building. This tradition flourished over the years, with the area now known as the Art Coast of Michigan. Tourism remains the area's primary industry.
Saugatuck has shown respect for its historic resources, adopting an historic district ordinance in the early 1980s and appointing an historic district commission. The district encompasses both commercial and residential resources in the heart of the village.
The local historical society has published design review guidelines, an architectural style guide, and a history and a walking tour of resources in the community. A partnership between the city and the historical society has reused an old pump house as an award-winning local history museum.
Another local attraction is a 1913 chain ferry upon which one can still cross the Kalamazoo River.
Designated a Preserve America Community in March 2004.