While the name “Singapore” is said to have originated from the words “singa” – meaning “lion” – and “pura” which means “city”, it turns out that the name has also been used halfway around the world.
There was a “Singapore” that was located all the way in Michigan, USA. You won’t find a town with this name today anywhere in the US because it’s now a ghost town, but at one point in history it was a pretty prosperous port town. However over the course of history, the town – which only lasted from 1837 to 1875 – became a cautionary tale of the impact of deforestation. It was, in short, an early American ‘disaster city’.
How it was founded
The peninsula where Singapore was founded had long been occupied by the Lake Superior Band of Chippewa Indians, before they were forced to cede their territories to the federal government. By 1831, it was laid out by the Territorial legislature as Allegan County.
In 1834, a New York land speculator by the name of Oshea Wilder was appointed an Allegan County county seat. Two years later, in 1836, he bought a 100-acre plot of land in the county, along the shores of Lake Michigan. With the ambition of building a port town in Michigan to rival Chicago and Milwaukee, he established the village of Singapore with the support of Lancaster Bank of Massachusetts.
Prosperity of Singapore
Singapore started out as a lumber camp with a single saw mill which was constructed in 1835 – surrounded on two sides by virgin forest of white pine trees. Thanks to its position along the lake, Singapore was also a port of entry for immigrants from all over America, Canada, and Europe into Michigan.
The town grew to become a popular port and shipbuilding hub around the 1840s. The shipyard built steamships, along with two of Michigan’s early schooners – the St. Louis and Octavia – built to carry lumber from Singapore to Chicago.
With a thriving port and shipbuilding industry, Singapore became the centre of commerce for this part of Michigan for 20 years – it did indeed rival Chicago and Milwaukee. While the area suffered during the 40-Day Blizzard of 1841, the villagers survived on the food and supplies from the shipwrecked Milwaukie just off its shore until the blizzard blew over.
Over time, the town boasted 3 or 4 mills, general stores, about 25 to 40 houses, several saloons, and a hotel. It was also home to Michigan’s first schoolhouse, which was established in 1852. There were 23 buildings and a community of about 200-300 residents by 1871.
Bank of Singapore was a wildcat
Singapore was also home to one of Michigan’s most famous “wildcat” banks: the Bank of Singapore. Established in 1838 during the Free Banking Era (1836 to 1865) when the country had no national currency or national bank, Bank of Singapore printed its own banknote.
However, this bank was involved in a scandal – the rules at the time dictated that the bank needed to hold enough hard currency (specie) to cover at least 1/3 of its circulating banknotes, but it didn’t. In 1838, over $50,000 in Singapore notes were in circulation and shortly after the Civil War (1865), inspectors shut them down because the bank couldn’t produce the specie (in gold or silver coins) to support their notes.
Today, there are a few known full sheets of the banknotes issued by the Singapore Bank before they were cut into individual notes, sometimes signed and sometimes unsigned by the authorised personnel at the time.
The beginning of the downfall
In October 1871, The Great Chicago Fire ravaged the Midwest, devastating Chicago, Holland, Peshtigo, and Manistee. Singapore was called upon to help rebuild the city, and the area surrounding the town was completely deforested to supply the lumber for rebuilding. They were clear-cut and shipped across the lake to Chicago.
Sitting along the shores of the lake, Singapore was protected by woods that shielded the town from the prevailing west wind off the lake. As the trees came down, it was no longer protected from the winds and sands coming off Lake Michigan – it quickly eroded the town into ruins, and within four years had completely covered the town.
Singapore was vacated by 1875.
According to legend, one resident of Singapore refused to move, even as the sand covered his home until the second-floor window. He apparently stayed until the sand reached the roof.
Singapore, Michigan today
While “Singapore” still lives on in name as the “Singapore Yacht Club” which was only established in 1959, four buildings from the town were spared and moved to Saugatuck before the sand buried them. The buildings include the bank and three houses, which were transported down the frozen Kalamazoo River on logs in the winter.
The Singapore Bank building was relocated along the main drag along Saugatuck’s waterfront district at Butler Street. It’s since been converted into a book store and art gallery. The houses have been relocated to various parts of Saugatuck, including Holland St. and Lucy St.
For many American and Great Lakes historians, few ghost towns are as fascinating as Singapore. It was where West Michigan began, and it was a story how a tiny town became a hub of lumber, shipping, and migration.
If you were to visit the area where Singapore once was – at Lake Michigan’s shoreline at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, near the cities of Saugatuck and Douglas – all you’ll see is mostly sand dunes and trees. What’s buried beneath the sand remains a mystery, and apart from a small sign near a private housing development that reads “Singapore located here,” you wouldn’t know that the area was once a booming lumber town.