Benjamin Boutell, A True Son of Michigan
A flat-bottomed boat lazed along the river’s bank on a summer day in 1860. An observer could be forgiven for not realizing the lone occupant was a youth who would grow to dominate two Michigan industries, log towing and sugar manufacturing and foster a number of companies in other industries that would add immeasurable wealth to Michigan’s developing economy.
The skiff bobbed in a ceaseless to-and-fro motion, influenced by waves that washed against the bank and then receded in accordance with the movement of steamers and sloops that churned the Saginaw River’s channel. Its skipper, sixteen-year-old Benjamin Boutell, sighed in sleepy contentment. The rocking motion of the river lulled him deeper into slumber as he basked in the sun’s warmth, dreaming of sea adventures in which he was the central figure.
He did not hear the sounds of sawing and hammering, the hailing of ships from shore, and other boisterous dock activity common to Bay City, Michigan in 1860. In ten years, the city’s population had exploded from a mere fifty souls to more than three thousand, with more arriving each day from Canada or Detroit to take jobs in one of fifteen sawmills clustered on the riverbank. Before the lumber drew to a close forty years later, thirty thousand people would call Bay City home and more than one hundred sawmills lined the riverbanks from Bay City to Saginaw, twelve miles distant.
His father, Daniel Boutell, owned one of the hotels situated within hailing distance at the southeast corner of Water and Third streets. Not long before it had been the Sherman House. Situated across from the Detroit Steamboat Company’s landing, it was often the first stop for newcomers to the city. Daniel Boutell had moved his family thirty miles north from Birch Run to take over the hotel, and after extensive renovations hung a new shingle near the entrance. Now it was the Boutell House, a home away from home for Great Lakes sailors who were made to feel more like family guests than hotel patrons because many of the Boutells’ nine children shared the hotel with them
Fascinated by the stories the sailors told, Ben grew to love the river and the great Saginaw Bay, the doorway to the Great Lakes, a doorway he planned to pass through one day. Meanwhile, he earned his way by remaining on call to the Protection Fire Company where he served as first assistant foreman and helped his father at the hotel where he badgered sailors with questions about schooners, sloops, barges, and tugboats. An infectious grin and a sincere interest loosened tongues of sailors who enjoyed Ben’s enthusiasm; they gladly shared accounts of their adventures and knowledge of all things nautical.
Having learned much about the nature of goods that moved from port to port on the Great Lakes, he began to pay special attention to the movement of logs towed by powerful tugboats. The task of moving felled trees to mills situated in one of the state’s principal sawmill towns, Saginaw, Bay City, or Muskegon, was critical to the success of the timber industry. Water transport provided the least costly solution. Logs carved from Michigan’s forests were floated downstream, collected at river mouths, sorted into floating corrals, called “booms,” and towed by tugboats to sawmills that lined the river from Saginaw to Bay City. From forests along Canada’s Georgian Bay shoreline, tugboats towed booms containing thousands of logs across Lake Huron and into the Saginaw Bay for shipment to waiting sawmills.
Tugboat captains faced many perils: sudden storms that would threaten to shatter the delicate lacing of logs that formed the boom, shipboard disasters, exploding boilers, and fires that could leave crews abandoned to chilling water far from rocky shores. The idea of taking the helm of such a craft fired the imagination of the hotelkeeper’s son.
His ambition gained impetus in his twenty-first year when fire destroyed the Boutell House. Dan Boutell fought the blaze until only smoldering rubble remained. His lungs seared by smoke, he declined in health until death claimed him the following year. The family’s livelihood in peril, Ben immediately signed on as a full-time sailor on the steam tug Wave. Within the year, he was the Wave’s mate and in the following year earned papers conferring upon him the responsibilities of a ship’s master.
As Captain Boutell, he assumed command of the Ajax, a steam tug that had lately become the property of the First National Bank of Bay City. The bank had acquired it in the manner banks often acquire assets – via defaulted notes. The twenty-two-year-old novice captain enlisted the aid of an engineer named Samuel Jones, whose salary, like the captain’s, was conditional upon the ship’s revenue, and a cook he addressed with affection as Aunt Kitty and who possessed both an impressive girth and a disposition for adventure. Ben, Jones, and Aunt Kitty ran the tug that fall with Ben handling with equal ease mundane chores such as cutting wood for its boiler and management of the boat’s business. The trio cleared for the owners $6,000 (about $84 thousand in 2009 dollars), giving the young captain a reputation as a can-do ship’s master with a first-rate knowledge of the Great Lakes.
Bold competence won the attention of Captain William Mitchell, master of the tug Union. Mitchell admired the rangy youth with the engaging smile whose energy seemed to expand to meet any challenge. The two became fast friends and business partners, acquiring over time a fleet of tugboats, barges, schooners, and freight haulers that eventually numbered more than fifty. Boutell organized great rafts containing as much as four million board feet of lumber, making him the single greatest hauler of timber of the lumber era. Altogether, log rafting and other towing work for his tugs employed the services of five hundred people. He counted himself among them. Even as his assets and his reputation grew, he stayed on at the helm of one tug or another, five years alone as captain of the Annie Moiles, until finally responsibilities created by his rapidly growing wealth kept him on shore.
Although Ben never left behind the boy who probed the riverbanks aboard a small skiff, the capital he amassed as boat owner and captain on Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Huron, and the Georgian Bay would eventually generate additional fortunes. When Ben Boutell, William Mitchell, and future partner, Peter Smith linked themselves to the lumber industry they had tied themselves to a star that would rise but a little distance before flaming out. When the white pine forests melted under the onslaught of axes and saws, the need for Boutell’s tugs disappeared. For a time it was his plan to continue where he had begun, hauling logs from Canada. However, prohibitive duties ended any hope of profiting from Canadian timber. With a sinking heart, Ben, who once transported an average of one hundred million board feet of timber in a season, watched his boats loiter at the docks.
So it was that Captain Benjamin Boutell, in 1897, at the age of fifty-three, found himself wealthy, but unemployed and eager for new opportunities. Though he no longer was the trim youth that inspired legends, he was still affable, easy-going, and, as always, attired in rumpled clothing. A shaggy moustache was all that was remained of a once prominent beard, and though he paid close attention to the weekly sermon at the Madison Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church, he peppered his speech with impious phrases that would have brought deep furrows to its minister’s features had they been uttered in his presence. A general portliness, the outcome of too many dinners prepared under the direction of Amelia, his wife of nearly thirty years, robbed him of his once athletic build. Though the body had become rounder, fuller, and less capable of single-handedly managing a schooner’s rigging, the inquisitive youth was still present in eyes that sparkled at the suggestion of adventure.
With the passing of the lumber era, some thirty years after Ben towed his first raft of logs, many who had garnered riches in Michigan’s forests departed, carrying their wealth to distant cities. Ben Boutell stayed put, reinvesting most of his wealth in Michigan. He opened his mind to possibilities in many industries. Knowing little about any of them, insatiable curiosity guided his direction. Soon, he owned major shares of coalmines, shipping companies, machinery shops, cement factories, banks, a telephone company, foundries, and sugar factories. His interests spanned the country from Boston where he owned sea-going barges to Redwood City, California, where he co-founded that state’s first Portland cement factory. He eventually served as an officer or director in thirty-two companies, nine of them in Michigan’s beet sugar industry. He also co-founded the Colorado and Canadian beet sugar industries, presiding over two sugar companies in Colorado and serving on the boards of two Canadian companies that later became the foundation for the Canadian-Dominion Sugar Company. Additionally, he owned large farms where he grew sugarbeets as well as a 4,000-acre ranch in the state’s northern reaches.
His sugar interests alone would have been enough to keep two or three executives busy year around. No single individual in Michigan devoted as much of his wealth and time to the state’s evolving sugarbeet industry as did Captain Benjamin Boutell. He was one of the founders of Michigan’s first beet sugar company, Michigan Sugar Company, where he served as a director and vice-president. He served in similar capacities at the Bay City Sugar Company. He co-founded the Saginaw Sugar Company where he served as treasurer and held a directorship. He was president of the Lansing Sugar Company and treasurer of the Marine City Sugar Company and held directorships in the Mount Clemens, Carrollton, and Menominee sugar companies.
The vast Sugar Trust, an organization that held the country’s supply of sugar in a steel grip for decades did not have his support. As the Trust grew in power, he sold his stock in companies that fell under its control and invested in independent companies, maintaining distance from a form of business organization that was losing favor in America.
Captain Boutell commanded the deck of sailing sloops and boardrooms with equal ease, routinely making investments that impelled the formation of companies employing hundreds. But, when he passed through the portal of his home, he entered a matriarchal society governed by his wife, Amelia, and her identical twin sister, Cornelia.
Amelia Charlotte Duttlinger and her sister were born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1850 or 1851. Tragedy came early to the twins. Their father died when they were three-months old, causing their mother, Catharine, to move to Bay County. There, she operated a hotel with the aid of the twins when they were old enough, two servants, and a bartender. Among the guests in 1869 was Ben Boutell, a dashing young sailor who at twenty-four had already become the stuff of legends and a man of means. That he was a catch surely did not escape the notice of Amelia and Cornelia, or their widowed mother.
Amelia was possessed of a genial personality and good looks and although physically identical to her twin sister, she somehow presented a difference to Ben. Perhaps it was friendlier disposition and an unwary attitude that brought merriment to her eyes and the kind of smile that will linger in a man’s memory. Her auburn hair cascaded long and full across her shoulders, ending in ringlets that bounced with each step she took.
Cornelia seemed, by comparison, more guarded and often critical of the hotel’s guests, many of whom fell short of her rigid standards of dress and deportment. Amelia’s non-stop references to Ben began to sound like wedding bells to Cornelia. She hinted at a budding love affair of her own.
The courtship was brief, shaped by the busy schedule of a Great Lakes seaman. The two were in love and although the term had yet to come into usage, they were soul mates. Each had lost a father at a young age, each had spent formative years bearing adult responsibilities assisting in the operation of a hotel, and each aspired to a life measured in achievement. The marriage occurred on December 22, 1869, after the sea lanes closed for the winter. Ben and Amelia looked forward to a long honeymoon that would end when the Great Lakes thawed in March.
Before the honeymoon was over, however, Cornelia, in great distress, landed on their doorstep to recuperate from a tragic turn of events in her love life. After that, the sisters became inseparable; one would go nowhere without the other. At Amelia’s insistence, Ben bought two of everything, coats, dresses, and hats monogrammed to identify the twin to whom it belonged. In a nod of acceptance of the permanence of Cornelia’s presence in their lives, he named one of his ore-carrying barges “Twin Sisters.” The twin he loved he called “Meil”.
The only distinction between the twins was a small mole on Amelia’s neck behind one ear. Ben, however, possessed a secret method for distinguishing one from the other: Amelia’s features generally depicted contentment while Cornelia’s aspect was sour and irritable. The birth of three sons, Frederick, William, and Bennie, gave special purpose to Amelia’s life while supervision of their development into cultured gentlemen in the coarse riverside lumber town became a special mission for Cornelia. She had surrendered any hope of doing the same for her brother-in-law. His bulk combined with restlessness made every delicate object within his reach vulnerable to breakage; teacups, spectacles, jewelry clasps, and fine furniture seemed to fracture and break in his presence.
The sisters determined that the time had come for the captain to establish a residence sized and embellished in a manner that properly announced the breadth of his life’s achievements. At their behest, he purchased four contiguous lots in Bay City on Fifth and Madison Streets, a block off Center Avenue. Today, Center Avenue reveals a spectacular display of late nineteenth and early twentieth century residential architecture for which it has won a place on the National Register of Historic Places. For Bay City’s prominent citizens in the 1890’s and the next half-century, it was the right place to live. Lumbermen and leaders in beet sugar, coal, shipbuilding, and other industries built stylish homes that reflected their substantial fortunes.
Phillip C. Floeter, a distinguished architect who had a few years earlier designed the Trinity Episcopal Church was engaged to draw up the plans and then build a mansion calculated to dwarf Center Avenue homes in both magnitude and ornamentation.
Floeter imported Italian tile and marble for eleven fireplaces and ordered substantial quantities of mahogany, maple, birch, and pine for both the house and interior paneling. The parlor showed Ben’s love of the Great Lakes. It was in the shape of the bow of a boat, and at the far end stood a floor-to-ceiling mirror flanked on each side by tall, mirrored cabinets. Another tribute to the Great Lakes-bright stones carried from Lake Erie and installed within a front looking gable–attracted the attention of passers-by. Panels covered the interior walls to a height of five feet with the area above them covered first with canvas and then decorated with gold leaf. Lighting fixtures were made of sterling silver.
In addition to storage rooms, the basement contained a kitchen and dining rooms where Ben entertained business associates and friends who preferred to puff on cigars while paying Bacchic tribute to one another, activities prohibited elsewhere on the premises. Two private balconies opened off bedrooms on the second floor, and a first-floor porch ran the full length of two sides of the house. From that vantage point, one could glimpse the river and hear the sigh of sloops passing in the night. The house was painted green with white trim–with marine paint, of course. A large barn, which housed four driving horses and a carriage, stood behind the house.
Boutell was low-keyed. He avoided the limelight often favored by business executives and community leaders, foregoing speeches, the holding of public office or any of the other trappings that accompany success. Compared to those who mounted pulpits or appeared before Bay City’s business and social groups, Benjamin was bashful, almost retiring. With the exception of his mansion, a concession to his wife to whom he refused nothing, he avoided public displays of wealth. He was more likely to give encouragement to children who congregated on his spacious lawn where he built a toboggan slide for them, than to engage in politics and more likely to spend time with his family than at business conventions.
January in the Saginaw Bay region is a cold time. The ice thickens on the bay and the river’s pace slows to a crawl and then finally stops altogether. Each day brings forewarning of colder days to come as winter settles in to hold the region in a cold embrace until spring. It was 1902 and Bay City was no longer imprisoned by frozen waterways five months of each year; railroads now allowed travel to those places where Ben did business. He took frequent advantage of them to travel within the United States and Canada where he attended boards of directors meetings and shareholder meetings or to appraise new investment opportunities.
When he returned from one such excursion in late January 1902, he entered his home where he found Amelia and Cornelia together in the sitting room. Cornelia’s hands were busy knitting a shawl, one of many gifts she and Amelia made throughout the year for family and church members. Amelia’s hands were in her lap, one folded over the other, an unusual posture for Amelia, who, like Ben, was generally busy from dawn to dusk.
Something else captured his attention, sending a cold shiver along his spine. The twins were no longer identical! True, their dresses, as always, were the same, fashionable Edwardian afternoon dresses, black, and in keeping with strait-laced Methodist views, unadorned with jewelry. Each now wore her hair pulled back tightly and secured in a chignon at the back of the head. But, Amelia’s features had changed during the few weeks he had been away, or at any rate, he noticed an accumulation of changes that had escaped his attention when he saw her each day.
She had lost weight, her face was drawn and narrow; her shoulders sloped as if in defeat, and, worst of all, the luster had left her eyes. He swung his head to his left and noticed a pair of kid gloves sitting on the hallstand and droplets of moisture on the floor. Despite their settled appearance, he guessed the two had reached home shortly before him and had hurriedly arranged themselves to deceive him into believing they had been there the daylong. Knitting needles flashed in Cornelia’s busy hands. Her gaze flew first to Amelia, and then to Ben. Amelia made as if to rise to greet her husband but Ben, seeing her distress, rushed across the small space between them and took her in his arms.
He summoned specialists to her side and took her to those who could not visit her at home. She grew worse. Cancer was the sixth cause of death in Michigan in that period, behind tuberculosis, heart disease, pneumonia, cholera, and influenza. Despite Ben’s ferocious efforts to save her, she grew steadily worse.
By Thanksgiving, Ben realized Amelia understood the end was near. He drew his chair close to her bed when with a frail motion she beckoned him to draw close. With a voice too thin to travel more than a few feet, she made known her final wishes. Cornelia, she reminded him, had been a part of her life from the moment of her birth and a part of Ben’s from the moment of his marriage. She implored him to marry Cornelia to protect the family’s wealth which would be threatened with division or total loss in the event Benjamin married another. Marry, Cornelia, she said, and it all stays together where it belongs.
She gripped Ben’s hand with the little strength that remained and asked that he promise her now. In thirty-three years of marriage, Ben had yielded to her every wish; he saw no reason to demur now. He made the promise, then smiled and told her it was an easy promise to make because she would be right as rain by Christmas, at the latest!
Amelia died five days later on November 25, 1902. Ben kept his deathbed vow and married Cornelia fourteen months later on February 11, 1904.
Ben increased the pace of his activities, forming companies, expanding others, and devoting additional time to community projects, such as the founding of the YMCA and the YWCA, serving as a church trustee, and giving freely of his time and money to local needs.
In April 1912, he attended a meeting of the stockholders of Wallaceburg Sugar Company in Wallaceburg, Ontario. At the meeting’s conclusion, he arrived at the railway station in Chatham for the return trip just as the engine was warming. Black smoke billowed from the smokestack. The chugging engine seemed to shout Hurry! Hurry! The conductor, impatient to have a last-second boarder, leaned forward as if to remove the small wooden step used by passengers to board the train. Ben broke into a lope. Just as he grasped the bar that would allow him to swing aboard, the train suddenly lurched forward. He held on with one hand, scrambling to board but lacked the strength to complete the maneuver. He loosened his grip and fell to the platform. At first, he believed himself no more than badly shaken. Upon returning home, he began to feel discomfort, then pain, then agony. Within a short time, he fell into a semi-conscious state from which he drifted into death on October 26, 1912.
When Benjamin Boutell passed into history, Michigan lost a member of a cadre of daring men and women born near the time the state came into existence. He injected vigor and a risk-taking attitude into the frontier state making of himself a pioneer on the Great Lakes and in Michigan’s farm fields and in the fostering of several industrial concerns. When Michigan faced economic distress during the phasing out of the lumber industry, he ignored safer paths and plunged instead, into new industries that expanded economic opportunity in Michigan’s smaller cities at the risk of uncertain financial return for himself while others in his situation carried profits won in Michigan to distant, safer harbors, New York, Cleveland, and Boston. For that alone, he is remembered as a true son of Michigan.
Butterfield, George, Bay County Past and Present, Centennial Edition, George Butterfield, Board of Education, Bay City, Michigan ,1957, pages 117, 195 (photo of mansion), 89, 118, and 142.
Gansser, Augustus, History of Bay County, MI and Representative Citizens, Richmond & Arnold, Chicago, IL, 1905, pages 491-2.
Gutleben, Dan, The Sugar Tramp – 1954, Bay Cities Duplicating Co, San Francisco, California, 1954.
Mansfield, J. B. History of the Great Lakes, Vol 1, Freshwater Press, Cleveland, Ohio, 1972
Evening Press, West Bay City, Bay, MI, Friday, 26 Nov 1880, relating to the death of Benjamin Boutell’s mother.
Cyclopedia of Michigan: Historical and Biographical Synopsis of General History of the State and Biographical Sketches of Men who have, in their various spheres, contributed toward its development., Western Publishing and Engraving Co., New York and Detroit, 227-8, 230-1, Bay City Public Library, Bay, Michigan
History of the Great Lakes with Illus., J. H. Beers & Co., Chicago, 1899. Vol. II, pages 18-22.
INFLATION ADJUSTMENTS: The pre-1975 data are the Consumer Price Index statistics from Historical Statistics of the United States (USGPO, 1975). All data since then are from the annual Statistical Abstracts of the United States. Recorded at http://www.westegg.com/inflation
MICHIGAN ANNUAL REPORTS, Michigan Archives, Lansing, Michigan