Historical context: Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, Mich. – Part 3February 1st, 2012 | Posted by in Regional economics
In the late 1860s and early 1970s, artists used Civil War-era observation balloons to draw detailed bird’s eye views of many Lake Michigan cities. This is a view of St. Joseph, Benton Harbor’s twin town immediately to its south.
The St. Joseph River flows into Lake Michigan at this point. As mentioned in a previous post, the geography lent itself well to agricultural pursuits, and in the 17th and 18th centuries early settlers were quite successful in planting and growing crops.
The railway arrived in St. Joseph in 1870, right around when this drawing was made. Note the factories close to the lake and the community development hemmed in by the orchards and fields of the farms around the young town. Most industry at this stage was related to the transportation of produce and fruit, such as making fruit baskets, processing and packing machinery.
To the left of the image in this lithograph is Benton Harbor. The main trade in the area was related to the export of fruit and produce to Chicago, 90 miles away across the lake.
This view is towards the northeast over Benton Harbor from roughly the same observation point. The most important physical features to observe are the canal that begins in the bottom right of the lithograph and the rolling hills that extend to the horizon.
The canal was dug in 1860 in response to a flood in 1858 that destroyed all of the bridges connecting Benton Harbor to St. Joseph where the area’s export wharves were then located. It was funded with private money raised primarily in Chicago. The construction of the canal spurred an extraordinary period of industrial development. The growth of the railroads fostered the early development of steel and steel fabrication businesses. Easy access to both water and rail transport was vital to this growth.
In 1892, the Michigan lawmakers tried to force the merger of the two “cities,” but Benton Harbor and St. Joseph could not agree on a site for a unified civic center. In 1894, St. Joseph became the county seat for Berrien County and thereafter developed a diverse array of both service and industrial businesses.
Benton Harbor continued to grow and attract more industry. In the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, manufacturing and produce processing and marketing were both very important to the community.
The canal made Benton Harbor the undiluted industrial heart of southwest Michigan. It was integral to the growth of the region. And taken together, St. Joseph and Benton Harbor really did function as a single economic entity. If the 1892 merger initiative had been successful, the future of the whole region might well have been quite different.
This US Air Force reconnaissance photograph from 1938 shows St. Joseph on the left side, the St. Joseph River flowing mainly northwards through the towns and Benton Harbor. At the top of the photograph, the canal is still clearly visible, as are the multiple factories clustered on both of its banks.
While St. Joseph developed a mixed economy, developing the skills of a service economy alongside those of industry, Benton Harbor focused hard on being an efficient industrial hub, driven by the vision and energy of a succession of entrepreneurs like Stern Brunson, who had led the effort to dig the canal. The marshes that once produced hundreds of acres of wild rice were drained and became the sites for dozens of manufacturing businesses.
Large houses were built in the hills overlooking the town, and street after street of smaller homes sprung up for those who flooded the area seeking work in the factories. Initially these immigrants were mainly first generation Europeans, but by the 1930s the African American “Great Migration” from the south began to create a more heterogeneous population. The demographic die was cast for the second half of the 20th century.
In the post-war years, industry began to shift. Companies which had seen dramatic growth in support of defense-related industry began to scale back or close. Government policy, interstate road development and the automobile reinforced the development of new communities away from traditional town centers as suburban-living gained popularity largely through federally supported home loan programs. Urban renewal schemes altered traditional work/life patterns and the first “out of town” shopping centers began to appear.
Most of these changes favored the middle class and the mobile. The poor, often African American, blue collar populations frequently found themselves trapped where they were, as jobs disappeared and housing stock deteriorated.