Tantalyzing mysteries surround the role of Bay City in the national struggle over slavery which led to the Civil War. The city was settled by one of the nation's leading abolitionists, James G. Birney. Reports of "safe houses" for escaped slaves and ships that may have spirited runaways to Canada abound.
A map in a new Michigan history book shows the Underground Railroad going straight through Bay City and out into Saginaw Bay, making it one of the northernmost outposts of the informal network of "conductors" who helped thousands of black slaves to freedom in pre Civil War days. Birney, scion of a wealth Kentucky family, became an abolitionist after being educated at Princeton and Philadelphia.
In 1834 he freed the slaves from his father's hemp plantation and evolved from a supporter of colonization to a full-fledged abolitionist. After his life was constantly threatened for publishing an abolitionist newspaper in Cincinnati, Birney moved his large family north to Bay City. He settled in a house that was in the heart of present-day downtown Bay City and farmed on both sides of the river, mainly an area which is now Veterans Memorial Park.
Twice candidate for President on the abolitionist Liberty Party ticket, Birney helped transform Bay City into a hotbed of Union sentiment that sent more than 500 men, a sixth of the entire population, to fight. About a third died in the monumental struggle. Four of Birney's sons and a grandson served the Union. All but one died of wounds or disease in the war or shortly thereafter. Historians puzzle over the connection of Bay City with Gerrit Smith, wealthy New York abolition financier, who narrowly escaped prosecution for funding John Brown's ill-fated raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.
The wives of James G. Birney and Gerrit Smith were sisters. A Gerrit Smith Grove is mentioned in pre Civil War Bay City newspapers and a title search has determined that Smith originally financed a uniquely designed brick house at 10th and Adams near City Hall. The hulk of the schooner Gerrit Smith, that may have been used to aid escaping slaves, is still visible in the Saginaw River.
Pictures and images were provided by Bay City, Michigan Visitors Bureau
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