Saturday, October 15, 2011

Preservationists unable to save Pigeon Hill from sand miners

Published: Monday, June 21, 2010

This undated photo of Pigeon Hill is from local historian Charles Yates' collection. Thought to have been taken from the current site of the Muskegon Country Club, its shows the dune which some believed protected Muskegon from the full violence of Lake Michigan storms.

This week 85 years ago...

A year after Nugent Sand Co. and the Pere Marquette Railroad first moved to begin mining operations at Pigeon Hill, the doomed fight to preserve the local landmark began.

The Chronicle said on June 25, 1925
Committee told to work out plan to prevent land mark’s destruction

With a view to saving Pigeon Hill, not alone for its scenic beauty, but because of its commercial value as well, the directors of the Chamber of Commerce authorized the parks committee to proceed with a plan toward saving the hill Wednesday.

Two plans were discussed, one of working up sentiment to have the city bonded for the amount to purchase the property and another to have a syndicate formed for the purpose of buying the land and later selling it to the city.

The action taken by the directorate of the commerce board yesterday followed a move made three weeks ago, or two days after the city commission had granted the railroad right to extend its track to the hill.

The directorate of the chamber at that time instructed its committee to start work to determine the amount of dune property involved and the proceedings that would be necessary to have the hill kept intact.

The mining operations that removed Pigeon Hill, which once towered 217 feet above the western shores of Muskegon Lake, began in 1926. By 1938, the ancient dune was leveled. The only spot left higher than 10 feet above lake level were the port facilities, shown in this undated photo. The dock and conveyors were razed in 1974.

Value inestimable

Pigeon Hill’s value to the city is inestimable, it was decided, but the question remains as to how to proceed. Floating of a bond issue to make the purchase of the hill possible and distribution of these bonds over a period of possibly 25 years would make the increase in taxes very small it is pointed out.

On the other hand, the hill might be purchased by a syndicate and sold to the city at a time when the city sees fits to purchase it, it being understood that the purchase syndicate would not sell the sand.

The hill belongs to Robert Ferguson, the Nugent Sand Company, and the Pere Marquette Railroad, and it is understood that the sand is to be sold and the ground to be developed as a home site after the sand has been removed.

Must act at Once

The city commission has granted permission to the railroad to extend its line to the hill and it is felt that if something is to be done it must be done immediately.

Sentiment here is strong for the preservation of the hill, mainly because of its scenic beauty. Few people in town have expressed the sentiment that it is not worth thousands of dollars in bringing tourists here and in preserving the beauty of the lake front.

Lakeside, it was declared by A.E. McCrea and Herman W. Freye, directors on the board of the chamber, is strongly in favor of the preservation of the great mound.


Within two years, a legal technicality sealed the fate of Muskegon’s once-iconic landmark.

Nugent Sand Co. needed rail access to the site to make mining the prehistoric dune profitable.

The company got what it needed when the Michigan Supreme Court ruled that although the long-unused Pere Marquette Railroad spur along Beach Street was buried deep beneath the shifting sands, it was not abandoned as Beach Street residents contended.

When reconstruction of the line began, Pigeon Hill was as doomed as its then-extinct namesake, the Passenger Pigeon.

Despite a 1925 mining company proposal that it would build homes on the site and city attempts to turn the area into a park in the early 1960s, this 1977 photo shows how Pigeon Hill looked from the time mining operations ceased in the early 1950s until construction of Harbour Towne began in 1992. Sand from the Bluffton dune, which stood sentinel between Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake, was sold to the foundries that made Muskegon prosperous.

Although in later accounts the legendary hill’s height grew to upwards of 300 feet, it was precisely measured at 217 feet in 1907 by Muskegon High School’s trigonometry class.

Local residents and civic organizations fought hard to save the dune, deposited there during the last ice age by an ancient ancestor of the Muskegon River.

Adding their talents to the preservation effort were famed North Muskegon artist Victor Casenelli, who painted it, and beloved Muskegon poet Douglas Malloch, who wrote about it.

Well-known Detroit newspaper columnist and radio announcer Curtis Custer Bradner spread word of the famed sand hill statewide.

All efforts were in vain.

Soon after the supreme court ruling in December 1926, trainloads of sand from Pigeon Hill began arriving at local foundries.

Construction of port facilities for lake freighters were completed by mid-May in 1928 when the J.E. Savage sailed from the new dock at Devil’s Kitchen for Milwaukee with 7,000 tons of sand.

Although mining operations would continue into the 1950s, by 1938 Pigeon Hill was reduced to a collection of sandy humps, none more than 10 feet high.

The land lay vacant until construction began on Harbour Towne in 1992.

Local grocer John Bennink’s words provide the most fitting epitaph for Muskegon’s lost legacy. During the battle to save the dune, Bennick told the city commission: “Pigeon Hill was placed there by God to protect this city. It saves us from storms that sweep in over the lake. If it is removed, the wrath of God will be upon us.

— By Dave LeMieux

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Walking Tour of the old Actors’ Colony - Hot Rod Power Tour version

“The best summers of my life were spent in the cottage Pop had built on Lake Muskegon in 1908.”

Buster Keaton in his autobiography,
“My Wonderful World of Slapstick”

When: Thursday, June 9 @ 7:30 p.m.

Where we start:
Bluffton Elementary
1875 Waterworks Rd
Muskegon, MI 49441

Your Host: Local historian Ron Pesch

Cost: FREE!

Near the turn of the twentieth century, as the last vestiges of Muskegon’s lumbering era faded from the horizon, a community that catered to theatrical entertainers took root. Lying in the shadow of a massive dune known as Pigeon Hill in a portion of the city of Muskegon known as Bluffton, a colony of actors celebrated life on the water while preparing for another season on the road.

The Hot Rod Magazine Power tour visits Muskegon on June 9th, 2011

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Red Light District - Another view of Muskegon

Click on the image above to visit postcard images of Muskegon as the city appeared back during Buster Keaton's time in town.

They were different times - there is no question about that.

Visitors to Muskegon over the years have seen many changes. Keaton himself noted this when he returned to town with his wife, Eleanor, for a visit back in 1949.

Check out this week's Muskegon Chronicle "Looking Back" feature for a view of another section of the city from Buster's era that doesn't show up in postcards.

Looking Back:

This week’s retrospective is from 1917 when, prodded by local civic organizations as well as The Chronicle, the prosecuting attorney moved to shut down Muskegon’s red light district.

By Dave LeMieux | Muskegon Chronicle

March 29, 2010, 9:10AM

The Ashley Furman house was the type of “rooming house” targeted by the city’s 1917 crackdown on vice. Located at Market and Terrace, the house was built in the 1860s and served as a brothel during the lumber era. It was razed in 1939.

The Chronicle said on April 3, 1917:

The blow that means the end of licensed vice in Muskegon was struck yesterday afternoon by Prosecuting Attorney Christian A. Broek when he filed 12 separate and distinct bills for injunction in circuit court to put out of business every house operating in the so-called “sawdust” district.

The Hattie Dolly rooming house, 147 W. Western Avenue, that came so prominently before the public eye as a result of a police raid last fall, is also included.

Mayor Arnt Ellifson had given his approval of the prosecuting attorney’s move. The mayor pledged The Chronicle, the pastors of the city, the civic department of the Muskegon Woman’s Club, the W.C.T.U. and others some time ago, that, if re-elected, he would bar organized vice from Muskegon.

Not a Criminal Proceeding

The prosecutor brings his action under the well-known injunction and abatement law, passed by the 1915 state legislature, which authorizes public officials to close any house whose reputation as a resort of ill-fame has become generally established. Absolute proof that the house is being run as a house of ill-fame is not needed under this law.


Muskegon’s city fathers attempted to turn the once-rowdy Lumber Queen into a respectable matron when they moved to shut down the red light district in 1917.

At the height of the lumber era, an estimated 85 saloons lined Ottawa Street, most with rooms upstairs for prostitutes.

In 1887, the local prostitutes — including Big Delia and Spanish Lou — joined in the city’s Fourth of July celebration, setting up a bandstand and hiring a Milwaukee band to entertain “something like a thousand” lumberjacks.

The city turned to manufacturing after the timber was exhausted, and aspirations to respectability came with a more settled workforce.

Still, a much smaller red light district lingered on in the city long after the loggers headed west. Camouflaged as boarding houses, the brothels relocated a few blocks west from the infamous Sawdust Flats, close to where the new Central Fire Station, 770 Terrace, now stands.

Although Congress passed anti-prostitution legislation in 1910 and the state followed in 1915, it took until 1917 for Muskegon to shut down its downtown brothels.

— By Dave LeMieux
The resorts which the prosecutor seeks to close by his 12 bills for injunctions are: Rose Snow, 11 Spring Street; May Cline, 64 E. Webster Avenue; Ethel Ward, 26 Spring Street; Jean Ardell, 28 Spring Street; Georgia Steiner, 34 Spring Street; Rose Fox, 89 E. Webster Avenue; Myrtle Reed, 91 E. Webster Avenue; Myrtle Reed, 95 E. Webster Avenue; Myrtle Reed, 101 E. Webster Avenue; Carrie Clark, 103 E. Webster Avenue; Thelma Williams, 105 E. Webster Avenue; and, Hattie Dolly, 147 W. Western Avenue.

The hearing on the prosecutor’s requests for injunctions closing these houses will be held 10 a.m. Monday in the circuit court. Whether the proprietors of the houses will fight the action is not yet known. They generally don’t.

The actions are not criminal prosecutions. Proprietors and inmates of the houses will not be thrown into jail. The resorts will be merely put out of business, and the sheriff will be authorized to clean out the houses and get rid of the furniture and everything else in them.

Will be up to the police

Mr. Broek declares that once licensed vice is barred from Muskegon by the successful culmination of the suits now launched, it is then up to the police to keep the city clean. “The city of Muskegon has an adequate rooming house ordinance that should prevent these people from getting into downtown blocks or respectable residence districts,” he said. “It is up to the police and city attorney to enforce city ordinances, the prosecuting attorney has nothing to do with it. I shall expect the city administration to keep Muskegon clean.”

Mr. Broek planned this action immediately after his election. He told The Chronicle so before he took office and told the mayor Jan. 4. His only reason he has not taken action before this is because he was unwilling to give it a political tinge by springing it just before the spring election.

Mayor agreed to move

In an interview with The Chronicle today he defended his position as follows:

“Upon my coming into office as prosecuting attorney, Mr. Jackson, the assistant prosecutor and myself went thoroughly over the situation with regard to the red light district and we both agreed that the time had come when the law passed in 1915, Act. No. 272, providing for the abating and enjoining of houses of ill fame as nuisances, should be enforced.

"We thereupon conferred with the mayor, Mr. Ellifson, on Jan. 4, last, and pointed out to him the provisions of this law. He agreed that the segregated district should be wiped out, but asked us to defer action at that time because of the fact that the police were busy rooting out gambling and the slot machines.

"I therefore delayed taking further action before the spring election so that the move might have absolutely no political significance, as I do not believe the enforcement of the law should be partisan in character.”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Parlor Bedroom and Bath

An interesting find from the July 3, 1920 Muskegon Chronicle. Buster Keaton, of course, starred as Reginald Irving in the 1931 Edward Sedgwick film production for MGM.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Latest Addition to

Click on the images for views of the Muskegon area
from the days when Buster Keaton called the city "home".

Downtown Muskegon

The Trip to Bluffton

Lake Michigan Park
(AKA - Pere Marquette Park)

Pigeon Hill

Visit often, as the I continue to add to the pages as I unearth more images
and history on the area.

Have images to share? Feel free to send them along! You can find me at

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Images from the 15th Annual Buster Keaton Convention in Muskegon MI

The Cast of Characters...

flash the "High Sign" at the baseball diamond where Keaton played as a kid.

Our every gracious hosts, the D'Alcorn's, at Jingles Jungle.

Melissa Talmadge Cox, Buster's grandaughter, shows off "The General" during Saturday's talks at the convention.

Britian's David McLeod again presented his running series on Keaton features, this year is was "Seven Chances".

Virgil Noble's presentation on the Cutlers - Buster's Mother's side of the family was outstanding...

As was the presentation on "The General" by Ted Keaton III.

The annual auction included shots of Keaton in uniform - both large and small.

Saturday concluded with a performance by the West End Jazz Band at the glorious Frauenthal Theater.

And, of course, the incredible Dennis Scott at the Barton Theater Organ, performing for Keaton's Masterpiece, "The General".

(Someone, please, send along a better photograph - my camera isn't that skilled at stopping the action!)