Sunday, August 11, 2013

Samuel Zug - The Man Behind the Island

Samuel Zug
At the end of June 2013, I was asked by Canadian filmmaker, Mark Dal Bianco, to give a brief biography of Samuel Zug, the man who Zug Island is named after. 

The filmmaker is producing a documentary on the environmental impact of the island on the surrounding areas of Detroit and Windsor.

Mr. Zug is thought by some people to have been an industrialist, but that couldn't be further from the truth. He was a devout Presbyterian who took an interest in politics and human rights.

In 1836 at the tender age of twenty years old, Samuel Zug came to Detroit, Michigan from Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. Using money he saved as a bookkeeper in the Pittsburgh area, he went into the furniture making business with Marcus Stevenson, a Detroit investor.  

The prospect of endless stands of pine, oak and maple trees as raw material, and convenient access to Eastern markets by way of the Detroit River for their finished products, made Detroit an ideal place for a young man to make his fortune. 

But in 1859 after twenty-three years in the furniture business, his partnership with Stevenson was dissolved leaving Samuel Zug a wealthy man to pursue real estate and political ambitions.

In 1859 (or 1876 depending on which source you choose), Samuel Zug purchased 325 acres of land along the Detroit River from Michigan's second Territorial governor, General Lewis B. Cass. Over 250 acres of the parcel was marshland with a sulfur spring bubbling up 1,200 barrels of mineral water a day.

The marshy peninsula of land was a part of Ecorse Township before it became the city of River Rouge. In unrecorded time, the land was rumored to have been an ancient burial site for a number of native American tribes who were known to inhabit the area.

Samuel Zug and his wife Anna hoped to build a mansion on the island, but after ten years they decided that the marshland and natural sulfur spring on the site proved too much for them to endure. The Zugs surrendered the land to the red fox, water fowl, muskrats, and mosquitoes. The croaking frogs and singing insects were left to serenade the damp night air because the island was virtually uninhabitable.

In 1888, Samuel Zug authorized the River Rouge River Improvement Company to cut a small canal at the south end of his land. Known by locals as Mud Run, it was dredged out sixty feet wide and eight feet deep. 

Short Cut Canal at bottom of map was Mud Run.

The Zug family peninsula became a man-made island overnight separating it from the north end of Ecorse Township. The channel improved the flow of the Rouge River into the Detroit River, but it did little to circulate water around the newly formed island, leaving a slow-moving backwater.

On December 26, 1889, Samuel Zug died leaving his holdings to his wife, Anne, who died on June 10th,1891. It has been reported wrongly that Mr. Zug died in 1896. My source for the correct date of Zug's death comes from his huge tombstone in Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery.

The Zug heirs sold the island for $300,000 to George Brady and Charles Noble, who wanted to use the site for an industrial dumping ground. The island was diked with interlocking steel panels and back-filled with construction rubble and dredging waste to raise the ground above the water table and reclaim the land from its natural state.

Heavy industry was about to move onto the island but Mr. Zug never lived to see it. The island's namesake was "Waiting for the Coming of Our Lord" as the inscription on his grave marker proclaims.

In addition to being a bookkeeper and the owner of a successful furniture manufacturing company, Samuel Zug is also credited with being one of the founding members of the Republican Party, which was considered to be the progressive party of the day. Their first official meeting took place on July 6, 1854, in Jackson, Michigan.

The Republicans were an abolitionist party that came to national attention when they won 33% of the presidential vote from the Democrats and the Whigs in 1856. Four years later in 1860, they broke through the two-party system and elected Abraham Lincoln to the White House.

Samuel Zug was an anti-slavery advocate long before Lincoln was elected and The Civil War began. He bought and set aside a parcel of land for refugee slaves in the city of Amherstburg, Ontario, Canada, a destination of the Underground Railroad. What other support he gave to the Abolitionist Movement is shrouded in the dim history of time and whispers of the unrecorded past.

At the time of his death, Samuel Zug was unaware of the mighty industrial complex his soggy marshland would become. He would never know the history Zug Island would help make possible or the long term environmental impact the rust belt industry would have on the area and its people.

In Detroit's Elmwood Cemetery

Check out Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel about my experiences working on the island during the historic summer of 1967 when all Hell broke loose in the Motorcity: