Singapore swallowed by dunes: Could it happen again?

Allegan County

Black and white postcard shows a view of Singapore, Michigan. The town is now buried under the sand dunes near Saugatuck, Michigan. (Michigan History Center/Archives of Michigan)

SOUTH HAVEN TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — As Halloween approaches, News 8 is taking a closer look an unusual ghost city tale: the demise of the once-thriving community of Singapore and whether Michigan’s 220,000 acres of coastal sand dunes could swallow another city.

SINGAPORE’S SUCCESS

Singapore’s birth and death centered around one commodity: wood. The Allegan County community once located along the Kalamazoo River north of Saugatuck started as a lumber outpost in the 1830s, according to the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance.

A regional map from 1844 shows Singapore and the unbuilt settlement of Breeze in Allegan County. (Saugatuck-Douglas History Center)

Singapore grew into a bustling lumber town that rivaled “The Flats,” as Saugatuck was known then.

A photograph from around 1875 shows the Kalamazoo River just inland from Lake Michigan, looking north, with Singapore’s mills visible in background. (Saugatuck-Douglas History Center)

According to its Michigan Historical Site marker, the town at its height was home to three saw mills, a boat harbor, two hotels, several general stores and “Wild-cat” bank, complete with the community’s own currency.

An archive image shows an uncut and unsigned sheet of printed currency from the Bank of Singapore from 1837. (Saugatuck-Douglas History Center)

ABANDONED AND BURIED

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, as well as fires in Holland and Peshtigo, Wisconsin, sparked the beginning of the end for the 520-acre community of Singapore.

Archive photos show the rubble left behind by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. (AP Photo)

To help rebuild the burned cities, Singapore deforested the surrounding area, including the trees that stabilized the dunes, according to Michigan State University professor Alan Arbogast. With no trees left to hold them in place, the dunes started closing in on the town.

Black and white postcard shows a view of Singapore, Michigan. The town is now buried under the sand dunes near Saugatuck, Michigan. (Michigan History Center/Archives of Michigan)

By the time Singapore was ultimately swallowed by sand in 1875, the city was already a shell of itself. That year, Singapore’s economy was dealt a death blow: the main mill moved to St. Ignace, taking many jobs with it. Many homeowners also moved into Saugatuck.

An archive photo from 1950 shows where Singapore, Michigan once existed. The emptied town was buried under sand dunes near Saugatuck, Michigan. (Michigan History Center/Archives of Michigan)

Nearly 150 years later, all that remains of Singapore are some building foundations and artifacts dug up by archaeologists, and a cautionary tale born from economic and environmental disaster.

A photo included in an archaeological survey of shows ceramic shards believed to be connected to Singapore. (Ball State University)

>>PDF: Singapore archaeological survey findings

COULD IT HAPPEN AGAIN?

Could west Michigan’s dunes bury another city? Not anytime soon, according to Arbogast, who chairs MSU’s Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences.

He’s been studying dunes for 20 years and says West Michigan’s sand formations are slowly stabilizing, thanks to the gradual spread of vegetation across the top of the sand mounds.

Vegetation has even turned Mount Baldhead, named in the 1800s for the bare sand on its crest, into a greener formation no longer fitting of its name.

Arbogast said the vegetation may be expanding because it is rebounding from deforesting at the turn of the last century, or due to the gradual increase in precipitation. He said both could also be factors in the change.

south haven glerl 4 16 18 snow shower and big waves_1523962400829.jpg.jpg
An April 2018 image provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows strong waves on Lake Michigan at South Haven.

Increasing precipitation may be a double-edged sword. Arbogast says the rain and snow-fed waves of Lake Michigan could undercut dunes to some extent, causing vegetation stabilizing the sand mounds to fall into the water, exposing shifting grains. However, he cautioned sand migration wouldn’t be extreme.

DIGGING INTO THE DUNES

Through carbon dating and optical dating of the sands and with the help of other researchers, Arbogast says he was among the first to systematically study the age and evolution of West Michigan’s dunes.

The white grains of sand—which happen to be quartz from Canada—hold the answer, he says. Each quartz grain has microscopic cracks at its edges that will store the low radioactive dose other nearby sand grains give off once it is buried. This process continues as long as the quartz grains remain buried in darkness.

>>App users: Tap here and scroll down to take our dunes quiz.

Arbogast says he and other scientists dig up those buried samples, collect the sand in a darkened test tube and ship it off to a specialized lab. Technicians there expose the grains to light and measure the subsequent microscopic flash the radioactive dose gives off from the measured grains.

Through that process and carbon dating of organic matter. like charcoal and wood fragments buried in the sand, Arbogast says they’ve been able to piece together an accurate history of coastal dune evolution.

BIRTH OF THE DUNES

Arbogast says while glaciers deposited the sand in Michigan most recently between about 25,000 and 10,000 years ago, the wind-sculpted dunes along West Michigan’s coast began to grow about 5,000 years ago.

There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
An August 2019 photo shows people gathered on the face of a dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park in Empire Township.

While some of the dunes have since migrated as far as a mile inland, Arbogast says the dunes closer to the coast have tended to grow higher, thanks in part to the consistent westerly wind fed by the jet stream. Those winds pack a bigger punch because of the relatively frictionless Lake Michigan surface they glide over before hitting the piles of sand along the coast. The westerly dunes also block the winds from their more inland counterparts.

Arbogast says research has shown distinct active and stable cycles forming the dunes.

The last significantly active phase for the dunes was during the Little Ice Age of the 1500s to mid-1800s, when glaciers were growing slightly worldwide and the climate was colder and windier.

INFLUENCING NATURE

For about the past century, Arbogast says the dunes have generally been in a stable period.

However, as was the case of the deforested community Singapore, Arbogast noted “local actions” can change the fate of the very dynamic and sensitive dunescape.

silver lake dunes near home
The Silver Lake dunes near a home. (July 2019)

He pointed to the Silver Lake sand dunes as a perfect example of how extreme human impact can mobilize the dunes. Disturbed by dune-hopping ORVs and the 850,000 visitors to Silver Lake State Park each year, the Silver Lake sand dunes have been stripped of vegetation, allowing the sands to move more easily.

Silver Lake dunes house covered
A house destroyed by the moving Silver Lake dunes. (April 27, 2017)

The migrating dunes have buried some homes, including one in 2017 and others now are threatened.

silver lake dunes
The Silver Lake dunes near a home. (July 2019)

Michigan is home to about 220,000 acres of coastal sand dunes, making it the home to the largest body of freshwater dunes in the world.

Arbogast says the dunes attract about 3 million visitors each year, equivalent to nearly a third of the state’s population in total numbers.

  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 13, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)
  • There is nothing like a Pure Michigan summer day at Sleeping Bear Dunes. (Aug. 17, 2019) (Michael Buck/WOOD TV8)

>>Photos: Summertime at Sleeping Bear Dunes

The Michigan Environmental Council is looking for people interested in contributing to research regarding Lake Michigan’s coastal dunes. The council is looking for historic photos and recent photos of the exact same dune site. Those photos can be submitted online.

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Online:

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, And Energy: Sand dune resources

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