When the last ice age ended, the receding glaciers left the enormous gouges that filled to become the Great Lakes. Glacial and fluvial deposition created the inland areas, while dunes along the shore were left by the retreating shoreline. In historic times the southeast corner of Lake Michigan contained alternating wetlands and forests of beech, oak and maple.
In 1675 Father Jacques Marquette was the first European explorer, coming down the Saint Joseph river, which he called the River of the Miamis after the Indian tribe living along its banks. Four years later another Jesuit, Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, and a party of 14 came up around the bottom of the lake in canoes. By then, the Miamis were being displaced by the Potawatomis, who farmed in villages in the summer and migrated to winter hunting grounds in the fall. They lived in dome-shaped wigwams or large, bark-covered huts. They made maple sugar and enjoyed a bounty of fish and game. During the passenger pigeon migrations the flocks of the large birds were so thick they could be felled "even with poles and club wielded by men standing on dunes."
The Potawatomis were originally friendly. There was some intermarriage with the settlers. But Shawanoe Chief Tecumseh persuaded them to enter the War of 1812 on the side of the British. White man's diseases and liquor had even more effect than the war, however, and in the Chicago Treaty of 1833 the Indians ceded all of Berrien County except a few reservations.
Not all Indians left. Pokagon, second ranking Potawatomi chief, a Catholic convert described as "the reality of the noble red man of whom we read", who may have lived near the mouth of the Galien river and had later established a tribal village in Bertram Township, sought and received permission to move his settlement to Cass County. His descendant, Simon Pokagon, educated at Oberlin, petitioned Lincoln and Grant for payment for lands. An honored guest at the 1893 World's Fair, Simon was celebrated as "internationally known as writer, poet and lecturer."
Meanwhile, the United States continued its westward expansion. The territorial legislature of Michigan created Berrien County on October 29, 1829. By the next year the federal township and range system of land survey had outlined the section roads that defined inland borders today. Michigan created New Buffalo Township on March 12, 1836, just before it became a state. Five days later the Village of New Buffalo was incorporated. The township included what are now Three Oaks and Chikaming Townships until they were split off in 1856.
The city of New Buffalo came into being because of a violent October storm in 1834, when Captain Wessel D. Whittaker grounded his schooner Post Boy in the mouth of a small stream called State Creek near the present village of Grand Beach. The ship was destroyed, but Captain and crew survived the disaster and walked to Michigan City, where there were taverns that could provide food and shelter. There Whittaker hired a rig and headed north for St. Joseph to report the ship's loss to its underwriters. On his way up the coast, he was struck by advantages and beauty of the spot where the Galien River passed through Lake Potawatomi into Lake Michigan. Lake Potowatomi, since drained by the sawmills, was, by varying accounts, two miles long, a half mile wide and up to ninety feet deep or four miles long by a mile wide and fourteen feet deep. It is now just "a lazy bend in the river."
After completing his business in St. Joe and paying off his crew, he went by stage coach to the land office in Kalamazoo, where he made arrangements to acquire a large tract of land around the harbor mouth. He then returned home to Buffalo, New York, where he sold half interest to his employers, Jacob Barker and Nelson Willard for $13,000.00. They named their new city New Buffalo.
Spring found Whittaker back and ready to begin settlement. The first building was a 15 x 14 foot log cabin at the corner of Whittaker and Merchant Streets, where the first four settlers, Wessel Whittaker, Henry Bishop, Freeman Clough and William Hammond slept on pine boughs laid across one side of the room. Soon there was Whittaker & Co.'s waterfront warehouse and store, a lodging house for travelers and a sawmill. The first woman to arrive was Mrs. Eber Knight, whose descendents still live here. A land boom was in progress in the Northwest Territories, and more settlers, many of them Whittaker's relatives, followed him there, until development was stalled by the national Panic of 1837.
Transportation was a problem. The road from LaPorte was described as "villainous...out of one mud-hole into another the whole distance." A lakeshore road had been authorized in 1833 from St. Joe to Indiana, but only the section south of New Buffalo was passable. Over it a stage coach ran a mail run.
Harbor improvement was a priority. After a favorable Army survey in 1838, the government built a lighthouse in 1839. Unfortunately it lasted only until 1857, when it became the first local victim to the lake's shifting shoreline.
But now there was a third alternative. Railroads had begun the stitch the country together with iron thread. The Michigan Central Railroad was chartered in 1846 to build a line to a point near the Indiana boundary and Lake Michigan. New Buffalo was chosen as the end of the line. Passengers and freight would have to shift to other means to continue to Chicago or other points west. Good times seemed inevitable, and for a short while, time were good indeed. The final tracks were laid in the spring of 1849; 200 people celebrated the arrival of the first train. That year over 100,000 people rode the Michigan Central. Many stopped at New Buffalo for a few hours, or if the weather was bad enough, a few days. New hotels, restaurants and stores thrived. The railroad built piers and improved the harbor. Three new Ward Line steamers, Pacific, Traveler and Cleveland, ran to Chicago and Milwaukee.
Sidetracks appeared every mile or so along the railroad, opening up the lumber industry. Logs were picked up on the sidings and transferred to ships headed across the lake. In 1850 one steamship company alone purchased 7,000 cords of wood.
Then in 1853, only four years later, the Michigan Central extended its line through Indiana to Chicago. The passengers didn't stop. The boom was over. The town lost half its size. Some buildings went by flat car to Three Oaks, where the lumber industry would thrive for another twenty years.
But land had been cleared; improvements made. Soon there was a new group of settlers, German mostly. Wilson Road was called Germany Road. J.M. Patton published the first newspaper, The Vindicator, in 1856. J.V. Phillips was the first lawyer, serving for nearly forty years. Churches were built: a Catholic Church in 1858, Methodist in 1861 and German Evangelical in 1862. The first Baptist Church was established in a former dance hall at the corner of Merchant and Barton streets. For decades it had the largest congregation and church building. The Berrien County Medical Association was formed in New Buffalo in 1870.
The roads opened to the north as well as the south, with as many as sixteen coaches a day between New Buffalo and St. Joe. In 1870 this route was covered by a new railroad line, which was required to have a stop every five miles for the benefit of the farmers. The next to last stop was Townline, which quickly acquired a post office and became Union Pier. By 1880 the township's population was 1198, an increase of 376 people (46%) over the previous twenty years.
Just fifty miles across the lake, Chicago had been incorporated the year before Captain Whittaker's fortuitous storm. In 1890 it was a colossus preparing to celebrate itself in the Colombian Exposition. New Buffalo could not compete with its harbor, its industry or its size, but it could benefit nonetheless.
Isaac O. Smith farmed 165 acres on the lakefront between New Buffalo and Union Pier. In 1893 he built a resort hotel for travelers on their way to the Exposition. It had ten rooms, a ballroom and ten cottages. Part of the foundations of the hotel and one of the cottages (much modified) remain today.
Thus began the parade of visitors from the west. In 1903 the Congregational Assembly for Bible Students of the Middle West built a summer camp called Potawatomi Point. Camp Sokol opened in 1905 and is still an important part of the township. The YWCA opened its Forest Beach Camp. Other youth facilities include the Jewish Camp Tell Hai and the Chicago Commons Camp for boys.
Floyd R. Perkins bought 600 acres of dunes and woodlands for a shooting preserve, then expanded it to form the Grand Beach Company. By 1911 there were almost fifty cottages, a nine-hole golf course and a train stop. Ten years later the majestic Golfmore Hotel opened, with 175 rooms, dining, dancing, tennis, horseback riding, swimming, 27 holes of golf and a ski jump. Its burning, in 1939, returned Grand Beach to the residential community it is today.
The railroad became a significant local employer in 1921 when the Pere Marquette line put in new tracks, coaling stations, a roundhouse and a 56 room hotel. Local industry - a pickle factory and a glass factory - and local farms continued and prospered, but the growth industry was the people from across the lake. In the 1920's families rented small uninsulated cabins for a week or a month, arriving first by train and then by motorcar on US 12. Even in the Depression of the 30's they came if they could afford it. A tourist Information Center was opened in 1934. After a hiatus for the Second World War, many of the renters were moving to the suburbs. The city dwellers who did come wanted more. They were repeat visitors and tended to buy as well as rent. The cabins gradually gave way to winterized second homes, which seem to become larger and more elaborate each year. Marina facilities started when Harold and William Guhl offered two boats for rent and live bait in 1947 and grew into today's dredged harbor with moorings on both sides of the bridge. The village became a Home Rule City in 1965. While industry continues to grow slowly (plastic injection molds, steel castings, and wooden trusses) and farms continue to operate (from soy beans to llama ranching), the new businesses are restaurants, antique stores, bed-and-breakfasts and even hotels. Partly by plan and partly by geography, New Buffalo Township is still, as its 1928 arch proudly proclaimed, The Gateway of Michigan.
Excerpt from the New Buffalo Township Master Plan (1998) Authored by: Quincy White, Secretary of the New Buffalo Township Planning Commission.
The New Buffalo Story 1834-1976, The New Buffalo Area Bicentennial Committee
Sketch Development Plan for New Buffalo Township (1978) New Buffalo Township Planning Commission
Chikaming Township Master Land Use Plan 1992-2021 (1992) Chikaming Township Planning Commission
Profile of New Buffalo Township ( 1998 draft) Berrien County Economic Development Department
Nature Magazine vol. 15 no. 1 (1930) (Simon Pokagon)
Primitive Man in Michigan (1925)
Legends of the Old West (1875)
New Buffalo Recollections (1985) Savage (Lake Potawatomi)
Early-Chicago Reminiscences (1882) Cleaver (LaPorte Road)