The Pioneering Clarks of Ecorse, Brownstown, and Northville
Grassy Island Fisheries - Google Images
By Kathy Warnes
Several branches of the Clark family that require genealogists to correctly establish family connections settled in the Downriver area and were good soldiers, fishermen, fish culturists, and citizens. They started their careers in New York and Ohio, and successfully concluded them in Ecorse and Northville, Michigan.
Wattros Clark, the grandfather of George and Lucy his grandmother, were from Norwich, Connecticut, and when the Revolutionary War broke out, Wattros fought for the rebellious colonists at battles including Bunker Hill, Trenton, Princeton, New York and White Plains. After the Revolution Wattros Clark drew an officer’s pension until his death in 1822.
John Clark, a son of Wattros was born on November 14, 1777, and his wife Sally Person Clark, George Clark’s mother, was born in Brunswick, New York on June 1, 1780. She died at Buffalo, New York, on April 18, 1813, and John Clark married his second wife Sally Swain at Buffalo, on November 10, 1813.
A soldier in the War of 1812, John served as the captain of Saugerties Rangers. At this point his family lived at Black Rock, New York, and British soldiers destroyed most of their possessions. John’s son George who was born on March 9, 1804, grew up during this time and he remembered many exciting stories from his childhood. One of his favorite stories involved a party of American soldiers who were eating a meal with the Clark’s when suddenly a British cannon ball smashed into the room and cut off the table legs. Luckily, no one was hurt. George remembered that many times he and his brothers rolled cannon balls down the hill to be loaded onto boats. After living in Kingston, Buffalo, and Black Rock, New York, John Clark moved his family to Rocky River near Cleveland, Ohio and then to Michigan.
George Clark vividly remembered coming to Detroit around 1817. He recalled landing on the beach near the foot of present day Woodward Avenue and noticing that the farms and gardens extended to the Detroit River. He noted that all the vehicles “were one horse French carts, used for both pleasure and business, also for conveying water to the inhabitants in barrels.”
In 1819, George Clark and his family moved to Ecorse. At first they lived in a log house just below Wyandotte and then they moved to Brownstown Township. George Clark spent most of his adult life in Ecorse, where he farmed, fished, and became one of the pioneer fishermen of the Great Lakes. He contributed much effort and knowledge to developing the fishing interests of the northwest.
The Clarks and the Grassy Island Fisheries
In 1833, George bought Grassy Island in the Detroit River and built large fisheries there. Nelson Clark and George Clark ran the Clark fisheries off Grassy Island, just off shore from Ecorse, Michigan. The banks of the Detroit River immediately above and below the mouth of Ecorse Creek possessed all of the necessary conditions for a successful fishery. North of Ecorse stretched a half mile or more of high bank bordering a deep channel a few feet off shore on the spot where the old French settlement of Grand Port once stood.
James.W. Milner, a biologist from Waukegan, Illinois, in his 1874 Report on the Fisheries of the Great Lakes, fisheries stated that fisheries were established between the mouth of the Detroit River near Monroe, Michigan, and the city of Detroit before 1841, and they were considered to be some of the most bountiful and profitable in the Great Lakes. The fisheries, called ponds, enclosed hundreds of white fish from fall to late in the winter, when they were taken out and sold at good prices. The best ponds were located around islands in the middle of the Detroit River where beneficial water circulation kept the fish vigorously healthy for months.
Ponds were made by driving piles close together in the Detroit River and lining the inside of the enclosure with planks, leaving joints about three quarters of an inch wide to allow water to circulate freely. At one end of the pond, workers installed a gate, hinged at the bottom of a river to a mud sill. The top of the gate floated at an about 45 degree angle and projected a foot or more above the surface, closing the pond entrance.
American fisheries established nine ponds in the Detroit River and Canadian fisheries created seven. By 1872, Nelson W. Clark and Samuel Wilmot of Ontario had established whitefish propagation fish farms on the American and Canadian sides of the Detroit River. On the south side a fishery existed on the lower bank where the river front farm of Judge H.H. Emmons and below that of fish farmer George Clark.
Thousands of lake whitefish and lake herring supported commercial fisheries in the Detroit River, ranking Detroit second to Chicago for handing over 3.4 million pounds of fresh mostly lake whitefish and lake herring in 1872. Most of the fish in Detroit fish markets were taken from spawning runs of lake whitefish and lake herring that traveled the Detroit River each fall
George Clark Owns the Schooner Fisher
In 1844, George’s father John Clark built a two-masted schooner at Grassy Island that he called the Fisher. In 1851, George’s name appears on the ownership papers of the Fisher and on May 13, 1854, the Buffalo Democracy newspaper reported that the Fisher had arrived at Buffalo from Detroit. Her captain reported that on Thursday, February 23, 1854, a crew member named Charles Owens was lost in Lake Huron while hanging a light over the bow. All efforts to save Owens, 19, were futile.
George Clark Fish Expert
On October 9, 1872, George Clark posted a notice to all fishermen in Detroit, Ecorse, and on docks in between. The notice said that on May 14, 1872, he marked certain white fish with brass tags and put them in the Detroit River. The tags were a piece of brass the size of a ten cent piece and a ring about the same size, with a similar ring linking the two together. The largest ring he put in the small fin on the back of the fish near the tail, each fish weighing about a pound and a half, the goal being to ascertain the growth of the fish.
He asked all fishermen catching any of marked fish to note when and where they were caught, weigh and measure the length and send them with the tags to Crowel & Co., S. John and Buck of Toledo; the Paxtons of Monroe, Michigan; James Craig, A.M. Campau, C. Hurlburt and J.P. Clark of Detroit; B. Reaume of Springwells; George Clark of Ecorse; and Mr. Reaume of Grosse Isle.
He said that he hoped that the fishermen on the Canadian shore would cooperate and if they caught any of the marked fish to send them to Davis & Co. and Merrill, fish dealer in Detroit or George Clark & Company’s fish house in Detroit.
George concluded his notice by saying that “if the fish cannot be sent, please send the exact weight and length of the fish, with the tag, by mail, to any of the above parties.
Ecorse, October 9, 1872”
In 1873, when the State Fish Commission in Michigan was organized, Governor Bagley appointed George Clark one of the commissioners and he contributed much practical knowledge to his office. He held the office of Fish Commissioner until he died in 1877. He never held any other office but on the Fish Commission, although he was urged to accept other positions.
George Clark, Citizen
Besides farming and fishing, George Clark enjoyed inventing and perfecting different items. One of his inventions that he called Clark’s Metallic Life Raft, was widely used on lake steamers.
George Clark also found time to donate to literary work and he wrote several articles for Professor Louis Agassiz about the different varieties of Michigan fish and he also donated specimens. He wrote many articles for The Michigan Farmer, based in Detroit. He was an energetic and zealous Republican from the founding of that party. In 1874, the Republican Convention assembled at Wyandotte unanimously nominated him for representative in the State Legislature, but although he felt honored he refused to become a candidate.
During the Civil War, George Clark spent much money and time collecting and shipping supplies and clothing to Michigan soldiers and also aided many soldier’s families.
George Clark, Family Man
In 1837, George Clark married Eleanor Sutliff in Ecorse and they had five children: Catherine, born in the township of Brownstown, November 15, 1838, and died at Ecorse, August 25, 1870. Annie R. born in Brownstown, November 22,1840. Eleanor born at Ecorse, November 26, 1842. Edith E. born at Ecorse, May 20, 1845. Laura J. born at Ecorse on September 17, 1847. Eleanor died in Ecorse on March 19, 1849.
George married his second wife, Orpha Wright on July 17, 1851, and she died in Ecorse in 1854. They had two children, Charlotte O., born in Ecorse on October 6, 1852, and Clay W., born in Ecorse in March 1854 and died in September of 1854.
On January 10, 1856, George Clark married Rebecca J. Widner who was born at Chili, Monroe County, New York on September 19, 1827. Their children were Florence C., born April 12, 1857; Carrie E. born December 16, 1858; Frances G., born April 4, 1861; George, born November 22, 1863; Mabel M. born July 19, 1866; and Jessie L., born October 23, 1869.
George Clark, Inventor
J.W. Hall in The Marine Record of noted that 1, 167 marine accidents occurred on the Great lakes in the year 1871 alone. Some inventors looked for ways to prevent accidents while others sought ways to preserve lives during accidents. George Clark responded to the Fisher’s accident and the dangers of navigating on the Great Lakes by inventing a life raft, U.S. Patent No. 146,316.
On January 13, 1874, George Clark wrote of his own invention, “The nature of this invention relates to certain improvements in the construction of life saving rafts, and has for its object the preservation of life in case of disaster at sea, by making the raft very buoyant, thoroughly protecting the float cylinders, so they will not be injured under any ordinary circumstances, and furnishing a much more durable, a lighter, and more easily handled raft than those heretofore in use for this purpose.”
“It is the desiring to have these rafts kept on the hurricane decks of steamers, whence they may readily be thrown into the water by one or two persons of ordinary strength, thus avoiding the delay and uncertainty of working falls and cranes in launching boats. Both sides of the raft being alike, it makes no difference which side is up when thrown into the water. I am aware that cylindrical floats are used; but these extend the whole length or breadth of the raft. These, being confined in a frame under certain circumstances and being rigid, might in a sea have the effect of levers to pry the framework of the raft to pieces. I adopt the short cylinders connected together in the manner described and laid in courses, to prevent such an accident and give greater flexibility to the raft.”
Mostly a self educated man, George Clark earned success in life because of his own energy and ability. He was simple in his habits and unassuming in nature. A close friend of Mr. Clark’s described him as a man of remarkable force of character, strong purposes, great self reliance, unswerving integrity and rare good judgment. He carefully managed his business enterprises and his considerable property with a conservative attitude. His contemporaries said that “His rise to the position of universal confidence and esteem which he occupied is attributable solely to his sterling worth.”
When George Clark died in Ecorse on October 17, 1877, a close friend eulogized, “He was public spirited and progressive. He had his faults, but most people respected him. Beneath his brusque exterior beat a kind and considerate heart. “
Nelson Clark and Frank N. Clark in Northville, Michigan
Beginning in 1869, Nelson W. Clark oversaw his fish propagation efforts in Clarkston, Michigan, but in 1874, he established a fish hatchery at Northville, Wayne County, on a spring water supply tributary to the Middle Branch of the Rouge River. Here he constructed a series of ponds and raceways, built a one story frame hatchery 30 x 80 feet, and equipped it with an apparatus of his own invention, which was afterward to be universally known as the Clark Hatching Box and Tank, which was used until the 1950s.
Nelson Clark and his son Frank N. Clark operated the fisheries as a private enterprise until 1880. In 1880, the Federal Government leased the property and employed Nelson Clark to operate the facility. This arrangement continued until 1890, when the U.S. Fish Commission purchased the plant and ten acres of land and Nelson Clark served as plant superintendent until he died in December 1910. During Nelson Clark’s administration improvements were made to the water supply and pond system and the hatchery rebuilt.
Frank N. Clark was recognized nationwide as an outstanding fish culturist and the Northville Hatchery became the basis for the United States federal hatchery system on the Great Lakes as well as the training ground for many fish culturists who accepted jobs and extended influence across the country.
Soldier, Citizen, Storekeeper Robert G. Clark
Polks Downriver Directory of 1945 lists Robert G. Clark, United States Navy, and his wife, Mary, as living at 172 Cicotte Street in Ecorse. Better known as Bob, he was a disabled veteran from both World Wars, and for many years he and Mary successfully operated a grocery store on Cicotte Street.
People of a certain age who grew up in Ecorse will smile nostalgically at the mention of Clark’s Candy Store and recall the intense moments spent in front of the counter carefully choosing Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls, Dots, and Jaw Breakers posing enticingly behind the glass.
Bob was active in many Ecorse clubs and organizations, and had a special interest in youth work. He was scout master for Troop EC5, sponsored by the Ecorse Kiwanis Club.
These are just a few of the Clarks that helped shape Downriver maritime history.
George Brown Goode, The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States. Washington Government Printing Office.
J. W. Hall, Marine Disasters of the Western Lakes during the Navigation of 1871 (Detroit, 1872).
The History of Detroit and Michigan. Silas Farmer.