Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Early Transportation Hub

by David Minor

During the final decades of the twin Purnell kingdoms – the House of David and Mary’s City of David - St. Joseph and Benton Harbor had not been stagnating. Even as their Berrien County courts bustled and buzzed with two major headline-grabbing court cases, in the twenties and thirties, the two cities on the southeast shore of Lake Michigan, noted for their resorts and their fruit orchards, continued to grow, on into the early 1960s.

The transportation industry had many of its roots in the area, from just before the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1894 Benton Harbor carriage shop owners, the Baushke Brothers, Louis and Albert, manufactured the first American automobile. An investment experiment, the 7.5-horsepower vehicle caused a sensation when the brothers trotted – or should we say putted – it down Main Street. The boys missed out on automotive fame when an engineer who had been hired to develop the gas-powered engine then took his idea off to Indiana. Benton Harbor would not become Detroit. Nor actually, would Kokomo, Indiana. Some Baushke family members would join the House of David and later help lure the sect to the area.

Joseph and Ben Mammina, sons of Sicilian immigrants, set up a transport company around 1920 which began providing trucks for the orchard industry; later their Motor Express company carried many school children and other excursionists to area beaches.

Offshore transportation began expanding after the Truscott Boat Company moved from Grand Rapids to St. Joseph in 1892. By 1905 they were turning out 600 boats a year, later providing gondolas for both the 1893 Columbian Exposition and the 1933 World’s Fair. During World War II shipbuilding facilities were one of the largest area employers. In another field, the Heath Company turned out the popular Heathkits for do-it-yourself Edisons, up into the mid-1980s.

In 1898 pioneer aviator Augustus Moore Herring traveled through low-to-the-ground space for a grand total of seven seconds, covering nearly fifty feet, right on the sands of St. Joseph’s Silver Beach. And this was five years before the Wright Brothers! He got left out of the record books however. His 12-foot long craft with an 18-foot wingspan, had no practical controls. Despite the fact it was propelled by a compressed air engine, not being powered from a fuel tank, it was considered a glider. Which form of flying machine we saw some time ago, had been successfully flown only two years previously back in Gary, Indiana. By 1912 air mail service had come to Benton Harbor, the planes taking off and landing from a luxurious cow pasture. The 1940s would see the beginnings of the Southwest Michigan Regional Airport, still active today.

On another note - Among the many immigrant populations in the two cities, such as the Italians and the Germans was one group coming from within the U. S. itself. As we saw some time back, the 1840 U. S. Census showed sixteen free blacks in residence in St, Joseph. Benton Township would see no black residents until twenty year later and then only a total of 19. We’ll end our visit to the cities next time with a closer look at the growth of their African-American communities.

© 2008 David Minor / Eagles Byte

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