Back To Saugatuck

In the early- and mid-1800s, Saugatuck was the commercial and financial center of town. Then Horace Staples opened a bank upriver, built a couple of wharves and National Hall, and the area around what is now called “downtown” flourished.

In the 1950s Saugatuck — by then an Italian-American community — was ripped apart (physically and emotionally) by the construction of I-95. Main Street got its mojo; Riverside Avenue became an afterthought.

Now — with a renovation project bringing new restaurants, retail, apartments and street life to the area — Saugatuck is hot. Downtown is firing back, with a renovated Church Lane and $500,000 Main Street initiative on tap.

So this seems as good a time as any to revisit the New York Times of December 2, 1923.

“Urge That Westport Be Saugatuck Again,” the headline read.

And the subhead: “Many Citizens of Connecticut Town Think the Old Indian Name More Distinctive.”

In the 1920s, Esposito's gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it's Tarry Lodge.

In the 1920s, Esposito’s gas station and taxi company stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge…

The story described a drive by “leading citizens here in another attempt to restore to this village its original name.”

The major selling point: There were 18 other Westports in the US, and 4 more around the world. That led to “confusion of the mails and the long-distance telephone calls.”

There was only 1 other Saugatuck, however — a Michigan town that took its name from ours.

With Westport, Connecticut growing — the Times called the town of nearly 5,000 “the largest and most noted art colony” in the country, home to “a dozen different industrial plants” and a brand-new, $300,000 YMCA — there was “agitation for the restoration of the town’s old name of Saugatuck.” The drive was led by John Adams Thayer, with support from state legislator Harry M. Ayres and “many other prominent citizens.”

...while a couple of miles north, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

…while a couple of miles north, the Saugatuck River lapped up against the back of Main Street stores.

The Times reported that the name Saugatuck came from the Indian “Sauki-tuk,” meaning “outlet from a tidal river.” The town of Saugatuck was founded in 1640, and called itself that until the incorporation of “Westport” in 1835.

That was the Times’ 1st — and only — report of the proposed name change. There is no word on when, how or why the idea sank to the bottom of the river.

(Hat tip to Fred Cantor for unearthing this New York Times story.)

15 responses to “Back To Saugatuck

  1. Bobbie Herman

    It may only be an Urban Legend, but I heard (somewhere) that the name was changed because the head of the State Legislature would refer to “the gentleman from Succotash.”

  2. Pegeen Gaherin

    Interesting smarty pants it is really snowing here

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. IMHO Saugatuck never stopped having it all going on! Always my favorite.

  4. Great story, Dan! I always thought the name Saugatuck meant “mouth of the river,” but I like your definition better.

  5. Kathie Bennewitz

    This is fascinating as I am currently researching a large mural of Saugatuck long ago by Robert Lambdin, part if trio depicting historical Westport, original done for the Westport Bank & Trust Company.

  6. A HA!!! The pieces come together!! I was researching the history of an antique house in Westport by Compo beach that I had listed for sale… very high end property even by today’s standards. I came across former owners referring to their property being in Saugatuck. Now I know why. Thanks, Dan for putting a piece of the puzzle together for me. It was a movement. And another interesting tidbit from another house history I did? That area that is now Saugatuck avenue that’s on the water as referred to as Longshore when Mr. Eno owned it.

  7. Loretta Hallock

    Saugatuck was our playground before I 95 took our house which was located on Saugatuck Avenue, where the Commuter parking lot is now located. My Mother was born on Franklin Street and the house still stands.Many of her sisters and brothers were in walking distance and we visited them almost every day. My Dad was the owner of Riverside Barbershop for many years until my Brother Lou took over. The website Exit 17 has many pictures and memories of Saugatuck. Lots of great memories!!

  8. Sally Campbell Palmer

    As a teenager I worked in one of the Main St stores that backed right up to the river. All the waste water flowed straight into the river…the Saugatuck was no place to swim or boat! That is until Evan Harding and my step dad Em Parker got the parking lot built. I’ve got a nice architectural color rendering of the parking lot the Historical Society might like, especially since it might all be changing again soon.

  9. Saugatuck, Michigan was not named after Westport’s Saugatuck. Stephen Morrison, the postmaster in 1842, suggested its old Indian name of Saugatuck, which is Pottawattomi for river’s mouth (it is located near the mouth of the Kalamazoo River), to replace the name selected by the legislature, Newark, which replaced the name the founder originally wanted: Kalamazoo. (Kalamazoo was given by the Michigan legislature to another location and the village was renamed Newark. I guess they didn’t like that name much.) It was officially adopted in 1863. Here is some more information about the history of Saugatuck, Michigan (one of my favorite places in my home state!)

  10. Lee–Here’s part of what was in the Times article:

    “A correspondent of the Westport Standard, arguing for the original name wrote: ‘I have been told that it was a man from Saugatuck, Conn., who formerly lived here and migrated to Michigan who was responsible for the naming of the town in that state.  He was so impressed with the exclusiveness of the name and its derivation that he had his way in the matter.'”

    I saw on your link that the original white settler in what came to be known as Saugatuck, MI was originally from Hartford.  Is it possible he is the person being referred to in the Westport Standard story referenced above and that there may be some truth to that Westport Standard story?

    • Fred — I don’t think so. It wasn’t chosen by the settler, who was from Hartford, but the postmaster, many years after the settlement was founded. The guy founding the settlement died before “Saugatuck” was formally adopted. I suspect the NYT writer was a bit on the biased side. It was not, and still isn’t, a town.

  11. there is someone out there that has a newspaper picture of my mom standing in front of the Bridge Grill with a horse driven carriage with barrels of liquor in them for a promotional of bourbon. If that someone could make a copy & send it to me I would love it. What a memory. I would send you my address by email if someone shows up. Waiting patiently. Bev Breault