SINGAPORE, MICHIGAN OBSOLETE BANK NOTES
About 175 years ago, there was a town on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan near what is now Saugatuck, Michigan called Singapore. This city was located in the southwestern part of the State of Michigan. Originally inhabited by Ottawa Indians, the region held promising lumber resources, sites for shipbuilding and trade with other cities on the Great Lakes.
In 1820, Lewis Cass (later the Territorial Governor of Michigan) is believed to have explored nearby while exploring the Great Lakes and possibly the Mississippi River area. Also doing business was Gordon Hubbard, and employee of fur entrepreneur John Jacob Astor fame. Around 1830, the first settlers, the family of William Butler arrived.
How the name Singapore came about is only speculation, but the designation was noted on maps and charts around this time. An 1831 survey noted numerous sand banks and a variety of trees.
Horace Comstock purchased a large parcel of land. Along with another early settler, Stephen Nichols, Comstock believed a warehouse and pier were needed to handle trade goods and household effects.
In 1836 land speculator Oshea Wilder and four other men partnered to invest in Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin Territory as well as in the state of Indiana. It was agreed that Mr. Wilder would be allowed to purchase land as appropriate for investment purposes. Mr. Wilder noted the Singapore site would be well suited for the building of a saw mill. By December of 1836, Mr. Wilder had purchased the necessary land which included the Village of Singapore. At the beginning of 1837 he had let contracts to build a scow and boats, along with contracts for a saw mill and housing for the workers’.
Wilder knew money was rather scarce, but real estate continued to advance and the general prosperity continued. Development within Singapore lasted into 1837.
Michigan was admitted to the Union in January of 1837. Shortly thereafter, the new state passed a general banking law that permitted any ten or more freeholders of any county to organize themselves into a corporation for the transaction of banking business, with a capital of not less than $50,000, nor more than $300,000. These banks were empowered to print an issue their own paper money.
The act further provided that no bank should commence operation until 30% of the stock was received in specie or hard money (defined in the act as gold coins, but usually gold in any form and many silver coins were considered acceptable). In the original act, the issuing Bank was required to redeem its banknotes and hard money on demand, or within 30 days. Failure to do so would result in dissolution of the bank.
As luck would have it, and before any new banks had completed the charter process, the Financial Panic of 1837 started, and the subsequent run on banks, caused institutions in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore to suspend specie payment and redemption of banknotes. Fearing depositors, thwarted in other states, might flood the banks of Michigan with otherwise worthless paper money, the Michigan Legislature, in a special session in June of 1837 also suspended the specie redemption requirement.
However, the lawmakers left the general banking laws in force. New banks still could be organized and allowed to start the business of issuing bills while the redemption requirements were still in a state of suspension.
These new banking institutions would be called “wildcat” banks—their operating bases were as hard to find in the Michigan woods as the supposedly elusive wildcat. Thus, a bank’s notes that circulated in the far reached of the state and even to the East Coast were less likely to be presented to the issuing bank for redemption if its main office was located in some distant and/or inaccessible place. One story passed down alleged that there was one bank found located in a saw mill, and another located in a hollowed out tree stump!
When the banking law was passed, Oshea Wilder was quick to act on Singapore’s behalf. First he tried to get his Eastern investors involved, but they were not very keen on the idea. Wilder then turned to James Carter, a distant relative of his who lived in Leominster, Massachusetts. The official organizers of the Singapore bank all were residents, as the new law required, and their application was dated October 5, 1837. Wilder applied to the Allegan county clerk to have books opened for the subscription of $50,000 in capital stock for an institution to be located in the village of Singapore, County of Allegan.
Oshea’s son Daniel Wilder was named president of the bank, and Rob Hill, was to serve as cashier. The bank operated in a boarding house and then separate building. Records show pressed brick was ordered and shipped from Boston for construction of a vault.
According to Harold L. Bowen in his book of 1956 titled “State Bank Notes of Michigan”, ornate bills were printed by Rawdon, Wright and Hatch, a New York security-engraving firm, in denominations of $1, $2, $3 and $5 on each sheet. There were 5,000 sheets printed for a combined face value of $55,000. The bills, printed on one side only, were struck on a single sheet and then cut apart and signed by the cashier and president prior to be placed in circulation. Of the $55,000, records show that only $15,952 worth of notes were put in circulation during the bank’s short existence. (Assuming the $15,952 figure to be correct and each sheet was worth $11, then roughly 1,450 examples of each denomination were issued.). The bank should have had $15,000 of hard money or specie reserve. From all reports, this was not likely.
SINGAPORE BANK NOTE PICTURES.
Several things are worth noting regarding these notes.
These bills are hard to locate, especially in decent condition.
- They should be signed in and around the end of 1837 and early 1838. Note the bank went out of business in April of 1838 due to the suspension of the State of Michigan General Banking Law.
- The signatures likely to be found would be Rob Hill, the Cashier and D. S. Wilder, the president. Other signatures should be questioned.
- Printing was done only on the obverse.
- The paper upon which the notes were printed is very thin and very susceptible to wear.
- Based on Dr. James A. Haxby’s four volume book titled Standard Catalog of United States Obsolete Bank Notes 1782-186, we note concerning the cataloging of these notes that the title of the Singapore notes is “MI-420 Bank of Singapore, 1837-39”. The $1 note is numbered G2. The $2 note is numbered G4. The $3 note is numbered G6. The $5 note is numbered as G8.
- Uncut sheets can be found (likely not signed); of the four notes of Singapore which Dr. Haxby catalogues as X1.
In December of 1837, the state of Michigan Legislature sought to curb the worst abuse by appointing three bank inspectors, who would inspect every institution at least once every three months. The inspectors 1838 records noted that “the singular spectacle was presented of the officers of the state seeking for banks in situations the most inaccessible and remote from trade, and finding at every step an increase of labor by the discovery of new and unknown organizations. Before they could be arrested the mischief was done.”
SPECIE OR NO SPECIE – THAT IS THE QUESTION
A major concern at this time was whether the Bank of Singapore, as well as other banks in the area had adequate specie or “hard money” to back the notes that were issued. Because of this, it was not hard to run across “business relationships” that developed between individuals around Singapore and in the town of Allegan, around 25 miles away.
Relationships between the Allegan Company, The Boston Company and the Singapore City Company are noted. Because of these relationships, the grouping together for everybody’s benefit was apparent, especially as it related to banking in the area. The Bank of Allegan and the Bank of Singapore and likely others, would pool their specie to create an adequate amount to please the inspectors as they did their audits of the banks.
In a history of Allegan County in the 1880’s, a visit by one of the inspectors was noted as follows: “just before the day appointed for that event the president of the Allegan Bank, knowing that two of his neighbors had a considerable sum and gold coin designed for the entry of lands, effected a temporary loan of the gold and placed it among the banks assets. It was counted by the Commissioner and with great complacency the succeeding night, and the same gold preceded him to the Bank of Singapore, at the mouth of the Kalamazoo, where the official also counted it as part of the assets of that bank.”
ANOTHER PASSED DOWN THEORY OF SPECIE VALIDATION
As noted in Kit Lane’s book titled “Buried Singapore: Michigan’s Imaginary Pompeii”, one of the great legends of Allegan County (which continues to this day), based on some facts, but likely embellished over time, concerns the day that the poled bank specie was being conveyed down the Kalamazoo River. After the bank inspector had viewed it at the Bank of Allegan, the money was entrusted to the local Indian (probably Maksaube, an Ottawa Indian who had saved Alexander Ely from a near frozen river in 1834), paddling swiftly to beat the bank inspector who was traveling by horseback, the canoe was just upstream from Saugatuck when it hit an obstacle in the river and capsized. The bag of gold sank to the bottom in a particularly deep part of the river. The Indian rushed ahead to Singapore and told his story. While James Harris, the village blacksmith, devised a drag hook to retrieve the gold from the bottom of the river, word was sent to Richmond (a nearby village) to intercept the inspector, as he paused there to cross the river. There was no bridge at that location yet, but there was a ferry for foot traffic. The inspector’s horse would have to wade or swim.
On the north bank of the river, about opposite to the present day settlement of New Richmond, there was a small sawmill community under construction in 1838. Called Richmond, it was established by Ann Arbor founder John Allen and a number of Eastern investors in late 1835 and early 1836. Two of the first men on the scene were Jonathan F. Stratton, who had contracted with Allen to clear a mill race and Ralph R. Mann, who first signed (and later backed out of) a contract to build the first mill. Stratton’s contract also gave him permission “to erect and build at his own proper cost and expense at Richmond, a large two-story public house for the accommodation of travelers.”
In 1837, Charles Moseley, one of the investors in the project, visited the settlement and noted that Stratton had already cut timber for his tavern house, and that Mann, who was not a great favorite of his, had been appointed Justice of the Peace “and will be a nuisance to our village. He calculated to keep a tavern, sell whiskey and do anything that a lazy unprincipled man can devise to make a sixpence….” He later reported that Mann “has already begun to keep whiskey and uses it freely himself.”
Word was sent from Singapore asking either Mann or Stratton to delay the inspector long enough to give the Singapore men time to recover the gold. The inspector was invited for a drink, perhaps a meal; maybe even a party and a night’s lodging. Downstream using the blacksmith’s hook on the end of a dragging rope, the gold was recovered and sent to the bank to dry out a bit. Word then was sent back to Richmond that the inspector could proceed. Shortly afterwards, or perhaps the next day, the inspector and the specie met again at the Singapore Bank.
The story has been told and retold over the years. In 1898, when Mr. Henry Hudson Hutchings interviewed the old-timers of the area and compiled their memories into a series of newspaper articles, the basic facts were upheld by John P. Wade who had come to Singapore in 1944 and R. Wadsworth who settled in nearby Ganges Township in 1840, and had heard it from the earliest settlers in the area. For many years a set of drag hooks, said to be the very ones that recovered the gold from the river, were on display in the nearby Saugatuck village hall.
A THIRD NARRATIVE USING QUESTIONABLE SINGAPORE CURRENCY
Another interesting story relates to the use of Singapore notes by Levi Loomis, who was believed to be one of the first settlers in the Singapore area.
During the late 1830’s, there seems to have been a shortage of footwear in the area. Mr. Loomis noted this and thought he had a solution to the problem. He wanted to order footwear from the east, and when received would try to sell them locally. When the locals tried to buy the footwear, they presented Mr. Loomis with Bank of Singapore notes, which as it turned out, Mr. Loomis refused to accept.
Local residents knew the people who ran the bank, and the fact that the bank of Singapore wanted to try and please its customers, the bank worked out an arrangement whereby it agreed it would redeem the Singapore bills with bills from the east and would do so in time to enable Mr. Loomis to pay timely the invoices for the footwear. Mr. Loomis agreed to this arrangement and it is believed he sold his stock of footwear for the sum of $600.
As one might imagine, when the time for the redemption came due, the Bank of Singapore started to look for ways to delay this. It first tried to make a draft on one of the Eastern banks, but it came back worthless. This continued for another month, and Mr. Loomis was getting worried. After all, Mr. Loomis had his credit and reputation at stake and as the delays continued he felt he needed to take desperate measures.
Bank of Singapore Casher Rob Hill boarded in the Loomis house. Mr. Loomis suspected that Mr. Hill had with him the real specie of the bank and kept it under the mattress in his room. Making sure no one else was around; Mr. Loomis went to Hill’s room, woke him up and dumped the worthless bills on top of Mr. Hill’s mattress. Mr. Loomis, who had a pistol, pointed it toward Mr. Hill and demanded Mr. Hill trade him the good money for the bad.
The surprised Hill tried to stall, but Mr. Loomis would have none of it. Mr. Loomis would not allow Mr. Hill to leave the room until the exchange was made. Taking Loomis’ treat seriously, Hill lifted up his pillow, under which is claimed to have been a roll of $1,000 of real bank money, and traded the Singapore money for the “good” bank money.
THE SUSPENSION OF THE STATE OF MICHIGAN BANKING LAWS
As it turned out, the State of Michigan General Banking laws were short-lived. The state suspended them on April 3, 1838, effectively putting the wildcat banks out of business.
The Bank of Singapore was no exception. In 1839, the bank attempted to reorganize, however, after a State of Michigan bank commissioners’ visit, the operations ceased. On February 16, 1842, the state legislature annulled the bank’s charter along with those of a number of other wildcat banks.
It has been told that on a cold winters evening in the early 1840’s, Mr. Loomis visited the home of a former bank officer to witness the destruction of Singapore bank notes on hand at the time of the suspension. A table allegedly was covered with three to six inch piles of bank currency. The bills reportedly were burned in a stove.
The bank building was later used as a general store and in later years moved up the river to the village of Saugatuck. The village of Singapore continued on for a number of years until the lumber ran out in the later part of the 19th century. Area lumber was used to help rebuild the city of Chicago after the great fire of 1871 as well as other cities in the Great Lakes area which also were destroyed by fire.
ONCE WHAT WAS, IS NO MORE
Once the area’s lumber supply was depleted, residents moved on. The town ceased to exist, and the buildings were abandoned. Along the lake shore, shifting sand dunes covered what remained of the community, and today, little physical evidence is left. The average citizen visiting the area today would have no idea that a once bustling city existed in that north side location at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. However, Singapore Bank notes survive to tell part of the ghost town’s story.