An environmental dispatch from Singapore, Michigan

The trip from South Bend to Singapore might be a little different than you’d expect. It’s a lot of highway, followed by a cruise through Saugatuck’s coziest beach communities, a narrow road beneath a serene canopy of trees, and a short drive across a sand-swept parking lot.

From there, it’s not more than a handful of dune climbs and coastal hiking before you find yourself in the town of Singapore, Michigan.

Of course, Singapore’s not there anymore; but then, it’s not exactly gone either.

You just need to use your imagination to see it.

Founded in 1836 and imagined as a port town that would rival places such as Milwaukee and Chicago, Singapore sat at the place where the brown, muddy waters of the Kalamazoo River flow reluctantly into the crystal blue of Lake Michigan. Today, a pair of disused and unimpressive lighthouses guard the spot where the two waters become one and from the spillway pier, one can look upon the whole of the acreage that left land speculators seeing dollar signs nearly 200 years ago.

Singapore had everything a burgeoning town could want – easy access to Lake Michigan, a dammable waterway, plentiful game, pleasant temperatures, rich soil, and soaring hardwood forests that could make a man a fortune. Within just a few years of its founding, Singapore had a pair of banks, a general store, a hotel, and a schoolhouse. Each of those buildings is still out there, somewhere.

The prosperity dreamed up by the speculators was not an illusion. By 1850, Singapore had a three-masted schooner that could transport timber from and to Chicago; and the most powerful men in town were the lumber magnates who could take advantage of it. By 1870, several hundred people were living in Singapore, mostly employed in shipping, port management, or timber harvesting.

It could have been like this forever, and if it had been, maybe my visit to Singapore wouldn’t have needed to be an imaginary one.

Except in 1871, Chicago burned down, and all over the United States for several decades, a hundred thousand dominoes began to fall. Singapore was just one of those dominoes, but there’s no need to blame Mrs. O’Leary’s cow for this one. Instead, the blame lies with the people who made the decisions that came next.

As laborers and capitalists scrambled to seize the opportunity to rebuild Chicago, the timber managers in Singapore smelled the very same opportunity, and it smelled like money. A lot of money. Make no mistake., it wasn’t misguided benevolence that caused everything that happened next. It was the purest and most selfish form of capitalism.

Lumber prices soared to record prices in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire; a natural consequence of the universal laws of supply and demand. Eager to make their money while they could, the people in charge of things in Singapore decided to raze an entire forest and ship it to Chicago. Those trees were processed and milled and turned into homes and churches and banks. In the end, Chicago recovered from the fire.

Singapore never would.

Bereft of the flora that once sat between their town and beach front, sand began to blow further inland as western winds whipped across Lake Michigan. It wasn’t a slow encroachment either. Within four years, every pinewood cabin, every cedar-built steeple, and every oaken boatworks were swept up and buried beneath 50-foot dunes.

The Lorax’s prophecy became Flaubert’s nightmare. Inevitably, at least in Singapore, sand conquers all. If the stories are to be believed, one man was more stubborn than the rest, refusing to leave the town. He would supposedly enter and exit his home from a second story window until at last his house was swallowed up by a nature hungry to reclaim its wood. And then it was all gone.

Today, haphazard dune grasses wave in the wind above the place that used to be Singapore. A few mangy trees attempt to stake a claim to the land that used to be theirs. Sandy verbenas sparkle like amethysts in memoriam or in ignorance of the town that used to be here.

There is some debate about whether the decision makers in Singapore knew what they were doing. Certainly by 1870, people knew how sand dunes formed. Was it ignorance that made them ignore the science of basic geology? Or was it greed? Did they destroy their town because they were foolish? Or was it a calculated loss?

It’s 150 years later and all of a sudden the whole planet feels like Singapore, Michigan. We’re left asking the same questions and wondering the same things about our leaders. Is it ignorance that’s driving the climate crisis? Or just pure, unadulterated greed?

We can see how this story ends. In the end, sand conquers all. And if you don’t believe me, feel free to go see for yourself. Singapore, Michigan is just 90  minutes from South Bend.