Base Lake, Uncle Spen and “The City of Ypsilanti” Tugboat

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Summer 2008,
Summer 2008
Original Images:



Author: Margaret Porter

Note: This is a follow-up to the story that appeared in the 2008 Spring Issue of the Gleanings titled “The City of Ypsilanti Tugboat.”

For many years there was an Ypsilanti summer colony on the north shore of Base Lake near Pinckney. Its“unofficial mayor” was Spen Davis, an Ypsilanti car dealer. He was also the owner and Captain of The City of Ypsilanti, a black and white tugboat. Spen and his boat were an important part of summers at “the lake.”

Spen was a short, wiry man with a booming voice. Spen didn't simply speak, he shouted. Folks got used to Spen's bellow which was particularly useful when his big boat was loaded with a bunch of beach kids. At least every two weeks Spen would take us all for a ride around the lake.

We'd line up on the Davis dock and board in a more or less orderly fashion. The boys immediately climbed the ladder to the top deck while the girls remained below. Spen would start the engines, then he'd jump down from the pilot house, grab one of the poles on board and push the boat away from the dock. Next he'd quickly climb back to his perch at the wheel, put her in reverse and we would slowly back out until we reached the drop off. He'd swing the tug around heading counter clockwise around the lake.

We would all wave at the folks on shore and they would wave back. Sometimes Spen saluted them with a blast of the whistle. He'd reduce the speed as we circled the little cove where the river headed into Portage Lake. The water lilies would bob up and down as we passed. Then we'd head along the south shore where the cottages were larger, many of these were owned by Ann Arbor people. They might have more impressive summer places but they did not have a tugboat!

After we had circled the lake, Spen would head back towards the dock. The trick was to cut the engines at just the right spot so that the boat's forward momentum would carry us to the landing. Occasionally, this did not go as planned. Spen would jump overboard to push us up to the dock. If there was a visitor along who decided to help, we'd watch to see what happened. It wasn't unusual for the “helper” to jump over only to find they were beyond the drop off. Down they'd go only to bob up with a surprised look on their face. In the meantime Spen was yelling “arms and legs in.” We were not permitted to disembark until the Captain had secured the boat and gave us the OK.

For those of us who spent our childhood summers at the lake in the late 1940s and 1950's, Spen and his big boat are imprinted in our memories. While the tug may now be docked at Portage Lake, it is only visiting there. Base Lake is its rightful place and Spen is its Captain...always.

(Margaret “Peg” Porter is an Ypsilanti native who recently returned to Ypsilanti after living and working in Washington D.C.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: “The City of Ypsilanti” tugboat now resides on Portage Lake with owner Herb Blattenberger.
Photo 2: The author of this article on “The City of Ypsilanti” tugboat with her mother Ruth Porter and Jim Budd (son of Clyde and Thora Budd).
Photo 3: The “Base Lake Gang” poses for a picture before going for a “Beach Parade” (circa 1950).
Photo 4: Captain Spencer “Spen” Davis.