Alabaster, Michigan is located within the Alabaster Historic District, a mining complex along the shores of Lake Huron. It consists of an open pit gypsum mine and some processing buildings, shops, offices, company town, houses and outbuildings. 1 It also contains an abandoned railroad and the remains of an elevated marine tramway that spans 1½ miles into Saginaw Bay.
Alabaster is named after a variety of gypsum discovered offshore in 1837 by Douglass Houghton. 2 Prospectors soon began searching for further sources of gypsum in the region and came across deposits 18- to 23-feet thick on-land. 7 The first purchase price of the mining area was two hound dogs and $10. 10
The deposits came to the attention of George B. Smith, whose father, Benjamin F. Smith, owned a gypsum mill in Detroit. George Smith acquired land in remote Isoco County and opened a gypsum mine in 1862. 1 George Smith soon died and a majority share of the land was then acquired by Benjamin Smith who ran the operations.
The town’s name was named after Alabaster, a fine textured variety of gypsum. 10 On March 14, 1864, the first post office opened, with Benjamin Smith serving as the town’s first postmaster. 6
The gypsum mine was called Western Plaster Works by 1891. 3 A fire in that year destroyed the majority of the mining structures, but operations were soon rebuilt in time to supply material for the main buildings at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. 2 Those buildings, with marble-like walls, earned the exposition the title “White City” and greatly expanded gypsum sales.
In 1898, the company name was changed to the Alabaster Company. 3 8 The mine was incorporated into the U.S. Gypsum Corporation (USG) in 1901, 2 8 quickly becoming the largest gypsum mine in the state and one of the largest in the nation. 7 Housing for workers was constructed by USG circa 1910. 2
In 1928, a 6,350-foot elevated marine tramway was constructed from the gypsum mine into waiting ships in Saginaw Bay. 5 Built with 6,450 feet of 1¾-inch steel cable and 14,000 feet of ¾-inch cable, it carried 72 buckets of gypsum, each two tons in weight. 10 The tramway was the longest over-water bucket tramway in the world. 5
The conveyor system represented a compromise between a major dredging operation to allow freighters to transport gypsum out of Alabaster, and barging the material to freighters in deep water. 10 Approximately 60 vessels a year, ranging up to the 504-foot United States Gypsum, take gypsum from Alabaster to East Chicago, Indiana or Detroit for manufacture into gypsum products.
The Alabaster post office closed on August 17, 1962. 6
In later years, a secondary dock and load-out facility was constructed approximately 3½ miles north of the processing plant and tramway, which was closer to newer open mine pits by USG. It was connected to a dock that fed out into Lake Huron and to the railroad. After being disused for a number of years, the elevated marine tramway was dismantled circa 1999. 4 5
On June 30, 1904, the Erie & Michigan Railway & Navigation Company (E&M) was incorporated to provide 28 miles of railroad service and docks at Alabaster. 9 It was to provide a railroad from Alabaster to the Detroit & Mackinac Railway (D&M) at Alabaster Junction and from Alabaster to the Michigan Central at Standish. The E&M was to also purchase or lease and operate steamboats, barges and other vessels between the docks at Alabaster and other ports within the state. 9
The main line, from the D&M at Alabaster Junction to Alabaster, 4.259 miles, was opened in 1906. 9 The E&M was leased for ten years to the D&M on June 29, 1907 and in January 1949, the railroad was sold to the D&M. The sidings on the mainline was acquired by USG.