Mount Clemens, today, is the capital of Macomb County, Michigan – in the thick of Metro Detroit – and is home to around 16,000 people. It has a nice, quiet downtown and a few interesting architectural gems, but is otherwise kind of boring.
But it wasn't always like this. The story of Mt. Clemens actually stretches back 350 million years, when mighty arthropods ruled the world's land masses. These arthropods mated, molted, and generally reveled about with their jointed appendages and cute little exoskeletons, completely unchallenged. Michigan circa 350 million BC was itself a much different and weirder place, too, though you might find that many of its citizens still resemble arthropods.
Believe it or not, Michigan was formerly home to a tropical, salt water sea. There was no urban sprawl, deforestation, or General Motors. Whatever dots of land you might've found would've looked more like one of Yves Tanguy's surrealist landscapes than the forests of hardwoods and evergreens you see in modern Michigan. The sea then was home giant armor-plated fish, small sharks, shelled nautiluses, and primitive corals – current invasive Great Lakes species like zebra mussels wouldn’t have stood a chance in those waters.
In fact, you can still find coral fossils in northern Michigan, even though the sea is long gone. Locals call them Petoskey stones, and they kind of look like deflated geodesic domes. Of course, the sea left something else behind besides fossils, hidden deep underground in dark, mysterious caverns. One day, Mt. Clemens’s economy would depend on it - brine.
It all started in 1862, when entrepreneur Charles Steffens tried to strike oil in Mt. Clemens, only to pump up a bunch of brine instead – talk about a disappointment! Undeterred, Steffens brought in some scientists and had them see if they could come with a reliable way to extract commercial grade salt from the water, but the brine's extremely high mineral content made it impossible. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it smelled like rotten eggs!
The exciting, enchanting story of Mt. Clemens’s brine would've ended there had it not been for out-of-towner Dorr Kellogg. Desperate for a way to cure his eczema and all the accompanying nasty, nasty rashes, he decided to try bathing in the brine. Why not? And after a handful of baths, much to everyone's surprise, he
returned as a vengeful swamp monster - he was healed. Overnight, an industry was born.
In 1873, the first true bathhouse in Mt. Clemens opened, the presciently named The Original Bath House. The brine was rebranded as mineral water, and soon enough people from across the state and country were testing out its supposed healing properties. The Original Bath House would burn down twice before 1901 (evidently, there were some kinks in the water heating system), but that was little deterrent for the owners. Each time The Original Bath House was rendered to a crisp by a careless bath attendant, it simply opened back up even grander than before. It got to the point where your bathhouse wasn't really considered legit unless it had burned to the ground at least once. By the 1920s, there were over a dozen bathhouses in Mt. Clemens. Bath City, as the town was dubbed, was off and running.
The industrialization and growth of cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York was a godsend for Mt. Clemens. The freshly minted socialites and business magnates wanted to escape the dirty, crowded, and increasingly unhealthy cities they or their families had built their fortunes in whenever they could, and the curative waters of Mt. Clemens and the town’s many leisurely activities became a big draw. You could take a bath in the minerals waters for a couple quarters, go to the casino or raceway, take a boat out on the Clinton River, catch the acts of famous vaudeville performers, or even ride the world’s biggest rollercoaster, Leap the Dips.
Ads promised a vacation from the "hurried living" of the city, and that even the "busiest capitalist" would forget his worries while enjoying the amazing wonders of Bath City. Famous names like Henry Ford, Mae West, Babe Ruth, and the Vanderbilt family routinely descended on the city to relax, have drinks, and plot a new world order - or something like that. There were also balls and parties. The opulent bathhouses and hotels of Mt. Clemens welcomed visitors with long porches, grand columns, private gardens, grand dining halls, and the ubiquitous presence of marble. The town might’ve stunk occasionally thanks to the mineral water, but overall life was good.
It’s all gone now, though. There are literally almost no traces left of the old bath industry. The Medea, the last remaining bathhouse from the town’s glory days, was demolished in 1991 after decades of neglect and abandonment, and no one’s probably even taken a mineral bath in Mt. Clemens since the mid-1970s.The only real remnants from bathhouse era left are some vintage bathtubs in the basement of St. Joseph Sanatorium, which for some odd reason have been filled in with concrete. I guess it’s so nobody gets any wise ideas, but it makes the tubs look like grim, foreboding caskets. Maybe that’s where they buried all the memories. Only a couple of nice neighborhoods full of turn of the century mansions near downtown really hearken back to the elegance the town once had.
The mineral bath industry began to die out in the 1940s, as advance after advance in modern medicine made the purported effects of mineral baths sound like quaint old wives’ tales. Suddenly, stewing in a scalding hot, stinky mixture of sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium chlorides, all while subjecting yourself to constant “high colonic irrigations” and other delights, didn’t seem so appealing. Imagine that.
Mt. Clemens wouldn’t give up that easy, however. It now bills itself as the entertainment and dining capital of the county, and has more bars than you can shake a stick at. It’s a true blue collar, working class downtown, and the favorite haunt of hard-partying fortysomethings that just aren’t ready to call it quits on their twenties, as well as bored people on jury duty. On a typical afternoon, you won’t see a lot of people walking around, and there are always plenty of metered parking spots to be had if that’s your pleasure.
For my money, the most interesting part of downtown Mt. Clemens is the Old Macomb County Building, which thank God has yet to see the wrecking ball. It’s a one-of-a-kind, 219-foot art deco high rise that was built during the Great Depression. Staring up at it from ground level is like gazing into the dreams and aspirations of a bygone generation. The heads of military servicemen jut out of the tops of the sides of the building like lonely, stern-faced sentinels, and plaques commemorating the early history of Macomb County line the outside walls. It's nothing like the modern steel and glass monstrosities they build nowadays. One plaque depicts a nude man pouring water, while another has a farmer collecting his harvest with a scythe, among other symbolic scenes of humanity's progress.
In those simple images, you have life, death, and rebirth – the entire journey of mankind. Maybe I’m reading way too much into some dinky plaques, but it makes you wonder what the future holds, and obviously not just for Mt. Clemens, but for all of us. History can disappear so fast, only to reappear when you least expect it. Who knows? Maybe at some point in the not so distant future we’ll all be getting naked and taking a mineral baths in Mt. Clemens again, like they used to do - perhaps even together.
We can only hope.