THE MAKING OF A TOWNSHIP::
In 1785 Congress passed the Northwest Territory Ordinance, which provided for the land in the Great Lakes region to be surveyed into states, counties and townships. Each township was to be 6 miles square with 36 sections, each of them 640 acres. Watervliet became one of those squares in 1846. For the next seventy-one years, the future Coloma Township was but a part of the larger Watervliet Township. That changed when in October of 1917, A.W. Baker (son of Dr. William A. Baker), supervisor of Watervliet Township at the time, proposed the township be divided. At the next meeting the western part of Watervliet Township officially became Coloma Township.
IN THE BEGINNING::
The first white man to cross this territory was the French priest Father Marquette in 1675. The French explorer, LaSalle, is known to have wintered in St Joseph in 1680-81 and at that time he and a group of 25 Frenchmen built a fort at the mouth of the St. Joseph River. (In fact, in the 1890’s a French coin minted in 1692 was found in the vicinity of the current Coloma Township Hall.) By the early 1700’s the Potawatomi tribe were the predominant Indian people in this area, having replaced the Miami tribe. Artifacts show us that a trading post existed on the banks overlooking the Paw Paw River near Coloma. As a result of their third treaty of 1833, the Potawatomi’s seceded the rest of Southwest Michigan to the U.S. government. From 1836 through 1843 all Potawatomi Indians were removed to a location near Council Bluffs, Iowa. Chief Pokagon, who would not sign the last treaty, and his band were the only Indians left in Southwest Michigan.
In the early 1830’s, the first group of settlers came to the township for the lumber. Timber was cheap and choice lumber could be bought from $4.00 to $8.00 a thousand feet. Rafts of logs from the lumbering camps were floated down the river to St. Joseph. Wooden shingles were also made to be shipped down the river. This settlement of shingle makers by 1835 was known as Shingle Diggins. In 1837 Stephen R. Gilson turned out 1,300,000 shingles and had to hire a crew of 30 Indians to float them down the river to St. Joseph. By 1838 the timber for making shingles was exhausted and shingle makers left for other places.
In 1849 Gilson Osgood joined forces with Stephen R. Gilson and erected a sawmill on Tannery Creek. He also operated a general store. Because money was scarce, farm produce and furs were used as a medium of exchange for "store goods". When the farmers and traders would gather for business the majority of prices for goods were reached by the art of "dickering". When a name for the settlement was needed, Dickerville was the obvious choice. In 1850, Gilson and his son left for the Gold Rush and stayed in the settlement of Coloma, California. They returned to Dickerville in 1855. It was at that time the U.S. government was seeking to establish mail service. Gilson and others did not feel that Dickerville was a very dignified name for the community, Gilson suggested the name of Coloma and it was accepted as the new name. With the arrival of the Chicago and West Michigan Railroad in 1871 the town was relocated for the third time to what we currently know as Paw Paw Street. The railroad helped solidify the continued growth and development of Coloma.
PAW PAW LAKE DEVELOPMENT::
By the 1880’s both the Coloma Courier and Watervliet Record newspapers were extolling the virtues of Paw Paw Lake for its beauty and recreational potential. The first recorded vacationers stayed at C.J. Spencers farmhouse on Lakewood Point around 1885. The Coloma side of Paw Paw Lake began to develop in 1890 when Dr. Wakeman Ryno exchanged his village property for J.H. Jones’ west end farm. Several Coloma businessmen also formed a stock company which built cottages, boathouses and a pavilion for dancing at the waters edge .
In 1896 Dr. William A. Baker built a railroad from Coloma to Pleasant View Station on Paw Paw Lake with it later continuing on to Ellinee Bay. In 1897, C.S. Jenks, owner of Pleasant View Farm, built the first dance pavilion with twenty sleeping rooms on the second floor. In 1899 Orrin Woodward built a large dance pavilion and refreshment center extending partially over the lake and named it Woodward’s Pavilion. Cottages, hotels, boat liveries, steamboats and dance pavilions made Paw Paw Lake the place to come for a summer vacation. Train records from the early part of the 1900’s show 40,000 people coming to Paw Paw Lake every summer. This boom continued through the 1920’s with the Crystal Palace Ballroom being built in 1925 and George E. Klotter developing the Wil-O-Paw Islands in 1927. His plan was to develop 500 building sites connected by bridges and canals. A combination of engineering problems stopped the project in the 1930’s.
Easter weekend of April, 1947 saw torrential rains soaking the area. With the dam breaking in Lawrence a domino effect of flooding occurred downstream on the Paw Paw River. The record flooding of Paw Paw Lake resulted in hundreds of homes being damaged and many being pushed off their foundations. The cost of cleanup and repair was a staggering dollar amount for that time. This event, as no other had, galvanized the resort businessmen and property owners to seek a solution. For the next two years the issues of a legal lake level, a dam at the outlet, an overflow drain to the river and the sewage problem were discussed and debated.
THE END OF A CENTURY::
In the 1950’s Deer Forest became a major tourist attraction drawing over 2.5 million people by 1965. The 1950’s also brought the developer Curtis Coats to finish developing the Wil-O-Paw Islands for home sites. In 1971 a sewage treatment plant and system was built in Coloma to serve the residents of the township. In 1986 a dam at the outlet to the Paw Paw River was constructed, with an overflow drain back into the river from Douglas Bay.
As Coloma Township enters the 21st century it continues to strike a balance between economic growth, the environment and quality of life.
Roderick L. Rasmussen, North Berrien Historical Society.
Carey, J.T. (1976) Berrien Bicentennial. Stevensville, MI; Tesar
Collidge, O.W. (1906) A Twentieth Century History of Berrien County,
Michigan.; Chicago-Lewis Publishing.
Coloma Courier Newspaper, Coloma, MI.
North Berrien Historical Society Archives
Rasmussen, Roderick L. (1984) Paw Paw Lake, A Hundred Year Resort History
(1890’s through 1990’s) Benton Harbor, MI. ; R.W. Patterson Printing
Stark, Allen and Stark Cannell, Dorothy. (1977) Trails from Shingle
Diggins. Benton Harbor, MI.; R.W. Patterson Printing
Provided by the Berrien County Economic Development Department
Coloma Charter Township is well located in the northern portion of Berrien County. Paw Paw Lake, which is shared, with Watervliet Township, is one of the attractions in the area. The township has become a popular area for vacationers and second homeowners. During the hot summer months the population almost triples around Paw Paw Lake. Although Coloma Charter Township is highly residential there are still many lots available for either residential or commercial development. The community has an excellent police and fire department and is very supportive of its school system. The community spirit, the location, and the services provided, make Coloma Charter Township an attractive location for both residents and businesses.
Topography::The Paw Paw River flows to the southwest along one border of the township. Paw Paw Lake is the largest lake in Berrien County at 857 acres. It is bordered by Coloma Township to the north and west is by Watervliet Township to the east and south. Little Paw Paw Lake, at approximately 160 acres is wholly within Coloma Township.
The topography of the area consists of nearly level lake plain. The formation of the present surface features is due, in large part, to the advancing and retreating of glaciers during the Wisconsin Glacial period, 12 to 13 thousand years ago. Glacial drift varies in thickness between 150 feet in the south and 350 feet in the north. The Coldwater Shale bedrock formation underlies the glacial drift.
The elevation of the area ranges from a low of 621 feet above sea level at the shore of Paw Paw Lake to a high of approximately 690 + feet above sea level at the northwest corner. Little Paw Paw Lake sits at an elevation of 624 feet above sea level. The area of greatest slope occurs along the Paw Paw River.
Prevailing winds from Lake Michigan have a moderating effect on air temperature throughout Berrien County. These lake breezes affect Coloma Township by keeping it cooler longer in the spring and warmer for a longer period of time in the fall.
In winter the average temperature is 28 degrees F, and the average daily minimum temperature is 21degrees F. In summer the average temperature is 70 degrees F, and the average daily maximum temperature is 81 degrees F.
The average annual precipitation is 36-52 inches. Of this, 19.6 inches, or 54 percent, usually falls between April and September. Average seasonal snowfall is 68.4 inches. On an average of 61 days per year, at least 1 inch of snow is on the ground. This is conducive to sports activities on and around Paw Paw Lake and Lt. Paw Paw Lake Rd.
The average relative humidity in mid afternoon is 63 percent. Humidity is highest at night and the average in the morning is 82 percent. The sun shines about 67 percent of the time possible in summer and 37 percent in winter.
Groundwater quality is an important factor for the Paw Paw Lake area since, at this time, there is not municipal water supply. Residents and businesses depend on groundwater from individual wells for their domestic needs. Groundwater, like other natural resources, is fragile and sensitive to human activity. Groundwater is simply water, which fills space between soil particles and rocks. It occurs below the surface in a zone of saturation where the spaces are completely filled with water. That zone of saturation is commonly referred to as an aquifer and the top of it is known as the water table.
In Coloma Township, depth to the static water table averages 39 feet, with a maximum of 125 feet and a minimum at grade. The average well depth is 90 feet with wells ranging from 31 to 210 feet in depth.