The history of Benton Harbor began with the purchase of 160 acres of land by Eleazar Morton in a portion of Benton Township. In 1836 he moved his family into a log cabin on high ground west of Ox Creek - a site located in the middle of present-day Main Street about one block east of the historical Liberty Theater. Morton and his son, Henry, planted orchards and prospered from the sale of fruit. In 1849 the Morton family moved into a new home, which still stands at 501 Territorial Street as a proud reminder of the City's founder.

To establish a market for the convenience of farmers on the East Side of the Saint Joseph River, Sterner Brunson, along with Charles Hull and Henry Morton, undertook the building of a mile-long Canal through the wetland between the river and the future Benton Harbor. Because of this well-known resident's venture, the town was founded as Brunson Harbor in 1860. The canal was opened in 1862, and within a year the dry land below the bluff was platted and fifty-foot lots were sold.

Brunson Harbor became Benton Harbor in 1865. The new settlement grew rapidly and was incorporated as a village in 1866. The canal had made Benton Harbor a lake port and by the 1870's ships were loading more than 300,000 packages of fruit per year. Sawmills and basket factories lined the canal. The establishment of a high school (1872), a college (1886), a street railway (1885), an opera house (1885), and a national bank (1888) indicated evidence of rapid growth. By 1891, the time had come for incorporation as a city and a charter was granted by the state legislature.

In the 1890's huge numbers of tourists deluged the area seeking relaxation and amusement. Numerous hotels offered mineral baths as they were believed to have health-giving benefits. In 1903 the Israelite House of David, a communal society, was founded by Benjamin and Mary Purcell. Located on a large tract of land east of the city, their amusement park and baseball team became famous nationwide and attracted thousands of visitors.

In 1905 the Benton Harbor Development Company was organized to attract industries to the City. Land grants and financial aid induced numerous industries to locate in the City. The Roaring Twenties were boom years and inspired the building of new hotels, office buildings, schools and churches.

Beginning in the 1960's, Benton Harbor began to decline. Industries and residents moved out of the City due to problems, which were being experienced nationwide in inner-city environments. The deterioration continued to escalate until late in the 1980's. In 1986 Benton Harbor became the focus of state government attention and was designated as an enterprise zone. This program provides substantial incentives for business location and has become the basis for the renewal of Benton Harbor.

Locations & Additional Information

The Morton House Museum
501 Territorial Road
Benton Harbor, MI 49022
(269) 925-7011

The House of David
501 Territorial Road
Benton Harbor, MI 49022
269-429-8243

Priscilla U. Byrns Heritage Center
601 Main St,
Saint Joseph, MI 49085
(269) 983-7227

Want to learn more about Benton Harbor and St. Joseph? The Fort Miami Heritage Society continually researches, preserves and shares the cultural history.

The Berrien County Historical Association
313 N. Cass Street
P.O. Box 261
Berrien Springs, MI 49103
269-471-1202

The Berrien County Historical Association, located in the original 1839 Courthouse, interprets the rich and diverse heritage of Berrien County for residents and visitors alike.