Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Beginnings of the Old Sauk Trail and the Building of Michigan Avenue (U.S.-12)

In 1820, Michigan Territory geologist, geographer, and ethnographer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft returned to Detroit from an expedition mapping Michigan following the Great Lakes from the headwaters of Lake Erie north and around the Great Lakes to the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Schoolcraft and his expedition returned following what early frontier game hunters called the Sauk Indian Trail across what would become the state of Michigan in 1837.

In his journal notes, Schoolcraft described the trail as a "plain horse path, considerably used by traders, hunters, and settlers." He noted that many minor trails and early dirt roads crossed the Sauk Trail making it difficult to follow in many areas without a guide.

University of Michigan paleontologists discovered that the Sauk Trail was originally formed by the migratory habits of mastodons (woolly mammoths) and ancient bison herds towards the end of the last Ice Age--the Pleistocene era--between 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. With woolly outer fur and a dense undercoat, mastodons were well-adapted to the Ice Age climate.

Murial by Charles R. Knight--1919

Mastodon skeletons have been found along the southern corridor of the state of Michigan which U of M paleontologists named the Mastodon Trailway because of the great number of remains discovered. The woolly mammoth's Ice Age global range stretched across the northern tier of Eurasia and North America known as the Mammoth Steppe.

As temperatures rose and the glaciers began receding, the mastodons shifted their migration northward again. They co-existed with Stone Age humans who depended on them for food, clothing, and shelter until diminishing surviving herds were hunted to extinction at the end of the Ice Age. Their remains include skeletons, teeth, tusks, and stomach contents. 

The prehistoric trailway continued as a migratory path for herd animals for many thousands of years--most notably elk and deer. Paleo Americans, the ancestors of Native American Indian tribes, used the pathway as a game trail and passageway to the Mississippi River and the heartland of the continent.

Father Gabriel Richard (Ri-CHARD)

In 1823, a civic-minded Jesuit priest from Detroit, Father Gabriel Richard was elected as a non-voting delegate from the Michigan Territory to the House of Representatives for the18th United States Congress. He secured Michigan's first federal appropriation for road construction connecting Detroit with Chicago. The proposed road was surveyed in 1825 by Orange Risdon, who essentially followed the Sauk Trail across the state. Construction began in 1827 and the 210 mile road was finished in 1833 costing a grand total of $87,000.

Orange Risdon--Founder of Saline, Michigan

That year, the first scheduled stagecoach service was established from Detroit to Chicago. Settlers and businessmen from back East took the Erie Canal to Albany or Buffalo, New York, booked passage on a schooner to Detroit, and hired a stage to Chicago once they got to Detroit. The cities of Detroit and Chicago both experienced unprecentented growth in the mid-1830s.

What is presently known as Michigan Avenue has been called many names over the years. First, history records it as the Sauk Trail. It was little more than a footpath until the government improved it and renamed it Military Road. Father Richard pitched the project to Congress for security of the new frontier. Troops and supplies could move east or west on the new territorial road to defend and assist settlers. For a time, the road was known as the Chicago Turnpike, and then its name was shortened to Chicago Road.

The two-lane, highway from Detroit to Chicago has been known as Michigan Avenue since 1926 when the roadway was paved for automobile traffic. With construction of the Interstate Highway System during the Eisenhower administration in the late 1950s, many established U.S. highways were fragmented due to construction.  U.S.-12 was rerouted in some areas including the link between Ypsilanti and Saline to simplify state maps and minimize confusion for motorists. Michigan Avenue goes from Detroit to Dearborn, Wayne, Ypsilanti, Saline, Clinton, Irish Hills, Jonesville, Coldwater, Sturgis, Three Oaks, and New Buffalo before it dips into Michigan City, Indiana.

The story of Michigan Avenue may not be over. In 2020, a project was proposed in Detroit to update a forty mile stretch from Detroit to Ann Arbor, Michigan into the most advanced, high-tech roadway in the world dedicated to autonomous vehicles for the smooth and efficient flow of mass transit and high-tech automobile traffic.

Dedicated lane for automated traffic--artist rendering.

The project, supported by the Ford Motor Company, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, and forward-looking Michigan politicians, would be a model for a possible multi-billion dollar business partnership between the public and private sectors, making southeast Michigan a hot spot for municipal transportation systems and the cornerstone of the state's economic recovery. An infrastructure development company is building a one-mile pilot road at the American Center for Mobility in Ypsilanti for further research and development.

Erie Canal Populates the Great Lakes Area