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A History of the River Road

By Edward N. Hines - From Motor News

The road is the physical sign or symbol by which you will best understand any age or people. If they have no roads, they are savages, for the road is the creation of man and a type of civilization.

Nearly all great roads in the world follow what was at one time either a trail along which animals went to a drinking or feeding place or a trail which man made to go to the chase or to war. They were built along these old trails because quite naturally they followed the most logical line to a given objective and avoided as much as possible the greater natural obstacles. For this reason all roads commemorate the most simple and ancient things. There is no road which has existed for any great length of time which has not a story to tell at every turn. So it is with the River Road. This is the oldest road in Wayne County, and in order to tell the story we must turn back to the days when the first settlement was established in Detroit.

When Cadillac landed in 1701, at what is now Detroit, roads were unknown. The traffic and travel were exclusively by water as most of the people lived along the larger navigable waters. Communications to the interior was chiefly along trails used by the Indians. This section was on the warpath of the Iroquois, who make frequent excursions to the West. There were two principal trails used by the Indians in going to Malden to receive their annual present from the British. The St. Joseph trail led up the St. Joseph River from Lake Michigan, thence overland to the Huron River and along the latter to Lake Erie. The Saginaw Trail skirted the southern end of Saginaw Bay and extended thence to the Rouge River and along this stream to the Detroit River.

For more than a hundred years after this first settlement the settlers managed to get along without roads, but the need grew more and more apparent with the passing years. What the people needed was ready communication with the Ohio frontier. This presented the first road problem in Wayne County.

The first effort at road building was sort of a bridle path which ran along the west bank of the Detroit River and through the swamps in the vicinity of Toledo to Cleveland. This followed an Indian trail through the Black Swamp to Detroit and was known as the French-Indian Trail. This swamp consisted of a slightly elevated basin of impervious clay upon which rested a thick stratum of fertile black loam, and the surface was so level that water could not escape except by evaporation. As there wasn't much evaporation, this area was always wet and travelers virtually had to swim through the swamp. Despite these obstacles, roads came into existence and an early bridle path became a modern thoroughfare which today is known as the River Road.

On November 25, 1808, by the Treaty of Brownstown, the Indians granted to the United States a tract of land two miles wide, which extended westward and northward from the Connecticut Western Reserve to the foot of the Rapids of the Miamis of the Lakes, with the understanding that a road should by built along this tract. Three years later the President authorized a party to survey and mark this road and six thousand dollars was set aside to cover the expense necessary to construct a road across the "Black Swamp."

At the opening of the War of 1812, General Hull built his famous military road across the "Black Swamp." The road was poorly located and was not constructed to meet the requirements of even the light traffic of that time. Naturally, this road was not used much after the passage of the army and it was but a short time before it was overgrown with brush. The Federal Government had spent on this venture over 20 million dollars to move a few companies of soldiers from Ohio to Detroit. During the war, flour was sold at Detroit for fifty dollars a barrel.

A second effort at highway construction was a little more successful. In 1817, from one hundred and fifty to two hundred troops, then stationed at Detroit, were employed in opening a road to Fort Meigs on the Miami (Maumee) via Frenchtown (Monroe). This road was established by authority as a military road 66 feet wide and was laid out and created by order of the President. A resolution was passed by Congress, April 4, 1818, requesting the Secretary of War to communicate progress and prospects for the completion of this road.

In conformance with a request for a report, Major-General Alexander Macomb, on November 27,1818, wrote in part: "Completed seven miles, Detroit to the Rapids. The road is a magnificent one, cleared of all logs and under-brush. Bridges were built of strong oak framework. One of the bridges on which the men are working is 450 feet long. Will complete the bridges first before continuing with the road." Although the road was established at 66 feet wide, the axmen cut a strip 80 feet wide. About 30 miles of this road was completed.

General Macomb sketched the road and called it '"The Great Military Highway," and sent it along with his report. The full width did not remain for very long as encroachments soon cramped the road back until it resembled an Indian trail.
Many men who had seen service in the War of 1812 urged Congress for a continuation of the road eastward. Governor Cass showed that such a road could make a branch of the Cumberland National Road, thus bringing Detroit into direct communication with the Capitol.

In 1823 Congress, stirred to action by the many appeals, granted land for the construction of a road from the Connecticut Reserve to the Maumee River. Thus the agreement made with the Indians fifteen years before was carried out. Twenty thousand dollars was appropriated to improve the road built by the soldiers from Detroit to the Maumee. This was the first regular grant made by the Federal Government for road building.

In 1825 several roads were projected to lead out of Detroit. These roads were laid out under the direction of Governor Lewis Cass and were called the five great military highways. They radiated in all directions and comprised the River Road from Detroit to Perrysburg, Ohio; Michigan Avenue, From Detroit to Fort Dearborn in Chicago; Grand River Road from Detroit to the mouth of the Grand River; Woodward Avenue, from Detroit to Fort Saginaw; and Gratiot Avenue, from Detroit to Fort Gratiot north of Port Huron. A map of the Territory of Michigan in 1825 showed these roads and they were marked United States Roads.

These military highways had a width of highway of 100 feet, and although they were laid out as military roads, they served primarily the purpose of peace and commerce. As a matter of fact, it was not until the great World War in 1917 that any of these were used as military roads. The River Road was the only one of the five that served this purpose. This road was filled to capacity with huge motor trucks carrying war materials from Detroit to the sea.
On October 29,1829, the Legislative Council of the Territory sought to aid the efforts of Congress by authorizing a lottery, the proceeds of which were to be used to build a road between Detroit and Miami. Here we have local aid being given to bring about roads.

It may also be mentioned here that "The Niles Register" for October 11,1823, said: "Mr. Gabriel Richard, a Roman Catholic Priest, has been elected a delegate from Michigan Territory." This was probably the first instance of the kind in the United States. Father Richard's efforts in improving roads is well known around Detroit. His district at that time extended from Detroit to the Mississippi.

From this period on there was a gradual development of roads. Roads were built into the interior. Stage coach lines were established. One of the first lines was along the River Road to Ohio.

There were days when the coaches and wagons had to plow and wallow through the mud. There were days when the ladies felt just grand jostling in leather carriages over corduroy. There were days when people said of asphalt: "It is bad for horses which are constantly falling upon it. The sound of hoofs at night keeps sick people and light sleepers awake. A fine dust is constantly coming in through open windows." There were the first doubtful days of concrete which ushered in the day of the motor car; the ideal of the future.

Since the War of 1812 the River Road has seen almost a century and a quarter of service. Originally the French-Indian Trail through the Black Swamp to Detroit, it became the Great Military Highway. Then the Military Turnpike to Fort Meigs, and then, under the act of Congress, a Military Road. It was also known as the Detroit-Frenchtown Road, the Monroe Pike and then later became the River Road and part of the Dixie Highway. At the present time sections are also called West Jefferson Avenue, Jefferson Avenue, and Lake Shore Drive. It is the longest through road and street in the county, being approximately thirty-seven miles long from the Macomb to the Monroe County line. Today twenty-two miles of this great highway have a 120-foot right-of-way in line with the Master Plan of highways adopted by the Wayne County Road Commission. It is the ultimate intention to carry out this plan until this width obtains throughout its entire length across Wayne County.

With the industrial development along the Detroit River, the River Road served as a gateway from and to the South. The sections of the road within the incorporated limits of cities and villages were the first to be surfaced. There was nothing done, however, in the rural sections until early in the Twentieth Century. The roads were still impassable during the winter and wet seasons of the year. Planks and corduroy became buried in the mud. (There are still some traces of corduroy on the River Road in the vicinity of Silver Creek. It is buried deep in the ground and parts of it extend through the slopes.)

In the first annual report of the Board of Wayne County Road Commissioners, submitted to the Board of Supervisors in 1907, a request was made for an appropriation of $5,000 for the maintenance and repair of the step towards the development of the rural sections of this great highway. During the following year, the first mile of road was improved under the direction of this Board. The specifications called for a road 15 feet wide of tar macadam construction and four-foot shoulders on each side, or 23 feet over all. The depth of stone when finished was six and one-half inches.

This section was just north of the north limits of the Village of Trenton in the vicinity of Monguagon Creek. A bridge was also constructed over Monguagon Creek. This structure was a steel and reinforced concrete bridge 31 feet long, 18 feet wide and 27 feet in the clear. It replaced two six-foot boiler shells, 31 feet long. These boiler shells were found to be inadequate to carry away the water during the high water season in the spring, with a result that not only the road but also the low lands for long distances adjacent thereto were overflowed from one to six weeks in the year. The road was washed out, causing much inconvenience and discomfort to residents in the low lands, and threats for damages were occasioned by the flooding of cellars and the first floors of residences.

During the following year (1909) an additional section was taken over for similar improvement. This section was also built of macadam construction, limestone and crushed cobble, and started at the south limits of the City of Wyandotte and joined the section built the previous year, and as a result the total improved section was 10,000 feet in length or approximately two miles.

At the time these rural sections were being built there was a general awakening of road building, or, more particularly, pavement building along the line of River Road, A brick pavement was constructed in River Rouge to join the section of brick pavement already built in Ecorse. Ford City was about to start construction of a brick pavement. With the completion of this work there was a continuous stretch of about 28 miles, extending form the Wayne-Macomb County line to Sibley, there being but one short break in the southerly end of Wyandotte.

The first section of concrete pavement was built in 1910 and was a continuation of the two miles of macadam previously built. This section was approximately three-quarters of a mile in length and was of a 1:2:3 mix of portland cement, washed sand and washed gravel. The road metal was 15 feet wide and six inches deep, and with four-foot shoulders on each side the road had an over-all width of 23 feet.

The following year another section three and one-half miles in length, and extending south from the south limits of Trenton, was constructed. This section of concrete was constructed of a 1:1 1/2:3 mix, 15 feet wide and seven inches deep. The City of Wyandotte also built a section of brick pavement one-half mile in length and closed the existing gap.
The concrete construction was carried on to the Monroe County line, and at the end of 1912 the total mileage of hard-surface road amounted to somewhat less than 20 miles, of which approximately 11 miles were concrete, two miles tar macadam, and seven miles brick, and a continuous stretch of good road from the Macomb County line to the Monroe County line.

A section of concrete was also constructed in the Village of Trenton. This section consisted of two strips of pavement, each 12 feet wide and with street car tracks between them. It was from this section that cores were drilled in 1913. The cores when tested showed an average compressive strength of 8,425 pounds per square inch. During the seasons of 1915 and 1916 the old macadam road between Wyandotte and Trenton, built in 1908, was replaced with a concrete pavement 18 feet wide. The 15-foot width was found to be too narrow for the faster moving traffic. The design of the pavement section was also changed, the new section having a thickness of six inches at the sides and eight and one-quarter inches at the center.

The problem of right-of-way was encountered in 1923. Due to increased traffic the widening of the River Road became a necessity. The work was held up contingent upon the arrangement of the problem of additional right-of-way. When we look back to the day when the road was given a right-of-way 100 feet wide it is hard to understand why there should be a right-of-way problem. The reason, however, is found in encroachments. In all of the numerous plans of the past century and a quarter one generation permitted encroachments on the right-of-way and then the succeeding generations have had to buy back for public use what the public had once owned and used.

The River Road was no exception and much of the wider width of right-of-way in this military highway was fenced in by the adjacent property owners, and after long periods of occupancy they gained title to the land by possession.
After meeting the right-of-way problem, the widening of River Road was carried on. In 1924 and 1925 the section from Trenton to Rockwood was widened to 30 feet and this followed with an additional widening in 1929. The section now has an over-all width of 40 feet.

The difficulty in obtaining right-of-way was the biggest problem encountered. Right-of-way transactions and condemnation proceedings have been going on continuously up to the present day. Some of the sections have been completed and others are under construction. The pavement sections are 90 feet wide in the business districts and 80 feet wide elsewhere. The thickness of the pavement is 10 inches and of modern design. The road itself is a real Twentieth Century highway and a product of thirty years of study and practice.