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The Broadway Bridge Parks

Grace Shackman

The area around the Broadway Bridge was once home to factories, junkyards, and hoboes. Its transformation into three riverfront parks is one of the city's longest-running sagas of civic improvement.

The Broadway Bridge, connecting the central part of Ann Arbor with the north, spans the Huron River at a historically busy spot. Potawatomi Indian trails converged to ford the river there. When John Allen and Elisha Rumsey came west from Detroit in 1824, looking for a place to found a town, they, too, crossed the river at this spot. The first bridge was built just four years later. Replaced and widened several times since, it was most recently redone in 2004.

In 1830, Anson Brown, a pioneer who settled in Ann Arbor after working on the Erie Canal, dammed the river upstream from the bridge. Brown, his brother-in-law, Edward Fuller, and Colonel Dwight Kellogg used the flow from the dam to power a flour mill located just west of the bridge. Brown had grandiose ideas about turning the north side into the center of the city, but he died in the cholera epidemic of 1834, before his dreams could be realized. In 1839 William Sinclair purchased the property, repairing the mill and installing new machinery. His new setup worked so well that after the 1841 harvest he shipped to New York, via the Erie Canal, 8,112 barrels of flour--a record for Ann Arbor up to that time.

Sinclair's mill was destroyed by a fire in 1860, but he quickly rebuilt it and was back in business the next season. The next owners were the Swift family, first Franklin, then his son John Marvin. In 1892 the mill became part of a conglomerate. The Ann Arbor Milling Company, later called the Michigan Milling Company, bought it, along with several other mills in the area, and renamed it Argo. In 1903 they improved the mill and built a new dam, but again, fire claimed the mill. They rebuilt the mill, but with the development of cheaper steam power, water mills were increasingly hard put to compete. The dam and mill were sold in 1905 to the Eastern Michigan Edison company (later Detroit Edison), which was buying up all the water power along the river to generate electricity. Edison built a generating station that is still there; though it no longer produces power, it is still used as a transmission substation.

Beginning in 1866, the Sinclair Mill also powered the Agricultural Works, on the east side of the bridge (power was transmitted through a tunnel under the bridge). Founded by Lewis Moore, the Agricultural Works made all kinds of farm implements--plows, seed drills, mowing machines, hay tedders, rakes, straw cutters, corn shelters--and shipped them all over the country.

Finding a ready market in the days when most of the country's population was farmers, the Agricultural Works expanded throughout the century until it covered three acres, with a main building, wood shop, machine shop, painting building, lumberyard, and a foundry near the river. As it grew, it supplemented water power with steam power; by 1896, the promotional Headlight magazine declared it "one of the most important manufacturing enterprises of the city." But national manufacturers gradually took over the agricultural market, and the company closed in 1903. The Ann Arbor Machine Company, which made hay presses, occupied the premises for the next twenty years, using the same buildings. In 1924 Detroit Edison bought the site to build the garage and storage yard that are still there today.

Mills and factories weren't the only industries drawn to "Lower Town," as the area north of the river was known. In the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, six slaughterhouses were built on the floodplain between the river and Canal Street. (Canal, although called a street, was "really an alley," according to Thelma Graves, who grew up nearby on Wall Street; residents of Wall used Canal to reach their back entrances.)

Though the last slaughterhouse closed in 1915, the floodplain remained heavily industrialized. In the 1920's, it was home to a concrete company, David A. Friedman's junkyard, a wire products company, the Leever and Leever lumber company, and Otto Earth's tin and upholstery shops.

Meanwhile, the south bank of the river was dominated by the railroad. The Michigan Central reached Ann Arbor in 1839, and the first train station was built on the west side of the bridge, near the present Amtrak station. In 1886 a new stone station, now the Gandy Dancer, was erected on the east side. But the handsome station had some less-than-attractive neighbors. In 1898, the land between the river and the original railroad station was purchased by the Ann Arbor Gas Company to build a new plant and storage tank. The plant heated coal (or, in later years, oil) in a vacuum to create a flammable gas that was piped into homes for cooking and lighting. The foul-smelling gasworks remained in operation until natural gas pipelines reached Michigan in 1955. Purchased by MichCon in 1938, the gas plant site is now the company's service center for Washtenaw County and parts of Wayne and Oakland counties.

By the turn of the century, manufacturing industries were being replaced by power industries, but all four corners around the bridge were still given over to commercial and industrial uses. By then, however, Ann Arborites were beginning to think that parks would be a more enjoyable use of the riverside--and present a better picture to the outside world.

Mayor Royal S. Copeland, in a 1902 address to city council, bemoaned the fact that "to enter Lower Town it is necessary to cross the smoky Detroit Street bridge [today the Broadway Bridge], [and] traverse a long dusty street with the gas tanks on one side and foul smelling dump heaps on the other."

The junk-strewn field east of the bridge was a particular sore point, because it was the first view of Ann Arbor to greet passengers arriving at the train station. Calling it "a blot upon an otherwise fair page," Copeland went on to paint a more attractive alternative: "How different it would be if the ground east of the street were a green sward, garnished with flowers and shrubs! How much more convenient for the Fifth Ward [Lower Town] if they could follow a gravel footpath through that Riverside park, climb a flight of steps to a narrow bridge over the tracks and find themselves at the foot of State Street."

Copeland appointed a committee, including the city attorney, empowered to negotiate with the property's owners. He also announced that an anonymous donor had offered to pay half the costs of condemnation and purchase of the land. The donor, he said, "believes our city is damaged in the eyes of the traveling public by the unsightly and disgraceful outlook from the [train] car windows." Copeland was confident that the $1,000 appropriated in city funds would finish the job and the rest could be used to improve the park.

The committee had meetings, met with property owners, and had the city attorney write letters; but in three years it did not make much progress in obtaining the land, which was owned by eight different people. In October 1905, the committee reported that "some of the persons interested in said lands refused to name any price for the same and others have placed a value upon their lands far in excess of what your committee is willing to recommend the council to accept. Your committee is of the opinion that said lands can only be acquired by condemnation proceedings." With the exception of some land near the station that the Michigan Central Railroad donated, the properties were obtained by condemnation. Pleased with their work, the committee reported that "by removing the unsightly and ill-smelling dump heap of tin cans and dead cats, the traveling public will form a better opinion of our city." On April 30, 1907, the site was formally named "Riverside Park."

Photograph of Riverside Park looking toward the Huron River

The original Riverside Park all cleaned up.

Although the acquisition of Riverside Park was touted as a major accomplishment, little was done to develop it. Ann Arborites who were around before World War II say that Island Drive Park and West Park were the places to go; they remember using Riverside Park only as a cut-through, especially from Lower Town to campus. Jack Bauer Sr., who grew up in Lower Town, scoffs at the idea that it was ever even a park, saying, "No one ever went there. It was nothing but an opening." Indeed, it was so little used that when the park across the river on the north side was developed, it appropriated the name "Riverside Park," and Mayor Copeland's creation became known as "Hobo Park."

Hobo Park got its name because, as the closest public land to the railroad station, it was a favorite place for hoboes to hang out. Hoboing--riding the rails without benefit of a ticket, looking for work--probably started as early as railroading itself; but it became a real phenomenon in the 1890's and peaked in the Depression. Hoboes separated themselves from tramps by their willingness to work. Ann Arbor was a likely destination because the presence of the university meant work was somewhat easier to find here than in most Michigan cities.

Hoboes arrived by train, mostly in the warmer months, and fanned out all over the city. Older Ann Arborites, wherever they lived, remember hoboes coming to their doors and being given some food, sometimes in exchange for odd jobs, such as shaking out rugs, cleaning out furnace ashes, spading the garden, or mowing the lawn. Although some hoboes were tough characters, many were well mannered and clean. Some reportedly even had college educations. They were rarely invited inside, but ate their food on the back steps or in the backyard.

Jack Bauer recalls that when he visited his aunt on Swift Street in the 1930s, he saw the police come to break up fights among the hoboes camped along the overgrown millrace between the Argo dam and powerhouse. Hoboes also slept farther east at Dow Field--the bottom of what is today the Arboretum but was then a university dump--and, of course, at Hobo Park. Bauer cut across the "park" in the 1930s to get to St. Thomas School, and he was often chased. He was young and strong and could run fast, but if he was worried, he would go into the railroad station and ask Mr. Mynning, a friend of the family who worked in the mail office there, to escort him to the bridge.

World War II put a stop to most hoboing, since able-bodied men who weren't drafted could enlist or find a factory job. When Betty Gillan Seward began working at the train station in 1941, there were only a few hoboes left, she recalls, and "they slept, whenever they could, in boxcars, but never in the station. Usually they slept on the banks of the river behind the station."

The hoboes never left altogether. In 1976, when photographer Fred Crudder took his now wife, Sally, on their first date, he suggested going to Hobo Park, by then officially called "Broadway Park." She thought he was kidding, but when they arrived, sure enough, there were some people sleeping under newspapers there. For years after that, early morning walkers sometimes found homeless people camped in Broadway Park, and one latter-day hobo maintained a wood-and-canvas shack in the woods above the Argo millrace in the 1990s.

The new Riverside Park north of the river was started for the same reasons as the original one: to clean up a blighted area that by then was being used as an unofficial dump. The new park, too, was pieced together parcel by parcel, although in this case city officials were more successful in persuading people to sell or donate their property. In a nine-year period from 1925 to 1934, the parks commission, under the leadership of Eli Gallup, acquired sixteen parcels of land totaling eight acres located between the river and Canal Street.

During the Depression, Gallup enlisted workers from the federal WPA jobs program to clean the site, remove piles of rubbish, and tear down old buildings. To fill in the low, marshy floodplain, Gallup used waste material from construction projects, like ashes and rubbish. He had the WPA workers remove the topsoil--which was of good quality though quite stony in places--throw it into ridges, and fill in the resulting trenches with any available material. After the land was raised, the topsoil was replaced and the park developed. Gallup put in a regular supervised playground--much appreciated by residents on the north side of the river--two tennis courts, and a baseball field. For drinking water, he ran a pipe out from the Donovan School.

The third park abutting the Broadway Bridge, Argo Park, was the last to be completed. In 1907 the city bought the land just north of the present Argo Pond canoe livery for a municipal beach. The rest of the tract, including the dam and the millrace, was not acquired until 1963. Detroit Edison first invited the city to buy its holdings along the Huron River, including the Argo, Barton, and Geddes dams, in 1959, but the purchase had to wait until 1962, when voters approved a bond issue to finance it.

Today DTE (Mich Con and Detroit Edison) is the last industrial user remaining near the Broadway Bridge, although they no longer produce power there. What will replace their building when, or if, they choose to sell is a topic of lively speculation. Housing is one perennial favorite suggestion. Though the idea would have seemed ridiculous a century ago, the gradual transformation of the surrounding area into attractive parks makes housing a very real possibility.

Riverside Park, once slaughterhouses and factories, is now the "green sward" that Copeland envisioned. During the school year, St. Thomas and Gabriel Richard schools use the park as a practice field, while in the summer numerous teams enjoy the baseball diamond. Argo Park, linked with Riverside by a pedestrian bridge, provides an attractive hiking area right in the city with the river on one side and the millrace on the other.

As part of the recent Broadway Bridge project, the city cleaned up the original Riverside Park on the south side of the river and put in benches, plantings, walks and lights. Finally, a hundred years later, Mayor Copeland’s vision is coming true.

[Photo caption from book]: A hobo cooks dinner near the Broadway Bridge during the Depression. For years, the city park behind the rail¬road station was known as "Hobo Park." “Courtesy Bentley Historical Library”

[Photo caption from book]: Before Eli Gallup created Riverside Park in the 193O's, the river’s north bank was a maze of small work shops and impromptu dumps. “Courtesy Al Gallup”

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Grace Shackman