We’ve been down this road before Michigan Avenue US-12 US -112 Congress Street The Chicago Road Military Highway Sauk Trail Mastodon Highway Take another look at downtown Ypsilanti’s Michigan Avenue. Take away the cars and trucks; take away the concrete and asphalt. Let’s even take away what’s left of the Interurban tracks and the paving bricks and get right down to the dirt. Now we can see footprints on the bare earth. The traffic where this thoroughfare crosses the Huron River has been coming through for centuries. Welcome to our Real Main Street. This road is a path; a very old path The earliest inhabitants of this Michigan peninsula traveled mostly by water and, for most Native Americans, by birch-bark canoe, along lakes and rivers. Few Indians inhabited the upland, drier portions of land––areas mostly seen while “just passing through.” Light Indian canoes were easily guided through the rivers that kept a regular flow before deforestation took place. These same routes and their portages were later used by the first European travelers. Once on land, however, paths were created for foot travel. As those paths developed, at least a few were the beginnings of highways like downtown’s Michigan Avenue. Some early Indian trails are still in place • Sauk Trail, followed roughly the line of present US 12 from Detroit through Ypsilanti and to Lake Michigan through the “smile” of prairie that extended across the bottom of the lower peninsula • Saginaw Trail from Toledo through Saginaw to Mackinac, part of which forms today’s Dixie Highway • Grand River Trail between Detroit and Grand Rapids, now followed by the trunk line US 16 • Sault and Green Bay Trail east/west across the upper peninsula, now by US 2 and State Rte. 35 The Sauk Trail ran through Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. From west to east, the trail connected Rock Island on the Mississippi River to the Illinois River near modern Peru, with the trail along the north bank of that river to Joliet, and on to Valparaiso, Indiana. It then ran northeasterly to LaPorte and into southern Michigan through Niles, Three Rivers, and Ypsilanti, ending at the Detroit River. The trail followed a winding path along the ridges of dune and moraines that marked the earlier glacial period Lake Michigan shorelines. European settlers improved the trail into a wagon road and later into modern highways. There are even older trails Many will settle for tracing the origin of these roadways back to the Native Americans but some of these ancient paths were here even before that. Sections of the trail followed the southern boundary between he dense forest and the mixed grassland regions. The presence of a mastodon trailway along the same path indicates that humans may have been using a long established game trail. Every generation of road-builders in history has had to skirt the edges of the great salt marsh between Ypsilanti and Saline. Pittsfield Township’s C. Edward Wall still harbors dreams of installing life-size sculptures of mastodons in that marshy area just east of the City of Saline. Side roads proliferated Narrower tributaries from the major trails cut swaths through the prairie that extended across Michigan’s lower peninsula. “An Indian trail was merely a narrow path, about 12 to 18 inches wide, permitting only single-file travel,” noted Dorothy G. Pohl, Director of the Ionia County Road Commission, in her report to the Association of Southern Michigan Road Commissions in 1997. “It was not until the coming of the white settlers, laden with supplies, that the trails were improved. The use of the packhorse was the first step in the process of widening these pathways. Branches and bushes were broken off from each side of the trail and soon it was several feet wide. Later, when settlers flocked to Michigan Territory, bringing their possessions in oxen-drawn wagons, there was a need for even wider roads.” Henry Schoolcraft, at present-day Michigan City, Indiana in 1820, described the trail, as a “plain horse path, which is considerably traveled by traders, hunters, and others...” and said a stranger could not follow it without the services of a guide because of the numerous side trails. The Sauk Trail intersected many important trails and early roads including the trails to Vincennes, Green Bay, Fort Wayne and north to Little Traverse Bay. Sections of the Sauk Trail still exist in some form. There is a winding road still called Sauk Trail which runs from Frankfort, Illinois to Dyer, Indiana, passing through Sauk Village, Illinois. Johnson Sauk Trail State Park in western Illinois sits on another section of the trail. Sauk Trail forms the southern boundary of Sauk Trail Woods park. When America’s first national transcontinental highway, the Lincoln Highway, was built, its route through western Indiana followed the roads built over the Sauk Trail. Treasures found along the paths Along the many trails, archeologists have identified over 1,000 mounds, 80 enclosures and embankments, 30 so-called ‘garden beds,’ 750 village sites, and 260 burying grounds. Unearthed along the Indian paths are miscellaneous artifacts such as arrowheads, hammers, knives, drills, hoes, spades, pipes, fragments of pottery, and large and small effigies in stone. The ancient highway in Northwestern Lower Michigan has revealed countless Native American artifacts and campsites. Near Mesick, nearly 50 mounds have been discovered. U.S. Forest Service workers have found 150 circular fire pits near Buckley. MSU’s Randall Schaetzl has paraphrased from C.M. Davis’ Readings in the Geography of Michigan (1964): “Those who travel its fading lanes often find themselves on a journey that leads them back in time. Faded and worn stone markers remain at certain sections of the trail to point the way down the old highway which has nearly been lost in the pages of time. The evidence that it was also an old stagecoach route is that there are tracks of wagon wheels found along certain parts of the trail. Information available at the Forest Service also states that a silver oxidated cross, which is believed to have belonged to a Jesuit priest, was found at Buckley. A sword and pieces of metal that resembled armor were additional relics obtained at the site. Records indicate that a sword and armor found at the location may possibly have been from the French explorer La Salle, who is known to have visited St. Joseph, Michigan at one time.” Entire communities of Native American families walked these trails. The paths followed the areas of least resistance and crossed rivers where they were shallowest. When European settlers arrived, many of the trails became stagecoach highways. Roadways continue to follow the old paths. The Michigan State Highway Department was created by Governor Fred Warner in 1905 and the State Trunkline Act came into play in 1913. Pohl and Brown highlight the 1916 Federal-Aid Road Act, the beginning of snow removal in 1918, gasoline taxes in 1925, and further legislation that created the infrastructure of today’s roadways. In her report to the Road Commission, Dorothy Pohl’s study (with Norman E. Brown, MDOT Act 51 Administrator) on the history of roads in Michigan goes far beyond early Indian trails. Their study examines farm-to-market routes in 1805, military roads in 1816, early State-sponsored transportation improvements, township road-building in 1817, private turnpike companies, swamp land roads of 1859, and on to the 1880s impact of bicyclists. Pohl concludes, “Many of us in the road business have heard and used the phrase that the roads just “grew” there. Now we really know what happened!” The mastodon is our state fossil The giant mastodon (Mammut americanum) was designated the official state fossil of Michigan in 2002. This magnificent animal disappeared from the Ypsilanti area about 10,000 years ago. One of the most complete mastodon skeletons was discovered near Owosso, and is now displayed at the U of M’s Museum of Natural History. The most intact trail of mastodon footprints (30) has been found along Michigan Avenue west of Saline across from Harry’s Furniture. The campaign to adopt the mastodon as Michigan’s state fossil was led by David P. Thomas, Sr., a geology instructor at Washtenaw Community College. Mastodon vs. mammoth? The American mastodon is different from the woolly mammoth. Mastodons had straighter tusks and both the body and head of the mastodon is longer and squatter than the woolly mammoth and its back doesn’t slope like a mammoth’s. Mastodons were about the size of an Asiatic elephant of today, but its ears were smaller than modern elephants. They had thick body hair similar to a mammoth, but mastodon teeth suggest the diet of a browser, not a grazer. The mastodon also lacks the high, peaked knob on the head seen on the woolly mammoth. Mastodons are an older species, originating in Africa 35 million years ago and entering North America about 15 million years ago. SIDEBAR “The Calf-Path” by Sam Walter Foss One day through the primeval wood A calf walked home as good calves should; But made a trail all bent askew, A crooked trail as all calves do. Since then three hundred years have fled, And I infer the calf is dead. But still he left behind his trail, And thereby hangs my moral tale. The trail was taken up next day By a lone dog that passed that way; And then a wise bellwether sheep Pursued the trail o’er vale and steep, And drew the flock behind him, too, As good bellwethers always do. And from that day, o’er hill and glade, Through those old woods a path was made. And many men wound in and out, And dodged and turned and bent about, And uttered words of righteous wrath Because ‘twas such a crooked path; But still they followed — do not laugh – The first migrations of that calf, And through this winding wood-way stalked Because he wobbled when he walked. This forest path became a lane That bent and turned and turned again; This crooked lane became a road, Where many a poor horse with his load Toiled on beneath the burning sun, And traveled some three miles in one. And thus a century and a half They trod the footsteps of that calf. The years passed on in swiftness fleet, The road became a village street; And this, before men were aware, A city’s crowded thoroughfare. And soon the central street was this Of a renowned metropolis; And men two centuries and a half Trod in the footsteps of that calf. Each day a hundred thousand rout Followed this zigzag calf about And o’er his crooked journey went The traffic of a continent. A hundred thousand men were led By one calf near three centuries dead. They followed still his crooked way. And lost one hundred years a day, For thus such reverence is lent To well-established precedent. A moral lesson this might teach Were I ordained and called to preach; For men are prone to go it blind Along the calf-paths of the mind, And work away from sun to sun To do what other men have done. They follow in the beaten track, And out and in, and forth and back, And still their devious course pursue, To keep the path that others do. They keep the path a sacred groove, Along which all their lives they move; But how the wise old wood-gods laugh, Who saw the first primeval calf. Ah, many things this tale might teach But I am not ordained to preach.
Photo captions: 1.Mastodon (no caption) 2. Downtown overlay 3. Indian trails of importance to Michigan 4. Major Indian tribes and trails – 1760 5. Mastodon skeletons have been found near Textile and Carpenter Roads and in the gravel pits along Michigan Avenue west of Saline (north of Harry’s Furniture) 6. U of M’s old fossil