There have been several distinct eras of transportation development in Michigan. The early French explorers and settlers did not carve trails or build roads because they traveled almost exclusively by canoe. At the time of the Revolution and through the War of 1812, there were no ways to reach most points in Michigan other than by water. A history of that war shows that the federal military had a very challenging time replenishing forts in Michigan from Ohio and Kentucky. So long as the British controlled Lake Erie, they did well in the fighting in Michigan. Early in the Nineteenth Century, many of the eastern states undertook the financing of long distance canals. Indeed, Michigan owes it early population growth to the completion of the Erie Canal. Michigan, however, was not a state when long distance canals were dug. Their popularity was short lived since, by the 1840s, it became apparent that investments in rail lines were much more productive than investments in canals. There was an attempt to dig a canal from Lake Saint Clair to Lake Michigan but capital ran out after just a few miles were completed. From the 1840s through the 1890s, Michigan participated in the national rail boom that led to a developed industrial country. Lines linked all of the major and most of the smaller cities of the state. Indeed, many places exist because of the rail boom. After World War I, there was a boom in building highways for cars and trucks, a boom that reached its peak in the 1960s with President Eisenhower and his strong support for the National Defense Interstate highways that resembled the Autobahns that he knew so well from his employment in Europe.
But there was another period of transportation development that receives less attention. The Sauk Indians were, according their own lore, driven from the St. Lawrence Valley sometime before or during the early part of the Sixteenth Century. They came to Michigan and settled in the southeast corner of the present state, but then traveled extensively throughout the Midwest. By 1620 or so, the Huron and Ottawa Indians apparently had secured arms from French settlers in Quebec and used them to drive the Sauk out of Michigan. Over a decade or so, they migrated to Wisconsin where they lived for another 150 or so years before the white settlers drove them further west. Before they left Michigan, the Sauk established an extensive network of trails. The Historical Marker shown above commemorates a trail that the Sauk established running from present day Detroit to Pontiac to Flint and then on the Saginaw. Apparently, ferry operators were positioned at several major rivers to take travelers across by canoe.
Alexis de Tocqueville, the accomplished French statesman, traveled to the United States in 1831. He went on to write one of the most informative and valuable books even written about this country, Democracy in America. On July 23, 1831, he rented two horses and, with a fellow traveler, rode to Pontiac, on to Flint and then to Saginaw. When in rural Michigan, he stated that he believed he was as far from modern civilization as any person could ever get. His chapters about this visit to Detroit and Michigan, “Two Weeks in the Wilderness,” are excluded from some abridged version of his masterpiece. Presumably, De Tocqueville on horseback passed along the Saginaw Trail about 150 feet west of where this historical marker stands.
On December 7, 1818, the Michigan Territorial
Legislature in Detroit approved the paving of Saginaw Trail. Paving, at that
time, meant creating a road from
planks or from entire trees—typically oak laid horizontally across the thoroughfare.
This was, of course, very rudimentary since, unless an excellent base was laid,
the planks or logs would be swallowed by mud. To attempt a smooth surface,
mud was sometimes placed on top of the planks. Money was scarce and the Saginaw
Trail was not improved at this time.
In 1822, the Michigan Legislature again approved a plan, this time to pave the trail from Detroit to Pontiac. Once again, there was no money for this investment in the territory’s infrastructure. In 1826, the legislature asked the federal government for funding to improve Saginaw Trail. On March 2, 1827, Congress appropriated funds. The Detroit to Flint paving was completed in 1833, and just eight years later, the paving was extended all the way to Saginaw. Money troubles again became a problem for the Michigan Legislature. In 1848, they ceased spending tax revenue to maintain Saginaw Trail. Two years later, they leased the road for six decades to a private firm that would maintain the Trail, but charge tolls.
In 1915, the State of Michigan began paving a road that closely followed the trace of the Saginaw Trail. In 1926, federal funds became available for road building and road maintenance. These monies were used for what was then known as the Saginaw Trail Highway and then later became known as US-10 and Michigan 10.
There are at least eight other Michigan Historical Markers commemorating Indian trails in the state. Perhaps the most frequently seen such marker is the Chicago Road Informational Marker at the corner of Washington Boulevard and Michigan in Detroit. The Sauk Trail that extended from Detroit to Chicago and then west to the Mississippi River. It became known as the Chicago Road. Father Gabriel Richard not only founded the University of Michigan but also served, from 1823 to 1825, as the first representative of Michigan Territory in Congress. Once he became a solon, he championed the cause of using federal funds to pave the Indian trails that were increasingly used by the settlers who migrated to the Midwest.
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: P24, 456 Listed September 17,
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Put in place October 11, 1988
Photograph: Ren Farley, June 29, 2009
Description prepared: July, 2009
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