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History: The River Road

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The following is a written history of Wayne County’s first road, The River Road, now know as Jefferson Avenue through most of Wayne County. The history starts from its earliest beginnings as a simple path in the late 1600’s through its eventual paving in the early 1900’s.

Part I - An Indian Trail

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. lakeshore_thumb.jpg (10649 bytes)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 in history 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.

Indian Trails
When Cadillac landed in 1691, 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. Communication to the interior was chiefly along trails used by the Indians. This section was on the warpath of the Iroquois who made frequent excursions to the west. There were two principal trails used by the Indians in going to Malden to receive their annual presents from the British. The St. Joseph Trail led up the St. Joseph River from Lake Michigan, then 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.

The First Road Problem
For more than 100 years after this first settlement, the settlers still managed to get along without roads, but the need grew more and more apparent as the years went by. What the people needed was ready communication with the frontier in Ohio. This presented the first road problem in Wayne County.

In 1799, Patrick McNeff, a surveyor, wrote Solomon Sibley in part as follows:

"The situation of the country in respect to public roads should be taken into consideration. The present seat of justice is in Detroit, the settlements extending thence northerly to the upper end of the River St. Clair nearly sixty miles, and also from Detroit southwesterly to the foot of the rapids of the Miami [Maumee] River, nearly sixty miles. To those extreme parts of the settlements there are but two periods in the year that persons from the seat of justice can have access to them without the help of watercraft, namely: In the month of September by land, and in the winter when the waters are sufficiently frozen that ice will bear them; otherwise, no access to these places but by water."

Road Through Black Swamp
The first effort at road building was sort of a bridge 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 known as the French-Indian Trail through the Black Swamp to Detroit. The Black Swamp consisted of a slightly elevated basin of impervious clay, upon which rested a thick stratum of fertile black loam. The surface was so level that water could not escape except by evaporation. As there was not much evaporation it was always wet and travelers had to virtually swim through the swamp. But in spite of all of this, roads came into existence and this bridle path became the modern thoroughfare, which today is called the River Road.

Treaty of Brownstown
In the Treaty of Brownstown, made November 25, 1808, the Indians granted to the United States a tract of land two miles wide, and 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 be built along it. In 1811, the President authorized a party to survey and mark this road and six thousand dollars were set aside to cover the expense. But the war of 1812 prevented the carrying out of the provisions of this treaty. Another cause for delay undoubtedly was the great expense necessary to construct the road across the Black Swamp.

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