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History: The River Road

::  < part 1: an indian trail  ::   part 3: river road gets resurfaced > ::

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 II – a Military Road

River Road as a Military Road
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 not constructed to meet the requirements of even the light traffic of that time. This road was not used much after the passage of the army and soon it was overgrown with brush. It cost the Federal Government 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.

The second effort was a little more successful. In 1817, from 150-200 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 laid out and worked by order of the President.

A resolution was passed in Congress on 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 underbrush. Bridges were built of strong oak framework. One of the bridges, on which 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 thirty 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. [This may be called the first road map and a photostatic copy is in our possession.] The full width did not remain for very long, as encroachments soon cramped the road back to resemble and Indian trail.

Proposed Extension to the Capitol
Many men who had seen service in the War of 1812 urged Congress for continuation of the road eastward. Appeals were made both by civil and military officials in the Northwest who urged that such a road was necessary to bring the region into contact with the rest of the Union. The extension also was believed necessary to facilitate settlement of the Territory, to increase land sales, and to give the people already there an outlet for their products. Governor Cass showed that such a road could be made a branch of the Cumberland National Road, thus bringing Detroit into direct communication with the Capitol.

In 1823 Congress, stirred 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 were 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.

The Five Great Military Highways
After 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. These roads 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 highways of 100 feet, although they were laid out as military roads, they served primarily the purpose of peace and commerce. As a matter of fact it was 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 October11, 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 know around Detroit. His district at that time extended from Detroit to Mississippi.

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

There were the days when the coaches and wagons ha to plow and wallow through the mud. Then there were days when 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.

::  < part 1: an indian trail  ::   part 3: river road gets resurfaced > ::

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