Michigan Highways: Since 1997.

Michigan Highways website header graphic

The History of Roads in Michigan

This article was written by Dorothy G. Pohl, Managing Director for the Ionia County Road Commission, and Norman E. Brown, retired MDOT Act 51 Administrator. It was presented to the Association of Southern Michigan Road Commissions on December 2, 1997 and is reproduced here by permission of its authors.


Indian Trails

The network of roadways that now serves Michigan began centuries ago as a network of Indian trails. These paths, worn deep by centuries of foot travel by the Indians, were located on high, dry ground along waterbeds and streams. They connected main Indian villages and let to the rich hunting and fishing grounds of the state. They linked the numerous rivers which covered the state, thus providing a continuous transportation system.

Some of the Indian trails which crisscrossed Michigan were segments of well-known trails connecting the Atlantic seaboard and the plains states. Michigan’s earliest white men, explorers, missionaries and fur traders used these convenient paths as they traveled westward to penetrate the frontier. Later, they provided a way through the wild country for thousands of settlers who poured into Michigan to carve out homes in the wilderness.

These trails should not be confused, however, with modern highways or even the crude wagon roads built by the early settlers. An Indian trail was merely a narrow path, about 12 to 18 inches wide, permitting only single-file travel. It was not until the coming of the white settlers, laden with supplies, that the trails were improved. The use of the pack horse 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.

Nearly all of the principal highways radiating from Detroit, for example, once were narrow paths through forest and plain marked by blazed trees and campfire ashes. US-24 southward to Toledo originally was the westernmost segment of the Great Trail from Fort Pitt to Fort Detroit, linking up on the east with Braddock’s Road from the Atlantic seaboard. On the Upper Peninsula, US-2 from Sault Ste. Marie to Escanaba and M-35 from Escanaba to Menominee follow the Sault and Green Bay Trail. From these and other main thoroughfares, lesser trails branched off. Many of them now are state or county roads.

Farm to Market Routes—1805

Shortly after the Territory of Michigan was established in 1805, road districts were set up by the Governor. Roads built within these territorial road districts were local “farm to market” routes designated solely to enable the predominantly farming population to reach their neighboring market centers. Within these market centers, the farmers utilized streets which were, and since the time of the earliest settlements in Michigan have always been, the responsibility of the communities themselves. However, these frontier settlements were so widely scattered that little attempt was made to interconnect them with roads.

Military Roads—1816

The combined local road and street network was so limited prior to 1812 that it hindered the Federal military effort in the War of 1812 and also impeded the settlement and development of Michigan’s interior. Consequently, the federal government, in 1816, began to build lengthy military roads between Michigan’s forts and her undeveloped heartland.

General Lewis Cass, who became Governor of the Michigan Territory in 1813, energetically sought to enlist the support of Congress for road construction—both as a means of speeding up settlement and of bolstering military defenses which had proved inadequate in the War of 1812. As a result of Cass’ efforts, the Secretary of War in 1816 ordered that troops should be used to build a road between Fort Meigs (Toledo) and Detroit. The road was not completed, however, until 1829. Before the Detroit-Fort Meigs road was finished, Congress authorized construction of several other roads connecting Detroit with the hinterland. The federal government encouraged settlement of the Michigan Territory in the years immediately following the War of 1812 by aiding the construction of major territorial roads. Thus, roads from Detroit to Monroe and Toledo, Port Huron, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Chicago, through the southern tier of counties were constructed by the federal government in the 1820s and 1830s. Although some of these thoroughfares were hardly more than rutted, narrow, stump-filled paths through dense forests, they provided some assistance to the thousands of travelers who flocked to Michigan to settle, especially after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1826.

Early State-Sponsored Transportation Improvements—1835

The State of Michigan also became involved in highway development and other internal improvement schemes. Caught up in a national mania for improved transportation facilities, the framers of the state’s first constitution, which passed in 1835, specifically encouraged internal improvements. The state legislature authorized bond issues of $5 million to finance transportation improvements. The Panic of 1837 and subsequent depression had devastating effects upon Michigan’s internal improvement programs. The state defaulted on payment of its bonds and its credit was seriously impaired. Moreover, the financial crisis led to a strong revulsion against internal improvement plans, which was reflected in the Constitution of 1850 which specifically stated the following: “The state shall not be party to, or interested in, any work of internal improvement, nor engage in carrying on any such work...”

Township Road Building Begins—1817

In 1817, the territorial government gave the responsibility for building local rural roads to the townships, under the control and direction of the county commissioners. Supervision of township road building proved to be a difficult task for the county commissioners due to the extremely large size of Michigan’s early counties (one Upper Peninsula, one that combines sections of the Upper and Lower Peninsulas and three Lower Peninsula). Consequently, in 1827, the townships were given direct responsibility for road building within their boundaries. When Michigan became a state in 1837, the Constitution provided for continuance of the township road system. But the federal government created a void in long-distance road building by ceasing its road operations in the new state. Because the new state had little money to spend for proper maintenance, the roads already built soon fell into disrepair. Before long, Detroit’s citizenry became upset about the situation. According to Silas Farmer’s “History of Detroit” published in 1884:

Several meetings were held in order to devise means for improving the roads, and...the desire was general that the legislature be petitioned to take the Ypsilanti, Pontiac and Grand River roads under its control and management, to put them in a state of repair and to collect tolls. ...All these meetings were barren of result, and the roads grew continually worse. Traffic within the interior was consequently light and as a natural result, a general dullness pervaded the city. Few wagons came in, not many stayed over night, and hotels built for the accommodation of farmers were unoccupied. Finally some of the business men took the subject into consideration, and it was resolved that the only remedy was to build plank roads across the low lands.

Private Turnpike Companies—1844

Beginning in 1844, private turnpike companies attempted to fill this void with a network of toll roads, portions of which were constructed of wooden planks. Although these companies had to be chartered by the state and were required to construct and operate their roads according to certain standards, these toll roads were entirely the responsibility of private enterprise. This was significant because it marked the only time that public roads in Michigan were not a direct government responsibility. One of the first plank road companies, the Detroit and Port Huron, was chartered in 1844. Several more of these private toll road companies were established during the next few years, and in 1848 the state legislature passed a General Plank Road Act to regulate their operations.

Plank roads were required to be from two to four rods wide, 16 feet of this to be a “good, smooth, and permanent road”. Eight feet of width was to be of three-inch plank. For two-horse wagons and carriages, as well as “for every score of neat cattle”, a toll of two cents per mile was permitted. For one-horse vehicles, the maximum rate was one cent per mile. Altogether, more than 202 companies were chartered, although most never began operations. The Detroit and Pontiac Plank Road was opened late in 1849. The Detroit and Howell—50 miles long, with 10 toll gates along Grand River Road was completed in 1851. It was soon discovered, however, that the planks decayed rapidly and that the roads could not be kept up from the tolls received. “Mark Twain, who traveled to Grand Rapids by stage to give a lecture, was asked how he had liked the trip. ‘The road could not have been bad,’ he replied, ‘if some unconscionable scoundrel had not now and then dropped a plank across it.’” Many companies abandoned operations after a few years and few were able to show a profit. However, this situation lasted only about 40 years as the toll roads proved economically impractical. The support by the legislature of private toll companies did not meet the needs of a well-planned road system.


The History of Roads in Michigan: Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5.