Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road: Michigan's First Designated State Swamp Land Road

Academic journal article Michigan Historical Review

Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road: Michigan's First Designated State Swamp Land Road

Article excerpt

The Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road was the first continuous road into the heart of central Michigan. The route was north, up the peninsula divide from the settled districts of the south-central portion of the state into the wilderness of the northern Lower Peninsula. It was the first state road designated to be financed with provisions from the Swamp Land Act conveying federally owned swamp lands to the state of Michigan. The southern stretches of the road helped open land to farm settlement and remain in use today. Construction of some of the northern portion, however, illustrates a familiar pattern in nineteenth-century internal improvements: private interests often captured state-subsidized ventures and profited more than did the public. In this instance, the road angled across section lines on a route highly advantageous to its builders but awkward for permanent use. And within a few decades, portions of the road, having served the purpose of building private wealth, were abandoned.

Travel into the central and northern interior of the state in the mid-1800s was largely limited to the rivers where one could travel by canoe and raft. In his book Woodcraft, George Sears describes his walk across the Lower Peninsula in October 1845. From the time he left Saginaw until his arrival at a lumber camp a few miles from Muskegon, ten days elapsed. Sears described his trip as "through a strange wilderness, solitary and alone," as he encountered only forest creatures in his travels. (1) Even as late as the Civil War, the wilderness prevailed. Isaac A. Fancher gives us an example of the rigors of these early times in his history of central Michigan: volunteers gathered at Indian Mills (about fifty miles west of Saginaw), bade farewell, boarded a raft to carry them down the Chippewa River to Saginaw, and enlisted in the Union army. (2)

In 1850 Congress passed the Swamp Land Act, which transferred certain federal lands in eight states, including Michigan, to state control for disposal by sale. Under this act, the Michigan Land Office eventually received nearly six million acres of so-called swamp land. It was not until 1859, however, that the state provided for using these lands as a way to finance road building. By this time the need was greater than ever for better roads to open the way for settlers. On February 12, 1859, Act 117 of the Michigan Legislature was signed into law. (3) In the preamble to the legislation, the act's framers cited the need to construct roads and ditches (required to drain roads and farmlands) through the more unsettled parts of the state. Legislators deemed that the proceeds from the sale of swamp lands granted to the state by the federal government should be used to construct these roads and ditches.

Act 117 listed nine different state roads for construction, and the Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road was number one on the list. Furthermore, this act set up the machinery necessary to carry out construction; commissioners would be appointed, and among their duties would be the establishment of specifications for fights-of-way, bridges, and road surfaces.

One other important provision of the act concerned the letting of contracts. In this section, the act noted that a contractor might elect to take lands in lieu of cash payment for constructing a portion of a road. The law stipulated, however, that no more than an average of 640 acres could be awarded for building one mile of road. Another provision stated that the land granted to the contractor must be in the same county as the construction work he had performed.

Just three days after the passage of Act 117, another measure, Act 240, which authorized extending the Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road to old Fort Mackinaw, received the legislature's support. (4) In the following years, however, construction never reached farther north than Houghton Lake. As a state swamp land road, it was thus destined to be the Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road. …

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