Big Plans: When Erie Canal Envy Got Michigan Digging

The abandoned Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal project could have changed the face of Michigan
Illustration by Leslie Herman

Picture Mount Clemens as a thriving port city as large as Syracuse, N.Y. Or imagine a bustling metropolis where Yates Cider Mill now graces a bucolic setting near Rochester Hills.

It could have been, if the economy, cost overruns, mismanagement, and — what else? — politics had not brought the ambitious plans of Michigan’s first governor to a grinding halt.

When Michigan was granted statehood in 1837, “boy governor” Stevens T. Mason (then 26) had a vision: develop a system of canals and railroads to boost the economy. The railroads eventually got built. The canals? Not so much.

Today, you can see remains of what could have been in stretches along Canal Road in Clinton Township, River Bends Park in Shelby Township, and near Yates Cider Mill in Rochester Hills.

The Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal routing was proposed to run from the mouth of the Clinton River near modern-day Mount Clemens, then west through Howell, Hastings, and beyond, connecting to the Kalamazoo River — 216 miles in all.

Why a canal? To avoid the cost and inherent danger of Great Lakes shipping — and to bypass the long route through the Straits of Mackinac. Think of it as a shortcut across the palm of the Mitten.

If New York Can Do It …
What made Michigan politicians salivate at the thought of a canal? The success of the Erie Canal.

In the late 1700s, cities such as Rome, Syracuse, and Rochester sprang up along a wagon route West. But travel on this “highway” was costly and difficult.

In the early 1800s, New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton had a dream, dubbed “Clinton’s Big Ditch,” a canal to connect the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes.

Some ditch! When completed in 1825, the 360-mile-plus Erie Canal altered the entire country’s economic, political, and social development.

As settlers headed West, timber and farm output poured into the more populated East, all on barges or packet boats pulled by horse or mule.

It was a gold mine. Shipping prices from Buffalo to New York City went from $100 a ton by road to $10 or less by canal. In nine years, the tolls recouped construction costs — to the tune of nearly $8 million. And within 15 years, New York City leapfrogged Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans to become the country’s busiest seaport.

No wonder a fledgling state like Michigan would want to mimic such success.

Michigan’s Grand Plan
The Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal was part of an ambitious Michigan internal-improvements program announced in 1837. There was a little something for every settled part of the state, as Gov. Mason sought to develop wilderness areas and (sound familiar?) create jobs.

Mason proposed that the state subscribe to private companies that would build railroads and canals, and borrow money to pay for it. But the legislature, in an extraordinarily optimistic report, pushed the state to proceed on its own:

The question for Michigan to decide is whether she will … avail herself of these vast viaducts of wealth and prosperity … or whether her timidity or apathy will allow them to pass her by to swell the power and abundance of her wiser neighbors.”

Boosters claimed the improvements would pay for themselves — and yield a $3 million profit, to boot — within 20 years.

The bill authorized work on three railroads and two canals. One rail would run from Monroe to New Buffalo. Another would connect Detroit and St. Joseph. A third would link St. Clair to Grand Rapids.

Aside from the Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal, another “ditch” would connect the Saginaw and Grand rivers in the middle of the state. A survey was authorized for a third canal in the St. Mary’s River at Sault Ste. Marie (one that eventually got built).

The populace initially favored the canal option over rail, according to historian Donald Green, president of the Clinton and Kalamazoo Canal Society.

“Railroads made noise, scared horses, and started fires,” Green explains. Plus, they weren’t economically sound. Steel for rails had to be imported from England. In fact, one line from Utica to Detroit traveled on wooden rails, with strips of iron nailed on top of the wood to save costs.

Photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress

Land Grabs and Economic Uncertainty
The announcement of the improvements sent speculators scrambling. After all, those with property on or near staging points for the canal boats or rail lines stood to cash in.

One source cites the founding of the town of Vermontville in western Eaton County in 1836, based on the route of the proposed canal.

Gov. Mason was authorized to negotiate a loan of $5 million. Then the national economy went bust during The Panic of 1837, caused in part by President Andrew Jackson’s “Specie Circular,” which only allowed for gold and silver to be acceptable payment for public land. By mid-1837, the eastern part of the country suffered vast unemployment. The West was not as severely affected, so Michigan’s grand plan moved forward.

The Big Dig Begins
According to the Detroit Free Press of July 19, 1838, a host of festivities marked the project’s beginning — a 13-gun salute, music, speeches, and the governor turning the first shovelful of earth.

Work soon began at Frederick (a now-forgotten town near Mount Clemens), which was previously known as Casino. It was near where an almost unpronounceable settlement called New Gnadenhutten was started by Moravian Missionaries around the 1780s. Macomb County boasts a litany of such “forgotten towns,” such as Warsaw, Marcellus, Frankfort, Clifton, and Belvidere (there’s a Belvidere Bay north of Mount Clemens).

Money Woes
As men labored with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows digging the canal westward, Gov. Mason was experiencing problems with the financial end of things back East.

The Morris Canal and Banking Co. was recruited to sell the bonds on commission, with some degree of success. But as the national economic crisis started to affect Michigan, a wave of malaria swept the state, too. Mason was blamed for everything. He decided not to run for re-election. Two historic Detroit names squared off — Democratic candidate Elon Farnsworth versus William Woodbridge, the Whigs’ choice.

Woodbridge won, and early in 1840, the Whig-led legislature passed an act to forbid commissioners of internal improvements from entering into construction contracts.

By April 1840, the Morris Canal and Banking Co. defaulted on payments to the state. Work continued when the federal government paid contractors and workers in “land scrip” rather than money.

Shantytowns had sprung up around the digging, and there were reports of drinking and rowdiness. Contractors and workers went unpaid, leading many to steal supplies — some began destroying portions of the canal.

The project was pretty much dead in the water. Excavation reached what is now Bloomer State Park in 1843 when the money ran out. The canal stretched only 16 of the planned 216 miles.

The state sold water rights to private mill operators. With the popularity of the railroads, no further work was done on the canal. Title passed to the Utica Milling Co., who used it as a millrace. They used the water power for grinding farm produce.

Remains of a Dream
You can still see segments Gov. Mason’s dashed dreams by driving Canal Road — along what appear to be ditches on steroids.

There are walking trails in River Bends Park. The canal crosses 22 Mile west of Shelby, and Ryan north of 22 Mile. A state marker notes a portion of the canal at Bloomer State Park at the end of John R. Remains of an aqueduct are still visible at Yates Cider Mill.

“It’s sort of a sad thing the way it (the canal) never was finished,” Green says. But the former owner of the ML Green & Sons chain of jewelry stores has been working to promote and preserve its history.

“People call me the frustrated professor,” he says. His interest led to, among other things, finding an old canal lock grown over by shrubbery, serving on the Macomb County Historical Commission, and writing a book about the history of Clinton Township due out next year.

In Clinton Township, the Don Green Way connects Canal Park to Budd Park in Clinton Township. And there, too, you can walk the paths of what might have been.