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Few persons at this date, and none under sixty years of age, have a knowledge, or can form more than a very imperfect idea of, the difficulties attending travel and transportation, by land, experienced by the pioneers of this section. When Grand Rapids was settled there were a few wagon roads open and partially worked from Detroit into the country, in several directions; one or two near the southern border of the Territory running toward Chicago, and one on the eastern side as far north as Saginaw. But there was not even a foot path, other than the Indian trails, north of what is now the line of the Michigan Central Railroad and west of Shiawassee county. The first teams, in I 832, came through from Ypsilanti, by way of Battle Creek, thence to Middleville and to Grandville, with no other guide than the Indian trail, clearing the way for their ox-wagons where necessary, and blazing the route. The next incomers, the Dexter Colony of sixty-three persons, with teams, cut their way where no white man had driven a team before, from Pontiac to Ionia, from which place a few of them came down to the Rapids in small boats. Even the newly cut road of our day is a comfortable highway compared with the winding way of these primitive routes, through woodland and opening, and across or around swamps, vales and streams. They were only passable at a slow pace, involving patience and great labor of men and teams.

In 1832 an appropriation of $3,500 was made by Congress for a wagon road from Detroit through Shiawassee to the mouth of Grand River. It could not have been done with any high degree of excellence for that sum, but before it was done, the pioneer settlers had cut their own way over a good portion of that route. In 1841, $9,729 and 500,000 acres of what were called internal improvement lands were appropriated to the State by Congress, mainly used in the construction of State roads, some of these to and from Grand Rapids. Some of the earlier routes into Grand Rapids, south and southeast, were shortened by the laying of new roads within a few years after settlement. A road was projected from Kalamazoo, striking the river near Grandville, and another from Black Lake to the same point; and later, State roads were authorized in the direction of Portland and Battle Creek, up the valleys of the Grand and Thornapple rivers, and another was opened to the south by way of Green Lake. A road down the river to Grand Haven and one to Muskegon were laid out and partially worked by the use of State aid.

Over these early roads for many years there were no regular stages, with set times of arrival and departure. Passengers were carried and goods transported, usually in heavy, old-fashioned lumber wagons, drawn by horses or oxen, or with the two-wheeled cart as a vehicle. There were teamsters carrying for hire on nearly all these routes, upon such terms as they could make with their individual customers, only promising to go through as expeditiously as the weather and the state of the roads would permit. Many a pioneer, who at the start thought the charges exorbitantly high, changed his mind before reaching the end of his journey. Roads from the village into the country crept out slowly, as farms were settled and improved, but, for ten years after settlement, those which were fairly passable with loaded teams were few, and extended not very far. A winter incident, of December 1842, will serve as an illustration of some of the difficulties the early settlers had to surmount. That was what has ever since been known as the hard winter. A party of men from this village were engaged in building a mill at Newaygo. Deep snow came in November, and early in December, when they stopped work for the winter, the way of their return was blocked with deep drifts over the thirty-eight miles of hills and gullies between this place and that. To get home, they loaded an ox-sled with forage and provisions, went down the valley of the Muskegon river to its mouth, thence across to Ferrysburg, and thence up Grand River to the rapids, the journey taking nearly three weeks of time. Roasted potatoes, salt pork and johnny-cake were the staple articles of subsistence for Isaac Turner and his men during that trip. Teaming in those days and on those inchoate roads, was wearisome and toilsome, and yet a large proportion of the people, when they hitched up oxen or horses to go ten or fifteen miles to a dance, scarcely realized that they were not the best roads in the world.

Early in 1845 the Legislature established a State road to Muskegon, and also one from Hastings by way of Middleville to Grand Rapids. Of this latter road John Ball was appointed special commissioner, empowered to let contracts and disburse the moneys, the taxes on non-resident lands within two miles of the road having been appropriated for its construction.


Not many years after the settlement, the stage-running business from Grand Rapids outward began to take form:. Early in 184I mails were carried, presumably by stage wagons, when the weather permitted, once a week to Kalamazoo, Howell, Jackson, Grand Haven and into the north part of this county. Some of these carried passengers also. In the fall of 1842, a line of stages was established from Grand Rapids to Pontiac, running three times a week, connecting there with the Detroit and Pontiac Railroad. In the summer of 1843, there was stage connection with Battle Creek twice a week, and with Ionia and Lyons once a week. About 1849 began the running of daily lines of stages on the southern routes. Canton Smith and Julius Granger ran the line to Battle Creek, and after Granger in the same season William H. Withey, on the Gull Prairie route. In 1850 there were three lines of daily stages— to Lansing, Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. On the latter route that year were established two lines, one by the way of Green

Lake, driven by Asa Pratt, the other a mail line by way of Yankee Springs, Middleville and Cascade. Shortly after the Michigan Central Railroad reached Kalamazoo, the Kalamazoo route, being the shorter from a railroad point, became the favorite one for passengers from the east, and most of the staging after that time from the railroad was over that route. The completion of the Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo plank road, in 1855, gave a wonderful impetus to stage traffic, and the passage of from six to eight coaches a day over that road was not an unusual occurrence.

The opening of that plank road marks the era of the change, in this part of Michigan, from the old ''mud-wagon'' stages to the Concord stage coach. The earlier stages were simply the square-box farm wagons, provided with wooden springs inside for the seats to rest upon, and sometimes with steel half-springs under the body, and canvas covering—the canvas being stretched over bent frames and given a thick coat of white or yellowish paint, the better to protect the passengers from storm. The Concord coach had a more elaborately built body, hung upon leather supports called thorough-braces, which gave it a rolling rather than a springy motion. It was furnished with comfortable seating for six to eight passengers, but was sometimes crowded to the extent of carrying twice as many or more, inside and on the top. At the rear of the body was attached a "boot," for the carrying of trunks and baggage, while the driver's seat was at the top in front. A light iron rail around the top provided also for the storage of baggage on the roof in cases of emergency. These, in the day of their popularity, were considered the ne plus ultra for pleasurable travel by stage.

About this time, 1855, a line of stages northward to Croton and back once a week was established, and soon a longer line to Traverse City, the latter driven by Josiah M. Cook. In 1856, eleven regular stage lines running from this city were in operation, using an invested capital of $59,000, employing sixty-two men, and 190 horses. They used forty-five stages and carried an average of about I50 passengers daily. Besides these regular stages were several competing or opposition lines, carrying an average of two or three passengers each, daily, and employing some thirty horses and a dozen men, with about $10,000 aggregate capital. The liveliest and most profitable of the routes was that to Kalamazoo, and next to that the Ionia route. In 1855, Harvey P. Yale succeeded William H. Withey in the management of the Kalamazoo stage, and Hawley Lyon and George C. Morton also had an interest in it for a time. Staging did not die out at once when the railroads came, in 1858. It dropped suddenly, and very materially southward of Grand River, but on the northward continued an increasing and in many cases lucrative business, until the iron horse began to push his conquests in that direction.


Stage travel in the old way was not wholly without its perils and disasters. Sometimes there was a limb or a rib broken, oftener some ludicrous mishap by the overturning of the vehicle, but very seldom a life lost. Drivers became skilled and expert in their profession, and usually brought their passengers safe to land. An incident related by Edward Campau will serve to illustrate the more common class of accidents: Edward came to Grand Rapids from Detroit in 1839, then a boy fourteen years of age. Two or three years later he began to drive stage, on the Gull Prairie route to Battle Creek. One dark, stormy night, they broke an axletree about six miles above Ada, and the passengers, five or six in number, had to walk through the mud and snow to that place, it being the nearest settlement. In the winding about among hills and through swamps in those days, it was no uncommon thing to get stuck in the mud, or overturn the stage. At one time John Ball, Mrs. Thomas B. Church, and others, were passengers; including Fred. Church, the well known New York artist, then an infant. They overset in a mud-hole, and all were landed in the mire, and Fred. was nearly suffocated before they rescued him. At another time, William A. Richmond and Harvey P. Yale were passengers. Yale fell asleep, when by the sinking of a wheel into a rut, the stage gave a lurch and landed him upon his head and shoulders in the mud. Gathering himself up, and seeing that the matter was no worse, he laughed with the rest of them, and resumed his seat.

Now and then a mishap of stage riding was more serious, but it was upon incidents like this, that the old-time stage driver loved to dwell in relating his adventures.


This town was not more than ten years old, when the people began to look forward in hopeful anticipation of some better means of communication with the outer world than was afforded by the old-fashioned dirt road, which, however, will never go out of fashion, where it is equal to the service required of it. At first the clamor was for railroads, as about that time the Michigan Central began to stretch its arm across the State. The railroad fever after a time subsided temporarily, to be succeeded by a desire for plank roads, mainly because of their greater cheapness, and being nearer within the means of the people along their line to build. The first public meeting here for considering the project of plank road connection with the Central Railroad, was held at the Rathbun House, December 23, 1848. From that time forward, the subject was much agitated for a year or two, and schemes were broached for roads from Battle Creek by way of Hastings, and from Kalamazoo by two or three routes, all but one of which fell through, with very little done and but little money expended.

The successful one was the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids plank road. A charter was obtained for the Galesburg and Grand Rapids plank road, and a preliminary survey of the route was made in 1849, by William Slawson--length 52 1/2 miles—but the work never progressed much further than that. The Battle Creek and Grand Rapids Plank Road Company, formed about this time, made some strenuous exertions, but that project was finally abandoned. Stock subscriptions were started in the summer of 1849 by the Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids Plank Road Company, and in October of that year a committee was appointed to contract for the plank, cause a survey of the route, and secure the right of way. Charles H. Taylor and George Kendall of Grand Rapids, and Timothy I. Tanner of Paris represented the Grand Rapids portion of that committee. A preliminary survey was made immediately, and the company was incorporated by an act of the Legislature passed in March, 1850. Subscriptions to the capital stock proceeded slowly, and pending the preparations for its construction there was considerable rivalry along two lines proposed for the north half of the projected road--the one by way of Green Lake, the other the route finally chosen, further west and coming from the town of Wayland, in Allegan county, in the most direct line to this city. In October, 1851, stock had been subscribed to the amount of $37,000. The Directors at that time were Epaphroditus Ransom and Israel Kellogg of Kalamazoo, and Charles Shepard and William H. Withey of Grand Rapids. These gentlemen from this time forward pushed the road with great energy and persistence. The principal contractor for the planking was Titus Doan, and an energetic and able assistant in the prosecution of the work was Benjamin Livingston. The road was completed and tolls taken thereon throughout its length in the summer of 1855, and from that time until the incoming of railroads, for about the term of thirteen years, it was, especially on the south, a principal and very serviceable avenue of communication, for business, for passengers and for freighting, between this city and the outside world. Its length was about forty-eight miles; running due south on and from Division street, and varying but about a mile from that range line where it entered Kalamazoo. Two or three local projects for shorter roads were started while the Kalamazoo road was under construction, but never consummated; among those proposed were a Walker and Vergennes plank road, and a plank road from Grand Rapids to Newaygo. But of late the seekers for improvement in roads for wagoning have sought other devices.

Document Source: Baxter, Albert, History of the City of Grand Rapids, New York and Grand Rapids: Munsell & Company, Publishers, 1891. (Name Index)
Location of Original: Various.
Transcribers: Jennifer Godwin
URL: http://kent.migenweb.net/baxter1891/46highways.html

Created: 3 February 2000[an error occurred while processing this directive]