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From Indian Trails to Paved Streets
Before regular streets were laid out in the young settlement, and in fact for a number of years afterwards, the people followed the old Indian trails, which were winding and difficult to traverse. A trail from the southeast came in past Reed's Lake to about where Lake avenue and Fulton street meet, and thence in a zigzag course down the hill to the river near the foot of the rapids. Another trail came in at Coldbrook and followed the west base of the bluffs, ending at the lower part of the village. Another came in from the southeast, entering about where State street now is, and from there pursued a serpentine course to and around the southern base of Prospect hill, rounding its angle at the foot of Monroe avenue, thence going somewhat crookedly to the fur trading station at the foot of Huron street. A trail came up the river from Grandville, leading to the same point.
During the village days, and as late as 1850, wagon roads inside the present city limits wound along in various directions, unfenced. The most feasible passage from the head of Monroe avenue to the Bridge street bridge, when that was built, was by a wagon track passing the Morton hotel corner, skirting the eastern slope of Prospect hill a little west of Ionia avenue, crossing in a muddy gully the creek which formerly ran around the north end of that hill, going over dry spots and peat bogs northward to near Bond avenue and Michigan street, thence through a mirey slough to the bridge. Nowhere within the village was there a good east and west wagon road.
Louis Campau insisted that the main street of the village should be laid as nearly as possible on the Indian trail which came down from the southeast and around Prospect hill, and that it should be one and a quarter chains wide. This street, running practically southeast and northwest, he called Monroe, after the president of the United States. On the south side of Monroe he platted Louis and Ferry, parallel with his main street. On the same side, Waterloo, Justice, Greenwich, and Official streets ran at right angles to Monroe. But Justice and Greenwich, which crossed Monroe, were platted on a north and south line from Monroe and Pearl. That explains the jogs of the present Ottawa and Ionia avenues (formerly Justice and Greenwich, respectively), as they cross Monroe. Uncle Louis made Fountain and Pearl streets run directly east and west, and as Division avenue was a section line, he could not interfere with its direction. His crazy quilt pattern left the little triangle which is now Monument Square.
The district bounded by Coldbrook street, Ransom avenue, Wealthy street and the river was platted in 1835, in the original Village of Kent. The streets were laid 66 feet wide, except that Canal street (now Monroe) from Pearl to Michigan was made 100 feet wide and, north of Michigan street, 92 feet wide; and Michigan street, to the top of the hill, was made 100 feet wide.
For a number of years the present downtown streets were improved very little. They were like country roads, with occasional patches of narrow plank sidewalks and plank or log bridges across streams and mudholes. Much of the work was done on the country road plan, the citizens personally working out their highway taxes by toiling on the streets. Enterprising individuals improved Monroe, Market, Canal and a few other streets on which there were clusters of business establishments. Some business men laid walks, four to eight feet wide, of planks placed lengthwise, in front of their shops. Baxter says that as late as 1845 the roadway of Monroe avenue, with a rather steep descent from Ottawa towards the river, was in wet weather like a bed of brickyard mortar and that Canal street, for almost its entire length, was a stretch of black mire of uncertain depth.
On account of the elevations and valleys east of the river a tremendous amount of cutting and filling had to be done before the downtown streets reached their present levels. Ottawa, Lyon and Pearl streets were cut through the solid clay of Prospect hill, the present grade being at places 40 feet below the old top. In Lyon and Michigan streets deep excavations were made through the brow of the sand hill, and nearly all the east and west streets went through a similar process. Division avenue south of Fulton was partly excavated from the side of a hill, and there formerly was a steep clay bank from Cherry street to Goodrich. The grade of Canal street, now Monroe, was raised about fifteen feet at its southern end and an average of four feet. Nearly all the low grounds north of Michigan street were raised at least four feet, the earth being brought down from the adjacent hills. A large area near the Union passenger station has been filled in from two to ten feet. In later years the river was filled in west of Canal street, to its present bank. On the west side low land was elevated.
The first real paving in the city was done on Canal street, southward from Michigan, in 1847. A thin layer of sand and gravel was put over the mud and top dressed with broken limestone.
On May 15, 1854, an order was passed by the common council for planking Canal street from Pearl to Michigan, with two tracks, each eight feet wide.
In 1849 a plank road was laid up the sandy slope of Fulton street hill east of Jefferson avenue. Then a short stretch of the steep portion of Fountain street was planked. When the Kalamazoo plank road was finished in 1855, Division avenue from the city limits to Monroe became a fairly well improved thoroughfare.
Monroe avenue was paved with cobblestones in 1856, at first only as far up as Ionia avenue, but later to Division. Considerable changes were made in Pearl, Ottawa, Division and several other downtown streets in 1857. Deep excavations and heavy fillings were necessary to secure the grade. In the next year, 1858, Canal street south of Michigan was graded and planked at a cost of $5,450. In that year also Crescent park was planned and the ground secured for it. In May, 1859, an order was made for the grading and paving of Canal street from Michigan to Hastings, and one for the grading of Division avenue from Monroe south to the city limits.
The Civil War retarded street improvements, but on June 29, 1863, the council ordered the opening of Ottawa avenue from Lyon to Pearl, also the extension of Washington street east to College avenue. In that year Ottawa and Ionia avenues were cut still deeper through Prospect hill from Lyon to Pearl, and Lyon street also was graded.
In 1866 streets in the central part of the city, especially between Monroe, Division and Cherry, were greatly improved and graded, and a good start was made in establishing permanent grades on the west side. In 1866 the Monroe avenue paving was extended out Fulton street to its junction with Lake avenue.
Wood pavements replaced stone about 1874. Blocks six inches long, cut from four inch pine planks, were set on end upon a gravel bed, sand and gravel being tamped into the interstices. Pearl and the lower portion of Monroe were the first streets to have that type of pavement, and soon afterwards Canal. Wood pavements were laid in Lyon, West Bridge and some other streets in 1875 and 1876. As the pine blocks did not last much longer than five or six years, cedar blocks soon were substituted.
Wood sidewalks continued to be used for a number of years after the city was incorporated. Then stone came into use along the business thoroughfares, and still later cement.
Transcriber: Ronnie Aungst
Created: 14 December 1999