The Huron | We Live by the River

Mar 18, 2015

The Huron | We Live by the River

1922 Huron River waltz sheet music

Ypsilanti is unthinkable without the Huron River. Her layout, her lifeways and her larger place in the landscape are defined by the River and her offerings. Thousands of lives have been lived by its banks; each one with their own stories and connections to the River.

The Huron begins in the swamps of Oakland County’s Indian Springs Metropark and bends its way 130 miles west through Livingston County then southeast through Washtenaw and Wayne to Lake Erie. Its course set at the end of the last Ice Age, Ypsilanti sits at that point on the Huron’s watershed where the River branches out into the streams and ponds that feed it.

Huron River watershed

Life in the City has long been set by the River. Before Europeans settled the area in the 1820s, the River’s waters were lifeblood to countless generations stretching back 10,000 years. Different Native cultures used the river differently, and these cultures themselves saw many changes over time. For some, Ypsi’s place by the Huron might have served as a winter camp, at other eras it would have been a long-settled farming valley. A short downstream canoe trip to Lake Erie gave you access to the whole of the Great Lakes, while the portage (at the aptly named Portage Lake west of Chelsea) led to the Grand and Kalamazoo Rivers of western Michigan.

1931 Hinsdale Archaeological Atlas of Huron River area

Ypsilanti is here because the Sauk Trail, used by area Native Americans and later developed into Michigan Avenue, forded a low point on the Huron River here. To Algonquian speaking groups, the Huron was referred to as the Nottawayseepi (River of the Huron), to Iroquoian speakers, Cos-scut-e-nong (burnt-oak district). It was also here that French-speaking traders established a post to deal with the Potawatomi who lived in an arc of villages along the Rogue, Huron and Raisin Rivers.

The French at Detroit named the River after the Wyandot Indians who lived at its mouth along the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Originally, it was though that the Clinton and Huron Rivers had the same source and both were known as the Huron River for many decades which is a constant source of confusion for researches of early southeast Michigan history.

The Huron would become central in the lives of the Americans who settled the region as well. While its waters fed local farms, its floods and droughts could starve them. The rise and fall of the River powered, or made idle, mills and manufacturers. Work and recreation, transportation and energy, neighborhoods and politics were, and continue to be, all wrapped up in the River.

Huron Mills (just south of Michigan Avenue on the east bank, Water street area today

The River was power, quite literally. Water moved the many mills that dotted the Huron from Dexter to Belleville. At first they processed local wood and grain in sawing and flouring mills, much of it used to build and feed area farms. As the railroad came in the late 1830s, it was now possible to get goods to markets relatively cheaply and easily; subsistence farms grew into surplus farms. River crossings, like Ypsi’s, became sites of commerce and industry.

The mills grew in tandem with the City and eventually manufacturing would dominate processing. The woolen mills like the Ypsilanti Underwear Company and the paper mills like Peninsular would become the largest employers in Ypsilanti, including many women. The mills required dams and mill-races which modified the River’s course and character.

Ypsilanti Underwear Company

As electricity replaced water power, manufacturing began to move off rivers. However, rivers would still be responsible for generating much of that electricity, and just as we have struggles over energy production today, the control of the Huron became a constant source of conflict. Local farmers, landowners, municipalities and energy companies like Detroit Edison and manufacturers like Henry Ford were locked in litigation and public campaigns for decades.

1932 Creation of Ford Lake and Dam

Eventually much of the Huron would be owned by Edison or Ford whose need for energy would dramatically change our landscape. The farms now under Ford Lake are reminder that many of features, even in the environment, we take as “natural” are really a product of interests in our society.

Ypsilanti has long been socially divided by the Huron as well. The west-side is dominated by the University, holds many of the city’s more stately homes, and was largely settled by New Yorkers. The east-side, dominated by rail yards and industry and historically populated by German-speaking communities was, and is, more working class.

Panoramic view of Ypsilanti, 1868

This division showed up in everything from where saloons and breweries were (east) and churches (west) to how the City voted on women’s suffrage and prohibition to party loyalty, with the east going to the Democrats and the west to the Republicans in the century before World War Two. The west side also holds the city’s historic African-American community.

Greganoff plan for Frog Island

We are now accustomed to think of the River as a place of parks and the site of pleasant breezes on summer evenings, but for much of Ypsilanti’s history its banks were the site of industry and dumps, its waters fouled by pollution and sewage, especially downriver of the paper wills with its bleaches and dyes. Before the sewage and water treatment began, the Huron was also the town drain. Frog Island, where a community garden, track and ball fields now is, would have been the site of foundries, lumber yards and decades of industrial waste until the 1920s.

Frog Island, 1895

Still, only the worst pollution could prevent people from people swimming in the mills ponds on a hot summer day or throwing in a line to fish in its waters. Beginning in the Progressive Era and the City Beautiful Movement, Ypsilanti began to build public water and sewage for the town, becoming the envy of the region. Later, parks would take their place along the River. Today’s Waterworks Park bears the name of what once operated there and tells the story of that transformation.

February, 1923. Ypsilanti Recorder

As industry moved off the River and effort was made to clean up its banks create the community parks we now so identify with the Huron. It would take decades for the city to acquire some of the riverfront properties and clear years of detritus. Eventually these parks would also become the center of so much community life it is impossible to imagine Ypsi without them, but for most of the lifetime of the City parks were well off the River on the high ground overlooking the river valley, like Prospect and Recreation Parks.

Eventually environmental regulations and the creation of a “green belt” of Metroparks around the greater Detroit area would transform many of the rivers of southeast Michigan into the recreation areas they are today. In the process, some of the natural systems that years of farming and industry had destroyed were brought back to life as well.

A Huron River baptism, 1930’s

Our view of the River has changed over the years as our needs and economies have changed, but our view of the City remains wedded to the River and its wanderings, both physical and historic. The river has been the site of countless moments in the personal lives of Ypsilantians, from the mundane to the profound, from baths to baptisms. While festivals have largely replaced factories, the River remains. And we live by the River.

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