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My Town Monday: Grand River comes back

The US Highways System had uspurped Grand River, putting up US-16 signs along the route from Detroit across the state through Lansing and onwards to the shore of Lake Michigan.

But the US Highways System was really just a series of roads. They weren’t any better than the old roads were… they *were* the old roads. With new signs. Put me in a new shirt and I’m not less bitter and cynical.

After World War 2, we see the introduction of the Interstate Highway Act. Now this is a horse of a different color. Interstates would primilary be constructed as limited access highways. These are the expressways or freeways (or just highways) as we know them today. With on ramps, off ramps, and fairly un-impeded traffic from point A to point B.

One of the first limited access highways constructed in Michigan was along the route of Grand River. This stretch of road was named the Brighton-Farmington Expressway. At first, this was just a one-lane by-pass going east to Farmington.

Slowly (I mean, we are talking about M-DOT here!) the Brighton-Farmington Expressway was expanded. It was taken downtown into Detroit. Then extended the other direction to Lansing. Then onwards to Grand Rapis.

Somewhere along the way, as the Brighton-Farmington Expressway was built, it got it’s new designation. It became I-96. (I-96 is the only intrastate interstate. It does not exist outside Michigan. Like Faygo and Better Made chips, it’s purely a Michigan thing.) With the construction of I-96, the old US-16 designation was retired.

Grand River Avenue got it’s name back. I-96 didn’t follow the exact route of US-16/ Grand River. While Grand River went through the center of town– and still does– I-96 was routed around the towns. It cuts across the farthest edge of Brighton at the time, and even now the city limit is just before the expressway. Development has continued on the other side of the experssway, but it’s not the same. It then continues on and passes south of Howell.

I-96, like all Interstates going in, had a nasty habit of cutting through roads that were already in place. Some of those roads got bridges. Others got dead ends. Today, there are still some roads in Livingston County that are clearly bi-sected by the expressway, with Road Ends signs on either side of the 6-lane interstate.

(You can see in this pic I poached from Google Maps that the two roads would be connected if not for I-96)

With the completion of I-96, linking Metro Detroit to the soon-to-be suburbs, there was another population boom in Livngston County. Many of the major subdivisions surrounding both Howell and Brighton were constructed during the 1970s and in the start of the 1980s. It’s all them Baby Boomers having their kids and moving out of the city. With the Interstates in place, people could live farther from work.

And Grand River Ave reverted to local control, regaining it’s name Grand River. From what I can tell, it may be at this point that Grand River gets the Avenue distinction. Something to do with being the fifth Avenue (along with Woodward, Gratiot, etc in Detroit.) But why Grand River was ever called “Road” out here in the sticks, I may never know. That’s the sort of thing that doesn’t make into history books. Especially when history books are sparse as they are in a place like Livingston County.

My Town Monday is sponsored by Travis Erwin. Or something like that.

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My Town Monday: Grand River Doesn’t Know What to Call Itself

In the early 1900s, Michigan began naming it’s roads, in order to reduce confusion. Since many roads may or may not have names and those names may or may not change over the course of the road, the idea to give them one name for the entire length seemed like a good idea. The naming part worked, mostly. It was the road that was a problem

(Howell’s first traffic signal, 1914)

From what I can tell in my research, during the late 1910s and early 1920s, before Grand River became M-16, there were Auto Trails. These were named trails– by anyone who was selling their maps for auto tours. These trails were marked with ribbons wrapped on telephone poles (aka utility poles). There was such a proliferation of these auto trail groups that something had to be done. So the state stepped in and gave roads a name– one name that everyone was supposed to use.

Grand River was labeled M-16. It still ran from Detroit (the biggest Michigan city) through Livingston County an onwards to state capital, Lansing. (Little trivia– Lansing is the ONLY state capital that is NOT a county seat. In Ingham County, the county seat is in Mason.) And, probably the more important part, the state began to put up road signs.

(Okay, I cheated. This is Grand River near Michigan State University, which is near Lansing.)

This half-hazard road-naming system kind of cleared up some confusion, except not all states took up this labeling thing. Apparently, the US government then stepped in to name roads. Or at least, the large ones that were important. Grand River was one of these. The US Highway System went into place in the 1920s. This system was set up not only to name roads, but also to improve them. There was considerable concern following World War 1 after the nations leaders realized/ learned that the road system in the US would be a great hindrance in warfare. While the roads might have existed on a map, they may not have existed or been actually usable in real life.

During the twenties, sections of Grand River are paved. In Howell, this was done in brick. Several of the side roads were also paved with bricks. While Grand River has been redone in the more modern, but less cool looking brick, there are still a couple streets that are paved in brick. One of those, interestingly enough is Walnut Street, north of Grand River. A little road that leads back to the historic Ann Arbor (Tuscola Saginaw Bay) railroad station and museum. I don’t think that’s an accident.

(Paving Howell)

So, Grand River is paved. And it gets designated US-16. This US highway continues on into Wisconsin and onwards to South Dakota and Wyoming, with a little ferry trip across Lake Michigan.

There is no M-16. It is forever gone from the state. There’s still an M-36 and M-59 and others, but M-16 has been relegated to history.

And some years later, US-16 disappeared from Michigan as well. (There’s still a segment of this expressway out west.)

The US-Highway system helped to improve roads, but these were not “highways” as we know them today. These were largely just two lane– maybe up to five lane– roads. It was the Interstate highway Act that took away the US-16 designation, and gave Grand River Avenue back to Livingston County.

(Two things that I found out AFTER posting last weeks entry on Grand River Trail as a plank road. Recently, when major road work was being done on Grand River near Lansing, they found rotting planks buried deep into the road bed. These planks were some 150 years old! And speaking of the planks, Mark Twain is reported to have remarked on the plank roads in Michigan during a visit. When asked how is trip was, he allegedly said, It would have been good if some unconscionable scoundrel had not now and then dropped a plank across it.”)

Come back next week how Grand River got it’s groove, um, I mean, name back.)

Travis Erwin is having fun with his new house, but you can still get your My Town Monday links by visiting Jenn Jilks.

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My Town Monday: Grand River Trail

Like many original roads in Michigan, Grand River started as an Indian Trail. This road wound it’s way from Detroit through Livingston County, through Lansing, and off to Grand Rapids, crossing the state.

West of Lansing, this road follows along the Grand River. Over on my side of the state, we don’t have any Grand Rivers. Or great ones (ha ha). We’ve got the Huron, though, and that seems to do a pretty good job flooding much of Hamburg every spring… (pic shows Grand River in blue. The red lines are similar to where the Grand River Trail/Road ran.)

In 1848, Grand River Trail became a plank road. This was one of those bad ideas that took a while to get rid of. They would lay large planks (and sometimes just large branches) across the trail to make for a “smoother” ride. Because jostling a wagon over planks is going to be smoother than bumping over ruts and rocks. All that and you had to pay a toll to use the plank road.

Though, I’m thinking laying some planks might make Grand River Ave a little easier to drive along. Years of being barely maintained have resulted in some seriously crumbling road surfaces. The pot holes aren’t so bad, but it’s the lines that run with the road, making a chasm that grabs the car tire and tries to flip you into the ditch.

The Detroit & Howell Plank Road was one stretch, owned, if I understand correctly, by one company. There was another stretch called the Howell & Lansing Plank Road. This connected the major city of Detroit to the capital of Michigan.

With the construction of the railroads through much of Michigan in the 1880s and onwards, the plank roads fell out of favor. The companies who collected the tolls eventually disappeared and returned the roads to local control. Of course, the roads were in craptacular condition when the Plank Road companies left.

Here’s a gem of a quote from the Brighton BiCentennial: “By the year 1880, much of the planking had been removed and been replaced with dirt and gravel, but the toll gates remained to annoy and harrass those who were compelled to use this road.” I’m guessing that most local yokel would have tried to avoid paying tolls on Grand River. But long-distance travelers had little choice. Even today, getting from east to west without using Grand River (or it’s sucsessor, I-96) is a difficult, long, and winding trip.

After returning to local control, the Detroit to Howell and Howell to Lansing Plank Roads became again called Grand River. Now, though, it’s the Grand River Road instead of the Grand River Trail. It wouldn’t be until bicycling became popular that Grand River saw it’s next improvement… and it’s next name change. In the meantime, Grand River Road was a barely maintained dirt road running through the center of Livingston County.

(Pic shows Howell on top and Fowlerville on bottom in 1908, looking down Grand River.)

While cities would have maintained roads in town, outside of town, for a many years, Michigan residents were required to maintain (grade and repair) the roads their property was on. And, the early 1900s saw plenty of people who didn’t see why they should have to. So, a road like Grand River would be in questionable shape as it ambled along between two important cities in Michigan.

Come back next week and see Grand River get an Amazing Makeover!

And don’t forget to visit Travis Erwin for more My Town Mondays!

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My Town Monday: Walking in Brighton

Now that the weather is getting nice, one might be inclined to stroll through downtown Brighton. There’s some nice shops and restaurants in this downtown area, along with the The Mill Pond, Mill Pond Walkway, and Imagination Station.

If you happen to be strolling along though, you should be aware of how we cross the street.

See, in Brighton, we make cars stop for people. This happens in Ann Arbor too– except in Ann Arbor, psychotic pedestrians will leap in front of moving cars just to remind drivers that pedestrians have the right of way. I’m not sure if driving or walking is more dangerous in Ann Arbor…

Anyway, in Brighton, the crosswalks have been paved with brick. And to cross, you press the crosswalk button.

There are little yellow lights in the brick crosswalk and those will begin blinking. Once the lights are blinking, you walk into the road. Yup. Cars will stop. If you’re the slightest bit polite like I am, you will wait until there is a space between cars. Traffic is already slow on this stretch. A few pedestrians slow things down even more. It’s not a bad thing.

I think the idea is to encourage people to park and stroll through the downtown area, rather than just zipping from one errand to the next.

We’ll ignore the fact that the downtown area is half empty. There’s still a few shops there… I’m sure the new mall a few miles away didn’t have any impact on the downtown area. After all, when you go to the new mall, you get chain stores instead of local ones. And you don’t have to walk– you can drive around the parking lot and park close to the store you want.

Or so I hear. I’m still boycotting the new mall.

But I will be heading downtown.

(Though, until it gets warmer, I’ll drive there. Thanks. I don’t like cold.)

Visit Travis Erwin, the My Town Monday wrangler, for other posts.

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My Town Monday: The Pink Hotel

Next to the railroad tracks in Brighton, stands a slightly out-of-proportion brick building. It’s three stories, but not as tall as a three story building should be.

The building went up in 1873. Behind it was the train depot. It was on the western side of town and served as a hotel for many years.

This historic photo (“borrowed” from the Livingston County Memories book.) is looking east, over the tracks. Before Main Street was paved.

Tallest building around at the time! And a bustling hotel.

Here’s a similar angle, but much more recent.

Now, this building is causing some issues. Because the ceilings are not as tall as they should be for modern codes, updating the building is problematic to say the least. Last I knew it was being used as a sort of rooming house with offices on the first floor. Which, in modern day Michigan, there aren’t too many rooming houses– usually just apartments.

There was an offer to buy the place. The community got a bit upset over this piece of history being torn down (as was the potential-developer’s plans.) It’s a nice piece of real estate, near the down town area. We’ll ignore the fact that half of the down town is empty. This building is one of four Brighton buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. So, for whatever reason, the developer backed off and this quirky piece of Brighton history still stands.

One of the things I always thought was awesome was the spiral staircase in the rear.

So… the title says “Pink Hotel” and here I’ve been talking about this lovely old brick building.

Well, somewhere along the way, some crazy deluded fool person thought it would be a good idea to put PINK SIDING on this building.

No, I’m not making that up. I wish I could find a picture of it. I’m too young to recall seeing it in pink siding… if it was still wearing the siding by the time I was in the area.

Luckily, the pink siding is gone. It’s still known as the Pink Hotel. And still a pretty building.

Travis Erwin rounds up all the My Town Mondayers. Check em out.

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My Town Monday: It’s Bad Road Season!

Livingston County is one of those areas where the main roads are big enough, so long as it’s not rush hour. Most of the day, traffic moves just fine.

But it’s one of those places, like much of Michigan, that has some pretty abysmal road surfaces. ‘Tis the pothole season around here. Most of the roads are damaged by the freeze-thaw cycle. And further affected by the salt that Michiganders *must* have on their roads. Because, you know, just because it’s snowing doesn’t mean you should have to slow down.

Here’s one shot (borrowed from the Livingston County Daily News). You can see the road is just disintegrating.

Reminds me of playing Sim City 2. Sections of road would just turn to rubble.

Here’s another. No, you’re not seeing that wrong. It’s one of those places where folks regularly drive on the other side of the road because their normal lane is in such bad shape.

Luckily, the worst roads are usually quiet enough that it’s not too hard to share the one good lane.

You know you’re in Michigan when you change lanes to pass potholes, not cars.

But it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be. Here’s an old photo of downtown Howell with a flock of cars travelling along Grand River Ave to celebrate the paving of this main cross-state thoroughfare.

Interesting thing in this photo– people would just abandon their car in the road. No special parking. They’d leave it and head to one of the many bars. 13 in four blocks!

Maybe that’s why the travelers didn’t bother to park? At other times, parking was a bit more orderly, but not much.

And here’s how bad dirt roads used to get.

A little perspective as we enter Bad Road Season (what some of the rest of you might just know as “spring.”) As the weather gets warmer and the snow melts, the water will get into the cracks in the asphalt. Then, overnight, since temperatures still drop below freezing, the asphalt is further cracked.

And dirt roads become mud soup as the long-frozen moisture is finally freed by the sun.

But then again, I’m never in a rush to get anywhere. And I like to enjoy the scenery. That is, when I bother to venture out of my little office. I mean, that is where my computer is…

Visit Travis Erwin for more My Town Monday Posts.

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My Town Monday: Groundhog Day

Everyone knows Punxsutawney Phil, the famous prognosticator from Pennsylvania. But Livingston County is home to a more accurate groundhog: Woody the Woodchuck. Maybe it’s because Woody is female. Women do tend to have better instincts than men…

Seriously, though Woody the Woodchuck, a resident at the Howell Nature Center, has been right seven out of nine predictions. And, seriously, it may be because female groundhogs would have a greater need to know if it was too early in the season to bring out their babies. Woody’s never had any babies, but she would likely still carry the maternal instinct.

Woody arrived at the Howell Nature Center in 1998 after her mother had been killed. A farmer brought her to the Howell Nature Center, but the critter had already lost her fear of humans. She couldn’t go back into the wild. So, she was put to work. At least she works for peanuts.

At 8:15am on February 2nd, Woody will make her way out of her comfy home. If she stays out for more than 30 seconds, then that indicates an early spring.

I’ll come back after Woody makes her prediction, though, and let you know what Woody says about the arrival of spring this year.

UPDATE: Woody wouldn’t even come out of her paper mache log this morning, which means six more weeks of winter. Punxatawney Phil made the same prediction when he came out and saw his shadow. (Funny that puts it right about the middle of March… when the Vernal Equinox occurs.)

The rest of the year, Woody’s part of the Howell Nature Centers educational programs.

But Woody’s home is in danger. The Howell Nature Center is in dire straits. They may not be able to afford to continue operating. After 26 years, this may be it.

For those who don’t know, Michigan has been suffering economically for far longer than the rest of the nation. Our economy started sliding before 2001. We have yet to hit bottom in the mitten state.

While spring may be around the corner weather wise, Michigan is still locked in the icy grips of an economic winter. I don’t think Woody has any predictions on that one.

Travis Erwin has returned to corralling the My Town Monday posters. Stroll on over for more links.

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My Town Monday: Second Amendment

Second Amendment is the biggest, baddest punkin chunkin gun… and it’s part of Livingston County.

The gun was constructed by S & G Erectors in Howell Michigan. The crew is from Howell, Lakeland, Whitmore Lake as well as other places both in and out of Michigan. The gun shoots little hard punkins. Second Amendment won the World Championship in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006.

I have actually driven by when the Second Amendment was in a local field shooting. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop and stare… I mean, watch.

What is punkin chunkin? The goal is to hurl a little hard pumpkin as far as possible by mechanical means. Those means include slingshots, trebuchets, catapults and pneumatic air cannons like the Second Amendment. The punkins for competition are specially grown and aren’t any good for eating.

Travis Erwin is still displaced after a fire took out his entire house, but the My Town Monday torch is being held aloft over at e-Cuneiform scratchings. Check out some other places.

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