By: Dave McDonald, BCHS – President
Last time we looked at the history of a home built by Audrain Abbott in the mid-1850s. He picked the location for the house on his tract of land so they could view the Sauk Trail out their parlor window. Call it intuition on Audrain’s part, but the Sauk Trail would evolve into the 2nd most traveled roadway in the United States in the years that followed. That trail is now referred to as Chicago Street or Road, and stretches across the entire Branch County.
To understand the true evolution of this county route, let’s step back to its beginnings, like 10 or 12 thousand years back. The Sauk Trail, or Chicago Road, began to take shape over 12,000 years ago as the Wisconsin Ice Sheet was receding northward from what would become southern Michigan. The glaciers and melt-water cut passages through the terrain, and the major ones were immediately adopted by migratory mastodons and caribou. The Sauk Trail remains the longest found mastodon trail per U of M paleontologists.
Much later early Native Americans adopted the well-worn trails of the large grazing animals and used them for their nomadic traveling. So, the name Sauk Trail came from the Sauk Tribe who traveled this region from Minnesota and Wisconsin to the Great Lakes chain in Detroit. Sometime later the Pottawatomi Indians took up use of the trail. They remained prevalent in southern Michigan up to the arrival of early settlers in the first half of the nineteenth century. Pottawattamies, a division of the Algonquin Nation, followed the Sauk Trail from the west into the Saint Joseph Valley, which included the future Branch County, between 1678 and 1721.
The Indian marker tree next to the Oak Grove Cemetery in Coldwater would be approximately 250-300 years old. Potawatomi Indian used this tree as a road sign for following the old Sauk Trail across the pre-Branch County terrain.
So, when did the first European travel the trail through this area? It was Robert Cavalier Sieur de LaSalle, a French explorer. He found himself stranded at the base of Lake Michigan in 1680. His ship, Griffin, sunk in the Great Lakes while returning to retrieve him and his explorers. Stranded, they were forced to walk the Sauk Trail through Branch County on their way back eastward to the Detroit trading post. From there they found ship passage back to Quebec. The Griffin was never found. Leur Malheur!
Following the Pottawattamie sale of the Saint Joseph Valley area to the U.S. Government in 1821, a reservation was created In Coldwater and Quincy Townships that included a six mile square with the Sauk Trail running through the middle. Even with the growing flow of settlers coming through Branch County, settlement remained light in this area due to the large Mich-ke- saw-be reservation. Increased Branch County settlement did not occur until after the Treaty of Niles, which relocated the reservation off the Sauk Trail to the Nottawa, MI area.
Shortly after, Joseph Godfrey and Patrick Marantette built their Indian trading posts on the trail edge at the Coldwater River and what is now the Oak Grove Cemetery. President Andrew Jackson commissioned a party to survey the Sauk Trail on March 3 1825. The survey team laid out a military road between Detroit and Chicago. The trail through Branch County was actually referred to as a land extension of the Erie Cannel.
In 1827 Congress approved $20,000 for a forty foot wide improvement of the road which would support stage coach travel and movement of U.S. Mail. Many parts of the trail had to be converted to corduroy or planked roads. A corduroy road, used in low wet spots was small diameter logs cut and laid side by side for the wagon wheels to pass over. Imagine riding in a wooden wheeled wagon over logs! Planked roads were much better because of the flatter surface, but they rotted faster and needed continuous maintenance. The Branch County section was completed in 1833 and renamed Chicago Road.
Michigan was formed in 1805, though reclaimed by Great Britain in the War of 1812. It was returned to the U.S. Government at the end of the war and in 1829 the Territorial Legislature formed the southern counties, among them Branch. Between 1828 and 1831 many of our prominent early settlers such as Hanchett, Tibbits, Campbell, Bronson and Wilson were laying claim to tracts of land along the Sauk Trail, or Chicago Road, which would become key formation blocks of Coldwater, Bronson and Quincy.
By 1837 Western Star Stage Line was advertising five lines of stages that only took 4 to 7 days to go from Detroit to Chicago, depending on the weather and trail conditions.
Paving of Chicago Road began in 1924 in Detroit and Chicago and met in Jonesville, MI. First named M-23, it was renamed US-112 in 1927. Recommissioned as US-12 in 1961, it is amongst the oldest road corridors east of the Mississippi River. In 2004 Michigan designated it as a Heritage Trail, covering a distance of 209 miles through our state and Branch County.
So, when you turn onto Chicago Street and find yourself driving behind one of those slow left lane drivers. Remember, they are still probably faster than the lumbering mastodon that once walked this trail, maybe.