Michigan Transportation History

The Berrien Survey (1834)

Public SurveyTerritorialMichiganEventDocumentThing The Berrien Survey was a U.S. War Department survey of a railroad route between Detroit and St. Joseph conducted in the summer of 1834. The survey was named after the chief surveyor Lt. John M. Berrien. Berrien completed the survey, arriving in the town of St. Joseph on November 8, 1834, and delivered his report to John Biddle of the territorial government on December 18, 1834.


The immediate origins of the survey probably come through the efforts of the Jonesville Convention which asked Congress to initiate a U.S. Army survey of a railroad route between either Monroe or Port Lawrence, Michigan to Lake Michigan. But more broadly, the survey was part of a general enthusiasm to provide internal improvements to the Lower Peninsula which included that convention and the incorporation of the Detroit & St. Joseph Railroad, so this U.S. War Department survey and the subsequent Christmas Eve Convention should also be seen as public support for the line.

While the Jonesville Convention sought a survey for a railroad through the southernmost tier of counties in the Lower Peninsula, the War Department instructed Lt. Berrien to begin in Detroit and survey a route through the second-tier of counties. This competition between a southern route and a central route would lead to the Christmas Eve Convention's attempt to reach a compromise. Ultimately, compromise would not be reached, and after statehood, the state legislature would authorize both (and other) routes in the Internal Improvements Act?.

The Surveyed Route

Berrien's proposed route followed the Chicago Road out of Detroit to the forks of the River Rouge. At that point it turned almost due west and followed a nearly straight path through Dearborn and to Ypsilanti. At Ypsilanti, the route proceeded up the Huron River Valley, following the right (or southern) bank to Ann Arbor. At Ann Arbor, the route left the Huron and proceeded along the Territorial Road to Jackson. The route reached its summit just west of Jackson. From here, Berrien argued that a route following the Kalamazoo River would make crossing the ridge between that river and the St. Joseph River difficult or an inferior route to the one Berrien laid out. Instead, Berrien sought to reduce the difficulties of bridging both the Kalamazoo and St. Joseph Rivers and surmounting the intervening ridge by striking a line south of present-day Kalamazoo towards Prairie Ronde (which is just west of present day Schoolcraft, MI, in Kalamazoo County). The route here had many cost savings: "the numerous streams heading in it [the St. Joseph River] are crossed near their sources, where their valleys are inconsiderable, and consequently much embankment, as well as rise and fall upon the road are avoided, while at the same time a very direct course is obtained."1

The only serious obstacle that Berrien reported was at the point where the line entered the Paw Paw River Valley. He noted that the head of the Paw Paw River (a location that is very difficult to identify now), "rises in a swamp ten miles in length and over a mile wide at the narrowest point" where he chose a crossing. To get there, the line needed to descend some 175 feet. To this point, Berrien had maintained a ruling grade of not more than 0.7%. But this drop into the Paw Paw River Valley was so much that Berrien recommended the use of an inclined plane or a "circuitous route."2

The total length of the route surveyed was one-hundred and ninety-two miles. The route passed through good timber lands which could be harvested for construction materials as there were no stone quarries along the way (stone was still, at that time, considered to be a proper foundation for the track). Berrien was optimistic that the line could be constructed economically because,

no very heavy embankments nor extensive cuts will be necessary, that the soil is generally good, and easy of excavation, that the many extensive plains and prairies which are crossed by the line, will admit of the construction of a road varying but slightly from the natural surface of the ground for many miles at a time, and that much of the timber suitable to be used in the construction of the road, is found along the route—and further, that comparatively few bridges, viaducts, or culverts will be required, and I have therefore no hesitation in saying that the expense will be materially less than that of similar works in other parts of the country.3


Following this report, John Biddle and others organized the Christmas Eve Convention that produced a formal petition to Congress for public funding.


1. John MacPherson Berrien, Letter to John Biddle, December 18, 1834, LC:HF, 23 Cong., 2 sess.: ALS. Territorial Papers XII, 825.

2. Berrien to Biddle, December 18, 1834, Territorial Papers XII, 827.

3. Berrien to Biddle, December 18, 1834, Territorial Papers XII, 828. See also, the Christmas Convention? and the memorial it created, Territorial Papers XII, 850ff.


Homans, Benjamin, ed. Army and Navy Chronicle 4-5 (Washington: T. Barnard, 1837), 278.

Berrien, John M., Lt. "[Report of] survey [of] a railroad route from Detroit to the mouth of the St. Joseph's of Lake Michigan." To John Biddle, December 18, 1834, pp. 3-5. In U.S. Congress. House of Representatives. Memorial of a Convention of Citizens of Michigan in relation to the construction of a railroad across the peninsula, January 15, 1835 (to accompany H.R. 201) 23d Congress, 2d Session, 1835, H. Doc. No. 131.

Also compiled in The Territorial Papers of the United States, vol. 12, "The Territory of Michigan, 1829-1837." Clarence Edwin Carter, ed. and comp., pp. 825-828. Washington: G.P.O., 1945.

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Citation: When referencing this page please use the following citation:

R. D. Jones, "The Berrien Survey (1834)," Michigan Transportation History (Ypsilanti, MI: 2020), www.michtranshist.info/.

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Page last modified on February 21, 2020, at 09:20 AM EST

Page last modified on February 21, 2020, at 09:20 AM EST