Michigan Transportation History

Lewis Cass on Public Roads

DocumentSourcesPublic Extract of a letter from Territorial Governor Lewis Cass and General Duncan McArthur to the Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, November 29, 1817. Exhibit No. 3 attached to William Woodbridge, H.R. Doc No. 491, "Roads Contemplated by the Treaty of Brownstown," 16th Cong., 1st Sess., May 12, 1820. Reprinted in American State Papers, Miscellaneous, 2: 593-597.

It is well known that along the southern margin of this part of Lake Erie is a tract of wet land which always presents serious difficulties to the traveller [sic], and frequently insurmountable obstacles. From Fort Meigs, for many miles towards Urbana, and nearly the whole distance to Lower Sandusky, it becomes a morass known by the name of the Black Swamp. To reach the Territory of Michigan from any part of the settlements of the State of Ohio, by land, this Swamp must be crossed.

No description can convey to a person who is unacquainted with it an adequate idea of the difficulties to be surmounted before a tolerable road can be formed through this country. Little is hazarded in saying that individual enterprise, or the operation of ordinary causes, will not accomplish it for a period which the rapid improvement of the United States, generally, would leave without a parallel. But the country from the extremities of this swamp, northward to Detroit, and southward and eastward to the settlements in Ohio, is level and wet, and a good road through it, to be made at all, must be made at the national expense.

The events of the late war with Great Britain upon this frontier must have satisfied every reflecting person that a good road, at the commencement of that war, passing from the interior of Ohio to Detroit, would have saved to the nation the expenditure of immense sums of money, and would have rendered the reduction of that place at any time easy, and its tenure secure. The supplies of provisions and the munitions of war necessary to the operations of the army upon this frontier were transported at an enormous expense of time and treasure, and the principal obstacles opposed to those operations resulted from the nature of the country, and from its difficulty of access. This tract of country, in its present situation, renders the Territory of Michigan an insulated point upon the map of the nation. Its approach by water is uncertain, temporary, and, for many important purposes, inconvenient. By land it is difficult, tedious, and expensive. many future war, its means of defence [sic] must be derived from the same States which were called upon to furnish them during the past. It is desirable, therefore, that the difficulties which were then experienced should be removed, and that the possession of a good road should enable the General Government at any time to throw into the country a force which would render it safe and secure: such a road would remove the barriers which nature has interposed, and would , in effect, approximate this country to the western portion of the Union, and, connected with the natural advantages it possesses, would insure it a speedy settlement, and an active and enterprising population.

But a road from the interior of Ohio to the lake only would not answer this important purpose. Lake Erie may once more become the theatre of desperate exertion and skill: enterprise and courage may not again be rewarded with victory. But were our naval superiority upon this lake beyond the reach of accident, it should be still recollected that its navigation is more hazardous than that of the ocean, and for a considerable portion of the year closed or impeded by the ice.

It is precisely at this season, with the exception of a short time in the middle of the winter, that the communication by land is most difficult; and the obstacles which are then interposed to traversing the country in any direction are serious and dangerous.

Should circumstances destroy our naval superiority upon the upper lakes, our communication with Detroit and its dependant [β€˜β€™sic’’] settlements could be preserved by land only, and our possession of the country would, in a great degree, depend upon the facilities which the roads might offer to the march of troops, and to the transportation of their munitions of war, baggage, and provisions. It is to be hoped that such an occurrence is remote; but the possibility of its happening, and its disastrous consequences should we be found unprepared, furnish powerful motives to provide, as far as human wisdom can do, for the event.

By completing a road from Sandusky to Detroit, considerable progress would be made towards opening a great national communication from the capital to one of the extremities of the Union. The western turnpike from Cumberland to the Ohio, terminating at Wheeling, would leave only the portion of road between that place and Sandusky to be made. Future enterprise and industry, either individual or national, might complete the work, and it would equally promote the varied intercourse of peace and the important operations of war.

This view is prospective; but the time cannot be remote when the policy of connecting the different parts of this vast republic by great permanent roads will be felt and acknowledged; when such a policy shall banish local jealousies and discordant interests, shall furnish new and increased facilities for private industry, and shall add strength and wealth to the resources of the nation.

Forts and military positions along a remote and exposed frontier will furnish little protection unless the communication to it is rendered easy and expeditious. A great leading road, such as the nature of this country requires, and the public good demands, would add more to its permanent security than any other defensive measure which could be adopted.

But there are considerations connected with the necessity of such a road in consequence of the nature of the country, of its importance to the nation for the preservation of a weak and important frontier, and of the improbability that such a road will ever be made unless some portion of the general resources are directed to this object. But, viewed exclusively as a subject affecting the revenue, there can be no doubt but its operation would be favorable.

From the settlements in Ohio to Detroit, nearly the whole country is the property of the United States. Every consideration, either of a fiscal or political nature, demands the immediate sale and settlement of this land, and every measure is important which will facilitate the acquisition of either object. Among these measures the most obvious in itself. (and most certain in its result) is the ope1ling of a leading road. In any country this would be important; in this country it is absolutely necessary. Sales will only be made with a view to settlements, and settlement will be aided and encouraged by making roads where the population of the country will long be unable to make them.

There is little difficulty in proposing a plan which would accomplish this object, and, in all probability, increase the actual receipts at the Treasury after the expenditures which may be necessary in effecting it.

Previous to the sale of the public lands, were the site of a permanent well-made road located from the line of the tract recently purchased of the Indians to Detroit, and were the national faith pledged for its completion within a reasonable period, the competition excited among the purchasers to procure the land in the vicinity of this road would add greatly to its value. Any estimate upon this subject must be loose and conjectural; but when it is considered that this road would pass through lands the property of the United States for at least one hundred and fifty miles, a great part of which is fertile and susceptible of compact settlements, and much of which is equal to any land in Ohio, it cannot be doubted but it will enter the market with every prospect of obtaining a price far exceeding that fixed by law. It would not be necessary, in order to secure the desired object, that the work should be actually commenced; every purpose would be answered by determining the site of the road, and delaying its completion till sufficient funds for that purpose were received from the sale of the land.

Page last modified on January 03, 2020, at 07:03 PM EST

Page last modified on January 03, 2020, at 07:03 PM EST