HOME - Front Page
Heritage \ Writings \

Northern Canal of Michigan
Connecting Lake Huron to Lake Michigan.

1918: History. (Added Mar., 2009)

The History of Saginaw County, Michigan, by James Cooke Mills, 1918


The first constitution of Michigan, adopted in 1835, made it the duty of the government of the State to encourage internal improvements, and of he legislature to make provisions by law for determining the proper objects of improvements in relation to roads, canals and navigable waters, and also to provide for an equal, systematic and economical expenditure of all funds appropriated for these objects. Among the various improvements projected during the formative period of our State, was the Northern of “Bay River” Canal, intended to connect the waters of the Bad River with those of the Maple, and by improving the rivers to open a waterway from Lake Huron by way of the Saginaw and Grand Rivers to Lake Michigan at Grand Haven.

The settlers of Saginaw Valley anticipated great results from this improvement, by its opening up a waterway west into a portion of the interior of the State that was known to contain some of its richest lands for agricultural proposes, and would also furnish a shorter route across the peninsula then by the course of the lakes. Early in 1837 surveys of the canal were made and specifications prepared for the first section extending west from the forks of the Bad River. The report of the surveys was regarded as exceeding westward from the waters of the Saginaw to those of the Maple, and that these waters, flowing in opposite directions, were only three miles distant from each other at one point, and that between them the highest elevation necessary to be crossed was only seventy-two feet above Lake Michigan. It was along this valley and across this low summit that the engineers located the route for the canal, with certain slack-water improvements to be made east and west of it.

Contracts for grubbing and clearing of the route were let in 1838, and work was commenced in that year. The contract for excavating the site was let soon after to Norman Little, of Saginaw, and another part of the work was undertaken by Alpheus Williams. Great expense and hardship attended the prosecution of the work, as it was located in a wilderness fifteen miles from any white settlement, thereby adding to the difficulties of transporting materials and supplies. But under the management of the energetic contractor, it was continued with vigor, about one hundred Irishmen being employed in excavating; and a large quantity of timer was cut and lumber brought in for the construction of coffer dams. The canal as projected was to be twenty miles long, ninety feet wide, with nine feet depth of water.

The work on the canal continued until July, 1839, when it was suspended and the project abandoned. The immediate cause of the failure was the inability of the State to meet the monthly estimates of the contractor., according to the terms of the contract, for the reason that the Morris Canal and Banking Company, which had taken the $5,000,000 State loan, had failed before the whole amount had been paid over. The timber intended for the construction of the locks and dams remained to rot on the ground, and remnants of some of them were plainly visible within the last twenty-five years in Chapin Township.

When the payment of wages and materials stopped, and the Irishmen were dismissed from the job without their last wages being paid, they came to town and for two or three days paraded the streets threatening all those who had had anything to do with the canal. Timid persons feared mob violence, but when the matter was fully explained so that the laborers understood the cause of the non-payment of their wages, they left without doing any damage to anyone.

The sums expended on the canal project, and which were a total loss to the State, were, in 1838, $6,271.12; in 1839, $15,985.69; a total of $22,256.81.

Ten years after the abandonment of the canal project by the State, the legislature of Michigan, by act approved March 30, 1849, incorporated a company composed of Garner D. Williams, James Fraser, D. J. Johnson, of Saginaw, and other parties in the State, “to enter upon the canal commenced by the State, as their property, at the forks of the Bad River, and upon lands on either side, and through which the said canal may pass, to the bend of the Maple River, a tributary of Grand River, and so far on that river as may be thought proper; to construct a tow path and concentrate the water for canal use, and to dig, construct or excavate the earth; to erect or set up any dams, locks, water-weirs, sluices, feeders or any other device whatsoever, to render the same navigable with boats , barges or other craft.” The company was duly organized under the name of Saginaw and Grand River Canal Company, with a capital of $200,000, and its stock was offered for sale.

The revival of the project reawakened hopes that the Maple River was at last to become part of a navigable waterway between the two great lakes, and the people indulged in the most visionary and impracticable notions in regard to the water courses of the State. Have no railroads or even wagon roads leading to the interior, the Indian trails being the only means of communication between scattered hamlets, it was perhaps natural that they should have held greatly exaggerated ideas of the value of their rivers as highways of commerce. No work on the old canal was ever done by the company organized here, and finally the enterprise was definitely abandoned, never to be again revived. With a better understanding of he economics of transportation, the impractical schemes of visionaries today meet with little encouragement or support, particularly in an age when the facilities for communication to the remotest parts of the State are entirely adequate to the needs of commerce.

1900: Another attempt at canal. (Added Aug., 2010)

Timely Topics, Vol. 5, 1900

A Waterway Through Michigan.

A navigable waterway connecting Lakes Michigan and Huron and traversing the center of the lower peninsula, is the latest scheme of Michigan capitalists.

Six miles of canal joining the Bad and Maple Rivers, will connect the waters of one great lake with the other, and when these rivers and the rivers to which they are tributary – the Grand, the Shiawassee and the Saginaw – are deepened and widened, the passageway will permit of freight and passenger traffic in an almost direct line from Milwaukee to Bay City.

This will reduce the distance by boat nearly one-half between Milwaukee and Detroit and reduce the rate upon freight, much of which is now sent by rail across the state, to a much greater extent. Not only will it greatly facilitate interstate commerce, but it will assist materially in the development of the rich interior region of the state now reached by railroads, but not open to the much lower rates of water transportation. The counties of Kent, Montcalm, Ionia, Clinton, Gratiot, Shiawassee and Saginaw will be most directly affected by the new canal.

Lumbermen of Saginaw and Bay City, together with capitalists in Detroit and Grand Rapids, are back of the scheme. They are about to launch the Interstate Canal Company, with a capital stock of $1,000,000, fully paid in. The papers of incorporation are now ready to be forwarded to the Secretary of State at Lansing.

1908 The Michigan Miner / Google Books. (Added Aug. 2010)

Related Pages & Notes

Michigan & Great Lakes 1835
(Click to enlarge.)
Maps at this time were very rough estimates based on information accumulated from travelers of an area.
People Referenced
Fraser, James
Johnson, D.J.
Little, Norman
Williams, Alpheus
Williams, Garner D.
Subjects Referenced
Bad River
Chapin Twp., MI
Grand Haven, MI
Grand River
Lake Huron
Lake Michigan
Maple River
Morris Canal & Bank Co.
Saginaw, MI
Saginaw River
Saginaw-Grand River Canal Co.
Saginaw Valley, MI
WRITINGS: History As It Was Written Then.