Following Grand River Avenue Through History

For East Lansing residents, Grand River Avenue is the place to turn to for almost anything, from bookstores to restaurants to college bars. Its sidewalks are almost always bustling with students walking to class, business men and women meeting for lunch, and enthusiastic Spartans heading to football games. However, Grand River Avenue hasn’t always been the hotspot for college students and East Lansing residents. It hasn’t always been the well-traveled, paved road that we know it as now. In fact, Grand River’s history begins even before MSU’s does.

View of Grand River looking east, 1920s
View of Grand River looking east, 1920s. Courtesy Archives of Michigan

Grand River Road (the name wasn’t changed to Avenue until later on) wasn’t established until 1840; prior to this year, no record of any established roads in the area had been preserved. As it was for many early roads of the state, Grand River followed the trail that the Native Americans had made along the north bank of the Cedar River. The road stretched from Detroit to Portland (though now it stretches to Grand Rapids), and it was known as the primary overland stage-and-wagon-freight route through central Michigan until the railroad was built.

In 1852, the Lansing Central Plank Road Company built a plank road over the Lansing and Howell Road (the section of Grand River Road that ran between Howell and Lansing) and tollgates were distributed along the road every four to six miles. The plank road was completed in 1853 and was built of oak planks three inches tall and fourteen feet long. They were laid crosswise across heavy oak stringers to make a flat and hard road surface. Due to constant weathering and decay however, travelers often filled gaps in the road with gravel and mud. Eventually, the planks were completely removed, the road was paved with a gravel surface, and a streetcar was installed.

With the ever-increasing student population of MAC during the early 1900s came the development of shops and stores along the campus stretch of Grand River. The college drug store and the college café were built at the intersection of Grand River, and the Delta Apex, (where Michigan meets Grand River) became a popular place for gas stations as well as the location of the First East Lansing State Bank (established in 1916).

Because this section of Grand River was becoming busier and more popular, it was decided that the old streetcar was inadequate, and the new Interurban line was installed. It wasn’t long before East Lansing changed its major choice of transportation again, and in the 1930s the bus line took the interurban’s place. Parking along the avenue was officially banned in the 1950s

So why are we, the CAP team, interested in the history of this Grand River Avenue? Because (once again) the city of East Lansing intends to start construction on Grand River in the next couple of years, with plans to make room for a new bus route. We want to make sure that we have fully researched the history of the road so that we can anticipate any potential archaeological finds that might surface once the construction begins. We are not the official archaeological team in charge of this project, but we have written up a report to forward on to help with the process.

Excavation of Old Corduroy Road discovered in 1995. Courtesy CCRG
Excavation of Old Corduroy Road discovered in 1995. Courtesy CCRG

During construction of the road in 1995, approximately 20 logs were uncovered at the Bailey street entrance of Grand River. These logs were, in fact, part of the original plank road that was used back in the 1800s. There is potential to find more of these planks during the new construction. However, because it appears that the center of the original plank road was likely within the northernmost part of the current road, it doesn’t seem probable. Due to the current construction plans primarily focusing on the excavation/removal of the current median, it is unlikely that this work will intersect with any of the former plank/corduroy road sections.

However, that doesn’t mean that the teams involved won’t be keeping an eye out for anything with archaeological significance. The National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) was created with the intent to preserve all historical and archaeological sites in the United States, and it’s important that here in East Lansing we do just that. Should anyone involved with this project find anything significant, the necessary precautions will be taken to preserve the discoveries.

Sources:

Towner, J.D. (1933) History of the City of East Lansing.

Miller, W. (2002) East Lansing: Collegeville Revisited. Arcadia Publishing

Dunham, Sean B., John M. Gram and Mark C Branster. 1997. M-43/Grand River Avenue, East Lansing, Michigan: The Lansing and Howell Plank Road, A Data Recovery Effort. 96-07. Great Lakes Research Associates, Inc.



6 thoughts on “Following Grand River Avenue Through History”

  • Hi, I’m Jamie Ehinger Rapson my Granfather and Dad Jim Ehinger sold real estate out of the First East Lansing State Bank, after they lived across the street, I’m 57 and I remember playing in a floor to ceiling black and gold painted safe just inside the entrance to the building then was facing east. All through that building there are safes in the floors and walls too was pretty cool to hide in them, when we were small.
    Dads office on the second floor corner over looking Grand River always was bustling and exciting in the 1960’s.
    My Dads brother used to kid us that there were tunnels under the bank they used to bootleg liquor but he always told stories that weren’t true.
    Thanks for the information, I’ve been awfully sad about watching the building go down this way for years and wonder if the JA Hicks building was built by the same builder as they have the same unique colorful brick. Ehinger Realty sure developed many wonderful neighborhoods in the area that still to this day are tough to find on the market!

  • I am researching any and all historical records for roads that may have served immigrants travelling from Port Huron to Grand Rapids in the 1850s. Is there some source that would have a record of the use of Grand River Road by immigrants in those years? Also, on Walling’s map of 1873, it shows this road as “Grand River Turnpike” and it does have a path to Ionia or Saranac.
    Awaiting your informed reply.

  • I live in suburban Chicago. To keep busy during the Coronavirus Shelter in Place, i have been conducting family history research. My great grandmother was SOPHIE L. Ehinger. She died in 1947 in Lansing. I don’t know any of the Ehinger family as we would now cousins several times removed. But For historical reasons I would like to communicate with any Ehingers who could fill in the blAnks for me . Also I see there is an Ehinger Park in East Landing. I would assume there is a connection.

  • To James Elsener,
    Thank you for your comment and I did some looking into Sophie L. Ehinger, and it looks like you have already done some great work if you have complied the data on her in this link:https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/family-tree/person/tree/166780952/person/142173998195/story?_phsrc=ihH16&_phstart=successSource.
    I do not know much more was can add to this and I am not exactly sure how to help you contact members of the Ehinger family who may still live in Lansing. However, it does seem that an individual named Jamie Ehinger Rapson also commented on this post in 2017, indicating that they were part of that family and still had connections to Lansing. Hopefully they will see these new comments and get in contact with you.

    As for Ehinger Park, it seems that it is related to Walter P. Ehinger, who in the 1920s -1940s was a Lansing based banker who also dealt in real estate, or his family. The first mention of the park I can find was in the Lansing State Journal, Friday September 16, 1932, page 11.

    Walter was the son of Josephine and Louis Ehinger (1910: https://search.ancestrylibrary.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?dbid=7884&h=197453545&indiv=try&o_vc=Record:OtherRecord&rhSource=6061 / 1930: https://search.ancestrylibrary.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?dbid=6224&h=14322994&indiv=try&o_vc=Record:OtherRecord&rhSource=6061) and based on the value of their home ($20,000), it is likely that they were prominent or wealthy members of the community with the means to donate a park to the city.

    I found a family tree with Walter P. Ehinger, but I do not have access to it. Since it seems that you do have access and have some familiarity with the site, I am sharing it here: https://www.ancestry.com/family-tree/person/tree/17632282/person/18355312123?_phsrc=ihH25&_phstart=successSource

    I hope this has been helpful,

    Jeff Burnett
    2019-2020 CAP Fellow

  • Robert L Tusch:
    Thanks for your comment!
    While I don’t know of any sources that provide details on the specific individuals utilizing the Grand River Plank Road, it is quite likely that this route would have been used for the journey you describe, particularly if it took place in the early/middle years of the 1850s. This era was a time of rapid change for transportation in Michigan, and by the latter years of the decade the completion of the Detroit-Milwaukee railroad line (1858) and the beginning of passenger service from Port Huron/Fort Gratiot to Detroit (1859), this journey may have been largely viable by rail. The section of the Plank Road you describe between Ionia/Saranac was completed in December of 1869. a while after the completion of the section between Lansing and Howell (1852), though contemporaneous maps of this area indicate this route still existed as a less developed road. In the early years of travel along this route, passage from Ionia to Grand Rapids was seemingly accomplished via boats along Grand River.

    Here are some useful sources on the various sections of plank road and rail lines:
    https://www.michigan.gov/documents/mdot/Michigan_Railroad_History_506899_7.pdf
    https://www.imagesofmichigan.com/michigan-plank-roads
    https://seekingmichigan.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Learn_Statehood_NerdRoom_Mason.pdf

    Looking at historical maps of Michigan during the 1850s can also help to get a better sense of what routes would be available for the journey you describe. Here is a link to a mid-1850s map of the state: https://www.davidrumsey.com/luna/servlet/detail/RUMSEY~8~1~1690~130049:Michigan–Published-By-J-H–Colton-

    Hope this helps!

    Benjamin Akey
    2019-2020 CAP Fellow

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