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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Walking over history.

This has been just about the perfect Michigan autumn: temperatures in the sixties, and a surfeit of days filled with a bright, crystalline sunshine that never fails to fill me with a longing for something I can never quite express. It is joy, contentment and a sense of home, wound together with the realization that it is going to pass, all the while whispering that it should not pass, that something is looming. As I said, it is something that evades and taunts mere words. But it is the reason that I have always found Michigan autumns to be truly blessed times of year.

We took advantage of one of these ideal days yesterday, and went for a walk in Clinton Township's Canal Park.


Yes, canal. Here and there throughout Macomb and eastern Oakland County you can see the slowly-eroding remnants of what can only be called "Mason's Folly." The project was inaugurated with fanfare worthy of a coronation as "the Clinton and Kalamazoo Canal" in 1838.

The brainchild of Michigan's first governor, the 26-year old Stevens T. Mason, it was a deliberate attempt to emulate the great success of the immortal Erie Canal of New York, which had turned such cities as Rochester and Buffalo into boom towns.

The idea was to utilize the existing rivers and dig a series of canals and locks across the entire Lower Peninsula from Mount Clemens to Lake Michigan, a distance of 216 miles all told.

Unfortunately, the State underestimated the cost of the project and the holding company went bankrupt in 1843. Only fifteen of those planned 216 miles were ever completed, with the canal petering out in the vicinity of the Oakland County suburb of Rochester, and the project was officially abandoned in 1848. Even the completed sections were an economic failure, as toll revenue was far below estimates. The reason? The canal was too small for the larger barges that made the Erie such a success.

Great photographs are accessible here, via the Shelby Township Historical Society.

Canal Park has the remnants of a dam from the early 1840s which was used to channel water from the Clinton river, and some of the timber bracing still stands above water. You can also see the base of the dam, too. The remains of a lock are also visible, now seen as a steep ditch slowly being pinched by the encroaching second growth forest.

As Heather noted, nature has a way of reclaiming her own. Canal Park proves it. Definitely worth a stop, as is Yates Cider Mill, which has an attached park that preserves the remnants of a canal aqueduct.

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