August 2, 2011
A Road by Any Other Name

Growing up in southwest Michigan, I noticed that a lot of cities had a Michigan Avenue. In Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Paw Paw, Marshall, Jackson, even Chicago and Detroit, there it was: Michigan Avenue. 

On a drive one evening, I asked my mother if she thought it was possible that these were all the same road.  ”I doubt it,” I remember her saying, or something along those lines.  The Michigan Avenue in Battle Creek didn’t connect to the Michigan Avenue in Kalamazoo, after all. And It made sense that cities in Michigan would name roads after their state.  Indiana probably had loads of Indiana Avenues.  Surely there were plenty of Wisconsin Avenues in Wisconsin. 

In the days before Google, that was that. I settled for the answer and moved on. My interest in such things never waned though, and years later I came to find out that she was wrong! These roads were once one in the same! And though there are now a few missing pieces, the route remains almost entirely intact. I’ll forgive her for not remembering, though. She was five years old the last time this route was unified under the name US-12.

Interesting, right? I thought so anyway, and endeavored to dig deeper. As it turned out, Michigan Avenue wasn’t alone as a ghost highway in the state! Any Lansing resident is well familiar with Grand River Avenue, but wait: isn’t there one of those in Detroit too? And Grand Rapids, for that matter? I think I’ve been down this road before. Just as Michigan Avenue was  US-12 until the completion of Interstate 94, Grand River Avenue was once US-16, the route now supplanted by Interstate 96.

And this got me thinking. 

Along the roads we travel every day, lies an untold history, almost completely erased from public consciousness. But this history, and the past decisions that it represents, form a complex matrix upon which our present reality is built, really quite literally!

The remains of the ghost highways are there if you look for them. 1950’s era motels dot Westnedge Avenue in Kalamazoo and Division Avenue in Grand Rapids from the days when US-131 traveled this route linking southwest Michigan to the North Country. Many are now seedy, offering monthly rates and evoking images of bed bugs and nightmarish scenes revealed under black lights, but they are vestiges from the heyday of auto touring, the days when families packed into gigantic cars and traveled down two lane highways on their way to see their country in a way never before envisioned. The frontier could be reached in a day’s drive, and they could park their Oldsmobile right at the edge of it!

As the generational memories of prior incarnations of our commuting routes fade, we should consider whether the reasoning is there, beyond mere sentimentality, for their resurrection. Consider the physical routes, often having been travelled for centuries, dating back to the days before European settlement. Consider the infrastructure investment these highways represent, as more new freeways link together evermore subdivisions. Consider the scenery along these routes before the Bed Bath and Beyonds and Panera Breads began popping up beside them. (No judgement of Bed Bath and Beyond or Panera Bread implied. Well, maybe a little.)

Discuss.

Click the following links to see old photos of the Kalamazoo area, read in depth about the history of every highway in Michigan, and find out about Michigan Heritage Routes:

Portage Library Digital Collection

Michigan Highway Histories

Michigan Heritage Route Program

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