The History of Genesee County, MI
Chapter I
Internal Improvements

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Clayton

 

 INTERNAL IMPROVEMENTS.

During the period of rapid growth under the great immigration of 1835-37, Michigan had undertaken a great system of public improvements, especially in roads and canals. So impressed were the people with the apparent magic of the Erie Canal upon the growth of New York, that in the constitution of 1835 it was provided, that "Internal improvements shall be encouraged by the government of this state; and it shall be the duty of the Legislature as soon as may be, to make provision by law for ascertaining the proper objects of improvements, in relation to roads, canals and navigable waters; and it shall also be their duty to provide by law for an equal, systematic and economical application of the funds which maybe appropriated to these objects."

Governor Mason acted promptly upon this mandate from the people, recommending to the Legislature an extensive program of roads, railroads and canals. The legislature as promptly responded, authorizing the governor to borrow on the state's credit five million dollars to carry out the proper improvements. Three lines of railroads were to be built; one from Detroit to the mouth of the St. Joseph river; one from Monroe to New Buffalo, and one from the mouth of the Black river to the navigable waters of the Grand river. A canal was to be built from Mt. Clemens to the mouth of the Kalamazoo river, and another around the falls of the St. Mary's river. By facts and figures it was demonstrated that the railroad from Detroit to the mouth of the St. joseph must pay thirty per cent annually upon the cost. In vain, Governor Mason questioned whether the sum that the state had undertaken to borrow would build the works undertaken; in vain, he suggested leaving the minor works to individual enterprise. When a state enters upon a system of public improvements, section and localities will not submit to waive their claims, in favor even of the general welfare, as opposed to their local advantage.

In 1839 there began a series of misfortunes which were to lead ultimately to the total abandonment of the internal improvement scheme. The two banks which had possession of the all the state bonds for the five-million-dollar loan--the Morris Canal and Banking company and the Pennsylvania United States Bank, which had hypothecated the major portion of the bonds for their own debts--had failed. About one-half the face value of the loan had been received by the state, but the whole amount of the bonds were in the hands of parties who would insist on having full payment. Should the state refuse to pay, it would be stamped in the money market with the disgrace of repudiation, to which the people of Michigan would be extremely sensitive. The general bank crash of the time added to the startling condition. Work on the state railroads was dragged along with the greatest difficulty. Ordinary state expenses could be met only by borrowing. To raise the money by taxes would have been intolerable to a people already in dire distress. Happily, the state was able to reach an agreement with the bondholders. In the end all the bonds were retired, and the state's good name was saved.

It finally began to dawn upon the comprehension of even the dullest that most of the projects which the state had undertaken were wild and chimerical. The Central and Southern railroads were an exception; these were now well under way. But the idea began to mature that the building and managing of railroads is essentially a private business. The Legislature invited proposals from state creditors for the purchase of the railroads. In 1846, both these roads, so far as then built were sold to corporations chartered for the purpose of purchasing. Under the new management they went rapidly forward to completion, soon becoming great national highways, quite as useful to Michigan as it ever was dreamed they could be. In the constitution of 1850 the people of the state expressly prohibited the state "to subscribe to or be interested in the stock of any company, association, or corporation,' or "to be a party to or interested in any work of internal improvement, nor engaged in carrying on any such work, except in the expenditure of grants to the state of land or other property."

In 1841, with John s. Barry as governor, the Democratic party came back to power in Michigan. Governor Woodbridge had been elected to the United States Senate. Barry was the man for the times--a man of hard sense, economy, and frugality; a man of experience in public life, scrupulously honest there as in his business as a merchant. The story is told that he mowed the state-house yard, sold the grass and put the money in the state treasury. The farmers of Michigan gave him two terms in succession; and elected him again in 1850; between his second and third terms came Alpheus Felch, William l. Greenley, and Epaphroditus Ransom.

During the term of Governor Ransom the state capital was removed from Detroit to Lansing, a more central place for the rapidly growing state. In the same year, 1847, came two notable immigrations. The first was that of a group of Hollanders, to western Michigan, who, under their leader, Rev. Van Raalte, of the Dutch Reformed church, founded the city of Holland, and, later, Hope college. This was the vanguard of a large influx of Hollanders to this section, which has built on a permanent foundation the interest of Grand rapids and the neighboring country. Quite different was the other immigration, that of James Jesse Strang and his followers, to Beaver island, in northern lake Michigan. Strang had been a Mormon elder at Nauvoo, Illinois and, upon the death of Joseph Smith, claimed to have been divinely sanctioned as his successor. He was defeated, however, by Brigham Young, who drove him away. First, he went to Wisconsin; but presently he removed to Beaver Island, where he founded a kingdom whose capital he named after himself, St. James. Here he made laws, enforced them, and gained a considerable following. Not the least of his achievements was getting himself elected tot he state Legislature, for two successive terms, where he is said to have performed his duties ably and to have won many friends. Bur his introduction of polygamy into his colony at Beaver island led to his assassination; shortly after his death, the colony dispersed.

The experience of the people during the fifteen years since 1835 had revealed many defects in the first state constitution. In 1850 a new constitution was adopted; among other provisions, the governor's power of appointment was restricted, and restrictions were imposed upon the legislative power of the state Legislature, especially in relation to finances. In general, it favored greater liberty, more privileges to individuals and less to the governing bodies.

 

History of Genesee County, Michigan, Her People, Industries and Institutions
by Edwin O. Wood, LL.D, President Michigan Historical Commission, 1916

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Deb

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