Before the cars, the bricks and the buildings, the roads and highways, and before the United States were established, a small footpath led the way from the lands of the Ottawa in the south (Detroit) to the lands of the Chippewa (Saginaw) in the north. Native Americans strode this path for centuries, up and down the state as they hunted, formed treaties, celebrated and settled. In the middle of this long and winding path flowed Peiconigowink – “the river of the firestone.” At the point where the path met the river, a rich history was born in 1811, when a fur trader named Jacob Smith built a trading post around which sprang up a city. The path, named the Saginaw Trail, became an iconic thoroughfare now known as Saginaw Street. This central path through the remarkable city of Flint was the setting for celebrations and parades, protests and upheaval, triumphs and tragedies. It perseveres, as Flint does, through changes both good and bad, still holding open the door for travelers coming home or simply passing through.
Chances are good that in 1811, Jacob Smith found his way to the Flint River via the Saginaw Trail as he headed north from Detroit, eventually finding the place on the river the French dubbed “The Grand Traverse” and setting up shop. It wasn’t until 11 years later in 1822 that the first road to Flint from Detroit was created by soldiers blazing their way to a fort in Saginaw using the tribal footpath as a guide. The road was little more than a bridle path, but widening and clearing the original path led to an influx of pioneers to Flint and the establishment of the city. As pioneers arrived, built homes, mills and shops, the road was widened to accommodate them and their wagons. In 1833, the road from Flint to Detroit was paved with wooden blocks and in 1841, the Flint to Saginaw section was finished in the same manner.
Over the next two years, the Saginaw St. restoration project – replacing 750,000 bricks – will be done block-by-block from the Flint River to Court Street.
In 1850, a new type of road was being flaunted in cities and counties throughout the state and Genesee County had an eye for innovation. Called a “plank road,” it consisted of covering a route with a layer of wood planks laid upon timbers placed lengthwise on a graded road bed. Two companies made plans to turn Saginaw Street into a plank road. The Genesee County Plank Road Company proposed to make this change from Flint to Grand Blanc and the second, the Saginaw & Genesee Plank Road Company, planned to plank Saginaw Street from Flint all the way to the Saginaw River. While the former failed in their endeavor, the latter was successful. The new Saginaw Street was finished in 1852 and benefitted the region traveling to the city of Saginaw until the installation of the Pere Marquette Railroad. The new plank road was installed on Saginaw Street north of the downtown stretch. The parcel downtown continued to be paved with wooden blocks.
Saginaw St. then remained unchanged until 1870 when future mayor William Hamilton got cheeky. It was his plan to lay tracks across Saginaw St. for the Grand Trunk Railroad, but he knew the city council would most likely turn down his proposal. So, Hamilton had his men put down tracks across the street on the weekend before Monday’s council meeting and before they could object to his plan. The Grand Trunk Railroad began traveling from Huron to Flint in 1871.
In 1897, Mayor Milton C. Pettibone took a major interest in Saginaw St. as a main thoroughfare and began the process of paving the street with bricks. While in office, he signed ordinances clearing the streets and making them more accessible to pedestrians by building sidewalks. He also allowed for street railways to be built for trolleys operated by George E. Taylor, Joseph E. Sawyer and Samuel W. Smith. The street was bricked in sections and the entire project was finished in 1898 during George R. Gold’s administration. The street was made an iconic part of the city by Gold’s successor, Hugh A. Crawford, when he erected the famed Saginaw St. arches in 1899. The origin of the first bricks laid on Saginaw Street is a mystery. Flint had its own number of brick manufacturers during the time period, including Alexander Ward’s company and M. C. Barney’s Brick Co. However, it’s more than likely that the original bricks were supplied by the Nelsonville Brick Company out of Ohio which opened in 1877 and closed in 1937. (Indeed, many bricks carry the Nelsonville stamp; but were they the originals or used during the later re-pavement project?)
In 1936, President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) came to town to begin the Saginaw St. restoration. Bricks were pulled up and some were reused, yet most were discarded. The endeavor used over 750,000 bricks and cost today’s equivalent of $3 million to complete. During reconstruction, the WPA removed the rail system and Flint contracted with Laro Coal & Iron to purchase them for $13.50 a ton. The railway cars were replaced by General Motors Electric Trolley Coach Service. Since then, Saginaw St. has existed much the same with slight improvements, patching and consolidation (bricks were removed from side streets).
Due to start this fall, the Saginaw Street Restoration Project will take the road to its next form. At a cost of nearly $5.8 million over two years, the project will remove the bricks in Downtown intersections and replace them with stamped pavement (for better stability) while re-working bricks over the rest of the stretch. In addition to street resurfacing, improvements to around 70% of the sidewalks are planned. Just as in the original project in 1898, the process will be done one block at a time.
Saginaw Street has remained a path of significance during human history in the Americas; it has been a path to greater things, a path of community and for Flintstones, no matter its construction, the road home. Whatever the future holds in store for Flint, the bricks of Saginaw Street will take us there.