Since Michigan’s earliest days, the state’s sparkling blue streams, rivers and lakes have served as a gathering point, attracting settlement and industry along their riverbanks and shorelines.
In fact, the name Detroit is French for “the strait,” referring to the massive waterway connecting Lakes Huron and Erie, where early French settlers, led by sieur de Cadillac, founded Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit in 1701. Michigan’s oldest inland towns, hungry for power to fuel their mills, settled on the banks of rivers − Rochester was settled along the Clinton River in 1817, Milford was settled along the Huron River in 1834, and Northville was settled along the Rouge River in 1825.
‘Conservatively, we can say Lake St. Clair brings in at least $1 billion to the local economy annually. We believe freshwater is our key to our sustainability.’
By the twentieth century, Michigan’s waterways were symbols of industry. Unfortunately, they suffered the neglect and pollution that was a byproduct of that industry.
As industry declined and urban development progressed, communities often turned their backs on their waterways, relegating riverbanks and shorelines to back-alley status. New development was oriented away from water, and public access to lakes and streams cut off. Relics of heavy industry came to dominate the Detroit River’s shoreline, and new suburbs were built with little attention to the often-polluted waterways that flowed through them.
But now, as efforts to clean up those waterways have begun to pay off, communities are rediscovering their waterfronts and recognizing them for the potential they have to create authentic connections between people and their natural and cultural histories. These communities are looking to their waterways to help to build a sense of place.
Here are some of their stories:
A Refuge for Wildlife − and Humans: The Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge
Gazing at cobalt blue waters from the shore of the Detroit River at Humbug Marsh, one might forget they are in a major metropolitan area, just 20 miles south of Detroit and 50 miles north of Toledo.
“This refuge is vital to the region,” says Anita Twardesky, Downriver Linked Greenways Initiative co-chair and community outreach coordinator for Riverside Kayak Connection. “It not only protects our natural resources, but improves public access for local residents and visitors alike.”
Humbug Marsh was the last mile of undeveloped shoreline along the Detroit River in 2004 when it became the first piece of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The Refuge, created through a unique, binational public-private partnership in 2001, now contains 6,000 acres of unique habitat, including islands, coastal wetlands, marshes, shoals, and 48 miles of pristine shoreline. For more info, go to fws.gov/refuge/detroit_river.
Paddling Through Industry and Nature: The Detroit Heritage River Water Trail
To sit in a kayak in the Detroit River is to know the power of moving water. Flowing deep and blue past Belle Isle, the river unites two nations as it moves past downtown Detroit and downtown Windsor, slides beneath the Ambassador Bridge and past the hulking metal structures of the Ford Rouge Factory, and widens alongside natural shorelines before draining into Lake Erie.
As early as a decade ago, only the most intrepid souls dared to make this trek by paddle. Today, school children board canoes to paddle the Detroit Heritage Water Trail, which connects 21 downriver communities along a paddler’s paradise. Catalyzed by Riverside Connection LLC and Michigan Sea Grant, the trail attracts enthusiasts from near and far to embark on an adventure that is at once beautiful and breathtaking.
“Paddling on the Detroit River is something people of all ages and abilities can enjoy,” Twardesky says. “It’s a way to connect to people to their heritage and natural resources. And, as paddlers seek out restaurants, lodging and goods, it brings economic development opportunities to downriver communities.” For more info, go to downrivergreenways.org.
Belle Isle: Detroit’s Diamond in the Rough
An oasis of green with blue vistas at every turn, Belle Isle is clearly the City of Detroit’s greatest natural asset. Not long ago, the historic park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, suffered from the neglect of a bankrupt city that could no longer afford to maintain it. Today, a strong Belle Isle Conservancy and an agreement with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to manage the park is polishing the jewel of the Detroit River.
“Belle Isle is a place for the community to gather and celebrate and mark life’s milestones,” says Michelle Hodges, President of the Belle Isle Conservancy. “Any Detroiter who has lived here for any period of time will almost certainly have a Belle Isle story to tell, and will likely break into a smile as they tell it.”
The Conservancy is actively developing programs to help engage the community with the park, such as programming at the once-defunct Belle Isle Aquarium, while the MDNR is rebuilding infrastructure, planting trees and restoring habitat. For more info, go to belleisleconservancy.org.
From Bridge to Bridge: Reconnecting the Detroit Riverfront
While Detroit has always been a riverfront city, until recently it was very difficult to actually access that shoreline. That is no longer the case. Today, visitors can rent a made-in-Detroit bicycle at the Wheelhouse Detroit and cycle on the Detroit RiverWalk past a string of historic and cultural landmarks on one side, with the shining Detroit River on the other. This was made possible by the Detroit RiverFront Conservancy, Inc., a nonprofit with a mission to develop access on the Detroit International Riverfront. Much of that vision is now a reality.
“We are working to see that Detroit has an identity as a Great Lakes city,” Hodges says.
When completed, the riverfront will connect 5 and a half miles of property, from the Ambassador Bridge to Gabriel Richard Park, just east of the Belle Isle Bridge, with a continuous RiverWalk dotted with plazas, pavilions and green spaces. For more info, go to detroitriverfront.org.
A Huron River Renaissance: RiverUP!
The cool, clear waters of the Huron River connect some of southeast Michigan’s most vibrant communities: Milford, Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Flat Rock. But connecting those communities to their riverfront, and to each other, hasn’t always been obvious. The Huron River Watershed Council’s RiverUp! effort is changing that.
“We call RiverUp! a ‘renaissance’ for the river,’” says Elizabeth Riggs, Deputy Director at HRWC. “We are striving to build a sense of place not only by cleaning up the river, but by fostering river recreation and creating a destination with vibrant towns connected by the Huron River Water Trail.”
The Council’s efforts have resulted in improved safety and access to paddling along the river, including launch, dam and portage improvements, and improved information resources for paddlers looking to plan trips. The Council also works closely with the five trail towns along the river (Milford, Dexter, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Flint) to develop assets and amenities for paddlers that contribute to local economic development. For more info, go to www.riveruphuron.org.
Connecting People With Their River: WaterTowns
The Clinton River is Michigan’s most populated waterway – more than 1.4 million people live in the watershed. But access to and enjoyment of the river has historically been limited, as rapid suburban development treated the river more as an afterthought than as an amenity.
“The Clinton River Watershed Council’s WaterTowns program is working to change,” says Anne Vaara, Executive Director of the Council. “We are helping local communities identify their underutilized waterfront assets and find ways to transform those areas into places where people can connect with their waterways.”
From quaint downtown Clarkston to Rochester to the cities of Utica and Mount Clements, the Council is working to launch programs like “Crafts on the Clinton,” a craft beer event featuring beer brewed in the watershed and build infrastructure to allow people to launch kayaks, cast a fishing line, or just find a quiet place to reflect and enjoy the sound of moving water. For more info, go to crwc.org.
Macomb County: From Blue Collar to Blue Economy
Even as Macomb County’s manufacturing economy has declined, the aquamarine waters of Lake St. Clair continue to rival places like Florida, drawing anglers from all over the world for its premier bass fishing.
“In terms of boats per square mile, Lake St. Clair is one of the busiest places in the nation,” says Gerry Santoro, Program Manager of Land and Water Resources at Macomb County’s Planning and Economic Development Department. Under the direction of county executive Mark Hackel, Macomb’s Blue Economy Initiative is working to leverage those blue assets as a platform for new economic development.
“We are realizing our recreational boating and fishing industries,” Santoro says. “Conservatively, we can say Lake St. Clair brings in at least $1 billion to the local economy annually. We believe freshwater is our key to our sustainability.” For more info, go to makemacombyourhome.com.
Revitalizing the Rouge River
Once upon a time, the Rouge River was so polluted it caught on fire. Today, it is a model for urban waterway restoration. Since 1992, Rouge communities have received more than $300 million in federal funds to clean up combined sewers, reduce runoff and restore habitat in Michigan’s most urbanized watershed. Today, efforts by Friends of the Rouge, the Southeast Michigan Land Conservancy, and multiple community partners are looking to take the next step beyond cleanup by turning the river into a community asset and destination.
“We want to bring people closer to the river,” says Sally Petrella, Volunteer Program Manager at Friends of the Rouge. “We are changing perceptions of the Rouge. For so long, people considered it a sewer, something they should stay away from. We are helping people to realize the river is a place to enjoy.”
Projects to revitalize the Rouge include the Rouge Water Trail Committee and the Fort/Rouge Gateway Partnership that are working together to develop a water trail and parkland along the lower Rouge. For more info, go to therouge.org.
Blue Water, Blue Economy
Visit the St. Clair River near Port Huron, where the great volume of Lake Huron concentrates into a single channel, and you will at once know why the area is referred to as a Blue Water paradise. Here, the river reflects every color of blue on the spectrum, depending on the quality of light — from an almost iridescent blue cobalt on a sunny day to a subdued, steely azure when the sky is filled with clouds.
Until now, that beauty was juxtaposed with an industrial landscape and little public access. That changed in 2011 with a donation of nearly a mile of shoreline to the Community Foundation of St. Clair County. The Foundation leveraged private, public and other philanthropic funds to invest more than $6 million in developing the Blue Water River Walk, a beautiful riverfront promenade complete with a ferry dock, habitat and shoreline restoration, outdoor classroom, pedestrian trail and public art.
“It’s been an amazing rallying point for the community, to turn our attention back to the waterfront, says Randy Maiers, President of the Foundation. “This stretch of shoreline was an industrial wasteland for last 70 years, and is now it is positioned for future economic development.” For more info, go to stclairfoundation.org/riverwalk.