The Renaissance of the Winding River Raisin

Imagination and the River Raisin shimmering in the sunlight, frozen in the moonlight, or covered with a fog cape conjures up reflections of Native American canoes skimming over the waters. The Native people called their river Nummasepee – River of Sturgeon-

and canoed and fished its sparkling waters until a long, French shadow stretched across it.

In 1670, the French explorer Robert de LaSalle gazed on the River Raisin as he voyaged to Detroit, marveling at the lush richness of the country stretched on each side of the river. Black walnut groves, wild plum trees, and oak trees draped in grape vines dotted the level prairies. LaSalle and the French settlers who followed were so impressed with the grapevines that covered the trees and crept along its banks that they called the river “Riviere Aux Raisin” or River of Grapes. A few more strokes of the paddle sift scenes from Native American canoes to French bateaux anchored at the docks of long narrow ribbon farms. In another few feet, factories and bustling wharves appear. The River Raisin creates timeless ripple pictures of people and places in its journey from its source in Vineyard Lake in the Irish Hills area to its mouth at the Monroe Harbor.

Glacier Geology and River Geography

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Scientists estimate the life span of the Wisconsin Ice Sheet or Pleistocene Glacier to be between two million and 11,000 years ago, which gave it time enough to carve out a geological landscape, including creating the River Raisin Watershed., which drains from the north and west. The River Raisin is approximately 140 miles long (estimated length varies from 135-150 miles) and its watershed covers 1,072 miles, about the size of Rhode Island.

The Raisin’s  headwaters rise about 1,200 feet above sea level in Vineyard Lake on the forested slopes of the Irish Hills and then wind southeast through glacial moraine and across an agricultural and industrial lake plain to its mouth in Monroe Harbor on Lake Erie. The River Raisin’s tributaries include Goose, Evans, Iron, Wolf, Black, and Macon Creeks and the Saline River. It has a south branch at Adrian and the Little River Raisin flows at Britton in Lenawee County.

The River Raisin’s watershed covers five counties, six cities, ten villages, and forty townships. River Raisin Watershed cities include Saline, Adrian, Tecumseh, Petersburg and Monroe. Villages include Brooklyn, Cement City, Manchester, Blissfield, Britton, Clinton, Deerfield, Onsted and Dundee. Its basin shelters 429 lakes and features more than 3000 miles of artificial drainage systems. Several earthen dams constructed in the 1800s are still maintained today, including those at Brooklyn, Norwell, Loch Erin, Saline, Milan, Dundee, Grape and Waterloo. [1]

Peeks at River Raisin People

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Taking advantage of the plentiful food and easy water transportation along the shores of Lake Erie and the banks of the River Raisin, Paleo-Indians probably used the area as a crossroads, camp site, or village centuries before LaSalle and other Europeans discovered the Great Lakes. The City of Monroe unearthed more recent proof of Native American imprints between 1999 and 2003, when it commissioned several excavations at the northwest corner of North Dixie Highway and East Elm Avenue. Archaeologists discovered artifacts that reveal that Native Americans were there between 1550-1650.

In the Seventeenth Century, European explorers and fur traders traversed waterways like the River Raisin and its connections to Lake Erie and water passageways to Lake Michigan to prosper and establish new territories and settlements in the Great Lakes Region. For years, Pottawatomi, Wyandot, Ottawa, and other Native American tribes thrived in villages along rivers including the Detroit River and the River Raisin. The women farmed, growing corn, beans, squash, tobacco, and sunflowers for seeds and the men hunted wild game such as rabbit, deer, and wild turkeys as well as catching the abundant fish in the rivers and lakes.

The first French settlers establishing claims along the River Raisin were direct descendants of the old French pioneers of Detroit and their French Ribbon farms and in turn, most of the old French pioneers of Detroit had left France for Canada, bringing their French traditions and customs with them. The British outlawed private grants between French settlers and Native Americans with almost no exceptions. Between 1763 and 1801, hundreds of young French habitants left Detroit and settled on the River Raisin with the goal of establishing new farms and families, negotiating with Native Americans-mainly the Potawatomi, Wyandot, Ottawa, and Chippewa tribes of the Western Lake Erie area – for deeds to tracts of land.

Dividing riverfront and lakeshore land on both sides of the River Raisin into narrow ribbon farms provided important advantages to the farmer. Each farmer had water access and water was the main transportation. The layout placed each farmhouse at a minimum distance from one another, ensuring easy communication of news, and Indian alarms. Quick access to neighbors made dances, sledding parties, and other social gatherings easy to arrange and attend. France controlled the River Raisin region until 1763 when after losing in the Seven Years War, they ceded the area to Great Britain.  Fur trader Joseph Pulier Benac was one of the first to settle along the River Raisin, and in 1780, Colonel Francis Navarre arrived and established the community of Frenchtown. Almost 100 settlers followed him to the River Raisin, building log cabins and peacefully living with the Native Americans for many years. In 1793, the first American settlement was founded at Frenchtown and French and English settlers also lived peacefully together and prospered.

Just months after the United States declared War of Great Britain beginning the War of 1812, the Battle of the River Raisin or the Battle of Frenchtown took place. From January 18-23, 1813, American forces and British and their Native American allies clashed in a battle that was part of the American plan to advance north and retake Fort Detroit after General William Hull had surrendered it to the British the previous summer. After winning the first battle, the Americans lost 397 soldiers and 547 taken prisoner in the second encounter when the British and Native Americans counter attacked. More prisoners were killed when they fell behind on the forced march into Fort Malden in Canada. The Battle of the River Raisin was the deadliest to take place in Michigan and its casualties amounted to the highest number of Americans killed in a single battle during the War of 1812. The Battle of the River Raisin spurred the young United States to fight on to defeat the British in the War of 1812 behind the cry, “Remember the Raisin!”[2]

Settlers flocked to Michigan Territory to purchase farm land and enough of them settled along the River Raisin for Monroe and Monroe County to be created on July 14, 1817. In the early 1800s, Joseph Loranger bought several acres of land in what later would become Monroe. He bought his farm, located on the east side of Monroe Street, from Judge Augustus B. Woodward, who in turn  had bought it to fulfill a Michigan Territory requirement requiring a judge to own at least 500 acres of land. He called the farm Euphemia, until he platted his land into village lots in 1817 and the new land owners named their village Monroe. Samuel Mulhollen and Jared Egnew purchased the adjoining farm on the west of Joseph Loranger’s for six dollars an acre and Samuel built a log house on his land

On June 1, 1819, John Anderson, Oliver Johnson and twelve other citizens were authorized to build a toll bridge across the River Raisin, the first of many spanning the Raisin.

Agriculture and Industry Along the River Raisin

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After Monroe and Monroe County were established in 1817,  Monroe’s enterprising citizens worked to take advantage of the abundant water power that the River Raisin and Lake Erie provided and  utilize its favorable geographic location halfway between Detroit and Toledo. Spurred on by the commercial rivalry with nearby Toledo, these pioneers searched for ways to take advantage of the water power of the Raisin and had their efforts had pulled Monroe ahead of Toledo until the canal and the railroad came.

The Canal was the  Wabash and Erie Canal which became operational in 1837. Monroe also became a city in 1837 and by 1838, its population, including Frenchtown was about 1,800. Toledo, which was reincorporated in 1837 numbered a population of 3,829 by 1850.

Then on April 22, 1833, the Territory of Michigan chartered the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad to run from the former Port Lawrence, Michigan (now Toledo, Ohio) near Lake Erie, northwest to Adrian on the River Raisin and on to Kalamazoo. When the trains began operating on November 2, 1836, horses pulled them, but a newly arrived steam locomotive eventually replaced them. By 1852, the Erie and Kalamazoo had been absorbed into the Michigan Southern Railroad , a link in the early rail route from the East coast to Chicago.[3]

Still struggling valiantly to win the maritime business, in 1852 and 1853, Monroe entrepreneurs established a line of steamers between Buffalo and Monroe including the Southern Michigan, the Northern Indiana, and the City of Buffalo, at the time the largest and luxurious on the lakes. Although they prospered for a time, the steamers couldn’t compete with the railroads. Monroe’s population statistics compared with Toledo tell the story. Monroe’s population in 1874 was 5,782 and Toledo’s population 1880 was 50,137.  In 1890 Monroe had 5,618 people and Toledo had a population of 131,822 in 1900. [4]

Monroe pioneers also worked to improved its harbor on the River Raisin by dredging a canal that formed the outlet into Lake Erie. In 1834, the River Raisin emptied into Lake Erie at the south end of a low, marshy peninsula that stood between the channel and the lake. The mouth of the River Raisin at this point reached only a five-foot depth over a bar. From 1835 to 1882, Monroe entrepreneurs worked to improve Monroe Harbor, including digging a canal 4,000 feet long, 100 feet wide, and 10 feet deep, across the neck of the peninsula at a point one and half miles above the mouth of the River Raisin. The canal and other improvements resulted in a mid-channel depth of nine feet or more from Lake Erie to the wharves, where the depth was eight to nine feet with a solid rock bottom. Two piers protected the mouth of the harbor, the one on the north side a crib work built with stone, and the one on the south side constructed with piling and crib work.

Despite the improvements, Monroe maritime trade didn’t equal or surpass that of Detroit and Toledo. In these early days, most of the receipts were telegraph poles brought in on rafts with light draft tugs to tow the rafts in the River Raisin. During the summer season several small steamers carried passengers to equally small resorts near the mouth of the River Raisin. Steamers landed at the piers, but generally didn’t run to the Monroe wharves. During the 1897 Monroe season, 245 vessels with a registered tonnage of 11,180 arrived and the same number departed. The receipts for 1897 were 425 tons, and the shipments were 1,300 tons. In 1932, during the Great Depression, the City of Monroe and the Monroe Port Commission constructed the Port of Monroe near the mouth of the River Raisin and in 1981 built a new office near the ship turning basin on the River. The Monroe Port Commission owns a large amount of property with 4,000 feet of dock space and supports many tenants in the port area. The port generates about $38 million annually [5]

Not too long after the Monroe and Monroe County pioneers settled alongside or near the River Raisin, they dammed it and built mills across it.  Most of the dams were built in Monroe, but one of the more significant dams, the Alfred Wilkerson gristmill dam on the River Raisin, originated  in Dundee. In the early Nineteenth Century, the mills built on the River Raisin were mostly saw  or grist mills and later, in the mid-1800s paper mills were added to the mill mixture during the lumber booms and Henry Ford’s Rural Industry Program. Industries that at one time operated along the River Raisin in Monroe include the Alcoa Aluminum Plant, Newton Steel, Consolidated Paper Company, the Van Blerck Motor Company, the Ford Motor Company Monroe Plant and the River Raisin Paper Company. Gerdau  Specialty Steel, Monroe Waste Water Treatment Plant, Michigan Paving & Materials, and Barnhart Crane & Rigging are just a few companies that still operate near the mouth of the River Raisin in Monroe.  [6]

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The DTE Monroe Power Plant, the third largest coal fueled electricity generating plant in North America, is located near the mouth of the River Raisin on the western shore of Lake Erie. Constructed in the early 1970s and completed in 1974, the plant provides approximately one third of Southeastern Michigan’s electric power. With all four of its generating units operating, the plant produces 3,300 megawatts of electricity. In recent years, the Monroe Plant has received awards for environmentally safe practices.

The DTE Power Plant diverts most of the River Raisin’s flow and discharges it into Plum Creek to control pollution of the River mouth area. The Power Plant’s peak water usage exceeds the River Raisin’s average flow, so water is occasionally drawn upstream from Lake Erie into the plant. Its intake system also impacts fish. .  Warm-water fish including bluegill, white sucker, channel catfish, walleye, crap, white bass, black buffalo, freshwater drum and smallmouth bass can be found in the River Raisin, but they face survival challenges. The high amount of industrial water use is believed to kill many fish in the intake screens and the seven dams on the River Raisin make fish migration from the River into Lake Erie almost impossible

In his 1998 Department of Natural Resources Report, Kenneth E. Dodge described the River Raisin flow reversal situation. He wrote that the DTE plant’s cooling water requirement of up to 3,000 cfs greatly exceeds the 741 cfs annual mean flow and during all but the yearly high flow periods, the entire flow of the River Raisin is drawn through the intake canal and processed through the power plant as cooling water. Lake Erie water is also drawn upstream to the plant through the channel of the River Raisins, essentially reversing its flow. The processed cooling water at an increased temperature is returned to Lake Erie through a separate outlet canal to Plum Creek Bay. This cycle, part of the plant’s normal operation, prevents potamodromous or freshwater fish, from making upstream runs to spawn. Fish stocked upstream from the power plant also find it difficult to migrate downstream to Lake Erie.[7]

Portraits of River Raisin Places

 

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Restoring the River Raisin

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Agriculture and industries that made the River Raisin watershed region economically healthy didn’t return the same benefits to the River Raisin.. The Raisin’s natural course has been changed, its flowage diverted and dammed, and its waters polluted with PCBs, carcinogenic chemicals, heavy metals and agricultural runoff.

In 1985, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) designed the River Raisin as a Great Lakes Area of Concern. Areas of Concern are locations within the Great Lakes Basin that have suffered “significant environmental damage,” because of severe environmental degradation from industrial and municipal pollution. These areas are identified by specific ecological conditions that need drastic improvement. One of the established Areas of Concern covers the two miles of the watershed at the River Raisin’s mouth, which is industrial and harbor use, and fish consumption advisories exist up and down the River.

The River Raisin’s lower 2.6 miles which flows through the industrial zone of Monroe into Lake Erie has been heavily utilized over the decades and has earned an unenviable reputation as an “industrial sewer.” This stretch of the River Raisin has been on the U.S.-Canada international Joint Commission’s “areas of concern” list since 1987. The Areas of Concern” list identifies 43 of some of the Great Lakes region’s most toxic and problematic hotspots, including the Maumee and Ottawa Rivers, and the River Raisin industrial zone in Monroe. The original list included 31 areas in the United States and 12 in Canada and in the last 39 years, only seven have been removed-four in the United States and three in Canada.

In the 1990s, Ford instituted a remediation effort to clean up the portion of the Raisin adjacent to its plant, but studies had underestimated the extent of the PCB contamination, mostly because of the Raisin’s exceptionally hard and tough bottom. Although it had halted production in its Monroe Plant in 2008, Ford agreed to finance all but $9.5 million dollars of the cleanup.

In 2009, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded $275 million to $500 million dollars a year to Great Lakes projects and the House of Representatives approved a bill that extended the program at least five years. Since 2012, $23 million dollars’ worth of improvements have taken place in the River Raisin and an addition $30 million is being spent to remove toxic chemicals in the riverbed near the closed Ford Motor Company parts plant. The plan is for the River Raisin to enter a three to five-year healing and monitoring phase.

In September 2015, the Department of Environmental Quality’s Office of the Great Lakes announced that state and local efforts to clean up the River Raison were bringing it closer to environmental recovery downstream. The DEQ removed one of its “beneficial use impairments” from the River Raisin, which means that the fish and wildlife habitat in the River has improved enough to support healthy populations.[8]

According to the DEQ, a 6.5 million dollar fund from the Federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and help from state and local governments helped bring about the restoration. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the City of Monroe effectively implemented the Restoration Initiative projects, which included eight projects to remove or retrofit 1930s dams and provide fish passages and four wetland restoration projects in Sterling State Park in Monroe.

Optimism about the future of the River Raisin hangs like morning mists over its waters. Kayaking, canoeing, fly fishing, and other water enjoyment activities have flowed freely along with the Raisin in its wilder parts west of Monroe. Water quality improvements and dam removal have made it possible for fish once again to move across the Raisin’s lower 23 miles from Dundee to western Lake Erie for the first time since the 1930s.

In most polluted areas of the Raisin, fish-consumption alerts will probably stay in place for years, but there is hope that eventually the River Raisin fish sizzling in the pan will include lake sturgeon. Lake sturgeon are gaining a foothold in the newly resurrected Detroit River and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and other organizations are planning to reintroduce them to the Maumee River. Federal, state, and local agencies and the efforts of private citizens may eventually restore the River Raisin to reflect its original Native American name- Nummasepee, the River of Sturgeon.

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Brett Moyer – Kayaking the River Raisin

Notes

River Raisin Watershed Council

River Raisin Legacy Project

River Raisin Dam Remediation Project  

The City of Monroe published a 36-page booklet about the River Raisin’s history, legacy, pollution, and environmental restoration efforts. They are available at Monroe City Hall at 120 East First Street, Monroe.

[1] River Raisin Watershed Council      https://www.michigan.gov/documents/deq/wb-nps-rr-wmp1_303614_7.pdf

USDA Local Coordinating Committee, 1996.

[2]In 1956, the State of Michigan declared the River Raisin Battlefield a State Historical Site and in 2009, the United States Congress designed the River Raisin National Battlefield site as the River Raisin National Battlefield Park, just one of four parks in the country and the only one commemorating the War of 1812.  In 2013, U.S.  Representative Tim Walberg and the entire Michigan delegation introduced H. Res.37, 113th Congress, honoring the 200th anniversary of the battles at the River Raisin.

[3] Later it became part of the Lakeshore and Michigan Southern, the New York Central, the Penn Central, and the Conrail systems, and it carried passengers until November 1956.

[4] History of the Great Lakes, Volume 1. J.B. Mansfield, editor. Chicago:  Beers & Company, 1899.

[5] History of the Great Lakes, Volume 1. J.B. Mansfield, editor. Chicago:  Beers & Company, 1899;  River Raisin Legacy Project.

[6] River Raisin Legacy Project.

[7] Kenneth E. Dodge, Michigan Department of National Resources, 1998      

[8] River Raisin Watershed Management Plan