April 1, 2013

Ancient Streams

Detail from a map of Detroit in 1765 showing the near west side's long-departed streams.
Courtesy Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.

Once upon a time, a winding creek flowed through the area that would later become Corktown. By the time it was drained and filled over a century ago, it had gone by many names--Campau's Mill Creek, Cabacier's Creek, Peltier's Creek, and May's Creek. It originated in the marshes that used to lie in the vicinity of Grand Circus Park, and from there, flowed southwestward toward the intersection of Howard and Wabash Streets, then turning southeastward through a ravine where it flowed into the Detroit River.

The map below is based on an illustration that appears in Silas Farmer's History of Detroit.

Note that the shoreline of the Detroit River now extends further than it once did. Detroit's once-high riverbanks were graded before the Woodward street plan was implemented, and the excess earth was pushed into the river to create additional land.

Below is a topographic map from 1905, indicating the natural changes in elevation that created the creek.


One of the creek's earliest names was La Riviere du Moulin a Campau, or Campau's Mill Creek. In the early 1730s, settler Charles Campau obtained permission from Detroit's sixth commandant, Louis Henry Deschamps Sieur de Boishebert, to build a grist mill. Campau built a dam and watermill at the north end of the ravine, which would have lied just north of Fort Street.

The damming of the creek would sometimes flood the land to the west of the mill, which in 1753 was the property of Joseph Cabacier. In 1753, Cabacier complained about the flooding and wanted the mill destroyed. Several landowners petitioned the commandant to let the mill stand, stating that it was the only one convenient to the fort and indispensable to the local inhabitants. The petition was forwarded to Michel-Ange Duquesne de Menneville, the Governor of New France, who ordered that the mill be left alone.

The creek was later named Cabacier's Creek, after the adjacent land owner, and eventually May's Creek and Peltier's Creek after subsequent owners of the farm on which the mill was situated.

Detail from an 1841 map of Springwells Township by J. N. Macomb and W. H. Warner.
Courtesy Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

In 1848, the Michigan Central Rail Road built a depot at the foot of Third Street and laid down tracks on the riverfront leading up to it. The path taken by the railroad took advantage of the existing ravine created by May's Creek where it crossed under Fort Street. These tracks are no longer used, but the outline of the ravine can still be seen south of the Fort Street bridge.

The drainage function of May's Creek was gradually taken over by sewers constructed in the mid-nineteenth century. As the city developed westward, the creek was and filled in and built over. However, the topography that created it can still be observed in Corktown. Looking down Sixth, Brooklyn, Eighth, or Trumbull, one can still observe the ground sloping in toward Labrosse Street, which roughly coincided with the old creek.

Looking north on Eighth Street from Porter, toward the now-departed creek.

Another stream that once flowed near Corktown was the Savoyard River, sometimes also called the Huron Creek. It originated in a swamp that used to be where Lafayette Central Park is today. It ran southwesterly just below Congress Street and flowed into the Detroit River at the foot of Fourth Street. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Savoyard was used as a sewage drain by the growing city, and in 1836 the channel was converted into a brick-lined sewer and buried. The Savoyard River is still believed to flow through its underground tomb to this day.