In 1850 Congress passed the Swamp Land Act, which transferred certain federal lands in eight states, including Michigan, to state control for disposal by sale. Under this act, the Michigan Land Office eventually received nearly six million acres of so-called swamp land. It was not until 1859, however, that the state provided for using these lands as a way to finance road building. By this time the need was greater than ever for better roads to open the way for settlers. On February 12, 1859, Act 117 of the Michigan Legislature was signed into law. In the preamble to the legislation, the act’s framers cited the need to construct roads and ditches (required to drain roads and farmlands) through the more unsettled parts of the state. Legislators deemed that the proceeds from the sale of swamp lands granted to the state by the federal government should be used to construct these roads and ditches.
Act 117 listed nine different state roads for construction, and the Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road was number one on the list. Furthermore, this act set up the machinery necessary to carry out construction; commissioners would be appointed, and among their duties would be the establishment of specifications for fights-of-way, bridges, and road surfaces.
Why the writers of Act 117 chose Ionia as a starting point for the road to the north is not clear, but there are several possible reasons. First of all, since there was a state land office in Ionia, a road from there would be ideal for persons buying land and planning to move north into the central Lower Peninsula. Second, Ionia, which at the time was already a substantial community on the Grand River, was situated farther north than Lansing and thus closer to unsettled land. Choosing Ionia as the starting place for the road had another benefit that the people who drew up the act may not have fully understood. Had the road proceeded north from Lansing, builders would have encountered serious difficulties. In northern Clinton County, the wide glacial spillway now occupied by the Maple River would have been a major obstacle. Farther north in Gratiot County, the road would have had to be built across a glacial lake plain consisting of heavy clay loam soils. Building a road in those conditions would have required extensive drainage and filling, and even then the resulting road would have been subject to flooding at certain times of the year. Alternatively, a road running north from Ionia would follow the “backbone” of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, where there was a series of recessional moraines and ground moraines, along with stretches of outwash plain. Although this area was not without problems, the route offered relatively good year-round drainage and lighter soils, which made road construction much easier.
For more information about the Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road, and the politics of early road building in Michigan, see Hudson Keenan, “Ionia and Houghton Lake State Road: Michigan’s first designated state swamp land road”, Michigan Historical Review, September 22, 2005.