The Rise and Fall of Allen’s Creek
Author: Grace Shackman
The stream that flows through Ann Arbor’s Old West Side hasn’t been seen above ground since 1926, but you can still see its influence everywhere.
Allen’s Creek, the site of the city’s first settlement, still runs through Ann Arbor’s west side. Named for Ann Arbor’s co-founder John Allen, it has a romantic sound to it, bringing to mind pictures of Potawatomi Indans following its course, settlers camping and picnicking on the banks, livestock drinking from it, and children playing in it. That idyllic picture has some truth in it, but Sam Schlecht, who knew it well in the years before it was put in a pipe below ground in 1926, says the creek was by then more like a “ditch in the road.” Historically, its value to Ann Arbor had more to do with urban development than natural beauty.
The main branch of Allen’s Creek runs northward roughly parallel to the Ann Arbor Railroad tracks, starting at Pioneer High and spilling into the Huron River just below Argo Dam. Three tributaries flow east into it from the Old West Side. Eber White starts on Lutz, crosses Seventh Street, and flows into the main stream at William; Murray-Washington rises at Virginia Park, crosses Slauson Middle School playground, and joins the creek near West Park; and West Park-Miller drains the ravine between MilIer and Huron.
Ann Arborites who were born after 1926 or who came to town after the creek was interred would probably not even know it exists except that it surfaces periodically as a political issue. In 1983, the voters approved a bond issue to repair it. And in recent years it has been part of an ongoing discussion about a possible Greenway that may include opening it up again.
Allen's Creek must have been named immediately after John Allen and Elisha Rumsey founded Ann Arbor in 1824. It is referred to by that name in all the early accounts and shows up on the map of "Ann-Arbour" that they registered in Detroit in May 1824.
Allen and Rumsey arrived here in February, looking for government land to buy as a town site. After returning to Detroit to pay for one square mile of property, they came back and set up camp on what is today the corner of First and Huron, with the creek right behind them as a water source. Rumsey and his wife, Mary Ann, later built a house on the site.
As Ann Arbor developed in the 1850s and 1860s, many businesses located along the creek. The creek apparently did not have a current strong enough to furnish real water power—the only industry that used it in that way was the Ward Flour Mill, at the mouth where the creek joined the Huron—but many businesses used its water for processing. Four tanneries on or near the creek used its water to soak cowhides and pelts of wild animals trapped in the surrounding forests. A foundry, Tripp, Ailes, and Price, on Huron Street where the Y is today, used the creek's water for its sand casting. And two breweries, the Western, later called the Michigan Union, on Fourth Street (today Math Reviews) and the City Brewery on First Street (today the Cavern Club), used the creek water to cool their beer.
In 1878, when the Ann Arbor Railroad reached town on its way between Toledo, Ohio, and Michigan's north, its developers chose the land beside Allen Creek to lay their track. Not only was it flat, but it was already the location of many of the industries they wanted to serve. Putting the tracks there guaranteed that the area would remain industrial even after water supply was no longer crucial.
As industry grew, so did the population. In 1846 William Maynard laid out the first section of the Old West Side, from First to Fourth streets. He added more streets in 1858 and 1861. But unlike today's subdivisions, with houses built one after another down each street, the area took shape slowly, with the higher land being built on first. The most desirable streets were Liberty, Huron, and Miller because they were high and dry. The three streets were laid out in a fan shape, rather than parallel, to avoid crossing the creek tributaries that ran between them.
Cross streets going down into the valleys between those main arteries weren't developed until years later. Murray and Mulholland streets, which cross the creek, were not laid out until 1911 and 1916. And some of the lowest parts of the creek bed were never built on at all--today they are West Park, Slauson playground, and the second Bach School playground.
A few west side homeowners took advantage of having the water nearby. David Allmendinger, owner of the downtown organ factory, built a house in 1890 at 719 West Washington, just in front of the creek. He dammed the creek to create a series of ponds, incorporating natural springs that were found on the property. He brought in soil to plant a rose garden and added a rustic bridge across the pond and a gazebo for family gatherings (he had thirteen children).
Allmendinger planted water lilies and stocked the pond with carp, one of which, according to family legend, answered to the name of Billy. But the carp were endangered when the city water pump station next door began drawing more water from the springs: the pond level fell so low that the family cat could catch fish by just reaching in.
Some westsiders used the creek more practically--to water their livestock. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the line between city and country wasn't as sharply drawn as it is now. Many people kept chickens, or even a horse or a cow, on their city lots. (There are still a number of barns around the Old West Side, used today as garages.) Sam Schlecht remembered his grandparents telling him of cows drinking from the creek near their Seventh Street house. Marty Schlenker's family told him that their livestock used to drink from the creek at First Street behind their Liberty Street hardware store.
Although the creek influenced the location of industry, houses, and the railroad, its importance had shrunk to almost nil by the early 1900s. Water was piped indoors after 1885, when the Ann Arbor Water Works Company was set up, so the creek was not necessary for industry, and homes and the railroad tracks had already been established. The only use for the creek was for recreation.
A stream running through a residential neighborhood can be a beauty spot and a play area, as the Allmendingers proved. But people around today who were children before the creek disappeared say that was the exception. Many interviewed said they didn't remember playing in the creek at all, while others remembered it as simply not important.
On hot days, Geraldine Seeback and her sister used to wade in the branch of the creek that ran by the east side of their parents' fluff rug factory on Huron, which replaced the foundry where the Y is today. Asked if her parents worried about her safety, Seeback laughs and says, "It wasn't dangerous." She remembers the water as about four feet wide but only ankle-deep.
Karl Horning, who grew up on Third Street around the same time, has similar memories of the creek. He says, "It was nothing of significance; it didn't add anything to the city." He remembers that he and his friends could see the creek running under the Ann Arbor Railroad freight house on William and Ashley. The freight house was built right over the creek: evidently the creek was so small that builders just ignored it. Marty Schlenker remembered that the Feiner glass warehouse across the street from the freight house was also built over the creek.
Perhaps the person still around who is most familiar with the creek back then is Sam Schlecht, an inveterate explorer who lived in several different Old West Side houses as a boy and saw the creek from different vantage points. Between Seventh and Eighth streets, near Slauson Middle School (now Waterworks Park), the creek widened into a little pond. Schlecht and his friends made a burlap swing and attached it to a tree so they could swing out over the pond. If they fell in, they were in no danger of drowning--only of getting very dirty. Schlecht describes the pond as "slop water covered with algae," not deep enough for swimming.
Although the creek was low most of the time, it could overflow in the spring when the snow melted. Horning remembers that it would back up into gardens on First Street. That was a problem, since the water was polluted from outhouses and years of industrial use. In 1921, the city pumping station on Washington Street, which drew water from the springs that fed the Murray-Washington branch of Allen's Creek, was closed because of contamination from surface water.
In 1923, eighty-seven of the 100 property owners along the main branch of the creek petitioned city council to make it into a storm sewer. At a joint meeting that July, the city council and the Ann Arbor Township board agreed to the request. Alderman Herbert Slauson (for whom the school is named) said, "We do hereby determine that said proposed drain is necessary and conductive to the public health, convenience, and welfare."
It took three years to do the engineering and to enclose the main creek in underground cement pipes. The pipes taper from eleven feet in diameter at the mouth to four feet at the head waters near Pioneer High. In 1925, property owners along the West Park-Miller branch petitioned to have it put into a storm drain, and in 1927, residents along the Murray-Washington and Eber White branches followed. The tributary pipes range from four feet to about eighteen inches in diameter. In 1969 the creek and its tributaries were consolidated into the same drain district.
Sam Schlecht remembers when the creek was being put underground. The section near Keppler Court was on the path he followed to walk downtown, and he often stopped to watch the workmen. He remembers that although they had a primitive backhoe, a lot of their work was done by hand. When he got too close, the workmen would shoo him away. At the time, he remembers, Mulholland Street ended at the creek, with a cement wall to stop cars from going farther. After the creek was put into the pipe, Mulholland was extended across and turned north to end at Seventh Street. Later it was moved east to end at Washington.
The main section of the drain was finished in 1926, just after the city celebrated its hundredth anniversary. The Ann Arbor News wrote: "Planned as a part of the city's permanent sewerage to take care of the drainage from the creek's watershed for all time to come, it is probable that the concrete house for John Allen's creek once it is completed, will remain intact on the two hundredth anniversary of the founding of Ann Arbor."
That was optimistic-—it was more like fifty years later that Allen's Creek again needed attention. The Allen Creek drain, as it is now known, flooded in 1947 and 1968. Putting a creek in a drain was no guarantee it would stay there-—the pipes, of course, hold a finite amount of water--and as Ann Arbor continued developing to the west, filling in more land with buildings, houses, and parking lots, the amount of runoff channeled into the drain kept increasing. By the mid-1970's, it became obvious that the Allen’s Creek drain needed a fresh appraisal.
A study commissioned by the city in the early 1980s offered a choice of several solutions. The most effective options--replacing the pipes with larger ones or building a second drain parallel to the first--were rejected as too expensive. Instead it was decided to repair the present system to make it as efficient as possible. Ann Arbor voters approved a $1.1 million bond issue, and in 1983 the city set to work repairing deteriorated culverts, relocating other utilities' pipes that crossed the drain, and resurfacing bottom areas that had eroded.
The bond money covered the most critical work. Since then, the Washtenaw County drain office and the city's engineering department have continued to work together on drain maintenance. The county is responsible for routine upkeep of the main line of the drain, while the city takes care of the tributaries going into neighborhoods. Major projects are financed using the county's full faith and credit and with the city’s storm water utility fees.
In 1993 the last two sections identified as needing work--an area near the Salvation Army headquarters on Arbana and another on Seventh Street near West Park--were completed. Both the city and county agree that Allen Creek drain is, at least for now, in good shape, even if undersized to serve its drainage area. Drain commissioner Janis Bobrin says there are "no visible areas of concern," but that the county "will continue to evaluate and maintain the drain."
Periodically people talk about opening up portions of the drain and returning it to a natural creek. Current discussion is focusing on the potential of creating a Greenway along the creek corridor. Whether Allen's Creek stays underground or not, its importance to the city has, if anything, continued to grow over the years. For instance, when Michigan Stadium was returned to natural turf in 1991, a tributary of the drain that ran right under the fifty-yard line was directed around the field and large pumps were installed to permanently lower the water table. The pumps allowed the U-M to lower the playing field itself by more than three feet--below the level at which it otherwise would have been covered with water. Without Allen’s Creek, Michigan Stadium would be a lake.
[Photo caption from book]: Map of Allen’s Creek. “Courtesy Washtenaw County Drain Commissioner”