Historic Summary of Wayne County Parks
Rivers and Roads
The Wayne County Parks System grew out of the evolution of the automobile industry. This unique relationship has influenced the development pattern of the park system as it combined rivers with roadways across the landscape. The founders of the park system were the same leaders that pioneered the Good Roads Movement in the country at the turn of the century. Edward Hines, the Gran Consul of the League of American Wheelman, campaigned for the passage of the County Road Law of 1893. Naturally, he became one of the first Wayne County Road Commissioners, along with John Haggerty and William Butler Looking for means to acquire lands for roadside development, these Commissioners successfully petitioned the Wayne County Board of Supervisors in 1915 to create a Board of Wayne County Park Trustees as allowed under Act 90 of 1913.
The city of Detroit was already underway with the establishment of Belle Isle Park . These County Park Trustees however, were hampered by a lack of funding and legislation allowing for the ability to collect funds. It would be the Road Commissioners Hines, Haggerty and Butler, utilizing their resources, that actively launched the acquisition of park lands and its development.
The Rise of the Auto Industry
The importance of developing standards for road construction and maintenance took on a new urgency. The desires for parks and roadside stops were also taking on importance.
Leroy Smith and Jesse Bennett,Park Champions
One of the most favorable actions benefiting the park system was the hiring of Leroy C. Smith in 1918 and Jesse Bennett in 1922 by the Wayne County Road Commission.
Smith , an engineer for the State Highway Commission, became acting manager of the Road Commission. It would be Smith that carried forth the dream of building a regional park system long after the original Road Commissioners dropped from public involvement. Bennett, the Park Superintendent, achieved national recognition for his books on roadside plantings and beautification. The books, three in all, would be used in college programs for more than a decade. It was through his efforts that the first public arboretum in the State was established in Hines Park, Bennett Arboretum.
Elizabeth Park, the First
In a sense the Wayne County Park System started as a gift. Road Commissioner, William Butler, a resident of the Village of Trenton, secured the acquisition of Slocum Island as the first County park in the State. His relationship with Elliott Slocum prompted him and his two sisters to grant their family estate to the County. This 162-acre estate on the banks of the Detroit River was offered to the County on the condition that it be accepted and maintained by the County as a public park to be known as Elizabeth Park in honor of their Mother, Elizabeth Slocum Nichols.
The acceptance of Elizabeth Park in October of 1919 marks the celebrated beginning of the Wayne County Park System.
Without a budget for land acquisition or improvements, the development of this park proceeded through the determination of the early Road Commissioners as they constructed the canal, bridges and a beautiful Victorian shelter through various road programs.
1920's The Parkway Plan
On the national level the development of parkways was gaining wide support. Wayne County was designated as one of the first in the State to launch its own parkway plan. The parkway plan was based on the Bronx Parkway developed in 1925 in Westchester, NY on the Bronx River.
One of the first Detroiters to view the parkway was Sidney Waldon, the Chief Planner of the Detroit Rapid Transit Commission. Upon his return, he promoted the idea of establishing parkways in Southeast Michigan among members of the Oakland and Wayne County Road Commissions. Edward Hines decided to develop a parkway along the Middle Rouge River as an example to the people of Wayne County.
The County already owned large sections of land along the river at Phoenix Lake in Plymouth and Cass Benton Woods in Northville. Crowding at these park sites was becoming a problem.
Although the efforts of the Wayne County Road Commission to raise capital for park land development fell on deaf ears, it petitioned the Wayne County Board of Supervisors for $1,000 to acquire park lands along the Middle, Upper and Lower Rouge River for parkway development. Like Elizabeth Park, all of the park acquisitions during this period were gifted to the Park Trustees. Two more unsuccessful attempts were made to acquire a 1/8 mil for parkland acquisition in 1935 and a 1/4 mil in 1936. Acquisitions proceeded through condemnation efforts for flood control and use of Land Trust Grants.
Henry Ford Becomes a Partner with Wayne County Parks
At the same time the Wayne County Road Commission was launching an aggressive road building program, Henry Ford, the automotive pioneer, was actively acquiring old mills to convert into "Village Industry Plants." Ford, who had previously partnered with the Wayne County Road Commissioners in their efforts to establish a State Highway Commission, had a long relationship with Commissioner John Haggerty.
It became mutually beneficial for Ford and the commissioners to combine their efforts and work together along the Rouge River. In a joint agreement, the Wayne County Road Commission made needed road improvements and constructed new dams on four mill ponds being converted into machine shops by Mr. Ford between 1920 to 1933. The mills and impoundment were eventually turned over to the County between 1937 to 1944 for incorporation into the park system.
The Great Depression and Work Relief Programs
Next to Henry Ford, the greatest benefactor to the Wayne County Park System was the "Great Depression". After the stock market crash of 1929, large tracks of land were acquired through delinquent taxes through the State Land Board. The financial resources of the Road Commission were strained but Leroy Smith pushed for an aggressive land acquisition program following the parkway plan. He continued development of the parks through ‘‘Work Relief Programs "and the "Civilian Conservation Corp."
World War II
With the onset of the war, the prominence of airport activities and the construction of highways for the movement of armaments being produced in the car plants, overshadowed all other county services. Much to Smith’s credit, he carried the parkway plan forth acquiring properties as he could and completing prior construction projects.
During the War in 1935 a new county master plan was created. It resembled the first parkway plan by including developments along the Middle, Lower and Upper Rouge Parkways, but was larger in scope by proposing greenways along the Huron River and in Gratiot Township on the east side of Detroit. In 1939, an even more ambitious parkway master plan for Wayne County was unveiled.
This plan proposed the connection of the three Rouge Parkways to the Huron Parkway forming a network of parklands running north and south through the county. It even proposed a westward extension of the Middle Rouge Parkway along the Johnson Drain branch of the Rouge. This extension would connect to a parkway to be built in Washtenaw County south of Joy Road. Connections between the Middle and Lower Rouge Parkway were proposed near the Village of Cherry Hill. The development of the Bell Branch of the Rouge River was to extend up into Oakland County. The concept of a parkway system was now regional in scope.
The Huron Clinton Metro Authority 1940’s
Fulfilling the extended parkway plan required purchasing property outside of Wayne County boundaries. In 1938, Leroy Smith formed a Parkway Committee. The Huron Clinton Parkway Committee, was drawn from the Road Commissions in Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Livingston Counties. The group’s chief goal was to pass legislation that would allow for the creation of the Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority. This authority would be able to collect millage funds from all counties involved for the development of parkways along the Huron and Clinton Rivers and in the further expansion of the Rouge Parkway System in Wayne County. The proposal to establish the Huron Clinton Metro Authority [MacCallum Act] was approved in all five counties in the election of 1940.
Fulfilling the extended parkway plan required purchasing property outside of Wayne County boundaries. In 1938, Leroy Smith formed a Parkway Committee. The Huron Clinton Parkway Committee, was drawn from the Road Commissions in Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw and Livingston Counties. The group’s chief goal was to pass legislation that would allow for the creation of the Huron Clinton Metropolitan Authority. This authority would be able to collect millage funds from all counties involved for the development of parkways along the Huron and Clinton Rivers and in the further expansion of the Rouge Parkway System in Wayne County.
The proposal to establish the Huron Clinton Metro Authority [MacCallum Act] was approved in all five counties in the election of 1940.
Smith was appointed as planning advisor to the new board. Smith, who funded this initial campaign and coordinated the planning efforts of the Huron Clinton Parkway Committee, was later pushed out of his leadership role in the late 1940’s. As a result of these actions, his attempts to get the Huron Clinton Metro Authority to support land acquisition set forth in the 1939 parkway plan for Wayne County were blocked.
Troubled Times 1960-70’s
The lack of dedicated funding for park development continued to limit the ability of the County to secure lands, make improvements and maintain the grounds. In 1965, the death of Leroy Smith hampered the efforts of Wayne County Road Commission. The management of services became saturated with political cronies and the park operations shriveled as staffing and maintenance equipment continued to be cut. The years 1965 to 1975 were troublesome times for the parks. The Middle Rouge Parkway became the assembly area of large rowdy groups of youths.
A consortium of local and county officials and law enforcement agencies called the Hines Park Task Force was established in 1977 to resolve the rowdiness and upgrade the image of the park. The Task Force established a Wayne County Sheriff mini station at the old Newburgh Mill in 1980. A mounted police force was added in 1984. However, without continued maintenance of the park areas family activities stopped and law enforcement efforts struggled.
The County Reorganization , the Parks Close 1980’s
A major recession combined with an oil crises crippled the Michigan auto economy in the late 1970’s. Unemployment was up and the number of residents moving out of Wayne County was on the rise. The general fund employees of the County were experiencing payless pay days as the budget became a battle ground for various camps within the Board of Commissioners. In November of 1979, the Wayne County Board of Commissioners cut all funding to Park operations. The Wayne County Road Commission, as Park Trustees, closed all of the parks.
Without maintenance and surveillance by Park staff the rate of vandalism became critical. In 1982 by voter referendum, a Home Rule Charter was voted in to curb escalating deficit spending and political polarization within the Board of Commissioners. Unfortunately the Charter listed park operations as a non-mandated service and the parks remained closed to the public. Following this reorganization, the Road Commission was abolished by a voter referendum in 1984 and the Park operations came under the newly created Office of Public Services.
The Parks Reopen
The first County Executive, William Lucas, hired Eric Reickel, Director of the Oakland County Park System, to rebuild the Wayne County System in 1984. His assignment was to reopen the parks, stabilize the management of the Park System, improve maintenance and generate revenues independent of the general fund .
Reickel established a strategic plan for operation of the Parks that included for the first time in the history of the park system, recreational programming. Despite limited funding there were dramatic changes made in the maintenance levels. The grass was mowed regularly and the parks were open year round. Grants were secured to start building a marina at Elizabeth Park and make repairs to the aging Warren Valley Golf Course.
Funding Still Lags
Wayne County faced major deficit spending again with the increasing cost of providing indigent health care and the Parks budget faces another cut. A lack of match funds delayed the start on the marina project and three Land Trust Grants were returned to the State. In 1986, the Board of Commissioners established a Blue Ribbon Task Force to study alternate funding of parks . They recommend a 1/4 county wide millage. The County Executive Office felt the political climate was wrong for the proposal and moved to postpone such action.
The new County administration lead at the time by Edward H. McNamara appointed Hurley Coleman Jr., as Park Director in 1989 making him the first African American to hold this position. A strong focus by the County Executive’s Office to balance the County Budget. An agreement was reached with the State to put a limit on indigent health care.
More than 100 million dollars of federal grants were brought to Wayne County through Congressman John Dingell, as a national Wet Weather Demonstration Project was developed to clean up the Rouge River Watershed. Major sewer separation projects and retention basins were constructed along the Rouge River in the Parks. As part of the project, Newburgh Lake was drained and contaminated sediments removed.
The McNamara administration pushed for an aggressive park development program that utilized State and Federal Grant Programs partnered with private sponsors. Locating matching funds for the grants proved to be difficult. Coleman organized the Friends of Wayne County Parks with the goal of raising funds and awareness of the County Park System. The park system now features the largest holiday light show in the midwest, LightFest. It also sponsors joint programming with the City of Detroit and several other local communities. The public attitude toward parks had shifted in a positive direction.
The Park Millage Passes, the Turning Point 1996
In 1994, funding for the park system again faces major budget cuts. In a bold step to stabilize park funding, Mr. McNamara put forth to the voters a 1/4 mill millage referendum in support of park operations. In August of 1996, the millage passed, marking the first time in the 80-year history of the parks that dedicated funding is secured. This was truly a turning point for Wayne County Parks.
To date, the millage funding has sparked implementation of a capital improvement program. For the first time the County is planning and building recreation facilities in every area of the County, including the City of Detroit. The construction of an aquatic-based recreational facility, was completed and open to the public at Chandler Park in Detroit. The redevelopment of Mariner Park and Fort Wayne on the Detroit River is also being designed.
Renovations are taking place throughout the parks. Sports fields have been upgraded, 13 new picnic centers constructed, restrooms repaired, along with signage improvements. Nankin Mills Nature Center is open again with interpretive programs and science camps for children. Elizabeth Park, is also being renovated for the first time since the County park system started. A shower facility was constructed at the Elizabeth Park Marina along with new parking lot and water line improvements.
By Nancy Darga, Park Historian
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