Lansing’s Upper Town in the 1840’s

Note – This is before Highway 496 was built in the late 1960’s just north of Main Street.
And the name of Main Street was changed to Malcolm X Street in 2010.

Copied from The State Journal – Lansing, Michigan – Sunday, May 22, 1949

Site of New Bridge Was Once Thriving Business District
By Birt Darling (Journal Staff Writer)

History is about to repeat itself up along the Grand river where the mighty span of a million dollar bridge is beginning to take shape.

“Sidewalk superintendents,” watching the progress of construction on the new Main Street bridge, are probably not aware that this will be the third span across the river at this point.

They haven’t heard it because their parents probably hadn’t heard it, and if their grandparents ever did, they were pretty small shavers and forgot to pass it on.

And the thriving little community that once extended from east of S. Cedar st. to S. Washington ave., that too, has been forgotten, although 100 years ago now it vied with the present downtown district and North Lansing as a business center.

With a new Main Street bridge and a widened S. Cedar St., it’s a good guess that this once-thriving business sector will make a comeback.

They called it “Upper Town” a century ago, because it was up-river from “Middle Town” (present-day downtown) and “Lower Town” (North Lansing.) It had three hotels doing a booming business; it had a tinsmith, a bowling alley, a general store or two, a shoemaker and a baked goods shop.

Its citizens snapped their fingers at the denizens of “Middle Town” and “Lower Town” because it had the new city’s first post office, the first hotel, and the first bridge within what are now the Lansing corporate limits. Even “Lower Town” couldn’t beat that, although John Burchard’s cabin had been built by the North Lansing dam in 1843 – four years before “Upper Town” got under way.

The first Main Street bridge, a crude log span, was completed in 1847, very soon after the bill was passed to remove the capitol from Detroit to Lansing.

Promoters of this venture were “Bush & Thomas,” who, by not much of a coincidence, were also the promoters of “Upper Town.”

Charles P. Bush was a legislator, and moved fast when he heard the capitol was going to be moved to a spot known as the “Town of Michigan,” on the far-away Grand river. John Thomas, an astute merchant, was the other leading light in the community-to-be.

The first actual bridge built in the Lansing area, although not within the early city limits, was a log affair over the Red Cedar river on S. Cedar st., constructed in either 1840 or 1841, by George Matthews of Meridian. But today it can qualify as the site of the first bridge, since it wasn’t within what are now the boundaries of the city.

We find Bush living in a house on Lot 16, Block 177, in 1847, just east of where the Barnes mansion was to be built in 1876. Bush also owned Lot 17, according to later (1851) records. It was on the latter lot that the mansion was to be erected – very old to us nowadays, but undreamed of then, at the south foot of S. Capitol ave.

Bush and Thomas started a store on the south half of Lot 1 of Block 227, about at the point of the east end of the new bridge. Lansing’s new first post office, although not shown on the 1859 map, was believed to be just east of this store. Bush sold out to Thomas and died in 1857, but, by the time, “Upper Town” was already on the downgrade as a business section, due to the growth of “Middle Town,” which was in the neighborhood of the new frame capitol in the block bounded by S. Washington and Capitol aves., and W. Allegan and W. Washtenaw sts. Bush and his wife are buried in Mt. Hope cemetery.

Blooming Politics
Like Bush, the first postmaster was also a politician. He was George W. Peck, also a newspaperman, born in New York city in 1818. William Hinman, his deputy, married his daughter. Peck had been elected to the legislature from the Livingston county in 1846, and was speaker of the house the following year, becoming secretary of state in 1848. He and Bush were powers in the new city.

However, when Upper Town’s hotel-owners tried to get tavern licenses, the predominately dry element of Lower Town (North Lansing) presumed to show the Upper Towners, even with the two politicos in their midst, they “weren’t so much,” and for some time the Main streeters from quenching their customers’ thirsts.

Lansing’s first hotel site is believed to have been on the northwest corner of River and Main sts., close by the old bridge. Adams’ local history says it was built “about 1848,” but George Hammell, East Lansing historian, has found a record of a ball being held there on July 4, 1847, and others showing it was started that May, plus a map by Hazen and town records of an application to sell “spirits” in July, 1847.

The original hotel, called “Michigan Exchange,” was started by Levi Hunt, and, according to Theodore Foster, local historian, was a rendezvous for the wagons of the pioneers who came up the “Cedar Trail” from Jackson.

Hunt didn’t retain possession of the Michigan Exchange very long, for we find Bush and Thomas taking over. It is assessed against John Thomas in 1849, and the following year we find Levi Hunt listed as a butcher in the 1850 census. Hunt is assessed in 1853 on other property. He owned Lots 7 to 10 in Block 218 and was assessed for $1000 – a high amount indicating that it must have been business rather than residential property, leading to a conjecture that he may have run a slaughterhouse on his later sites. Land transfer records show that he left Upper Town soon afterward.

Steadily Growing
The “National hotel” was the second in Upper Town, with the record that one Daniel Clapsaddle applied for a tavern (hotel) license on Nov. 27, 1847. It was granted, and he paid all of $4 for it. This was the city’s second hostelry, since Milo H. Turner of “Lower Town’s” (North Lansing) Seymour House didn’t apply for a license until that Dec. 17.

Upper Town also enjoyed the distinction of witnessing the arrival of the first mail coach. This jouncing vehicle, greeted with more fanfare than we of would today would welcome a four-engine DC-4, pulled up before the Bush & Thomas frame store, its horses lathered after the 36-mile run from Jackson, in May 1847, the same month after the capitol removal from Detroit was approved.

Lots in the new “Town of Michigan,” which took in Upper Town, Middle Town and Lower Town, went on auction that July, but Upper Town residents paid little heed, figuring their section was already well-established, and would be the center of population, business and industry.

They had reason for their outlook as they watched the flatboats sweeping ’round the bend, bringing supplies from Jackson and Eaton Rapids, and they talked glibly about the day when the river steamers, which now stopped at Grand Rapids, would come all the way down to Upper Town, which would become virtually a Great Lakes port – with a little widening of certain parts of the Grand river, of course.

Quite a Community
They had justification for their Yankee optimism because of the extent of their little business center.

Directly west of Levi Hunt’s tavern, for instance, was John Berry’s drug store on Lots 3 and 15 of Block 174, on the north side of the 300 block of E. Main st. But Berry didn’t stay long, because by 1849, the property had been transferred to James B. Waite. Waite was a shoemaker, and must have been a “big shot” for those days, for we find him assessed at $500 and $300 in personal assessment in 1849. Born in Pennsylvania in 1802, he died in 1852, but the 1850 census shows that he had $800 in capital invested and that he produced 1,280 pairs of boots and shoes valued at $3,200. He employed four men and paid them an average of $22 a month. For his day he was a “big operator.”

Across the street from Waite was Alanson Ward on Lot 3 of Block 176, who was also a shoemaker, a man of some consequence in the community. A Vermonter, born in 1800, he lived until Feb. 10, 1870, and is buried in Mt. Hope cemetery.

A man with the unusual name of Philander E. Pierce lived nearby on Lot 5, Block 176, in 1848. We can’t trace him too well and don’t know the business he was in, but assessed $150 for property and $7 personal assessment. He disappears from the view of the historian by the time of the 1849 tax rolls.

Amos Ford was right next door on Lot 6, Block 176, although he didn’t stay long. He must have been a competitor of Bush & Thomas, since he sold, among other things, crackers, fish and a “small grocery supply.” However, he, too, disappears by the 1850 census, and isn’t on the 1851 assessment roll.

Strikes and Spares
If anyone thinks bowling is a recent sport in Lansing, let him turn to the 1850 census report showing William G. Sweet, listed as a “merchant” on Lot 9, Block 176, and we know that he operated a bowling alley here along E. Main st. There’s a William G. Sweet buried in Maple Grove cemetery, Mason, and historians suppose it’s the same.

Right next door to Bush & Thomas at the east end of the old hewn-timber Main street bridge was a grocer named Henry Bloss on Lot One, Block 227. He was granted a license to sell “arduous spirits” on June 10, 1848.

Upper Town even had a hardware store, possibly the first in the entire city. Edward Elliott is listed as a “tinsmith” on Lots 5 and 13, Block 228. He bought his supplies of Bush & Thomas, who seemed to have a corner on almost everything, and employed a tinner. Born in Canada in 1819, he died in Williamston in 1895, and is buried in Mt. Hope cemetery.

Where S. Washington ave. is being widened just north of the Washington ave. bridge was the home of Dr. Charles A. Jeffries on Lot 13, Block 177. We didn’t know when his old home was razed, but it antedated the existing Scott white-columned mansion by at least half a century.

On the river’s east side of Lot 4, Block 227, was a grocery store owned by Newcomb Mitchell, who came to Lansing in 1847. Like many another, he didn’t stay long before he moved to Bennington, Shiawassee county. He was a native of Bennington, Vt. As late as 1880 he was still living in the former town.

On E. Main st., 100 years ago, Peter C. Smith’s bakery shop was a popular place on Lot 12, Block 176, but he apparently had moved away by 1857.

Over east of S. Cedar st. was Nelson Underwood on Lots 1-5, Block 229, called a “brickmaker” in the 1850 census, and historians think he probably had a brickyard there.

Just south of Bush & Thomas’ store on the west half of Lot 2, Block 227, was “Peter J. Weller & Son,” who operated a restaurant of sorts. The senior Mr. Weller died in December, 1849, at the ago of 48, and rests in Lot 10, Section 8 of Mt. Hope cemetery in an unmarked grave – hardly befitting a pioneer. His son, Augustus F. Weller, is listed as a grocer in the 1850 census, and died in 1887.

Next door to the Wellers was Dr. William L. Wells, who came here from Howell, to which he returned after a short stay. Assessment on his property indicates he may have run an apothecary shop. He is recorded as having been back in Howell by 1849 and still living as late as 1880.

The number of deaths among merchants of Upper Town indicates that typhus and other “swamp” diseases of the time discouraged early settlers in this particular part of town, but they failed to discourage construction of still a third hotel, the famous “Benton House,” which, built about the time of the removal of the capital to Lansing, was located on the northwest corner of Main st. and Washington ave., where the present R. E. Olds mansion is located. A three-story brick hostelry, portions of it existed until late in the last century.

“Upper Town” was quite a place, although not a vestige of it remains.


Map of Upper Town - Lansing, MI

Map of Upper Town – Lansing, MI

Original Article

Original Article


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