The Wayne County Parks System developed in tandem with the automobile industry during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Locals wanted easy access to nature, an escape from urban life. These requests were the beginnings of a harmonious park system, an area that would both preserve and provide access to the natural as well as embrace a new and personal form of transportation.
The Wayne County Road Commission was created in the late 1800s. At this time there was a population increase in the greater Detroit area and a desire for personal transportation. Southeast Michigan soon transformed into a testing site for automobile manufacturers including Charles King, Ransom Olds, and Henry Ford.
Most Michiganders in southeast Michigan know about Hines Park, but many may not know its beginnings. Who helped create this unique and local urban escape? The Wayne County Road Commission! The original members of the Commission included Edward Hines, John Haggerty, William Butler, and Henry Ford. Along with Leroy C. Smith, who joined in 1918, and Jesse Bennett, who joined in 1922, these men transformed southeast Michigan through innovative road construction and park development, even influencing road construction projects throughout the United States.
Leroy C. Smith, a state engineer, was an advocate both for preserving nature and creating modern road systems. With these dual goals in mind, he presented several solutions to the Road Commission, including that locals could benefit from access to the rivers and natural spaces by adding “multiple-use parkways” beside them.
Parkways are a unique kind of road system, different from road systems in both urban and rural areas. They are non-traditional highways with limited access. Additionally, commercial vehicles are not allowed to drive on them. Design elements for parkways include views, architecture, and landscaping that highlight the area’s natural beauty.
What would become the Middle Rouge Parkway was actually modelled after the Bronx Parkway in New York. Stretching 23.9 miles, this limited access highway road opened in 1925 with great success.
Wayne County’s parkways project was one of the first in the state. According to Leroy C. Smith, “Such a drive, winding through a valley flanked with wooded slopes and rolling hills will be unequaled as a parkway development.” The purpose of the parkway was twofold: to decrease traffic congestion on other roads, and to serve “the individuals who need fresh air, sunshine, and care free recreation,” said Smith.
Parks and Recreation
In 1915, the search began for ideal park and recreational areas. River protection and preservation were key concerns. There was major damage along the rivers and widespread erosion. These rivers provide drainage for not only Wayne County but the greater southeast Michigan area. It was for these reasons that the Road Commission began acquiring floodplain areas land close to and along the upper, middle, and lower parts of the Rouge River for park and road development.
Prior to the creation of Elizabeth Park, this land belonged to the Slocum/Church family. In 1919, they sold their family estate to Wayne County to create a new park. About 150 acres of land, the Slocum/Church family estate included a mansion, several outbuildings, and Slocum Island.
Eventually, Elizabeth Park became a tourist lodge complex and was one of the first public campgrounds in the state. It received national attention, gaining the reputation of being “one of the best equipped facilities in the country.”