Reading History in Terrain

Dear Reader,

This is an obvious example but one that is useful to illustrate a larger point and a way to approach historical investigation.

I would like to look at a portion of the B2B   Bike trail that runs in Ypsilanti just south of EMU’s athletic complex. Below is the location on Google Maps:


The trail is covered in trees but Google puts a faint gray line on where it is. From the satellite view you can’t really get a sense of what the trail looks like or what used to be there. Here are some photos from a few weeks ago which may start to help:



Hmm… the second one is not as good. But you can see, the trail is consistent in elevation (flat) and is almost nearly straight. We can confirm this with a relief map of the area on Washtenaw County’s GIS server by turning everything off except the background elevation:


The trail is clearly visible as the line that cuts across the middle of the page. The areas of relief are clearly shown as well (that the vegetation hid) at 1 –




and 3


It’s a bit difficult to get a sense of this from the images, but 1 and 2 are places where the trail is cut into the grade around it to maintain a flat surface and 3 is where the land has been filled in to accomplish the same thing.

Like many other bike trails, this part of the B2B had to have been a railroad track at some point. Given the cost involved in earthmoving, flattening hills, hauling fill dirt, etc… you wouldn’t do this unless you had to – and railroads (given their limitations) are something you definitely have to do this for. Runways would be another example. For trains, an elevation change of 110 feet per mile was considered acceptable in the 19th century! Today it’s a little more, but flat grades are still the best.

Even though I think this might have been a railroad track at some point in the past. We haven’t proven yet that this was a railroad track – we just have a hunch so it’s time to consult the old maps.

The USGS’ Historical Map Page is a great place to do that.

After a few clicks, here we are with the 1908 USGS Topo Map for the Ann Arbor Quad. Looking at the same area that we did with the first google map.


Courtesy of the USGS

The railroad is right there- (probably) right where our current bike trail is!

If we zoom out a bit we learn that this line was called the “Ypsilanti Branch of the Michigan Southern Railroad”


Courtesy of the USGS

Now that we have a name for this portion of track we can get a lot more information about it. You can go to the link if you want to but for our purposes, this portion of the railroad was abandoned in 1969 and from this County website link, we learn that it has existed in its present, paved condition since 2005. We have been lucky to have it as a pave bike path for these last 12 years after a century or more of service as a rail line with a (1881) fifty minute trip to Saline.

Although this is a very simple example, this sort of historical/geographic detective work can be extremely important, especially since Michigan has a history a permanent settlement that stretches back to “time immemorial.” Wherever we’ve been in this State, someone has probably been there before (and brought their shovels).



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