Closed Bids for Local Projects

If you are ever interested about what exactly is going with local construction projects and infrastructure improvements, most local government agencies post their requests for proposal (RFPs) for their large projects at a few, easily accessible websites making it very simple to search for a large amount of historic projects throughout Washtenaw County.

The Michigan Inter-governmental Trade Network (MITN) is the largest of these bid-aggregation websites. If you register you can view the open bids, but past bids can be viewed without needing to do so.

Closed bids by Agency within MITN can be found here

As an example of this, I’ll select the City of Ann Arbor from the list of participating agencies.

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There is a huge list of RFPs here so i’ll pick a relatively recent one. I’m interested in seeing what the City plans to do for their “West Liberty Street Reconstruction, S. First St. – N. Main St.” so I click on that link and get more project details.

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The plans and specifications for this project are attached in the “document” attachment so i’m able to learn exactly what the City has planned here. Other agencies may just give you a list of plan holders that need to be contacted to request the plans or make you jump through a few more hoops to see the actual plans.

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Pulling up the plans we have the complete plan-set available for viewing.

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This is a simple example, but neatly illustrates how we can (with the internet) quickly learn more about the infrastructure projects around us.

 

The USS Washtenaw County

This post is a bit tangential to infrastructure but I thought it an interesting enough story to tell anyways. And since the name of our fair county is mentioned, this is as good an excuse as any to continue.

There was/is actually a ship in the U.S. Navy named after our county. Landing Ship Tank (LST) #1166 the USS Washtenaw County was laid down in 1951 in Sturgeon Bay Wisconsin, launched in 1952 and then commissioned in 1953. Below is a photo of her from an exercise in South Korea in 1962.

lst-1166_and_lst-1165

Courtesy of Wikipedia/US Navy

Serving in the Pacific, the Washtenaw County eventually saw extensive service in Vietnam transporting troops and supplies. The LST’s and other small ships like her were the heavy lifters of close-in Naval efforts during the Vietnam War with their shallow drafts and large cargo capacity.

Here is a cool aerial shot underway. #1166 is just visible on the bow.

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Courtesy of Wikipedia / US Navy

In 1968 she was in the Mekong Delta supporting the Mobile Riverine Force as shown below. The Hueys on the deck are pretty cool.

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Courtesy US Navy / navsource.org

After that it was continued service in the western Pacific until 1973 when she was turned into a minesweeper to help clear Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam as a part of Operation “End Sweep”. After that the Washtenaw County was decommissioned and sold.

 

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“Washtenaw County” is barely visible under the 2 on the Stern (courtesy US Navy / navsource.org)

The next 30 to 40 years were spent in commercial service before she ended up in the Columbia River near Portland, Oregon (as of 2003) being restored by a non-profit to be turned into a museum ship.

It’s apparently been a slow process with scrappers, lack of funding and hazmat remediation slowing the process down. The name Washtenaw County has been painted on her again at least.

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courtesy navsource.org / Erik Martin

Here she is as a rusting hulk in 2016 – not the best representative of our County in the Pacific Northwest.

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courtesy of navsource.org / Harvey Golden

She’s pretty easy to find on Google Maps, just west of the Lewis and Clark Bridge on the south bank of the Columbia.

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I hope the Washtenaw County has better days ahead of her. It would be cool to visit her in Portland if she’s ever fixed up.

If you would like to read more about the USS Washtenaw County, Wikipedia and Navsource.org both have great “bio” pages about the ship with much more detail than I’ve presented here. There is also http://www.lst1166.com/ which has a bunch of great information (and many more photos of the ship). If you’re in Ann Arbor, the Washtenaw County Courthouse has a permanent display about LST 1166 as well.

If you’re in Muskegon and want to actually visit a preserved Landing Ship Tank, you can visit the World War 2 era LST 393It’s a bit older than the Washtenaw County but gives you a great sense of what life on an LST was like.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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:

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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:

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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:

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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 –

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2

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and 3

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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.

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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”

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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).

 

How High’s the River?

Dear Reader,

With all the rain we got this last week you may be wondering what are the river levels like around the county? From my earlier post about watersheds in the county, we recall that the county is split into drainage basins for the Huron, Raisin, Rouge, Stony Creek, and Grand Rivers. The great news is that the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a bunch of stream gages on these rivers and many of their tributaries. We can track river levels! Well sort of…the data is kind of limited but we do have something we can look at. There are about 8 gages for the whole county.

 

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County Watersheds – Image courtesy of Washentaw County

USGS’s online mapping tool “National Water Information System: Mapper”  lets us look at all the stream gages in the county at once. Zooming in as best we can on Washtenaw County:

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You can select only stream gages. Clicking on the gage near Manchester the following information pops up:

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There is some basic information and we learn that this is a gage on the River Raisin. I’m interested in learning more and click on “access data”  which gives us some basic information about the gage:

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We’re interested in water levels so we want to start exploring the available data from the top center drop down menu. For this example we’ll look at daily data and gage height only.

Below is the gage height data for the last week. Can you tell when the rain started?

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On the USGS site we can also compare recent levels to the flood stage and historical levels. This gage at Manchester doesn’t have a flood stage level so we’ll pick one on Mill Creek near Dexter  that does have one to look at:

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Pretty interesting! The water levels now are nowhere near flood stage. I’m also assuming the reason we never see Mill Creek go above flood stage is because there is a dam or other control work that makes sure the river tops out at 12 feet.

I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the flooding that’s going on right on the Mississippi but here is what stream gage data looks like from there:

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and from NOAA’s River Level Forecasting Tool – I hope people there are staying safe!

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That’s all for now – Have a great week!

At-Grade Railroad Crossings on I-94 and US-23

Dear Reader,

Imagine it’s the early 60’s and you’re zipping westbound on I-94 just past the new US-23 interchange just being built when all the sudden a train crossing freeway! Red warning lights, stopped traffic and a freight train trundling across both lanes of traffic! It seems a bit crazy but these rail crossings actually existed 50+ years ago on I-94 and US-23.

Here is the I-94 crossing in 1961 from the DTE Aerial Photo Library at Wayne State University  – that definitely looks like an at-grade crossing with the rail crossing a bit off perpendicular from the freeway.

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And here is an Aerial from 1966 showing another crossing of that same line on the newly built US-23 from Washtenaw Counties’ GIS server. The crossing looks much clearer at US-23. You can tell it’s an at-grade crossing because we don’t see the characteristic shadow that a bridge would cast like on the Ellsworth Road crossing of US-23.

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Rail lines were definitely not features that highway engineers wanted crossing their highways. The potential for traffic disruption is not something to be desired so there had to have been a good reason to allow it all. Especially when a bridge could have been built over the tracks.

A bit of backstory on then on why they exist. The line that you see crossing I-94 and US-23 is the “Ypsilanti Branch” of the Lakeshore & Michigan Southern Railway which ran from Hillsdale to Ypsilanti. I want to write more about that line in a future post but by the late-50’s, the section from Pittsfield Township to Ypsi was well on it’s way to abandonment.

I haven’t found any information on this but there probably weren’t many trains running on the line anymore and MDOT planners either knew the tracks’ days were numbered or were unofficially informed of that by the railroad’s owner. That is what justified the (cheap) at-grade crossing as opposed to a more expensive above grade (bridge) crossing. If the line was going to be pulled out – why not wait for it to happen and spare the expense of a soon to be useless bridge?

Indeed, the line was officially abandoned in 1969 and in the next set of available imagery we have from the county in 1979 the crossing is gone. It looks like you can still see the fresh asphalt on the I-94 crossing (crossings circled).

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There are a few other instances of this in the State, where economics and impending abandonment made it make sense to have a railroad crossing across an interstate highway (at least for a few years). The best documented one of these crossings (that I could find) was on I-94 just north of Albion. We actually have a photo of what the crossing looked like. The Washtenaw crossings were probably identical (Courtesy of the Albion Michigan History Blog).

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I-94 North of Albion circa 1959 courtesy of Historical Albion Michigan.

There are no gate arms and (according to some internet message boards) there was a lot signage to alert drivers of the train crossing potential. Apparently, they even put in Green-Yellow-Red style traffic lights to let drivers know of the crossing status (https://www.trainorders.com/discussion/read.php?2,2842843).

So, an interesting infrastructure related historical footnote and one relatively unique to our county. I am glad these crossings no longer exist!

Have a great week!

Airport Noise in Southeast Michigan

I like interactive maps that represent interesting, infrastructure related data (as many of the posts in this blog attest). So when I found out that the U.S. Department of Transportation released a national transportation noise map, I had to check it out – especially to see what things look like in Southeast Michigan

Clicking on the map link takes us to a map of the continental U.S.

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Zooming in on Detroit we get the below image with noise levels overlaid on a street map– hmmm…. I wonder where the Airports are?

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The darker colors represent higher 24-hour average noise levels and they are clearly focused on major roads/highways and on Detroit Metro, Willow Run, Detroit City and Oakland County International airports.

If we pull up the legend, we can see the reported average noise values are on the ground:

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The first link in this post also has an equivalent description of these decibel ranges and a comparison chart can also be found at this link to a Yale University site

Although the noise levels are not dangerous (unless you’re standing on the runway), and are mainly below decibel intensity of a normal conversation, this map clearly shows that much of metro-Detroit regularly hears transportation noise – primarily from Airplanes.

With the introduction of noise regulations, improved technologies and other mitigating techniques, things have gotten better but the noise is still there at some level. Much of this noise comes from Detroit Metro whose primary runways are aligned in a NE – SW direction. Was that taken into account when the runways were built? With Aerial photographs from DTE we can track the evolution of this airport. I’m curious if the runways were always in these headings (North is always up in these Photos)

1949 (the original airport- construction has already begun on new the new runways)

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1956 (new and old runways) – the new runways are in their present orientation

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1967

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1997 (couldn’t get the southern half of the airport)

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And today (courtesy of Google)

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It looks like since the mid-50’s, the runways were oriented in the direction they are today, making much of the take-off/landing traffic head out over metro Detroit. Infrastructure choices have consequences and that is clearly apparent in the noise maps!

Sanborn Maps of Washtenaw County

Another great way to get a historical sense of what the cities and towns making up Washtenaw County were like a hundred years ago are Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. These maps were used by insurers to assess fire risk, set rates and figure out who needed to be billed.  These maps were first published in 1866 and serve as one of the de facto resources chronicling the development of the American city.

They are invaluable resources!

Most libraries have print copies of these maps or microfiche versions. For example, Ann Arbor has copies of maps from Ann Arbor, Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, Milan, Saline and Ypsilanti from 1884 to 1948 on microfiche (http://www.aadl.org/node/9308).

This being the internet age however, we don’t really want to go to the library to dig through micro-fiches to view these maps (as nice as our libraries are and how much we like them) so let’s explore our online options.

Free Option

A limited (but sizable) number of these maps are available to view for free at the Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/rr/geogmap/sanborn/)

Pay Option

If you have a ProQuest account and can get behind the paywall, most of the Sanborn maps published between 1866 and 1970 can be found there http://sanborn.umi.com/splash.html

Example Sanborn Map Exploration

I don’t have a ProQuest account so here is an example from the Library of Congress (LOC) – Depot Town in Ypsilanti!

Clicking on the LOC Sanborn map link, I navigate to Michigan and then pick out Ypsilanti.

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1899 sounds like as good a year as any so I click on it and get the below screen:

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This is the set of 1899 Ypsilanti Sanborn Maps. The first sheet in any Sanborn Map is always an overview of the city and an index showing which parts of the city are detailed. It’s always good to start with this sheet – looking at it, we see that Depot Town is located on Page 10.

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And here is a map of Depot Town in 1899! (aka the Showerman & Compton Addition)

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The color coding and other symbols have very specific meaning. For example, Solid pink means a brick building while yellow means wood framed. The Library of Congress provides a guide on what the other codes and colors are here:

https://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps/about-this-collection/

It is clear that the focus of these maps is fire protection/fire risk analysis. We can learn that the “Ypsilanti Machine Works” has no watchmen, steam power, gas lights, coal for fuel, city water, a stock of rubber hose, and “Barrels of Salt Water and Pails all through Bldg.” for fire-fighting purposes. The side benefit for us is a historical snapshot of what existed here in 1899.

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There are too many fascinating details from these maps to go into any more detail about them so this post is more a primer on how you can explore/enjoy the Sanborn maps yourself and begin to understand what life used to be like here in our fair County.

As one last note, the size and diversification of local commercial and industry interests in the late 19th and early 20th century is something that seems astonishing to me today.

In Depot Town alone, we have a

  1. Flour Mill
  2. Malt House
  3. Condiment Manufacturing Company
  4. “Wheel Barrow Seeder” manufacturer
  5. Foundry/Machine Works
  6. Cigar Factory
  7. Two Butchers
  8. Two Bakers
  9. Grocers, installment goods, jewelers etc…

That is a lot of industry/commercial interests packed into one small area!

The title blocks are always beautiful too! 🙂

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Building Washtenaw circa 1868

The Ann Arbor City Directory from 1868 can provide us a good sense of what general construction trades, contractors and companies looked like in the (then) city of 10,500 and surrounding areas. Pretty much it boils down to Architects, Builders and Carpenters.

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There are 10 Architect & Builder firms listed. Zera Pulcipher wins the award for the best name. He’s also listed in this directory as a carpenter so things we’re a bit looser in terms of distinction between trades. There are approximately 90 other Carpenters listed in the directory.

Zera Pulcipher

Sam Gregory calls himself a builder in the directory (as do 14 other people)

Sam Gregory

W.H. Mallory has also taken out a 1/4 page ad.

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They were also Lumber Dealers! A bit of a one stop shop for construction. They also owned a planing mill (image not included) Conrad Krapf also provided lumber in addition to Architecture and Building services.

Lumber Dealers

Of the other building trades:

Approximately 30 Masons are listed individually in the Directory

No Civil Engineers have taken out ads. Their profession is not present in the directory at all except for William Donovan and the Department of Civil Engineering at UofM (which graduated 6 people in 1868)

William Donovan

I think this is a fascinating document to begin to grasp how things were done in the County in the 1860s. Either due to the size of the city (e.g the market size) or the flexibility of professions, or the frontier sense of doing things for yourself (the city was only 31 years old at his point), we don’t see the professional specialization that we see today in terms of the clear distinction between architects, engineers and contractors. There was probably minimal (if any) regulations of these professions. Why not deal in the lumber, design and then build the house? Ann Arbor may have also been a small enough city to not be able to sustain a professional, technical base the way Detroit could have at the time. That holds true today for many rural areas.

Many of these City directories are on-line and I look forward to going through them to chart how things changed in the county.

As a final note- it’s good to know that Ann Arbor had it’s own “State Prison Wagon” Builder!

State Prison Wagons

 

2017 Washtenaw County MDOT Construction

MDOT recently released their 2017 construction map for the state.  Zooming in on our county, there are two projects slated for construction in 2017(below):

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So both of the MDOT jobs in 2017 will be on US-23. They’re already going full bore on the bridge replacement/shoulder upgrade/ramp extension on US-23 North of Ann Arbor and the work near Milan will begin in May.

What about future work in the County?

MDOT has a site for that as well!

The Five-Year Transportation Program has an interactive map that shows MDOT’s planned work in the county over the next five years.

5 years

It looks like MDOT has two more projects slated for the county in the next five years!

The red project is slated for 2019:

 Location: 12 bridges on US-23 in Washtenaw County
Type(s) of Work: Repair & Rebuild, Overlay – Epoxy
2019: Construction

The tan project is slated for 2018:

Route: M-52
Location: M-52 South County Line to Austin Rd
Type of Work: Road, Road Capital Preventive Maintenance
Length: 5.21 Miles
2018: Construction

I’m hoping that with the new gas tax we’ll see some new projects come on-line as the funding is put in place. We’ll see!

Robert Metcalf, 1923-2017

The Ann Arbor architect Robert Metcalf passed away last month (obituary here). He built over 150 houses in Michigan and Ohio with the great majority of them being in and around Washtenaw County. U of M had a retrospective of his work a few years ago which has some great pictures and background to the houses he built. Michigan Modern and A2 Modern also have a bunch of stuff about him and his houses. The old Ann Arbor News still has a story up about their visit to his house in 2012 which has great pictures and is a cool read. His houses look absolutely great in the mid-century modern perspective.

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The Robert Metcalf House, built 1954 (courtesy of the Ann Arbor News)

I love the mid-century modern look.It makes me want to shell out $5,000 for an Eames chair and set it in the middle of my Cape Cod or maybe fill in by basement and make a conversation pit (which should be brought back!) surrounded by wall to wall windows and laugh at those squares.

Mr. Metcalf was also an Army vet who served with the 84th Infantry Division in Europe. His obituaries only stated that he won a battlefield commission and that he was awarded the Silver Star. According to wikipedia, the 84th landed in France in November 1944 and fought its way to the Elbe by VE day. The division had 7,260 casualties and 1,280 KIA during its time in Europe. It’s too bad the obits and U of M’s retrospective didn’t detail more what he did during the war. It was a given among that whole generation though that you probably did something, which also meant you didn’t talk about it much.He did so much as an Architect and left an amazing legacy in Washtenaw County, his wartime service gives an even better sense of who he was as a person.

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Mr. Metcalf in 2012. Courtesy of the Ann Arbor News