Dreading the U.S.-23 detour

This month, “The Latest from the First” looks at the impending shutdown of U.S.-23, which will force a long detour.

Maybe you’ve heard the old saying — “In Michigan, there are just two seasons: winter and ‘Road Under Construction.'”

Northern Michiganders justifiably fear the inevitable highway closures that complicate their lives.

Transportation in this region has passed through three stages.

First came passenger ships, like the City of Alpena of the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Co., which began linking Lake Huron’s coastal communities in 1893. To get an idea of how the city of Alpena bustled with activity when the City of Alpena steamed into port, check out the colorized postcard blown up to billboard size on the side of the Martz Opera House on Chisholm Street downtown. It depicts a crowded ship, with some of the passengers ready to disembark, and a crowded wharf, with people waiting to greet them, others waiting to board the vessel, some there to say bon voyage, and folks there just to watch the activity.

Next came the railroads: the Detroit, Bay City, and Alpena Railroad, the Detroit and Mackinac Railroad, and the AuSable and Northwestern Railroad. Their depots and whistle stops served towns along the shore and inland alike. In Alcona County, “First of the 83,” trains stopped in the micro-communities of Russell, Hardy, Bryant, Mud Lake Junction (Barton City), Glennie, Mikado, Harrisville, West Harrisville (Lincoln), Alcona, and Black River, which was the home of lumber and railroad baron U.S. Sen. Russell Alger, where there was a roundhouse. Passengers could even board and disembark the train at Sturgeon Point, where the lighthouse and life-saving station was a tiny town unto itself. Railroads killed off the steamships.

Finally came the highway, U.S.-23. It began in 1820 as a “turnpike” with a toll, built to link landlocked Columbus with the Lake Erie port of Sandusky, Ohio. Part of the famous Dixie Highway begun in 1915, which ran from Mackinaw to Key West, it was integrated into the new U.S. Highway System in 1926.

It is no coincidence that the completion of the highway along the Lake Huron shore occurred around the same time as the closure of most train depots operated by the Detroit and Mackinac Railroad, which had absorbed the Detroit, Bay City, and Alpena line. The AuSable and Northwestern Railroad had already failed some years before.

U.S.-23 facilitated car traffic, but deprived the railroad of passengers. Since then, the Detroit and Mackinac has been reduced to hauling limestone and other bulk freight, and all but a few of its train stations have long since disappeared. In Alcona County, the only survivors are the West Harrisville/Lincoln Depot, which was maintained as a museum until recently, leaving its future uncertain, and the Harrisville Depot.

The ongoing neglect of that lovely stone building is a crying shame.

U.S.-23 is the main artery of Northeast Michigan, pumping traffic — which equals income — through the four-county area. When it becomes blocked or diverted, the economy and the people suffer.

Alcona County is bracing for an arterial blockage that will last for months – U.S.-23 will be closed.

Harrisville is where M-72 ends and the fun begins!

But, when road construction closes U.S.-23 at that intersection — site of the only stoplight in the county — the pain for motorists will begin. Drivers will be forced to detour due west on M-72, all the way to F-41, a distance of more than six miles, then north for another 13 miles to where F-41 intersects with U.S.-23 at Chippewa Point, less than a mile from the Alpena County line.

Enterprises like Alcona Brew Haus, The Mountain Bar and Grill, and Cedarbrook Trout Farms, already rocked by COVID-19 closures, will be denied all but a trickle of their usual business.

Need this be? Is it not possible to restore a vital stretch of road like U.S.-23, the economic bloodstream of the region, without detouring cars and trucks nearly 20 miles out of their way? One would expect engineering and logistics to have advanced beyond such prolonged highway shutdowns.

In 1945, the forgettable film “Detour” left its title tune in the popular culture, which many country music performers have covered. (Check out the ditty on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQ-M81JBYYc). With apologies to the writers and first performers of the song, Jimmy Walker and Paul Westmoreland, here’s a timely adaptation:

“Dee-tour! That’s the M-DOT up ahead.

Dee-tour! Off to the west we’re bein’ led?

Dee-tour! Makes no reason, makes no rhyme.

Lord, I hate this Dee-tour time!”

You can also see the movie poster with an online search. The cartoon above is a take-off on it.

Eric Paul Roorda is a professor, historian, lecturer, author, and illustrator. He has called Alcona County home for 50 years.


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