When Michigan officially became a state in 1837 its first governor, Stevens T. Mason, immediately began looking for ways to develop the land economically. The newly completed Erie Canal was seeing great success as a quick means of transportation, and Mason sought to develop a similar project in Michigan.
Before the advent of railroads, shipping by boat was the easiest way to transport goods to Chicago, one of the largest midwestern cities at the time. However, boats coming from the east had to make a long and arduous journey around Michigan, then through the Straits of Mackinac to reach the port. Mason hoped to greatly reduce this travel time by constructing a canal that would run through the middle of the state from Lake St. Clair to Lake Michigan.
Over a dozen companies invested in the project, and in 1838 construction of the canal began in the town of Frederick, now part of Mount Clemens.
Troubles plagued the project from the onset. Shantytowns sprang up along the path to house workers and quickly became dens of fighting, drinking, and overall rowdy behavior. In 1842, the contracting company went bankrupt, leaving most of the workers unpaid. Disgruntled laborers stole supplies and destroyed the already dug portions of the canal.
The project was finally abandoned in 1848 as railroads became a much more convenient method of transportation. The few locks that had been constructed along the canal, along with an aqueduct across the Clinton River, were pillaged for scrap.
“Mason’s Folly,” as the canal came to be called, was sold to several companies that used it as a millrace to grind corn and other farm products for almost a century.
Today, much of the canal has been filled in by development, although portions of it have been preserved in the towns of Sterling Heights, Rochester, and Clinton Township. Visitors to Yates Park can view part of the defunct project, as well as a historical marker that details the saga of the Clinton-Kalamazoo Canal.