A Different Diag

We can only imagine now how much more beautiful the campus might have been...
– Wilfred Shaw
  1. Chapter 1 A Campus on a Hill

    One day in June long ago, when Ann Arbor was a frontier town not yet 15 years old, two lawyers and a politician were given the job of recommending exactly where to build the campus of the new University of Michigan.

    They had two sites to look at, both of about 40 acres.

    One was at the north end of State Street. It spread across the promontory that offers a fine view to the northeast across the valley of the Huron River. This was the very landscape that had appealed to the town’s first settlers.

    The other site was a flat farm field half a mile back from the river. At the north end the visitors saw the burned-down ruins of a log cabin. The far side offered a good view of a swampy, snake-ridden ravine.

    Naturally, the men recommended the pretty spot overlooking the river. They could imagine a day when a campus built here might be like Oxford on the Thames or Harvard on the Charles. Students walking to classes in the morning would look east to the sun rising over the river. And from the valley below, the campus would beckon like a city on a hill.

    But it didn’t turn out that way.

  2. Chapter 2 Two Men on the Make

    To understand why, we start with the first two settlers of Ann Arbor, the ones who had seen a good place for a town at this particular bend of the Huron. They had an eye out for natural beauty, but not for the sake of sheer aesthetic appreciation. They were thinking of the land as a commodity for sale.

    They were John Allen, 29, a big, ambitious Virginian, and Elisha Walker Rumsey, a New Englander ten years older. In the spring of 1824 they happened to meet in Detroit, and they soon discovered common ground. Both had made financial messes back east, and both had fled west in search of a way out of their troubles.

    Elisha Rumsey had been struggling for years, and apparently not very nobly. Not long after his wife died in 1820, he left five children behind in Bethany, N.Y., and ran to Canada, then Michigan, with “a woman of remarkable beauty” named Mary Ann Sprague, called Ann by family and friends. Hauled back to New York to settle bad debts, Rumsey found life in Bethany uncomfortable and soon departed again for the Michigan frontier with Ann Sprague, who either had become or would become his second wife.

    John Allen, also widowed at a young age, had remarried, too. His new wife was also an Ann. Her upright family disapproved of the marriage, since Allen’s own family had recently plunged from feast to famine. His father, a well-to-do farmer and slaveowner near Staunton, Va., had lost his fortune in bad investments. Attempting a rescue, John, the eldest son, had done some risky borrowing. With the loan he bought a herd of cattle in Virginia, then sold the herd at a profit in Maryland. But instead of paying off his creditor, he headed to Buffalo, then Detroit.

    He had a big plan.

  3. Chapter 3 Michigan Fever

    Rumsey and Allen had fled west with the same idea, and now they joined forces. They would buy raw federal land at low prices, draw a new town on the map, promote it, then sell lots to eager settlers and come out rich. About the first of February 1824, they left Detroit together in a horse-drawn sleigh, heading west on the Sauk Trail in search of a likely spot for a town.

    They were in the grip of what soon would be called “Michigan Fever”—a rush for land that would drive the territory’s population from fewer than 9,000 in 1820 to nearly 90,000 by 1834, all but ensuring statehood. It was the same all across the territories of the Old Northwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin. The promoters of Chicago would become only the most spectacular winners among hundreds of visionaries who foresaw small investments in cheap land spawning a new metropolis. But you didn’t need to build a Chicago to get rich. All you needed was a suitable stretch of land holdings, some claim to distinction and a few advertisements in eastern newspapers—then get ready for buyers hungry for farms or a plot to start a mill or a store.

    In a day or two Allen and Rumsey reached a tiny settlement called Woodruff’s Grove, just across the Huron River from the site where another hamlet, Ypsilanti, would be built a year later. They pressed on 10 more miles and came to a place where gentle glacial ridges rose up on either side of the river and tall bur oaks grew in a pattern called oak openings. These were lovely expanses where tall, broad trees grew not in a dense forest but apart from each other, with grass between them. The effect, in fact, was not unlike that of a classic college campus. A farmer could graze livestock in an oak opening or plant crops with a minimum of clearing. And an oak opening was a nice spot to build houses.

    Allen and Rumsey liked the look of it: a pleasant landscape, fairly close to Detroit without being overshadowed by it, with water, timber and some open spaces, all conducive to settlement.

    So they hurried back to the U.S. land office in Detroit. Rumsey paid $200 for 160 acres. Allen put down $600 in cash for 480 acres. Then they went to see Lewis Cass, governor of the Michigan Territory, and urged him to designate their unnamed, nonexistent town the seat of the new Washtenaw County. That would seal the town’s status as a local hub of government and commerce. Cass appointed a commission that approved the request.

    Now the founders needed a name for their town. One or both of them apparently thought of the oak groves and their wives’ first names, and this led to a minor but memorable fragment of poetry: “Annarbour.” (This was soon changed to “Ann Arbor,” though Allen always used the original spelling.)

    Then they drew streets on paper and divided their holdings into half-acre town lots for sale. Allen’s property was mostly north of the new Huron Street, Rumsey’s south of it.

    That spring and summer, others came quickly. One of them was Andrew Nowland, “a very enterprising man; in heart and action, benevolent to a marked degree,” according to a friend. Another was Elisha Rumsey’s brother Henry, a lawyer soon known as Judge Rumsey. Nowland bought acreage at the north end of what would become State Street, on the heights overlooking the Huron. Judge Rumsey took over part of his brother’s land just east of the village. Ten years later, these two properties would suddenly compete for primacy.

    Elisha Rumsey died young in 1827, but John Allen lived and prospered. By the early 1830s the half-acre lots he had bought for 75 cents each were selling for hundreds of dollars. He paid off his bad debts back in Virginia, moved his parents to Ann Arbor, built stores and mills, bought thousands more acres, and enjoyed his prestige as founder and patriarch of a local empire. Around him the town thrived.

    In the 1830s talk of statehood for Michigan was buzzing in Ann Arbor. The town might become the seat of the state capital, a virtual gold mine for the place that landed the prize. Of course Ann Arbor wasn’t the only contender. But there would be another big prize to contend for, too.

    In 1817 an effort had been made to establish a territorial university in Detroit. But by the 1830s, that promising experiment had fizzled. Now the new state constitution envisioned another try at education, this one a statewide network of schools with a new university at its head. Whatever town became the headquarters would undoubtedly become a leading city in the state—with good things to come for those who had land and services to sell there.

    Whatever town became the headquarters of the new state university would undoubtedly become a leading city in the state—with good things to come for those who had land and services to sell there.
  4. Chapter 4 A “Most Desirable Residence”

    The historian Daniel Boorstin once noted the bemusement of European tourists who discovered many more colleges on the sparsely settled American frontier than on the populous eastern seaboard. Boorstin traced the sprawl of higher education in the West to two sources. One was the eagerness of Protestant churches to attract followers among “Nothingarian” settlers who had dropped their old religious ties. The other was the urge of many a frontier town to convince prospective settlers that it was a rising metropolis with fine institutions of culture and learning. The frontier craze to build colleges was nearly as powerful as the craze to buy and sell land, and the two were often linked. Many good schools grew up as a result. But the drive to get them built often had little to do with a thirst for learning.

    *     *     *

    Michigan’s citizens voted for statehood in 1835, but actual admission to the Union hung fire during a long struggle with Ohio over where to draw the border. This allowed time for Ann Arbor entrepreneurs to plan for the opportunities that statehood would bring.

    Things began to move fast in the summer of 1836, when the new state legislature prepared to choose locations for the state capital and the new state university. At this news, two merchants, Daniel Brown and Augustus Garrett, hustled to set up a new Ann Arbor Land Company in league with four other men with money—Edward Morgan, Charles Thayer, William Maynard and Samuel Denton, one of the physicians in town. These six put together $2,000 and bought up all the available lots they could afford. It was Augustus Garrett—the only out-of-towner of the original six—who urged the master stroke: The company should promise to donate a suitable parcel to the state as a location for either the capital or the new university.

    The company bought up tracts that extended for 20 or so hypothetical city blocks to the east and south of the original village, which had its center at about the corner of Huron and Main. These projected blocks pushed into Henry Rumsey’s property, with the names of Land Company members given to hypothetical streets on a map published in 1836—Maynard, Thayer, Denton, Morgan, and Fletcher (named for Asa Fletcher, the judge who joined the original partners). The map left one block open for a projected “State House Square” and “Public Square.”

    In Detroit, Charles Thayer’s brother-in-law, a well-connected lobbyist in political circles, pushed Ann Arbor hard. In the end, the capital was given to Lansing, which was closer to the Lower Peninsula’s geographic center. But the legislators agreed to put the university in Ann Arbor.

    Now the Ann Arbor Land Company set about marketing its properties with the new university uppermost in its promises. In a poster advertising a “Splendid Sale of Real Estate in Ann Arbor,” the company touted the virtues of the coming seat of higher learning. “Everything connected with the institution will doubtless be conducted upon a scale of unparalleled munificence,” the promoters promised, “and nothing will be omitted which taste, science, and wealth can do to embellish the Town, improve the society, and make it the most desirable residence in the Great West, for persons of Literature and refinement, while the great Agricultural, Manufacturing, and Commercial advantages of the place…will afford ample employment for the capitalist and man of business. Similar inducements can never again be offered to purchasers in Michigan.”

    The question of precisely where the campus would be located would be up to the University’s brand new Board of Regents, appointed by 25-year-old Stephens T. Mason, Michigan’s “boy governor” and an Ann Arborite himself.

    But two of the regents, as it happened, were also members of the Land Company—William Fletcher and Samuel Denton, the local doctor. In the ethical light of later times, their position would have been delicate, to say the least, since they stood to profit if the campus was placed on the Rumsey property, smack in the center of the company’s land holdings.

    The regents gathered in the first week of June 1837 for three days of meetings in Ann Arbor. The question of locating the campus was among their first items of business. For some reason Judge Asa Fletcher was absent. But Dr. Denton was very much on the scene.

    “Everything connected with the institution will doubtless be conducted upon a scale of unparalleled munificence.”
    – Ann Arbor Land Company Advertising Poster
  5. Chapter 5 The Regents Decide

    Of the 18 appointed Regents, 11 attended this first set of meetings, plus Governor Mason, who presided, and Lt. Gov. Edward Mundy, yet another Ann Arborite.

    Three regents were appointed as a committee to recommend the best site for the campus. They went right to work, touring the town with the other board members tagging along.

    They looked chiefly at two sites. One was the farm parcel that lay just east of the village along State Street—the Rumsey property. Judge Fletcher owned property just north of it; in fact it was Fletcher’s old log house that had burned down where the properties adjoined.

    The second plot they inspected was Andrew Nowland’s—the one on the heights overlooking the Huron.

    To the east of both sites, a long ravine ran down to the river.

    Exactly what the members of the selection committee said about either site was never recorded. All we have are the bare parliamentary minutes. They tell us that the committee members came to the meeting the next day and recommended the University’s buildings should be “located upon the farm called the Nowland farm, commencing near the fence upon the brow of the hill near the river, bounded westerly by State Street, extending easterly about seventy rods to the center of the ravine, and extending southerly about ninety-one rods…”

    Dr. Zina Pitcher of Detroit moved the recommendation be accepted.

    But then his fellow physician, Samuel Denton, member of the Ann Arbor Land Company, moved an amendment—to substitute the Rumsey property for the Nowland property.

    When the vote was taken, it was six to five in favor of the Rumsey land. The three Ann Arborites split—Denton and Mundy for Rumsey, Governor Mason for Nowland.

    Thus the location of the Diag was determined by the vote of one man—Samuel Denton—who stood to profit by the decision.

    The location of the Diag was determined by the vote of one man who stood to profit by the decision.
  6. Chapter 6 Epilogue

    The site of the University’s original campus in Ann Arbor took its final form a year later, in 1838, when another regents’ committee—this one comprised of Dr. Denton and Chief Justice Fletcher—arranged for a little more land trading just north and south of the Rumsey property. When that was done, the campus-to-be was a precise rectangle bounded by State Street on the west and three new avenues—North University, East University and South University. (The signs for Fletcher Street, running north and south between Huron and North University, remind us of the judge’s old title to the land north of the Diag.)

    As things turned out, the decision to build on the Rumsey property never did make the principals of the Ann Arbor Land Company rich. The founding year of the University in Ann Arbor was also the year of a nationwide financial panic—fueled in part by the craze for land speculation in the West—and the start of a long and deep recession. And “in spite of all the Land Company could do,” an early historian of Ann Arbor wrote, “the real estate boom failed to materialize, lots near the [Rumsey] ‘forty’ selling for no higher than $200 each, and many as low as $50. When the affairs of the company were finally closed up, it was found that no one had made or lost a dollar and that the five [sic] men had in reality donated the land to the State, their investments and expenditures, except for the forty acres, just striking a balance.”

    But no tears need be shed for Dr. Denton, leader of the faction that pushed through the decision in favor of the Rumsey property. If anyone raised an eyebrow at the doctor’s apparent conflict of interest in voting on a matter bearing so directly on his own financial position, it certainly didn’t hurt his standing in the community. After three years as a regent, he served a term in the state senate, then was appointed Professor of the Theory and Practice of Medicine and Pathology in the University’s young medical department—not bad for a small-town frontier doctor. (Still, although streets are named for three proprietors of the Land Company—Maynard, Thayer, and Fletcher—there is no Denton Street in Ann Arbor. There was, for a while, but it was renamed to honor Henry Philip Tappan, the great philosopher-educator who, as the University’s first president, was in earnest about creating a school “of unparalleled munificence.”)

    Since there is no record of the regents’ discussion of the relative merits of the Rumsey and Nowland properties, we simply do not know why the board overruled the committee that recommended the site overlooking the Huron. Possibly it occurred to the regents that the Nowland site, so close to the river, might be vulnerable to flooding. Or perhaps some other sound reason cropped up that had nothing to do with the Ann Arbor Land Company.

    But there is no denying that the regents passed up a chance at beauty.

    “I don’t think aesthetics played a role in this,” said Jonathan Marwil, author of the authoritative A History of Ann Arbor. “I think these were very practical men in their own professions, and practical decisions required practical thinking. And ‘practical’ could extend not simply to the financial benefits, though that might have been primary, but to the ease and swiftness of building. That may have been part of their calculation. But then or now, aesthetics have seldom governed the development of the University.”

    It was the Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, with its tall stone tower, and the old St. Joseph Mercy Hospital (now the North Ingalls Building) that wound up with the commanding views of the Huron—those and a few nondescript blocks of houses. The slope that might have been the University’s front lawn now drops to the river unnoticed under a camouflage of weedy underbrush, and no one now remembers the one-vote decision that put the Diag six blocks back from “the brow of the hill.”

    A century ago, some did still recall that decision, and regretted it. One of them was Wilfred B. Shaw, the longtime director of the University’s Alumni Association and a historian of the University. The regents’ choice had been “the wrong one,” Shaw wrote in 1920, “and we now have the present campus, undistinguished by any natural advantages… We can only imagine now how much more beautiful and impressive the buildings of the University might have been, lining the brows of the hills overlooking the Huron Valley, rather than spreading over the flat rough clearing of the Rumsey farm…”

    Gradually, of course, the featureless Rumsey property was planted with hundreds of trees. And the pleasant landscape that emerged over the years came to look rather like the oak openings that once had beckoned to John Allen and Elisha Rumsey as they drove their sleigh along the frozen Huron.

    Sources include Russell Bidlack, John Allen and the Founding of Ann Arbor (1962); Daniel Boorstin, The Americans (vol. 2): The National Experience (1965); Cornelia E. Corselius, Some of the Early Homes of Ann Arbor, Michigan (1909); History of Washtenaw County, Michigan (1881); Regents’ Proceedings, University of Michigan, 1837-1864; Wilfred B. Shaw, The University of Michigan (1920); Jonathan Marwil, A History of Ann Arbor (1987); Orlando W. Stephenson, Ann Arbor: The First Hundred Years (1927); Wilfred Shaw, ed., The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey; and Nettie Idell Schepeler Van der Werker, History of Earliest Ann Arbor (1919).