The Vanishing of Schoolgirls’ Glen

It should be kept so that it might become a haven of quiet one hundred years from now.
– Alexander Ruthven
  1. Chapter 1 Pressing Wildflowers

    From the late 1800s through World War II, University students and the people of Ann Arbor liked to walk through a deep, green ravine that led from the heights near Forest Hill Cemetery down to the Huron River, at the edge of acreage that would eventually become Nichols Arboretum.

    Every spring in the 1850s, Miss Mary Clark, the principal of a private school for girls, would lead her pupils to the verdant little valley to collect and press wildflowers. No one knows for sure, but that’s probably why people began to call the place Schoolgirls’ Glen.

    With slopes too steep for the farmer’s plow, the glen stayed much the same through the years. Strollers praised the views from the heights above and the Huron below.

    “No person with any poetry in his soul can walk from the second railroad bridge north to Schoolgirls’ Glen without rhyming all the way,” wrote a U-M student of the 1870s. “We have tried the experiment. It can’t be done. There is no more beautiful bend in any river at any season…and many a homelier and more uninviting place than Schoolgirls’ Glen has been celebrated in song.”

    A graduate of the class of 1881 remembered long afterward that in his time at Michigan, “Schoolgirls’ Glen was faithfully believed to equal Alpine scenery in sublimity.”

    • For a story about U-M in Cosmopolitan in 1899, an artist captured a bird’s-eye view from above the Glen.
      For a story about U-M in Cosmopolitan in 1899, an artist captured a bird’s-eye view from above the Glen.
      Image: Cosmopolitan magazine
    No person with any poetry in his soul can walk from the second railroad bridge north to Schoolgirls’ Glen without rhyming all the way.
  2. Chapter 2 What the Stream Made

    The glen came into being eons before it had a name.

    In the last Ice Age, the receding Wisconsin Glacier left a ridge of land running east and west roughly along the path of today’s Geddes Avenue. Such a ridge is called a moraine, and when a stream sculpts a path through a moraine, the ravine it makes is called a glen — a small, protected valley. The stream may have followed the track of great ice blocks that dropped off the glacier and melted to soften the soil. In time, the glen grew to 300 hundred feet at its widest point and ran for more than 1,000 feet from the heights down to the Huron.

    Nothing is known of whether hunters of the native Ottawa, Chippewa, Potowatami and Wyandot may have visited the glen. But its beauty certainly attracted Washtenaw County’s settlers. And without meaning to, they began to change it.

    Above the ravine, near Geddes, acres of fruit trees were planted on the gentle slopes, and the rain that fell on the peach and apple trees trickled down through the ravine’s streambed. (Residential street names such as Orchard Hills and Apple Way are reminders of that history.) In the 1880s, someone came through and cleared some of the native trees and ground cover, but the foliage that was left alone gradually replenished the glen with its native flora. Because the slopes of the glen were so steep, they were impossible to plant. So in spite of the agriculture on the heights above, the glen remained a largely undisturbed remnant of Michigan’s primeval woodlands.

    There were shady places and sunny places and a mixture of clay and sand underfoot, so the glen grew an extraordinary mixture of shrubs, ferns, wildflowers and trees in a tight space. Overhead from spring to fall, the limbs of hazelnuts and hawthorns formed a dense and colorful canopy. Closer to the ground there were clumps of blackberries and nightshade, sunflowers and sumac.

    The rich mixture of flowers and trees attracted an extraordinary range of insects and birds. Where the rill flowed into the Huron, birdwatchers counted sandpipers, bitterns, kingfishers, ospreys, mergansers, wood ducks and gulls. Up the glen, there were thrushes, thrashers, warblers, towhees, vireos, and Baltimore orioles. Near the orchards at the top there were juncos, finches, song sparrows, meadowlarks, indigo buntings, and snow buntings not long from the Arctic.

    Even in the early 1900s, it was unusual to find so many kinds of birds in one small place.

    The concentration of species was “a strong demonstration of the disturbing influence of man’s methods,” an Ann Arbor ornithologist named A.D. Tinker wrote in 1908. “These isolated spots throughout the country where nature is allowed to hold forth in something of her normal state form havens of retreat for the birds and if unmolested will in the future be a powerful factor in the preservation of our feathered friends.”

    Tinker’s advice was not followed.

    The glen grew an extraordinary mixture of shrubs, ferns, wildflowers and trees in a tight space.
  3. Chapter 3 Washing Away

    A heedless human assault on Schoolgirls’ Glen unfolded over many years.

    It began when tracks of the Michigan Central Railroad were laid along the south bank of the Huron. When the passing trains cast off sparks and hot coals, brushfires would ignite and spread up through the glen.

    But the greenery would recover—in fact, the fires cleared space for prairie grasses to thrive—and the birds would return.

    When the glen was incorporated with neighboring tracts to form Nichols Arboretum in 1907, it seemed to be safe. It remained a popular place for hikes and escapes from the hubbub of the campus and the city.

    In the 1930s, engineering professors urged that the Arb be converted to a winter sports facility, but a committee appointed by U-M President Alexander Ruthven—a zoologist—said no. “It should be kept so that it might become a haven of quiet one hundred years from now,” the committee declared, “when our rich native flora will have become a thing of the past in most places.”

    Then, after the Second World War, Schoolgirls’ Glen began to wash away.

    * * *

    In the 1950s and ‘60s, roaring bulldozers and towering cranes invaded the campus’s eastern edges. All around University Hospital, along Observatory Street and Washington Heights, massive new edifices pushed skyward — classroom buildings and a library for the Medical School; an enormous children’s hospital; the School of Public Health; the Kresge Research Institute; a center for children’s psychiatry; a School of Nursing; and biggest of all, the sprawling Mary Markley Hall, built to house a massive influx of baby boomers coming of age.

    “At times in the mid-1960s,” the Ann Arbor historian Ruth Bordin wrote, “the outer boundaries of the campus resembled a gravel pit.”

    And these new buildings were constructed without the crucial water detention systems that would have saved the glen from sudden, torrential run-off during heavy rainstorms.

    On the gentle slopes that angled down toward Schoolgirls’ Glen, heavy rains and melting spring snow once had soaked into the spongy soil of orchards, pastures and the broad, wooded acreage of Forest Hill Cemetery. But the cemetery’s subsoil had become packed tight with concrete burial vaults. The cemetery was interwoven with paved lanes. The pastures that once had sloped away from the Detroit Observatory were buried under buildings, black-topped streets and parking lots.

    Now, especially in heavy storms, water rushed unchecked from the cemetery and from roof-drains to the paved slopes of the streets below, speeding toward three massive storm drains that emptied straight into Schoolgirls’ Glen.

    Spring after spring, summer after summer, torrents spilled into the ravine and raced down the steep slope, scouring soil from the banks, then spewing it into a broad, brown delta of mud in the Huron.

    More water running fast over the surface meant less water filtered into the ground. The water table sank. The roots of the glen’s native ferns and flowers went dry. And the water that spilled down the deepening channel carried a toxic skim of fertilizers, pesticides, litter and oil down to the river below.

    As a final, ugly signature of human encroachment, the thick trunk of Ann Arbor’s sanitary sewer was laid square across the mouth of the glen, right out in the open.

    Spring after spring, summer after summer, torrents spilled into the ravine...
  4. Chapter 4 “A Legal Form of Trespass”

    The first to sound the alarm was Donald Gray, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. He was an expert on erosion, and in Schoolgirls’ Glen he found a disturbing case study.

    From the 1970s on — first as an individual, then as president of the Friends of Nichols Arboretum — he beat a steady drum for attention to the destruction of the glen. He grew increasingly frustrated with inaction on the part of the University, Forest Hill Cemetery, and city officials.

    “These flows [of stormwater] constitute a legal form of trespass and/or nuisance,” Gray wrote a fellow engineer in 1993. “If you or I were to discharge our runoff onto our neighbor’s property in such a cavalier and egregious manner, we could be prosecuted and held to account in a court of law.” 

    * * *

    In the early 2000s, students in what was then called the School of Natural Resources and Environment — now the School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) — studied what decades of unchecked stormwater had done. At the base of the glen they found a place more like a desert-scape than the upper Midwest. Glacial boulders hidden underground for millenia sat exposed on the ground. Naked roots stuck out of the banks. The rich soil that once had nourished the glen’s wildflowers was now far down the Huron River, banked up against the dam at the end of Geddes Pond.

    On the slopes of the glen, invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle had crowded out the native ferns and other foliage. The shallow roots of the invasives could not anchor the soil as the native species had, and they repelled the insects that once had fed the native birds. So most bird species had fled the glen in search of more hospitable habitats.

    The students estimated that, on average, at least a cubic yard of soil — enough to fill the bed of a pick-up truck — had been sluiced out of the glen every day for the last 35 years.

    A verdant valley full of birdsong had become a dry, silent gulch.

    at least a cubic yard of soil had been sluiced out of the glen every day for 35 years.
  5. Chapter 5 “If Only We Could Reclaim It”

    A small but growing band set out to organize the work of restoring the glen to at least a facsimile of its 19th-century self. They were led by Professor Gray; Liz Elling, a graduate of SEAS who joined the Arboretum’s staff; and Robert Grese, a SEAS professor who became director of the Arboretum in 1999 (and of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens when the two properties were joined in 2004).

    It was a labor worthy of Hercules.

    First, they persuaded skeptical University planners to allow them to try “soft engineering” remedies that Gray had developed through many years of research.

    These steps began when volunteers climbed up and down the glen’s steep slopes, replacing invasive plants with native varieties that do a better job of anchoring the soil.

    On Washington Heights, workers installed stepped pools and bioswales to catch the stormwater running off Washington Heights.

    With help from a crew of Ford Motor Company engineers and a grant from the Great Lakes Commission, a special dam of football-sized boulders was laid across the ravine to slow the flow.

    When the new Mott Children’s Hospital was built, a giant stormwater detention tank was installed under the building.

    Some, not all, of the new parking lots in the area were constructed with permeable paving, so the rainwater would sink into the ground instead of rushing down through Schoolgirls’ Glen.

    In 2003, at the Arb’s Reader Urban Environmental Education Center, a broad “Gateway Garden” was spread between the glen and Forest Hill Cemetery. That trapped much of the cemetery’s run-off.

    All of this helped. Erosion in the glen has been slowed.

    But it can never look as it did in the 1800s — too much soil is simply gone — and the three big storm drains still lead to the head of the ravine.

    The glen can recover what Grese calls its “ecological integrity,” but only if more is done, and soon.

    “It’s still very fragile and vulnerable,” he said. “It’s kind of a secret that no one knows about – just how scenic this land is—or was. It still is, today, if only we could reclaim it.”


    Sources include Donald Gray, Robert Grese and Tammy Orlow, “Saving Schoolgirls’ Glen,” Erosion Control, March-April 2004; Steve Gilzow, “Soft Healing at the Arb,” Ann Arbor Observer, February 2009; A.D. Tinker, “The Birds of the Schoolgirls’ Glen Region,” Michigan Geological and Biological Survey (1910); “Ann Arbor,” The Chronicle, vol. 6, no. 7 (January 9, 1875); Alfred Dachnowski, “Contribution to the Botanical Survey of the Huron River Valley,” Michigan Academy of Science (1907); Ruth Bordin, The University of Michigan: A Pictorial History (1967).

    It's kind of a secret that no one knows about – just how scenic this land is—or was.
    – Robert Grese, director of Nichols Arboretum and Matthaei Botanical Gardens