In the mid-1800s, central Lower Michigan was almost entirely swampy, wooded, or pioneer farmland. This began to change significantly in 1847, when the state capital was moved from Detroit to a tiny community at a bend in the Grand River near its confluence with the Red Cedar River. At first called, redundantly, “Michigan, Michigan,” the town was soon renamed Lansing. (Lansing’s name comes from Lansing, New York, from whence came Joseph H. North, an early settler; that city is named for John Lansing, Quartermaster Gen’l during the American Revolution.)
The area where East Lansing and the campus park now stand “was once an important junction of two much traveled Indian trails.” The “Okemah Road,” as established by the Lansing Township board in 1847, ran parallel to the north bank of the Red Cedar River, “entering the college grounds at the west entrance [Beal Entrance], following the river to near the gymnasium [Circle IM], where it took a northeasterly course crossing the town line near Abbot Hall [no longer standing] and joining Grand River Road [sic] about opposite M.A.C. Avenue.” The “Park Lake Trail” connected to the Okemah Road “somewhere on the college grounds, took a winding course through the woods near Park Lane, crossing Burcham near Grove,” then north to the Towar farmhouse on what is now Lake Lansing Road, and northeast across Walnut Hills golf course to Park Lake in Meridian Township. (A portion of the Park Lake Trail is now Park Lake Road north of Walnut Hills.)[Towar, pp. 28–30]
Sometime before 1840 the “Grand River Road” passed through on its way from Detroit to Portland, and in the early 1850s a plank road was built on it, connecting north Lansing to Howell and Detroit to the southeast.[Towar, p. 25] (Today, the old plank road goes by the name of Grand River Avenue.) South of the plank road, the easternmost section of land in Lansing township (the Lansing/Meridian township line is marked today by Abbot Road) was the Robert Burcham farm. A small log farmhouse stood in an “oak opening” along the Okemah Road, a short distance from the Red Cedar River, a tiny brook, and a tamarack swamp. In 1855 the disposition of this modest tract would change dramatically, and with it the entire surrounding area.
The two entities known today as Michigan State University and the City of East Lansing are essentially two intertwined parts of a larger whole, in ways both literal and historical. Neither could exist without the other; in fact, the M.S.U. campus is administratively within the City of East Lansing, and the city itself is an outgrowth of the college. Yet from the perspective of land development and architectural history, the city and the campus take very separate paths. This history therefore takes the old plank road, figuratively, as a convenient dividing line. The links below will take you into town, or onto campus.