Historic Royal Oak

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    A Run Ran Through It:
    Red Run, The Ghost River of Royal Oak

    by Bob Muller

    In fully developed urban areas, there may be hidden signs of what the land was like before the building of homes and businesses. A ghost image of rivers and creeks, long dry; can still be seen running through the grid pattern of roads and streets. Royal Oak has been a community for almost two hundred years. By the time it became a city in 1921, large areas were already filled with homes on small lots. This early development had turned Red Run, the small river within this community, into a drain. With no environmental thoughts or laws, Red Run's south branch was buried in the mid-1930s and the north branch in the late 1960s, becoming part of the storm and sanitary drain system for the fast growing northern suburbs. With a little imagination and research, what Red Run looked like and what lived there can still be seen.

    Red Run drain, or Red Run creek if you are thinking historically, is the name this waterway is usually given. This is incorrect. "Run" is a word commonly used in the Mid-Atlantic States to describe small rivers. Here in the Midwest, this definition seems to be rarely used and the population no longer understands its meaning. Red Run is a complete name and does not need the word creek added. Even the state highway department can't get it right. Around the 128-mile marker on I-75, you find a sign for Brent Run Creek and only three miles north one for Pine Run. Michigan has several thousand creeks, but only about fifteen runs, which are scattered across the state. About half of these runs occur between the cities of Monroe and Saginaw. To the north of Royal Oak, the towns of Birch Run, Pine Run and Rattle Run are found and to the southwest is Willow Run Airport. All are named after local runs (Ings). It is likely that settlers from the Mid-Atlantic states are responsible for some of Michigan's "creeks" being called runs.

    Finding the path taken by Red Run, as it flowed though this city is not difficult. Survey maps from the nineteenth century show Red Run's main channels and tributaries (Atlas of Oakland County, Mich. 141). Most of Royal Oak's development occurred before the common use of bulldozers. To change the grade of the land, men with shovels and wheelbarrows were used. Because the work was so labor intensive, very little was done. Therefore, the U.S. topographical maps of the area still show many of the old watercourses. With these maps and careful observations of the land, most of the large streambeds can be located. Red Run was divided into a north and south branch.

    The origins of the north branch are lost due to the Grand Trunk Railroad grade north of 14 Mile Road. What can be deduced from the topographical maps is that it flowed down Parmenter Drive and then crossed Crooks Road into the city of Clawson. It then crossed 14 Mile Road between Crooks Road and Main Street. Continuing on, it crossed Main Street in the vicinity of Realtors Park (then crossed Rochester Road) and exited Royal Oak around the intersection of 13 Mile and Campbell (Birmingham Quadrangle). The north branch merged with the south branch in Madison Heights to form Red Run's main channel (Warren Quadrangle). On the north branch just south of 14 Mile Road, there was a water-powered sawmill built by James G. Johnson in 1825. It was reported to have been able to cut 2,000 feet of lumber per day during the spring (Crossman 49). Daniel McMahon, who lived on Elmhurst in the early 1960s, remembers the north branch. "It flowed where Parmenter Drive is today, we caught fish and crawfish in it. I never saw tadpoles in it; the current was too fast for them. I don't know what kind of fish they were, we called them all minnows back then." He went on to describe the creek as 4-5 feet wide and at the most 18-20 inches deep. It must have already been canalized, as he mentioned that it had steep deep banks. Apparently nothing lived in the Run past a plating company at 14 Mile Road and Crooks. The run was buried in a 6-foot drain tile about 1967-1968; this was the end of free flowing water in Royal Oak (McMahon).

    Red Run's south branch entered Royal Oak crossing Woodward just north of Catalpa (actually, it appears to have crossed Woodward south of Catalpa) and then followed Vinsetta, which meanders along the old channel. At this point, Vinsetta was a flat flood plain. Today you can still see its old concrete bridges crossing the grassy boulevard where Red Run once flowed. Continuing down Vinsetta, the flood plane slowly turned into a ravine that now has houses built into its sides. From there, it ran though a deep ravine in Wagner Park, then through the country club that bears its name. It exited Royal Oak at Twelve Mile Road and Campbell (Birmingham Quadrangle). Prior to entering Royal Oak, the area is too flat for topographical maps to be of use. According to Walter Muller, a long time resident of the area, "It started in a swamp near Nine Mile Road, then crossed Ten Mile Road at Webers Greenhouse (now the Pineville subdivision). It then ran through Rackham Golf Course, Huntington Woods and Berkley" (Muller). These were the routes of the main courses of Red Run.

    The small tributaries leave less of a mark on the land and topographical maps. Therefore it takes more effort to locate the old streambeds. There were four main tributaries, three on the north side and one on the south. The longest tributary named the Little Run, started in what is now Northwood shopping center (Penney and Lance, 269). It crossed Woodward and can still be seen as a small ditch winding through Memorial Park. This ditch is the only part of the waterway within Royal Oak that still regularly holds water. It passes through Royal Oak Golf course, and then is lost where the berm of the Grand Trunk Railroad has changed the land. The topographical map then clearly shows Little Run where Laurome Drive enters Vinsetta. The Little Run is the only tributary that a name can be found for. The other three tributaries have been given names in this paper for clarity, but these names are not based on historical records.

    The shortest tributary, "Marais Creek", ran only a few blocks from Royal through a depression in Marais Park to Vinsetta. The third tributary, "Washington Creek", started behind where the Royal Oak Senior/Community Center now stands. It crossed Thirteen Mile Road around Gwen Court and wound its way to Washington Avenue, where it intersected the north side of Vinsetta (Birmingham quadrangle). It is easy to follow this streambed, since every place it would have crossed an east-west street, there remains a valley. There was a large cranberry bog between Woodward Ave. and the railroad along Eleven Mile Road (Historical Tour Map of Royal Oak, Michigan). This bog was probably the beginning of the only tributary, "Marywood Creek", that was on Red Run's south side. It flowed behind Dondero High School, up Marywood Drive, and though a wide ditch in Waterworks Park before entering what was Red Run (Royal Oak Quadrangle). This completes the physical path of Red Run and its main tributaries within Royal Oak.

    This information let's us visualize the path of the Run and its tributaries, but what would Red Run have looked like? Red Run was a major tributary of the Clinton River; so looking at the remaining tributaries may provide some clues. Paint Creek, which flows through downtown Rochester, is a good example. It is 10-20 feet wide and has clear cool water flowing through flood planes and deep ravines. The banks are heavily forested and the bottom varies from mud to sand or gravel. The water depth changes from a few inches over the gravel to several feet deep over the softer substrates. Many small streams run into Paint Creek, most from large swamps or cold bogs. This description probably provides the best guess as to what Red Run looked like.

    Long time residents of Royal Oak will be familiar with the pond and windmill that can be seen off Main Street just north of Twelve Mile Road. What they may not know is that this pond is the only natural water source left in the city (Perkins, 78). Originally, a small stream flowed along Aqua Court, feeding this pond. During high water in the spring there was a small stream that flowed out of this pond into Red Run. This still occurs, although now it drops though a sewer grate into the buried Run below. Fish lived in the pond until a few years ago when it seems that a winter-kill eliminated them. Snapping turtles and bullfrogs can be found in the pond, so some aquatic life still lives in Royal Oak (Gabler).

    With the loss of Red Run, many animals that depended on a permanent water source disappeared. Ducks, herons and kingfishers would have been among the birds living along the Run. Just north of Royal Oak, the Big Beaver drain flows through Troy, undoubtedly named for one of its past residents. Beaver, muskrats and other aquatic mammals would have been found here. An abundance of turtles, frogs, crawfish and aquatic insects were common. A review of fish collecting records at the University of Michigan and a list from a 2001 DNR sampling of the Clinton River shows that 63 species of fishes have been found in the upper Clinton River system (Smith) (Francis). Since Red Run was a major tributary of this river system, all of these fishes could have lived in Red Run. Only one written record of fish in Royal Oak could be found. It is a story of children swimming in Red Run while their father fished. The children let his stringer of fish go as a joke and it washed down stream where he stepped on the bullheads with his bare feet (Perkins, 192-193). Wallace Gabler remembers carp and suckers in the Run, and also hearing from family members that there were smelt runs before it was covered over (Gabler). The author's own collecting in the Clinton River system has produced one fish not listed by U. of M. or the DNR sampling, the banded killifish. This brings the count to 64 species in 14 families that once could have been found in this city. All of these fishes and many other aquatic animals permanently disappeared with the loss of Red Run (covering it over).

    The entire state of Michigan with all its diverse aquatic habitats supports 130 species of native fishes. Its amazing to know that over one third of those fishes could have existed in these neighborhoods (Names of Michigan Fish). What were some of the 58 species of native fishes that could have lived here (Smith) (Francis)? The sunfish family, a unique North American group was well represented. Large and small mouth bass, along with rock bass, green sunfish, longear sunfish, pumpkinseeds, bluegill and black crappie would have been found in deep holes. Several kinds of darters, the "hummingbirds" of North American fish, would definitely have lived in the Run. Rainbow and greenside darters would be found in the shallow gravel riffles. Fantail and johnny darters would be seen where there were large rocks for them to breed under. In the muddy weedy areas there would be least and Iowa darters. The largest family of fish in North America, the minnows, is also the family with the largest number of species, nineteen, found in the Clinton River. Three of the minnows found in the Clinton River turn brilliant red during their spawning season, northern redbelly dace, rosyface shiner and redfin shiner. Another unusual feature of our minnows is the development of tubercles during their spawning season. Tubercles are horny growths on the skin and fins of the fishes. Most minnows develop tubercles on their heads but the stoneroller has its complete body covered. Stonerollers are also nest builders; they pile up pebbles until their have a mound sometimes several feet in diameter and eight inches high. These nests would have been visible in the deep gravel riffles. Several other species of minnows and suckers also build nests and many other kinds of fishes will spawn over the top of these nests. The author has seen hundreds of rosyface shiners spawning on a white sucker nest. At the same time, several other species minnows and darters were swarming through the breeding frenzy getting an easy meal. Along the Runís edges, in the grass and roots hanging in the water, you would find brook sticklebacks. The male sticklebacks build nests of piece of plants and guard their eggs. In this same area five-inch long central mudminnow would be slowly stalking their prey. Mudminnows aren't minnows at all, but relatives of pike. Only four species of mudminnows exist, with three found in the United States. The Bullheads and their dwarf venomous relatives the Madtoms would represent the catfishes. In sandy spots with a build up of detritus, buried and out of site would be the larva of our native lampreys. There they would remain for years, filter feeding until they metamorphos into adults spawn and die. Imagine walking to a park in Royal Oak and being able to fly fish for brook trout, sadly nothing is left of the diversity of fishes that once lived here.

    Red Run is gone forever, it has disappeared underground. The increased drainage has permanently lowered the water table, drying up the small streams and ponds of Royal Oak. Even though the dry streambeds remain, the most that will accumulate are a few puddles on a rainy day. If this city were developing now, instead of one hundred year ago, this small river system would be lined with parks. There would be places for fishing, for bird watching and for small boys to get wet and catch frogs. Instead, people drive their cars through the streets, never knowing what was here. Only a few, with eyes wide open, can see the ghost of the river and are able to look into the past.

    Table 1. Fishes Found in the Upper Clinton River

    Lampreys (Petromyzontidae)
    Northern Brook Lamprey, Ichthyomyzon fossor
    Silver Lamprey, I. unicuspisr
    Sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus
    Shads (Clupeidae)
    Gizzard Shad, Dorosoma cepedianum
    Smelts (Osmeridae)
    Rainbow Smelt, Osmerus mordax
    Trouts (Salmonidae)
    Brook Trout, Salvelinus fontinalis
    Rainbow Trout, Oncorhynchus mykiss
    Brown Trout, Salmo trutta
    Mudminnows (Umbridae)
    Central Mudminnow, Umbra limi
    Pikes (Esocidae)
    Grass Pickerel, Esox americanus vermiculatus
    Northern Pike, E. lucius
    Minnows (Cyprinidae)
    Central Stoneroller, Campostoma anomalum
    Carp, Cyprinus carpio
    Goldfish, Carassius auratus
    Spotfin Shiner, Cyprinella spiloptera
    Brassy Minnow, Hybognathus hankinsoni
    Striped shiner, Luxilus chrysocephalus
    Common Shiner, L. cornutus
    Redfin Shiner, Lythrurus umbratilis
    Horneyhead Chub, Nocomis biguttatus
    River Chub, N. micropogon
    Gold Shiner, Notemigonus crysoleucas
    Spottail Shiner, Notropis hudsonius
    Blackchin Shiner, N. heterodon
    Blacknose Shiner, N. heterolepis
    Rosyface Shiner, N. rubellus
    Mimic Shiner, N. volucellus
    Northern Redbelly Dace, Phoxinus eos
    Bluntnose Minnow, Pimephalus notatus
    Fathead Minnow, P. promelas
    Blacknose Dace, Rhinichthys atratulus
    Creek Chub, Semotilus atromaculatus
    Suckers (Catostomidae)
    White Sucker, Catostomus commersoni
    Northern Hog Sucker, Hypentelium nigricans
    Lake Chubsucker, Erimyzon sucetta
    Silver Redhorse, Moxostoma anisurum
    Black Redhorse, M. duquesnei
    Golden Redhorse, M. ertyhrurum
    Shorted Redhorse, M. macrolepidotum
    Sticklebacks (Gasterosteidae)
    Brook Stickleback, Culaea inconstans
    Catfishes  (Icaluridae)
    Black Bullhead, Ameriurus melas
    Yellow Bullhead, A. natalis
    Brown Bullhead, A. nebulosus
    Tadpole Madtom, Noturus gyrinus
    Killifishes (Fundulidae)
    Banded Killifish, Fundulus diaphanus
    Sculpins (Cottidae)
    Mottled Sculpin, Cottus bairdi
    Sunfishes (Centrarchidae)
    Rock Bass, Ambloplites rupestris
    Green Sunfish, Lepomis cyanellus
    Longear Sunfish, L. megalotis
    Pumpkinseed, L. gibbosus
    Bluegill, L. macrochirus
    Smallmouth Bass, Micropterus dolomieu
    Largemouth Bass, M. salmoides
    Black Crappie, Pomoxis nigromaculatus
    Perches (Percidae)
    Greenside Darter, Etheostoma blennioides
    Rainbow Darter, E. caeruleum
    Iowa Darter, E. exile
    Barred Fantail Darter, E. f. flabellare
    Least Darter, E. microperca
    Johnny Darter, E. nigrum
    Log Perch, Percina caprodes
    Blackside Darter, P. maculata 
    Yellow Perch, Perca flavescens
    Walleye, Stizostedion vitreum

    Sources Cited:
    Atlas of Oakland County, Mich. 1872: (Royal Oak Public Library). Birmingham quadrangle. U.S. Topographical Maps. Denver CO: U.S. Geo. Survey, 1981
    Crossman, Constance Kingan. Royal Oak Our Living Legend 1787-1940. Royal Oak, MI.: School Dist. of the City of R.O, 1973.
    Francis, Jim. E-mail to Clinton River Watershed Council on DNR sampling of Clinton River. August, 2001. francisj@state.mi.us Gabler, Wallace. Personal interview. Oct. 2000.
    Historical Tour Map of Royal Oak, Michigan. Royal Oak, MI: R.O. Beautification Council, 1971.
    Ings, Karl ed. Professor Higbies Stream Map of Michigan. Williamsport, PA: Vivid Pub, 1993.
    McMahon, Daniel. Personal interview. August, 2001.
    Muller, Walter O. Telephone interview. Sept., 2000.
    Names of Michigan Fish. Institute of Fisheries Research. May, 1996. Mich. DNR Fisheries Div. .
    Penney, David G. and Lois Lance. compliers & authors, Royal Oak Twigs and Acorns. Royal Oak, MI: Little Acorn Press, 1996.
    Perkins, Owen. compiler, Royal Oak Michigan the Early Years. Royal Oak, MI: R.O. Golden Jubilee Pub, 1974.
    Royal Oak Quadrangle. U.S. Topographical Maps. Denver, CO: U.S. Geo. Survey, 1981.
    Smith, Gerald R. "Fish Collection Maps for Michigan" Unpublished. Museum of Zoology U. of M., Ann Arbor MI.
    Warren Quadrangle. U.S. Topographical Maps. Denver, CO: U.S. Geo. Survey, 1980.

    Page last changed 11/28/01

    To Red Run Map

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