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Cass River Greeenway-Tom Lounsbury

Tom Lounsbury

Sat, 23 Feb 2013 19:01:00 EST


Fort Saginaw was created in 1816 at present day Saginaw to meet the needs of a new and growing nation. In September of 1819 General Lewis Cass would gather Native Americans together on the banks of a river that would soon bear his name, near where it feeds into the Saginaw River (not far from present day Bridgeport) to ratify the Treaty of Saginaw that would cede six million acres to the United States. There is a large stained glass window in the Tuscola County Courthouse that commemorates this very historic occasion on the Cass River.
In 1831 Alex de Tocqueville was sent to America by a Paris newspaper to write about the last frontier. His travels would bring him to Saginaw. Upon gazing at the Saginaw River he wrote: “In a few years these impenetrable forests will have fallen.” When viewing the Cass River he wrote: “A turf covered point projecting above the river in the shade of great trees served us as a table and we sat down to luncheon with a view of the river whose waters clear as crystal, snaked through the wood.”
In the fall of 1852 Oliver Hazard Perry (“The Hunting Expeditions of Oliver Hazard Perry”) of Ohio, would venture to the Thumb’s wilderness along the Cass River in search of elk and deer. He would travel by steamship to Port Huron and would then go overland on foot to the Cass River, hunting along the way. He and his companion (a seasoned outdoorsman Perry hired to accompany him) would literally live off the land on their trip and his journal describes a sheer wilderness of dense forests and swamps. He would bag a huge (8 X 8) bull elk in Sanilac County, and subsisting on jerked meat made from it along with wild berries, he and his companion, their clothing in tatters, would eventually find there way along the Cass River to “Indian Fields” near present day Caro. He mentions some slight sign of lumbering activities along the banks of the Cass River, but it is still pretty much an untouched wilderness. At Indian Fields where many Native Americans had recently gathered for their annual fall hunting pow-wow, Perry then purchases an Indian canoe and heads 16 miles downstream to a small settlement called “Vassar” to refit and re-supply, and then heads back out for further elk and deer hunting upstream at “the first forks” (near present day Cass City) of the Cass River.
On his canoe trip downstream to Saginaw upon conclusion of his hunting expedition, Perry mentions the small settlements (their locations obviously dependant upon the river) he passes through. He clearly describes Tuscola, Vassar, Dutch Town (Frankenmuth) and Bridgeport in their beginning stages, with a settler noticed hacking out a clearing here and there along the way between settlements (and also a dramatic change from what Alex de Tocqueville observed along the Cass River just 21 years before). At that time the atmosphere was just beginning to become what we have today. Besides lumbering and clearing land for agriculture, there would also be the big fire of 1881. What Perry witnessed along the Cass River in 1852 entailing the giant trees and dense forests would quickly be changed forever in just a few short decades. It was a fast growing country during fast changing times.
I have a nearly a lifetime association to the Cass River. I caught my first fish in its waters when I was just a toddler, thanks to the assistance of my mother. With our family farm just a short bicycle ride away I spent most of my free time while growing up enjoying what the Cass River has to offer. I’ve also canoed down both the Upper and Lower Branches, as well as I’ve paddled my way from Cass City downstream to as far as Frankenmuth. The one thing I have noticed over the years is that the Cass River doesn’t have the notoriety or even respect as other Michigan Rivers, especially in regards to recreational avenues. I’ve even heard some folks imply that it is a “trashy” river.
Needless to say I was very pleased to find out about the “Cass River Greenway”, a group that was first organized in Frankenmuth in 2007 by resident volunteers seeking to enhance the use and environment of the Cass River. It has since expanded to involve other Cass River communities. What first entailed local concerns has grown to hopefully include the entire Cass River system. The Cass River Greenway has three primary goals that entail developing recreational opportunities, encouraging preservation of natural lands and improving water quality. Since their founding, the organization has received the support of municipal, county, state and federal agencies. They have also received grants to help them achieve their primary goals.
I recently met with Cass River Greenway members Bob Zeilinger and Joe Toth, both of Frankenmuth. Our meeting place was of course on the riverbank right next to the Frankenmuth Dam. It was clear from the get go that both men had a deep and reverent respect for the river, and from them I learned what had been accomplished thus far and the direction the group was heading and I was indeed very impressed. I must admit their optimistic enthusiasm tended to be contagious. The Cass River Greenway has annual cleanup days on various stretches of the river as well is developing canoe/kayak launch sites per public access (including restrooms) along the river. They put in a floating dock last year in Frankenmuth that features handicap accessibility due to a special roller and railing system that allows ease in getting in and out of the canoe or kayak as well as launching and coming back out.
Quite frankly, the older I get, the more ready I am to accept anything that will help me to get in and out of a canoe easier, as well as launch and land (I’ve been known to take a “spill” during such moments and why my camera, wallet and you name it all go into Ziploc plastic bags). It is the goal of the Cass River Greenway to install these special floating docks (where water levels will allow- which can vary during the warm months on the Cass in certain stretches) at participating locations. They have also contacted all the municipalities associated with the Cass River to perform regular water quality testing and have received full support. The group is also addressing the phragmites issue that entails removing a highly invasive plant that has dramatically taken over and is ruining Michigan wetlands.
During my conversation with both Bob Zeilinger and Joe Toth, it was very apparent that both want to see the Cass River becoming “clear as crystal”, as de Tocqueville had viewed it.
The Cass River Greenway offers a great brochure featuring detailed maps (including for both canoe/kayak and bicycle trips), and is seeking more resident volunteers along the river. At present they cover from Tuscola downstream through Bridgeport. The group’s weak point however is from Caro and on upstream. Ultimately they wish to be able to cover the entire Cass River, something I hope they will accomplish, because this group certainly gets my vote. For more information about the Cass River Greenway go to

Author’s note:
Until last spring, I wasn’t aware of any canoe liveries for the Cass River. John Hoornstra of “Frankenmuth Coach” (telephone number 989-233-1782) offers canoe/kayak rentals and provides drop off and pick up from the Caro Dam all the way downstream to M-13. I’m looking forward to giving his services a try and (conveniently) paddling some Cass River stretches that I haven’t been down before and always been hoping to do. One of those “bucket list” items, you might say.



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