Retracing Royal Oak, MI's Lost River

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After being mostly buried by the 1930’s, the visible Red Run now winds through Warren, Sterling Heights and Clinton Township as a lowly storm drain. But its modern history started building SE Michigan communities before the United States was a country. Here’s a look at what’s left.

The run as it appears today east of Van Dyke Avenue in Warren. During flood season, the water nearly reaches the top of the embankments.

Let’s start out with a map. I’ve overlayed a Google map with one provided to Historic Royal Oak by Bob Muller. As always, click for a larger view.

A small portion of the larger Clinton River Watershed, the Red Run originally had a North branch and South branch. Since the only noticeable surviving remnant of the North branch is the winding curves of Parmenter Road just north of 14 Mile, we’ll concentrate on the South branch that cut through the heart of early Royal Oak.

Looking northeast toward Coolidge Hwy

1. Memorial Park

A small patch of grassy land next to a baseball field at the corner of 13 Mile and Woodward Avenue is “the only part of the waterway within Royal Oak that still holds water.” (Muller) This was actually the stream bed of the only named tributary in the area, Little Run.

Coolidge Hwy in the background

From the scale of my bike, you can see how small the channel was this far upstream.

12 Mile bridge shown. If you look closely you can see “Grand Trunk Western Railway” on the side of the bridge. By 1900, this line linked Ontario to Chicago and beyond.

2. Grand Trunk Railroad Bridges

These distinctive bridges can be seen above several roads in the city. The railroad was built in this area in the 1830’s, and although it does not hinder our present tour, its landscaping near 14 Mile Road unfortunately obscures the origins of the Red Run’s North branch.

These rails now serve freight trains and Amtrak’s Wolverine commuter line.

3. Vinsetta Boulevard

Vinsetta Blvd runs down the center of the old Red Run channel, but the present waterway is sadly buried underneath the road. You can, however, enjoy several charming concrete bridges that once spanned the creek south of 12 Mile Road.

Workers building the underwater drain in the 1930s. Getting rid of the pesky Red Run and its tributaries enabled them to build uninterrupted neighborhoods above ground. (Photo: Historic Royal Oak)

4. Marais Park

North of 12 Mile along Vinsetta, a dramatic hill dominates tiny Marais Park in this serene residential neighborhood. A short tributary once flowed down the slope to join the run.

5. New Versus Old

At the east end of Vinsetta at Main St, the passing of almost a century since burying the Red Run is quite evident. The deep river valley in Wagner Park abuts the boulevard’s meticulously trimmed lawns.

Imagine the spring floods flowing through here before the river was bottled up!

6. Wagner Park

Now housing a playground and disc golf course, this keystone-shaped patch of grass reveals its origins to those in the know. At the center is a wide river bottom, but its sides climb rapidly to the level deciduous forest.

I couldn’t help but photograph the beautiful Midwestern sunset. The valley starts just beyond the trees.

Walking through the park, you can easily imagine how the area must have looked when the white man first stepped foot here. Gorgeous!

7. The Golf Club

Immediately to the east of Wagner Park, the Red Run gave its name and its land to a golf club which now resides there. Many golfers may not realize that trout and pike may have swam beneath their feet only 100 years ago! Along with them, the “ducks, herons and kingfishers,” “beavers, muskrats and other[s],” moved on downriver as well. (Muller) With a bit of patience, some of these animals can still be spotted in Warren’s open waterways.

Historical marker at Van Dyke north of Chicago Road in Warren

8. Gone, but not Forgotten

While it has gone underground west of Interstate 75, the run is still a part of the landscape nearer to the Clinton River. Though it’s not a gleaming beacon of the Parks & Rec department today, there have been discussions about transforming the waterway into a multi-use greenway. This could potentially connect to the Clinton River trail system, eventually leading residents all the way to Rochester, Pontiac and even Richmond!


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The Great American Stations

Red Run

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