MONROE — Two-hundred years ago, the waters of the River Raisin ran red with the blood of more than 900 soldiers.
The largest skirmish fought on Michigan soil, the Battle of Frenchtown, would go down in history as one of the deadliest battles of the War of 1812. British and American forces grappled for control of Michigan and the lower Great Lakes, and on Jan. 22, 1813, the British prevailed. More American blood would be spilled the next day when Native Americans allied with the British returned to stage a massacre.
Today, Frenchtown is known as Monroe, and the banks of the River Raisin are silent. Now the city of Monroe seeks to commemorate its origins with the potential construction of a River Raisin Heritage Corridor-East, focusing on the city’s role in the War of 1812. Organizers said the attractions along the corridor would complement the River Raisin National Battlefield Park, which officially began operation in October, 2010. They hope it would draw tourists.
“River Raisin National Battlefield Park won’t build or recreate a structure from 200 years ago,” Monroe Mayor Robert Clark said. “We can partner with the national park to further tell the history of not only the Battle of River Raisin, but also of our culture, back when it was a Frenchtown settlement.”
The city and the Monroe County Historical Society held an open house and information session last week at Monroe City Hall. More than 60 Monroe residents attended. Conceptual designs were revealed for the first time, as well as estimates of the corridor's cost and economic impact.
Stretching 225 acres from downtown Monroe to Lake Erie, the extensive plan includes seven new attractions around the national park area, including a reconstructed Frenchtown settlement and a riverfront area with shops and restaurants.
A new battlefield park visitor center could use interactive and electronic resources to inform visitors of the Frenchtown battle and the cultural groups involved, Mr. Clark said.
The designs include a French chapel, a military reenactment area east of the battlefield, a 10,000-seat amphitheater where patriotic or period-themed concerts could be held, and two peace gardens celebrating 200 years of peace among the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.
“Monroe is a historically rich community and can be a tourism destination,” said Daniel Downing, the park’s chief of interpretation, education, and operations. “Community decisions need to be made in consideration of the national park resource it has been given. You can sit here and have a sleepy little park, or you can develop it into a more planned development.”
Former Monroe Mayor John Iacoangeli estimates the corridor could take anywhere from five to seven years or 15 to 20 years to implement. Mr. Iacoangeli, a certified planner, is a partner at Beckett & Raeder, the landscape architecture planning firm that drafted the plan.
If implemented, the entire corridor could cost $90.4 million to create, according to economic models conducted by Michigan State University. The city of Monroe and the Monroe County Historical Society have partnered on the plan; each organization set aside $35,000 in 2005 to draft the plan.
The corridor is estimated to generate 303 local jobs, draw 635,000 visitors annually, yield a statewide economic impact of $31.6 million a year, and collect nearly $22 million annually in local revenue, Mr. Downing said.
Each of the seven attractions along the corridor would be completed individually depending on how much revenue the corridor raises, Mr. Clark said.
According to William Braunlich, chairman of the River Raisin National Battlefield Park Foundation and a former president of the historical society, the foundation board is considering a number of local, national, and possibly international sources to fund the corridor’s construction.
The historical society and the city do not have the money to finance the project, which would be carried out over time as funds become available, Mr. Braunlich said.
Daniel Swallow, Monroe’s director of community and economic development, said the city will consider private donations, the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund for recreational developments, and FEMA flood mitigation grants for the floodplains south of the River Raisin, where the amphitheater and peace gardens would be built.
Mr. Clark has high hopes for the plan and its use of the area around the national park, once the home of several paper mills.
“We have been eliminating those eyesores from the community,” Mr. Clark said. “We’re working to reclaim our property and turn it into a national park.”
With the removal of the paper mills and the establishment of an attractive historical corridor east of the city’s central business district, Mr. Swallow and Mr. Braunlich hope the attraction would draw more people downtown.
“If you came to Monroe now, you wouldn’t see a paper mill. Ten years ago, there would be industrial ruins,” Mr. Braunlich said. “Now it’s an entirely new era for Monroe, and it’s much more similar to the Monroe of 100 years ago.”
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