Any photos not otherwise credited are from the personal collection of Frank Passic, Albion Historian.
Albion Recorder, January 11, 1999, pg. 4.
The southwest portion of Albion is naturally low and was swampy for many years. A portion of it in the vicinity of Dalrymple School was once a breeding place for mosquitoes and other insects. Even today, heavy rains produce standing water in this area. This section of town has historically been known for its rich black soil, as well as soft mucky areas which made the streets bumpy.
A small run-off stream known as the "black ditch," so-named because of the soil appearance, once ran through the area. It began at the Kalamazoo River millpond just south of River St., moved diagonally northwestwards across S. Superior, and Clinton Sts., crossed S. Eaton St. at W. Oak St., continued across the former George Grenevitch property and the Dalrymple School grounds, across W. Erie St., through the Gadsen Court area, and then past Gale St. until it reached the Kalamazoo River.
The black ditch was utilized during the great Flood of 1908, when dynamite was used to try and free the ice jam in the millpond. The black ditch was used as a type of water pressure safety valve by diverting water through the ditch, and thus causing water to bypass the city.
In 1912, the City of Albion undertook the most massive sewer project in its history up to that time, and installed over a mile of 12-inch, 24-inch, and 30-inch tile storm and sanitary sewer pipe over the route of the black ditch. The project was under the direction of the sewer commissioner William Porr. The cost of the project was $8,000. The project was financed by private assessment of property owners in the southwest section of town through whose property the line ran, or through owners whose streets were service by purs that ran into the main line. This amounted to 586 property owners.
The pipe was laid ten feet underground. Workers had to dig through several inches of sandstone with pick axes: blasting would have caused cave-ins. Over 20 trees had to be removed, and there were right-of-way disputes with the railroad for going under the Lake Shore & Michigan Southern Railroad tracks on N. Gale St.
The project served a dual purpose. It provided much needed drainage for the area which was immediately evident when the line was placed into service. It also provided modern sanitary sewer facilities to residents of the area, thus dooming the numerous outhouses which once dotted the landscape. The storm sewer was placed directly about the sanitary sewer. If either became filled during heavy rains, for instance, the surplus would overflow into the other. Numerous storm sewer catch basins were installed which were in use until 1974 when the repaving of S. Eaton St. resulted in larger-diameter pipes being installed.
One place you can observe the remains of the "black ditch" is on S. Eaton St. at W. Oak. The capped black ditch flows between the houses at 712 and 800 S. Eaton St., and moves on through the old Grenevitch property. If you look at the street pavement, you will see a diagonal bump across the street. That is the black ditch route. In 1974 when the new curbing was placed on S. Eaton St. the contractors did not level the curbing properly on the West Side of S. Eaton st., where the water is supposed to run into the storm drain (i.e. the black ditch). Today there always is a layer of leaves, dirt and other material that backs up at the site of the storm drain, whose level was placed higher than the water that was supposed to flow into it. Perhaps this quirk could be corrected next time S. Eaton St. is repaved.
This week we present the only known map of Albion showing the route of the black ditch. Dated 1871, the viewer can easily distinguish the path of the black ditch. It flowed through land owned by Samuel V. Irwin, Champion and James C. Eslow, and Silas Finley. For our readers who live in the southwest portion of Albion and wonder why you have shallow basements and cannot dig more than several feet before hitting water, you can thank the black ditch, Albion’s "all natural" storm sewer.
The Black Ditch
All text copyright, 2020 © all rights reserved Frank Passic