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Does the Clinton River flow under Pontiac?

An aerial view of the Clinton River emerging from underground just east of downtown Pontiac, Mich.
An aerial view of the Clinton River emerging from underground just east of downtown Pontiac, Mich. (Google)

We received this geography question about the Clinton River in Pontiac through our 4YI form, where you can ask us anything about Michigan and/or Metro Detroit and we will do our best to get you an answer(s).

Question:

“Does the Clinton River flow under Pontiac?” -- Elizabeth Lyons-Neill

Answer:

Yes, the Clinton River flows under downtown Pontiac, but not under the entire city of Pontiac. On a map, you can see the river goes underneath the downtown area near Orchard Lake Road and Bagley Street (Clinton River Trail). The river then re-emerges from underground about a mile to the east near Union Street and East Huron Street -- take a look:

Here’s a look at the Clinton River on the U.S. Geological Survey map, which shows the course of the river underneath downtown Pontiac and also shows the underground portion of Pontiac Creek:

A map showing the Clinton River and Pontiac Creek in Pontiac, Mich.
A map showing the Clinton River and Pontiac Creek in Pontiac, Mich. (USGS)

According to the Clinton River Watershed Council, the headwaters for the Main Branch of the Clinton River are found in the rural areas of northern Oakland County, northwest of Pontiac.

“Waters rise from the wetlands and coldwater tributaries from within Independence, Brandon and Springfield Townships and flow in an easterly direction through many villages and townships including Clarkston, Waterford, West Bloomfield, Sylvan Lake, Lake Angelus, Pontiac, Auburn Hills, Rochester Hills, Rochester, Shelby Township, Utica, Sterling Heights, Clinton Township and Mount Clemens,” -- CRWC.org.

That’s nice, but why is the river running underneath downtown Pontiac? It wasn’t always this way:

“Pontiac owes much of its early success to the Clinton River. Mills along the river produced timber, flour and millenary. The abundance of local timber and mills made Pontiac a national leader in the manufacture of carriages. At the end of the 19th Century, these carriage manufacturers began building automobiles, trucks and buses." -- City of Pontiac.

This photo from the city’s archives is an 1872 map of downtown Pontiac showing the Clinton River winding through downtown:

This picture is an 1872 map of downtown Pontiac showing the Clinton River winding through downtown Pontiac.
This picture is an 1872 map of downtown Pontiac showing the Clinton River winding through downtown Pontiac. (http://www.pontiac.mi.us/)

This next map is from 1937, also showing the river running through downtown Pontiac:

1872 map showing Pontiac, Mich.
1872 map showing Pontiac, Mich. (City of Pontiac)

And this map is from 1937:

1937 map showing Pontiac, Mich.
1937 map showing Pontiac, Mich. (City of Pontiac)

Now, the river is underground in pipes.

“In large pipes, the Clinton River goes under the southbound Woodward Loop, heads north just past Mill St, goes east on just the other side of Huron St. and reappears on the other side of the northbound Woodward Loop. After a short run through an open concrete channel, the Clinton River continues its natural run all the way to Mount Clemens and Lake St. Clair.” -- City of Pontiac.

But why? According to a 2013 report from the Oakland Press, this stretch of the river was covered in concrete in 1963 in an “effort to prevent flooding, according to Oakland County.” As you’ll read in that report, there were talks about “daylighting” the river. That doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon.


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