All posts for the month March, 2015


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The only known image of 400 Townsend Street before the home’s moved to West Saginaw Street. Notice how high the home sits on its stone foundation and how the porch is in an L shape. (Image 1)

I thought it would be interesting to review the history of two homes that have recently been in the news, 205 W. Saginaw and 211 W. Saginaw. Both homes were torn down on Tuesday December 17, 2013 after an attempt to move the houses to a new location was unsuccessful. (LSJ 12/17/2013)

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The home of Fred B. Piatt originally located at 400 Townsend. The home was moved in 1949 to 205 W. Saginaw. The photograph is from the 1950s. (Image 2)

Let’s begin with the home that was located at 205 W. Saginaw. The house has been referred to as the Arbaugh home; in fact the house was built for another well known Lansing resident, Frederick (Fred) B. Piatt. The structure was originally located at 400 Townsend Street and designed by Edwyn A. Bowd in 1901 for Piatt. (SR 3/11/1901) Before leaving Lansing in 1910 the residence was sold by Fred to William J. Mead the Vice President and General Manager of the Old’s Motor Works. (ICN 9/8/1910) In 1913 Mead sold or rented the home to Harry M Snyder, Secretary of the REO Motor Car Company. It wasn’t until Snyder retired from REO in 1914 that the home passed into the hands of Frank N. Arbaugh. So why did Fred sell his home and leave Lansing? Well that is a long story.

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The Downey Hotel circa 1903 after its remodeling (Image 4)

The Accident

Early in the morning of December 25, 1907 Peter A. Ralston was killed in an automobile accident in which Fred B. Piatt was the driver. Just what happened remains unclear to this day. On the night of December 24, 1907 Piatt was at the Downey Hotel where he had lunch and shared a bottle of wine and a bottle of whiskey with two friends. At about 9pm he drove his friends to the Grand Truck Depot so they could catch their train. Fred retuned to the hotel at about 9:30pm where he joined Mr. and Mrs. Edwyn A. Bowd, Elbert V. Chilson and his brother at a table.[1] According to J.H. Weir the bartender at the Downey Hotel, that Ralston came out of the hotel followed by the very intoxicated Fred Piatt grabbed hold of Ralston and both staggered toward Piatt’s vehicle. Weir testified that Piatt had been in the barroom throughout the evening and that Ralston was not present in the bar all night. Ralston who was not as intoxicated as Piatt and helped Piatt into the driver’s seat, then he climbed into the rear seat of the automobile. James H. Gallery, secretary of the Balzora-Bassick Mining Company stated that he had been with Ralston most of the evening and that Ralston was considerably intoxicated when he left him outside the hotel at 12:05pm. City Assessor, Fred L. Pinckney testified that he met Ralston at Conklin’s Saloon, 205 S. Washington at 10:30pm and that Ralston was not drunk.

After leaving the Downey Hotel, Piatt and Ralston drove west on Washtenaw to a point just past Townsend Street where the hub of the right front wheel came in contact with a telephone pole. It is unclear if Ralston jump from the automobile or was catapulted out of the rear seat. At 5:45am Horace Hull discovered Ralston’s body lying face first in the gutter on Washtenaw Street in front of Hiram P. Norris’s home, 312 W. Washtenaw, the body was found 35 feet from the damaged telephone pole. Hull contacted the police and patrolmen John E. Devlin and Glenn L. Peterson as well as Constable Frank I. Moore responded and examined the site. The telephone pole had a deep gash, lying near the pole were two hats, one with the initials F.B.P. inside as well as a driving coat. The tire tracks also showed that the automobile was driven up on the sidewalk and back on to the roadway. An examination of Ralston’s body by Drs. Freeman A. Jones, Charles H. Bruckner and Berton M. Davey determined that death was instantaneous with Ralston’s left shoulder being crushed, his collarbone broken and massive internal injuries to the left side of the body. Later at the autopsy Drs. Samuel Osborn and Fred J. Drolett found little alcohol present in Ralston’s stomach, they also discover blood clots on the brain; however the skull was not fractured. Cause of Ralston’s death was recorded as a concussion of the brain.

The officers followed the tracks of the automobile’s tracks west on Washtenaw to Pine Street where they turned south, the tracks zigzagged south on Pine then disappeared. Homer Parker and William T. Britten visited Fred Piatt that morning where Piatt acknowledged that the hat and driving coat were his but he had no knowledge of the accident or just who Ralston was and denied any memory of driving someone home.

Prosecutor Walter F. Foster was quickly on the scene of the accident and was informed that coroner Alroy A. Wilbur was out of the city so Foster requested the assistance of coroner Dr. F.N. Turner of Webberville. Turner impaneled [enrolled] a Coroner’s Jury, which consisted of Daniel Edwards, Captain A. Cameron, W.M. Kimmel, C.S. McElwain, Thomas Ellis and C.C. Slocum.[2] The Coroner’s Jury examined Fred Piatt’s car, the tire and fender on the right front side were heavily damaged, the front axle was bent and the steering gear was broken, which many explain Piatt’s account that the car was difficult to drive and park, you think!

At the inquest under questioning by Coroner Turner, Piatt admitted that in his condition that night “he was an unsafe man to run an auto”, and in reply to a question by Turner said: “I suppose the man’s death was the result of my condition.” Piatt insisted that he had only a faint memory of someone asking him for a ride, but he could not remember his answer or that anyone was in the car with him.

The Verdict

“Peter A. Ralston came to his death on Friday, October 25, between the hours of 12 and 1 o’clock in the morning by being thrown from an automobile driven by Fred B. Piatt, near the Townsend street school, on Washtenaw street, the fall producing concussion of the brain, death being the result of an accident, which was due to the fact that both men were intoxicated.” Fred B. Piatt was not charged. (SR 10/25/1907, LJ 10/25/1907, LJ 10/29/1907, SR 10/29/1907

Just who was Peter A. Ralston? Well that is a bit of a mystery. Peter A. Ralston was born in Richmond, Virginia on December 27, 1850. The State Republican states that he was an aide-de-camp to a Confederate Colonel during the Civil War. (SR 10/25/1907) While the Lansing Journal recounted that Ralston was an aide-de-camp for General Johnson and later served as a personal courier for General Robert E. Lee. (LJ 10/25/1907) Possible but highly unlikely, an aide-de-camp in the Civil War was a highly responsible position, serving as an assistant to his commanding officer, the aide-de-camp delivered his commanders orders and was aware of all troop movements, quite a lot of responsibility for a teenager. There are precedents for an aide-de-camp being a teenager, many times in the Napoleonic period a son would serve as an aide-de-camp for his father. In the National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors Database of the Civil War there is no listing for a Peter Ralston as serving in the Confederate Army, it is possible that he served under a false name.

The History of Bay County Michigan relates the Ralston was a member of the Chickasaw Guards, of Memphis, Tennessee in 1873 and that may be where the story of Ralston being an aide-de-camp originated. (History of Bay County Michigan 147) In 1877 Ralston moved to Bay City, Michigan where he became a bookkeeper for Seligman & Rossman a clothing store. On July 30, 1879 Ralston married Miss Annie Retter, and the couple had one child, Philip. Ralston moved to Lansing in 1898 and worked as an organizer for the Modern Woodmen, later he was employed as a bookkeeper for Northrop, Robertson and Carrier. In about 1905 Ralston established his own Real Estate and Insurance business. At the time of his death he was estranged from his wife and son. Ralston’s body was taken to Richmond, Virginia by George L. Pratt and was buried at Hollywood Cemetery. (LJ 10/26/1907)

Next the Homes

[1] Elbert V. Chilson name appears in some records as Elbert V. Chilsom.

[2] Daniel Edwards was in Real Estate, Captain Alexander Cameron, Civil War Veteran retired, Willis M. Kimmel, agent for the Detroit Free Press, Clement S. McElwain, Student, Thomas Ellis, retired and Charles C. Slocum, worker Olds Gas Power Company.


© Lost Lansing 2014

Lansing Early History



“Names are the punctuation marks of history, whether national of local. Dates may get mixed and facts be obscured by the mists of time but names are definite and stand in an unmistakable way for events, and the history of a name is often the history of a city, or a country epitomized. Such a significant name is that of Main street, which crosses Washington avenue at the bridge in the southern part of the city. Many residents now living understand why the street is called Main street, but fifty years hence, perhaps the curious might wonder why, among the list of names that are used for the cross streets, Main street should make its appearance. In the explanation lies the history. It was intended by the founders of Lansing that the street in question should be what it name signifies, the main street of the city.

The name “Main street,” in fact has significance much greater than as merely applied to local history. It is distinctly of the America of the nineteenth century as anything could possibly be. In England in almost every county hamlet be it ever so obscure, there is a High street where are the shops and the homes of the well to do citizens. In the first three quarters of the last century so much of the old English custom clung to Americans that one street in a new town was singled out by a name carrying the same meaning as the English High street. It is safe to say, probably that nine-tenths of all towns founded east of the Mississippi during that period had their Main street. As in Lansing, so in all other towns, the first fine houses were built on that street.
There are still quite a number of residents of Lansing who remember when Main street was main street indeed; when it continued across the Cedar river over a bridge and when the first stores and the homes of the first keepers of them were clustered about the south end of Cedar street and the river banks on the ground now used by the Lake Shore railway tracks. The bridge in question had a melancholy history, for it was rather a frail structure and was again and again carried down the river by the ice and high water each spring. During the intervals when the bridge was waiting down the river for somewhere to be picked up and replaced, a ferry was used to convey people across the river, and some of the first victims in the long list of those whose lives the Cedar river has claimed from this town, met their fate during the high waters of those early springs.


Benton House later the Everrett House

The first dry goods store in Lansing was built and owned by John Thomas, father of Mrs. E.R. Merrifield, who came to Lansing from Farmington October 18, 1848. His store was on what would now be called Main street east, across the river at the corner of Cedar street. One window in that store was used by the United States government as a post office, and the first postmaster was George W Peck, whose name is a shining one in early local politics and Masonic circles.

Besides the Thomas store there were, on the west side of the river, a shoe store, kept by a man named Wait, a bakery, whose proprietor was one Smith; a bowling alley, and later another dry goods store. Across the river again was a hardware and tin-shop.

On the west side of the Cedar river was the National hotel, also on the corner of main street. Dotted about in the woods in this vicinity were that homes of the remainder of the early habitats, and at the corner of Washington avenue and Main street, where now stands the residence of R.E. Olds, was built somewhat later the Benton House, with which was connected most of the important social and political history of those early days. It was owned by John Thomas, Daniel S. Lee and Charles P. Bush. The latter was the first landlord.

Until the capitol of the state was located on the wooden knoll where the statehouse now stands and the impetus was given for building in that vicinity Lansing residents bought and sold and made plans for a city that should have for its principal thoroughfare the street called Main street.” Lansing Journal 4/9/1906

In early Lansing the main settlement for the town was located at the juncture of the Grand and red Cedar rivers, hence the location of Main Street. What changed was the destructive power of the rivers at this juncture. Simply the area was prone to flooding. This was before there were dams on the Grand River and in the spring with the melting snow the river became a raging torrent. That was one reason why the development of North Lansing and the Downtown area, then known as Lower and Middle Town succeeded and the settlement known as Upper Town failed.