In the 1940s, the WPA Guide to Michigan described Lansing as a place where “the political activity of a State capital, the rumbling tempo of an industrial city, and the even temper of a farming community are curiously blended.” Over 60 years later, it’s still an apt description.
Curiously, Lansing was developed by a legislative prank. Until 1847, Detroit was the state’s capital, as mandated in a provision in the 1835 constitution. When the provision expired, legislators (two of whom had been burned in effigy by Detroit rowdies) decided that the Detroit border was in constant danger of invasion and voted to move the capital.
Where to put it, however, posed a problem. After months of wrangling and debating just about every settlement in lower Michigan, someone jokingly suggested Lansing, a wide spot in the road that consisted of one log house and a sawmill. Amid laughs and for want of a better solution, it won the vote. The state’s seat of government was moved in 1847.
Even the name was a lark. The original settlement was named after Lansing, New York, and a New York chancellor. When it became the new capital, many wanted to rename the tiny town Michigan or Michigamme. But the legislature once again became bogged down in political infighting. Lansing it remained.
Once the decision was made and the place had a name, it began to grow. By the time the city was incorporated in 1859, it had 4,000 residents, a number of small businesses, a new capitol building, and two newspapers to cover it all. The city received another economic boost in the early 1900s, when R. E. Olds began making his “merry Oldsmobile” here.
Today, Lansing is the state’s governmental seat, headquarters for many trade and professional associations, and home to heavy industry. East Lansing, a neighboring community that is part of the capital city in all respects except government, is the home of Michigan State University, part of the Big Ten conference. Ironically, the powers-that-be also selected the university site by default.
Urban decay and rampant freeway construction have bruised downtown Lansing, and the city is often all but empty after five o’clock. While it has been described as a city in search of a center, it has a surprising amount to offer once you find it: good museums, a full plate of MSU events, some of the state’s loveliest and most accessible gardens, even a minor league baseball team, the Lansing Lugnuts.
Getting to Lansing
To reach Lansing, travelers can fly into the Capital Region International Airport (LAN) (4100 Capital City Blvd., 517/321-6121, www.flylansing.com), take an Amtrak train (800/872-7245, www.amtrak.com) or Greyhound bus (800/231-2222, www.greyhound.com) to the East Lansing station (1240 S. Harrison Rd.), or drive into town via I-69, I-96, U.S. 127, and several state highways.
Once here, you can either stick with your car or hop aboard a bus operated by the well-regarded Capital Area Transportation Authority (517/394-1000, www.cata.org).
by Laura Martone from Moon Michigan, 3rd Edition, © Avalon Travel