The site of Niles occupied a strategic point within the Indian trading network of the Great Lakes. The town sits astride a ford across the St. Joseph River made by a branch of the Old Sauk Trail from Detroit to the mouth of the Rock River. French Jesuits established a mission here in the mid-1680s. In 1691 they established Ft. Joseph to secure their economic, military, and political interests among the Indians of the western Great Lakes. The modern town was established by spanning what remained of the main road between Detroit and Chicago. In 1848 the Michigan Central Railroad crossed the river here en route to New Buffalo, on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan, and, beyond that,
Chicago. Niles’ Main Street crosses the St. Joseph River at middle left of Albert Ruger’s 1868 bird’s-eye view, while the Chicago-Detroit railroad crosses to the north. The site of the old fort is upriver and out of view, just to the south. The vantage looks slightly to the east of north, and is from a very high angle, which is typical of Ruger’s work. Bird’s-eye views of this sort enjoyed great popularity in the United States and Canada during the last decades of the nineteenth century. In a manner similar to county landownership atlases, with which they were contemporaries, they projected an optimistic view of American communities. Far more powerfully than a planimetric map, the oblique high-altitude perspective projects an image of bustling town, with wide landscaped streets, attractive homes, impressive school and church buildings, large commercial blocks, and sturdy industrial buildings. Newly laid out streets anticipate further growth into a seemingly boundless and bounteous countryside.
Ruger was one of the most prolific makers and publishers of lithographic views of North American cities and towns over a career that spanned 25 years (1866-91). His oeuvre embraced more 250 views of communities of 27 states and Canadian provinces, but focused mainly on the Midwest.
Peyser, Joseph L. and Robert C. Myers. Fort St. Joseph, 1691-1781: The Story of Berrien County’s Colonial Past. Berrien Springs, MI Berrien County Historical Association, 1991.
Reps. John William. Views and Viewmakers of Urban America: Lithographs of Towns and Cities in the United States and Canada, Notes on the Artists and Publishers, and a Union Catalog of Their Work, 1825-1925. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.
---“ Library of Congress.” “Cities and Towns.”. http://www.loc.gov/collection/cities-and-towns/about-this-collection/
Albert Ruger, Niles, Berrien County, Michigan. Map. Chicago: Chicago Lithographic Co., 1868. From Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division, G4114.N6A3 1868 .R8