Then & Now: Unraveling the Intriguing Naming of Dexter's Joy Road


The five-point intersection of Joy, Mast, and Huron River Dr gets dicey during the morning and afternoon commutes. Photo by Doug Marrin.

Just north of the Huron River, situated outside Dexter, Joy Road, Mast Road, and Huron River Drive intersect at a distinctive five-point corner. Of particular interest is Joy Road, which extends approximately 46 miles eastward, ultimately connecting to Detroit. The intersection's unusual layout, characterized by extra-wide single lanes and hindered visibility, especially during peak commuting hours, has elicited frequent complaints from drivers for many years.

The intersection is also that of two famous names, Mast and Joy. A deep-rooted history exists within the Dexter area, traceable through the road names — many of which were derived from families with ancestral roots in the region dating back to the mid-19th century. Among these is the well-known Mast Road, the primary northern route out of Dexter, named after the Mast family. However, unlike its counterparts, Joy Road was not named after any local settler, sparking curiosity about its origin.

Nicholas A. Marsh, a noted Michigan historian and author of multiple books on Washtenaw County history, including the 2022 State History Award-winning book, "The Railroad King, James F. Joy," offers insights into the intriguing story behind Joy Road's name. According to Marsh, Joy Road was named after James F. Joy (1810-1894), a nationally renowned yet largely forgotten railroad lawyer and builder fondly remembered as Michigan’s railroad icon.

Courtesy of Nicholas A. Marsh.

“Joy spent nearly three decades developing, constructing, and leading the Michigan Central Railroad, which extended from Detroit through Dexter and Chelsea, eventually reaching Chicago,” Marsh communicated in an email to the Sun Times News.

Marsh has written several books on subjects related to Washtenaw County history: Remembering Delhi Mills; Scio Village, Ghost Town with a Past; History of Ann Arbor’s Co A 31st Michigan Volunteer Infantry in the Spanish American War; The Michigan Central Railroad, History of the Main Line 1846-1901, and his latest book, The Railroad King, James F. Joy.

The decision to name the road after a historical figure from approximately 150 years ago was discreetly executed, causing difficulty in establishing exactly when and how it happened. Current documentation incorrectly assumes that Joy Road was named after Joy's son, Henry J. Joy, the then-president of the Packard Motor Company, as the road supposedly led past his plant. However, as Marsh clarified, the old Packard plant stands on Concord Avenue, and Joy Road ends at Linwood, a location six miles to the northwest.

Joy Road is scenic, especially in fall. Photo by Doug Marrin.

An article from the Detroit Free Press on August 21, 2015, reveals that Joy Road is one of the area's oldest roads, initially known as Bonaparte Road, named after the French emperor. It served as a convenient shortcut from Detroit heading westward. However, the renaming in honor of James F. Joy was completed without any public celebration or media coverage, adding to the prevailing confusion.

Marsh's research shows that Joy Road had been officially recognized by May 1894, a few months before Joy's death and a decade before the construction of the Packard Plant. The lack of fanfare surrounding the road's naming mirrored Joy's personality, as he was known to avoid interviews and never sought credit for his accomplishments.

Joy became sick in 1893, and contemporaries scrambled to give tributes before he died. Harvard, the University of Iowa, and Dartmouth already had given him honorary doctorate degrees in law. Local and state historians penned short glowing, respectful tributes to the man they deemed “practically the commercial history of Detroit and Michigan” during his lifetime.

“While such a tribute may sound inflated, it is on the mark,” says Marsh. “Joy led contemporaries in building railroad networks across the Midwest, and railroad newspapers of the day called him the ‘Midwest Railroad King.’ His work was immeasurably significant in making Detroit a major manufacturing center before automobile companies came to Detroit.”

James F. Joy’s railroad system. Courtesy Nicholas A. Marsh.

Joy was an influential figure who contributed significantly to the development of railroads across the Midwest. His impressive career spanned building over 6,200 miles of railroads, not only in Michigan but also in various states, including Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin. His efforts were instrumental in turning Detroit into a prominent manufacturing hub before the advent of the automobile industry.

Joy's achievements, which include serving as a state legislator, lawyer, business owner, University of Michigan Regent, and co-founder of the Detroit College of Medicine (now known as Wayne State University), are meticulously documented in Marsh's book, "The Railroad King, James F. Joy." The book is a 7 x 10 softcover featuring 377 pages filled with maps, illustrations, photos, and 442 footnotes, alongside appendices and an index.

Copies of the book can be obtained for $35, postpaid, by contacting Nicholas A. Marsh at Box 1142, West Chester, OH, 45071. For more information, the author can be contacted at

Nicholas A. Marsh. Courtesy of Nicholas A. Marsh.
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