East Lansing was an important junction of two major Native American groups: the Potawatomi and Fox. By 1850, the Lansing and Howell Plank Road Company was established to connect a toll road to the Detroit and Howell Plank Road, improving travel between Detroit and Lansing, which cut right through what is now East Lansing. The toll road was finished in 1853, and included seven toll houses between Lansing and Howell.
Michigan State University was founded in 1855 and established in what is now East Lansing in 1857. For the first four decades, the students and faculty lived almost entirely on the college campus. A few commuted from Lansing, and that number increased when a streetcar line was built in the 1890s, but there were few places to live in the then-rural area surrounding the campus.
That started to change in 1887, when professors William J. Beal and Rolla C. Carpenter created Collegeville, along what is now Harrison Road and Center and Beal Streets, north of Michigan Avenue. Few faculty were attracted to the location, and the first residents were "teamsters and laborers". In 1898, the College Delta subdivision (including what is now Delta Street) had the support of the college itself, which provided utilities, and several professors built homes there (one of which survives today at 243 W. Grand River Ave.). Other subdivisions followed.
At that time, the post office address was "Agricultural College, Michigan." A school district encompassing the nascent community was created in 1900. In 1907, incorporation as a city was proposed under the name "College Park"; the legislature approved the charter but changed the name to "East Lansing." The first seven mayors, starting with
Clinton D. Smith in 1907 and Warren Babcock in 1908, were professors or employees of the college.
The city charter in 1907 prohibited the possession, sale, or consumption of alcoholic beverages, and East Lansing was a "dry" city until voters modified the charter provision in 1968.