The improvement of the Chicago Turnpike between Detroit and Chicago (present-day U.S. 12) from a mere trail to “an overland extension of the Erie Canal” precipitated the platting of Coldwater in 1832 and its incorporation as a village in 1837. Coldwater became the seat of Branch County government in 1842. Growth of the community was stimulated by the opening of the Michigan Southern Railroad in 1850, and it became a city in 1861. Coldwater's prosperity in the nineteenth century was based on agriculture, cigar manufacturing, and cart and carriage building, in addition to the breeding, raising, and sale of fine horses, and the presence, after 1874, of the Michigan State School for Dependent Children, since 1978 the Coldwater Regional Center for Developmental Disabilities. The economic success of Coldwater is expressed, for example, in the exuberant Italianate Tibbits Opera House at 14 S. Hanchett Street by Mortimer L. Smith, with its convex mansard tower, erected in 1882, but now altered beyond recognition on the exterior. A National Scenic Byways Grant in 2008 will help fund the restoration of the facade. In 2009 the cupola was replicated and replaced.
The city today is noteworthy for its exceptional collection of buildings from the second half of the nineteenth century. The overall excellence of the architecture owes much to local architects and carpenter-builders Marcellus H. Parker (1821–1902), Ebenezer Saxton (1833–1907), and Asbury W. Buckley (1846–1924). Parker settled here in 1851 and from the 1860s to the 1880s produced many of the city's most important buildings, notably the towered brick Branch County Courthouse and the Italianate Lewis Art Gallery, both demolished. Saxton and Buckley both worked here later in the 1880s and 1890s. Buckley, who is best known in Michigan for his summer cottages at Mackinac Island ( MK13, MK15), continued to work in Coldwater into the twentieth century, even though he moved to Kalamazoo in 1893 and to Chicago by 1901.
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