Detroit's layout continues to shape transportation, growth

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By Paige Pfleger, Daily Staff Reporter
and Lara Moehlman, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 2, 2015

As The Michigan Daily continues to watch and report on Detroit shaping its future, we want to reflect back on how the city got here. Our hope for this week’s Detroit History Series is that readers learn something new about the city and, in turn, better understand what’s to come.

Detroit’s past encompasses a winding and dynamic narrative colored by the influx of immigrants, migrants, riots, industry, transportation and music. But what acts as the background for these events is the city itself — its roads and buildings and transportation systems that began as Native American trails and expanded to become the Motor City’s immense road and highway system.

Before the arrival of Europeans, Detroit was a hub for numerous Native American tribes that used several main trails for travel and trade. These trails led in different directions, but they all joined together at one point. The roads created the spokes of Detroit’s “wheel” street layout, and are known today as Fort Street to the southwest, Michigan Avenue to the west, Woodward Avenue and Grand River Avenue to the northwest, Jefferson Avenue to the northeast and Gratiot Avenue between Woodward and Jefferson. The “hub” of the wheel is where Campus Martius Park stands today.

Joel Stone, senior curator at the Detroit Historical Society, said the spoke-wheel plan could be attributed to Native Americans.

“They were here long before anyone else, and they had established trails,” he said in an interview with Michigan Radio.

In 1701, Detroit was founded by the French trader Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. On what is currently the Detroit River, Cadillac built Fort Pontchartrain du Detroit, with the French word Detroit meaning “strait.” Subsequently, Detroit became a major French fur trading post until 1760, when the city was surrendered to the British after the French and Indian War.

In June of 1805, the city caught fire. At the time, there was no formal fire department, so the citizens formed a bucket brigade to attempt to save their city. They formed a line from the river and passed buckets into the city to try and extinguish the flame. The fire inspired Detroit’s city motto, “Speramus meliora; resurget cinerbus,” Latin for “We hope for better things; it shall rise from the ashes.”

Determined to rebuild the city with Washington, D.C. as a model, Augustus Woodward, newly-appointed chief justice of the Michigan Territory, hired Canadian surveyors to help him plot the city’s new parks, streets and lots. Inspired by an urban planning movement in France, Woodward wanted Detroit’s layout to be attractive and spacious, with major streets radiating from one central spot.

Woodward’s plan for the city called for a “point of origin,” located at the junction of Woodward and Monroe avenues, from which each mile road in Michigan’s mile road system marks their distance. For instance, Seven Mile Road is seven miles from the “point of origin.” The center of Campus Martius Park was chosen as the focal point because it remained the city’s central hub from Native American trails.

While the city’s road system was being built, boats were the main mode of transportation in the Great Lakes and Detroit region.

“Water was the primary way that people moved around, to get to Detroit,” Stone said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “That was really important initially to get people into the Great Lakes region, and then once they were here and living here, it was important to move them around to business meetings, to go visit relatives in other towns, that kind of thing.”

In 1836, street signs appeared for the first time in Detroit. Downtown streets were cobblestone while others were wooden plank. Bicyclists were the first to push for paved roads.

The mid- to late 1830s saw a massive growth in transportation to and from Detroit. Stagecoaches that ran between Detroit and Chicago were introduced, and a Detroit to Pontiac railway was completed with horse-drawn cars. The country’s railroad system was expanding at this time, too.

“Starting in the 1830s, Detroiters could get fresh oysters from the East Coast because train travel cut the distance down to just a couple of days, whereas two decades earlier it had been a couple of months,” Stone said.

Over the course of the next 30 years, trains spread across the Midwest. Two main lines traveled through Detroit: Michigan Central on the south side of town, and then down the Dequindre cut ran another line that changed names several times. By 1854, the first Detroit to New York City rail was completed.

In 1863, horse-pulled streetcars appeared on Jefferson and Woodward avenues with a fare of five cents. By the 1890s, three streetcar companies operated 66 miles of track within the city’s limits, and streetcars, called interurbans, ran between towns.

Serving as a streetcar driver became a popular job in the city. One such streetcar driver was the uncle of amateur Detroit transportation historian H. Bernard Craig. Craig, a Detroit native, worked for the Detroit Department of Transportation for more than 30 years before he retired. He now spends most of his spare time in the library, researching Detroit’s nuanced transportation history.

“A lot of people credit the streetcars for helping the development of the city because it provided the means for people to now move out a little farther,” Craig said.

Detroit’s streetcars stopped running in the late 1950s, which many attribute to General Motors. Called the Trolley Conspiracy or the Streetcar Transparency, many believe GM bought up the streetcar companies to remove the tracks and replace them with their newly designed GM motorbuses. The conspiracy was true in other cities, Craig said, but not in Detroit.

The streetcar tracks in Detroit were so damaged that it actually cost less to purchase a fleet of buses than it would have to fix the streetcar lines. Buses also had the same capacity as streetcars.

“Their buses could hold 50 passengers — the same amount of people that the streetcars could hold,” Craig said.

The removal of the streetcar system made Detroit the largest metropolitan city without some form of a commuter rail service.

Today, construction is underway for the M-1 rail that will run down 3.3 miles down Woodward Avenue from Jefferson Avenue to West Grand Boulevard. The rail will serve as a curbside transportation system, much like the streetcars of the past.