If you”ve ever driven in Detroit, chances are you”ve been lost on a one-way road, missed an exit or gotten stuck in traffic. A new exhibit at the Bentley Historical Library, “Getting Around Detroit,” takes you back to Detroit”s early years, when it had only a few roads. The exhibit is a collection of maps, pictures and documents that display the evolution of Detroit”s transportation system from the early 1800s to the modern freeway era. It coincides with the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city of Detroit.
The majority of the materials in the exhibit are donations from people, organizations and societies that were active in the development of the city. The materials collected over the years have made Bentley a central research resource for people interested in the evolution of Michigan”s largest city. Maps provide valuable evidence for capturing what everyday life was like in the community of Detroit. They depict the state of the physical environment and cultural features at a particular time, identify place names, modes of transportation, locations of population centers and land use.
The 18th century photographs of Detroit in the exhibit reveal that the streets were narrow lanes, some less than 12 feet wide. During this time, all free adult male inhabitants were required to work on repair of roads in their district. The first mile of concrete roadway in the United States was laid on Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile Roads in 1909. In the 1910s and “20s, Detroit became one of the largest cities in the country, and along with the population rise came traffic congestion. By 1925 city officials became concerned that Detroit was become saturated with automobiles, with 1,000 cars added to the traffic each week. A plan to build a network of suburban “superhighways,” was devised in 1925, which would bring traffic to and from the city. These “superhighways” were 204-foot wide divided highways with rapid transit tracks in the medians. Better roads led to suburban development and expanded Detroit”s boundaries.
The exhibit also features the historical changes leading to the bridge and tunnel to Canada. Plans for both were successfully developed in the 1920s. Construction on the Ambassador Bridge, then the longest suspension bridge in the world, began in 1927. It opened for traffic in 1929. Construction on the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel began in 1929. Most of the underwater section of the tunnel was built onshore as a series of steel and concrete tubes, which were towed to position, sunk in the river and joined together with cement. Two different groups of investors were interested in the two links to Canada and therefore, the tunnel and bridge have competed for traffic since they were built.
By 1941, it was clear that the superhighway project was not doing enough to relieve traffic congestion in Detroit. This period marked the era of modern urban freeway building. The Davison Expressway, the first urban freeway in the country, was built during World War II. The Davison and the many other urban motorways in the freeway network required massive neighborhood demolition. This was the first time wide roads had been proposed for built-up areas of Detroit. Drivers were given flyers to prepare them for the new freeway driving experience. Most of the freeways, such as the Lodge and Ford Expressways were not opened until the 1950s.
“Getting Around Detroit” is a great way to learn about life on the road in Detroit during the last two centuries. The 300th anniversary year is almost over, so visit the Bentley Library before the end of the semester. Come prepared to spend some time looking.