Woodward Avenue History
Looking northwest down Woodward Avenue from the Detroit River, the originating point of Metropolitan Detroit's "Main Street," one can only imagine what Native Americans saw as they peered at the same vista. Today, to the south, Woodward is separated from the river and present-day Windsor, Ontario by Hart Plaza, a 1979 landfill civic project. To the northwest, Woodward - a 27-mile multi-lane road - stretches from the heart of Detroit through the suburbs of Highland Park, Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak, Huntington Woods, Berkley, Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township and Pontiac.
The story of Woodward Avenue speaks of a uniquely American tale born out of a quest for economic prosperity, a climate of innovation, intellectual and cultural pursuits, family security, religious tolerance, and individual freedom. The route captures over three hundred years of the history of one of our nation's major cities, with special emphasis on the legacy of the American automobile industry. Indeed, this industry gave birth to the 20th century and still greatly influences not only the economy of our region, but also the global economy. The wealth and leisure time afforded to industry leaders and the masses allowed for the establishment and continued growth of major sports teams and what are considered some of the world's finest cultural institutions. These conditions also fostered the preservation of outstanding examples of 19th century houses of worship and 20th century commercial, industrial, and residential architecture.
Footpath to Pavement
For over six thousand years, the rich soil, sparkling water, and bountiful wildlife attracted people to the banks of the Detroit River - a strait connecting Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. By the turn of the 16th century, the region had become an important gathering place for trade for such native groups as the Anishinabeg - the Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi - as well as, the Wyandot, Iroquois, Fox, Miami and Sauk. One of the most important footpaths leading to this area was known as the Saginaw Trail - the route that would serve as the genesis for Woodward Avenue.
On July 24,1701, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, his nine year old son, his brother, 100 soldiers and trappers, 100 Native People, and two priests landed on the shore of the Detroit River with the intention of establishing a permanent French settlement. At the point where Cadillac landed, the river is at its narrowest - a little more than half a mile wide. The Saginaw, as well as, other native trails served the colony well by providing routes for the transportation of pelts highly prized by citizens of both the Old and New Worlds. Newly arrived settlers established ribbon farms whose produce, along with furs, was shipped - primarily overland - to markets in Quebec.
The spoils of war led to a change of governance to the British in 1760. Later, the Americans were ceded the Northwest Territory as a result of the Revolutionary War in 1783, but the British did not relinquish control of Detroit until 1796.
In 1805, Detroit was still a small town when fire devastated the city by burning all buildings except for a stone structure and Fort Detroit (the former Fort Lernoult). Although only recently appointed by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as Chief Justice for the Territory of Michigan, Judge Augustus Brevoot Woodward undertook the task of creating a new city plan. Knowledgeable in the latest techniques in city planning, he devised a street scheme reminiscent of the Washington, D.C. plan. The major elements of the Judge’s concept included the use of a hexagon pattern, circuses, wide boulevards and avenues. However, lacking the cooperation of many landowners, the plan was only partially executed.
Although renamed several times, one of the principal arteries of the city would bear the judge's name by 1807. The original plan called for the road to be 120 feet wide for 6 miles and then 100 feet wide for 34 miles north. However, Woodward was initially built to a narrow 66-foot width.
By 1817, one of the first of many significant institutions was established in the Woodward Corridor in present-day downtown Detroit. Judge Woodward, along with two other prominent citizens - Father Gabriel Richard and Rev. John Monteith - would establish the forerunner of the University of Michigan, known at the time as the Catholepistemiad.
A Growing Commercial Center
In 1824, Governor Lewis Cass extended Woodward Avenue to the city of Pontiac as part of his plan to aid the disbursement of settlers arriving in Detroit by steamship to take advantage of public land sales. Travelers on Woodward experienced tollbooths, surfaces of 16-foot planks, cedar blocks, gravel ruts, water-filled holes, and mud along the route. Nevertheless, this expansion anticipated the greater growth in population the region would experience with the coming year's opening of the Erie Cannel. The St. Lawrence Seaway could now be used to economically ship products to eastern markets, as well as, bring the raw materials and immigrants needed to supply a rapidly developing commercial center.
Irish and German immigrants fleeing political strife, as well as Yankee migrants seeking economic opportunities worked in the tobacco, shipping, stone/marble works, and brewery industries. They initiated Catholic and Protestant Churches, as well as, synagogues. Moreover, due to its proximity to Canada, Detroit became a major terminal of the Underground Railroad by the 1830s. Many slave fugitives were sheltered in churches along or near Woodward Avenue until they could safely make the journey across the river.
Unable to satisfy the demand for better roads, from 1848 - 1895 government officials turned over the maintenance of major streets like Woodward to private companies. These businesses would plank or corduroy the highways and charge tolls to users at city limits. It was not uncommon for daring riders to take advantage of these streets to race their horses from tollgate to tollgate for sport.
At the onset of the automobile industry in the early 1900s, the roadway was asphalt paved over wooden blocks in downtown Detroit. Northern portions remained covered with gravel or planked. The majority of the road was dirt, which became rutted with mud during the spring. In 1909, responding to demand for smoother roads by bicyclists and early auto owners, the first mile of concrete highway in the world was laid by Wayne County between Six and Seven Mile Roads in Greenfield Township (present-day Northwest Detroit). Constructed in less than three months at a cost of $13,493, the new roadway construction technique attracted international attention, as its advocates claimed concrete more durable, cleaner and easier to maintain than former methods. In 1916, the entire 27-mile length of Woodward Avenue to Pontiac was paved and, in 1919, the first three-color traffic light appeared on the thoroughfare. In the 1920s, Michigan Legislature proposed widening Woodward to 200 feet from Detroit to Pontiac. Underway by 1926, the construction project provided an eight-lane boulevard from Six Mile Road to Pontiac.
The Motor City
By 1890, Detroit's largest industry was the manufacture of railroad cars. The city boasted of being the largest producer of stoves, a major center for Great Lakes shipbuilding, and a prominent producer of engines, carriages, paint, varnish, shoes, tobacco products, seeds, and pharmaceuticals. The economic opportunities and cultural institutions initiated during this period inspired the city slogans - "Detroit, Where Life Is Worth Living" and "Detroit - The Paris of the Midwest" - that were happily promoted by the city and world's first convention bureau.
The industries of the era required willing financial investors and ingenious people to meet the demands of ever-changing technologies. Foundries and tool-and-die shops with skilled workers created the components that brought the dreams of the inventors to fruition. Although by turn of the 19th century there were many would-be auto entrepreneurs throughout the world, the automobile industry best took hold in Detroit since it was uniquely prepared to capitalize on existing industries and experienced workers in close proximity to each other.
The auto industry literally grew up in the Woodward Corridor. The area and its resources encouraged the initiation of many automobile companies, as well as, scores of businesses that supplied auto parts and accessories.
The "Big Three" automakers had their roots along Woodward Avenue. Henry Ford built his first car at his home, just four blocks west of Woodward. He conceived the Model T and experimented with an assembly line at the Piquette Plant two blocks east of Woodward. In 1910, Ford continued to apply the assembly line concept at his new massive complex - known as the Crystal Palace - on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park. By 1914, Ford's workers were able to assemble complete cars using three lines. Economies of scale allowed the car to be sold at a price low enough to be afforded by average citizens. Over 15 million Model T cars were sold before the design was retired in 1928. Ford, then the largest automaker, revolutionized American industry with these advances.
By 1921, General Motors relocated its headquarters to the Albert Kahn designed office complex on Grand Boulevard, one block west of Woodward. Five years later, its Oakland Motor Division introduced its new Pontiac line and GMC Truck and Coach, along Woodward Avenue extensions in the city of Pontiac. Led by Alfred Sloan, over the next decades General Motors would overtake Ford in car sales and, with a diversification of products and services, become the largest and one of the most influential corporations in the world.
In 1925, the newly founded Chrysler Corporation located its headquarters three blocks east of Woodward at Colorado and Oakland Streets in Highland Park. With the 1928 acquisition of Dodge Brothers, Inc. - a company five times the size of Chrysler - the formerly fifth ranked auto maker could claim its place as one of the Big Three by the following year.
Prosperity and Population
With the auto industry came prosperity for the average worker. Ford caused a sensation with his unprecedented offer of $5 a day for workers - nearly double the prevailing wage rate. Prospective autoworkers flocked to Detroit's production facilities from throughout the United States, as well as, from Europe, Canada, and Mexico. From 1910 to 1920, the city's population doubled in size from 465,766 to 993,678. Employment in the auto industry afforded the ability to own private homes and automobiles. With the founding of the United Auto Workers labor union in 1935, workers enjoyed improvements in pensions, health care and other benefits.
Woodward Avenue became a beneficiary of this great expansion of wealth. The corridor attracted such businesses and retailers as Vernors, Sanders, Winkleman's, S.S. Kresge Co., F.W. Woolworth Co., and Hudson's. Magazines reported, "43 percent of Detroit's wealth lies along Woodward Avenue." New housing developments ballooned along Woodward Avenue from Detroit to Pontiac. Skyscrapers dominated Downtown Detroit's skyline. Cultural institutions - like the Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit Public Library, and Detroit Zoological Park -established themselves along this historic corridor, as did, luxurious theatre palaces like the 5,042-seat Fox Theatre, the second largest theatre in the world at the time of its completion in 1928. More houses of worship were built on the northern section of the avenue to meet the needs of the growing populace. Attending professional sports events became a beloved pastime of citizens as the Detroit Red Wings (in 1926) and Detroit Lions (in 1934) - joined the ranks of local sports teams such as the Detroit Tigers - one of the founding members of the American League in 1901.
Woodward was known as one of the busiest streets in the nation. Along with cars, transportation modes included interurban lines, railroads and streetcars. In 1920, Woodward and Michigan was touted as the nation's busiest intersection with18,000 cars passing through it within a 10-hour period. In 1925, Woodward and State beat New York's Broadway in Time Square as the busiest pedestrian crossing with 1,233,025 in an 18-hour period.
The Car Culture
"Woodwarding" became the craze in the 1950s and 1960s as teenagers discovered the thrill of taking the family car out for a spin along the boulevard from Ferndale to Pontiac. Cruisers gathered at drive-in restaurants, such as Ted’s Drive-in at Square Lake Road in Bloomfield Hills and the Totem Pole drive-in restaurant at Ten Mile Road in Royal Oak. Muscle car competitions hit its heyday in the mid-1960s. Journalists took note of the phenomena sending correspondents from Car and Driver, Motor Trend, and CBS World News to cover the action on the strip. The trend continued until new car safety standards altered car design in the 1970s. Nevertheless, the love of cars and cruising would experience a renaissance.
The Woodward Dream Cruise is the world's largest celebration of car culture and one of Metropolitan Detroit's most anticipated annual events. Held along Woodward Avenue from Ferndale to Pontiac and covering 16 miles, this mid-summer Motor City classic attracts more than 1.5 million people from around the world and 30,000 vintage cars. Young and old alike pack the boulevard to celebrate the nostalgia, while reveling is this popular social event.
For years, millions of people have come to Woodward for special events - to demonstrate, be entertained, and celebrate. Woodward's first Labor Day Parade - held July 4, 1865, predates the official declaration of a Labor Day holiday by almost 30 years. Today, the annual event is one, but only a handful of annual parades in the country held to honor American workers. The nationally televised America's Thanksgiving Parade began as the Hudson's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. Attending the parade along Woodward has been an annual tradition for generations of Metro Detroiters. Led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the June 1963 civil rights march along Woodward by over 125,000 demonstrators has been cited as a dress rehearsal for King's more famous March on Washington held two months later. While in Detroit, King delivered an earlier and more elaborate version of his renowned "I Have A Dream" speech. Summertime festivals, such as the Chrysler Arts, Beats & Eats and African World Festival, offered great entertainment, food, and family-friendly activities.
Woodward's Changing Face
While the players along the boulevard have changed over time, Woodward Avenue remains the spine of vitality in the Motor City. In 1997, General Motors moved its headquarters to the Renaissance Center, one block east of the foot of Woodward. The move and a $500 million renovation of the complex generated the interest of investors and developers along the corridor. Opened on Woodward in 2000, Comerica Park - the new playing field for the Detroit Tigers - has already become a must-see attraction for visitors. After a 26-year absence, the Detroit Lions returned to the city in 2003 at the acclaimed new stadium, Ford Field.
Compuware, the computer software giant, recently opened its new headquarters along Woodward Avenue in the impressive Campus Martius redevelopment project. Revitalization of the area is already underway with the renovation of four nearby landmark office buildings, new dining and shopping venues, as well as, public spaces featuring fountains, gardens and a stage for intimate musical and theatrical events.
Newly refurbished theatres provide patrons with a wide choice of entertainment options in a district rivaled only by New York with the number of available seats. Renewed interest in historic preservation has played a major role in fostering a strong commitment to ensure cultural jewels - such as the Whitney, Cathedral Church of St. Paul and Cranbrook Educational Community - are maintained in a condition equal to their original splendor.
Founded in 1996, the Woodward Action Association facilitates continued improvement of the Woodward Avenue Corridor from Eight Mile Road to Big Beaver Road. In 1999, Royal Oak, Huntington Woods, and Berkley broke ground on a median landscaping project at 11 Mile Road and Woodward to beautify a half-mile stretch of the thoroughfare. The Woodward Heritage Organization, Wayne was incorporated to support and encourage continued improvements of the Woodward Avenue Corridor from the Detroit River to Eight Mile Road.
Michigan Heritage Route and National Scenic Byway
In 1999, Woodward Avenue received a well-deserved badge of honor when Governor John Engler designated the boulevard as a Michigan Heritage Route, because of its more than 300 historic sites.
On June 13, 2002, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta designated Woodward Avenue a National Scenic Byway. Woodward is Michigan's first roadway to be so honored in the program sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration. The Byways Program "recognizes a distinctive collection of American roads, their stories and treasured places. They are the heart and soul of America."