History of Detroit

United States > US City Index > Detroit > History

Detroit was founded in 1701 by the French explorer and fur trapper Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac. He established a European settlement called Fort Pontchartrain, named after a French count. It was located along the strait, detroit in French, which is now known as the Detroit River, and which connects Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie. The settlement was a fur-trading outpost, and fell to the British in 1760.

After American independence, Detroit became part of the Northwest Territory and was incorporated as a town in 1802. A fire in 1805 destroyed 299 of the towns 300 buildings. Territorial Governor Judge Augustus Woodward laid out a plan to rebuild the city, featuring public squares and circular parks based on the model of Washington D.C. The British reoccupied the city for a year during the War of 1812. Woodward established a state university, the University of Michigan, in 1817 in Detroit.

Detroit served as state capital for the first ten years after Michigan became a state in 1837. In the 1850s, Detroit began building railroad cars, ships and stoves, and major industries were established that exploited Michigans vast resources of iron ore, copper and water. The population surged from 2,222 in 1830 to 79,577 in 1870.

When the first automobiles were seen on city streets in the late 1890s, Detroits main industry was stovemaking, but Michigan was a leading producer of carriages, buggies, wheels and bicycles, and Detroit was already making marine gas engines. Its access to water gave it an industrial advantage because freighters could ship raw materials such as iron ore from northern areas. Still, the automobile made little impact on the city at first, as most people believed it would never replace the horse or the bicycle.

In 1908, however, Henry Ford built the first Model T, and cars quickly became popular. In 1914, Ford ran the first assembly line, at his factory in Highland Park, offering the unheard-of wage of $5 a day for eight hours work. By 1921 Ford had produced more than 5 million cars. The citys population more than doubled from 1910 to 1920, reaching nearly a million people, as workers from the South and across the country and the world came for jobs in the automobile plants.

The 1920s were a time of unprecedented prosperity for Detroit. The booming city was a metaphor for American opportunity. For decades, it enjoyed the highest percentage of home ownership in the nation. Huge, ornate theaters were built downtown for movies and stage shows. The J.L. Hudson department store was one of the worlds biggest and most famous. The city developed a superb system of streetcars and trolleys. Belle Isle became one of the most beautiful urban parks in the nation. The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel were built to link Detroit to Canada. Navin Field (later known as Briggs Stadium and then Tiger Stadium) became one of the nations most acclaimed sporting venues.

During the Prohibition Era, a thriving underground business developed as mobsters shipped liquor across the waters from Canada. The Great Depression of the 1930s hit Detroit hard initially, but the automobile industry survived. The modern movement for labor unions began with a famous battle between organizers and police at the Ford River Rouge plant in 1937. Led by Walter Reuther, the United Auto Workers survived and grew during sit-down strikes and organizing drives.

During World War II the auto companies converted their factories in short order to production of planes and tanks. The war effort was centered around Willow Run Airport, and the Edsel Ford Expressway was built between downtown Detroit and the airport to facilitate that work. It was the nations first great freeway - but a smaller example had opened a few years previously, the Davison, in Detroit and Highland Park.

Major shifts occurred in Detroits demographics after World War II. The post-war economic boom was accompanied by the construction of a network of freeways that decimated Detroits old neighborhoods while making possible the exponential growth of suburbs. For a while downtown Detroit remained the thriving center of the metropolitan area, and its population peaked at 2.1 million in the late 1950s. In the 1960s it became a cultural center for the nation, exporting the most popular music of the era, the catchy rhythm-and-blues known as the Motown sound.

But as more prosperous people fled the city and left poorer ones behind, racial tensions heightened. They exploded in the infamous 1967 riots, which left dozens dead and hastened white flight. The city plunged into a long decline, as key components of business, industry and culture shifted to the suburbs. Even footballs Detroit Lions left Tiger Stadium to move to a new stadium in Pontiac.

Civic leaders made efforts to turn things around, starting with the building of the Renaissance Center office-hotel-retail complex in 1973. But for years, the Renaissance Center remained an isolated fortress with little effect on surrounding areas. The city kept losing people and money, and its fine housing stock suffered from neglect and abandonment. The automobile industry was hit hard by a severe recession caused by rising oil prices and competition from Japanese imports. Factories in the city closed and thousands of good-paying jobs for unskilled workers disappeared, never to return.

But the metropolitan area continued to grow and thrive, and downtowns resurgence took halting steps. In the 1980s, Joe Louis Arena was constructed as the home of the Detroit Red Wings. The Millender Center opened near the Renaissance Center. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch saved the Fox Theater, and its revival began a genuine downtown resurgence in the 1990s. Through that decade, Detroiters debated the merits of casinos and a new baseball stadium, finally approving both ideas. During the 1990s, the citys population finally stabilized at around a million people, and business investment began returning to the city.

The growth of the suburbs has permanently changed the citys landscape. Most jobs, hotels, restaurants, shopping centers and entertainment facilities are now outside the city limits, creating a sprawling metropolitan area that remains heavily dependent on the automobile. Yet a more unified approach to the areas problems and prospects has civic leaders optimistic. Detroit retains its rich cultural treasures, its vibrant entertainment and dining scene, and above all its strength as a genuine melting pot, with immigrants from around the world bringing their own cuisine and traditions and religions. It has proven to be a resilient place and one of Americas greatest cities.