Long ago Grosse Ile was the area’s highest upland, not an island at all. The Detroit River was 1,300 feet deep and flowed in two directions, northward in a series of rapids from one end of that land, and southward from the other. Then the glaciers came and all was encased in silent ice.
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As the glaciers retreated some 10,000 years ago, a massive piece of limestone and dolomite bedrock, more than 345 million years old, survived the onslaught, sloping northward from Grosse Ile.
Here and there, pockets of loose sand formed. From the retreating glacier came another 100 feet of clay and silt, and the river of today came into being.
For centuries there was little settlement along the Straight or ‘Narrows.’ Indians passed through on their way to trap or to set up hunting camps.
This land lay on the warpath of the Iroquois, fierce warriors from the east. By the 1600’s, the Iroquois were allied with the Dutch who founded New Amsterdam and were buying furs from these men of the forests. The furs went back on sailing ships to Europe for hats and cloaks and ornament.
By mid century, the area that is now New York was depleted of beaver and the Iroquois drove westward, wiping out all but a few of the Hurons who shared these lands with the Algonquin tribes of the Ottawa and Chippewa. The Chippewa lived most of the year at St. Mary’s, but the Ottawa traveled the waterways and were skilled traders.
In the East the English had arrived and were taking over from the Dutch. The French were in Montreal. For all, travel was simplest and most efficient by water. The English retained the Dutch friendship with the Iroquois, giving them access to Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes.
French ‘Voyageurs’ were exploring the great forests to the west of the newly founded cities in Quebec. They were men who traveled as the Indians did and lived among them, trapping and sleeping in the forests, and trading with the avid buyers of their furs in the east.
They adopted the Indian mode of travel — the canoe — raising their voices in raucous song as they traveled, startling the forest creatures but raising their own spirits and heralding their arrival at the posts and towns with their exhuberance. Traveling the waterways was the only way to transport furs and trading goods. There were no roads for horses and wagons. Thus the French were the first non-natives to navigate the Detroit River and land on Detroit’s shores.
The first priest to known to have set foot in on the Michigan shore of the Detroit River was also French, Father Dollier. Of noble birth, Dollier de Casson had a noted military career before entering the priesthood. In 1670, heading north, he landed on the left bank in what is now the city of Detroit somewhere between the mouth of the Rouge River and Fort Wayne. Father Dollier planted a large wooden cross with the French coat of arms on the site, demolishing a stone figure worshipped by the Indians. Father Dollier continued on to Sault Ste. Marie and did not return to the shore of the the river.
The Griffon, first sailing ship on the Great Lakes.
The first sailing ship on the Upper Great Lakes was the Griffon, which left Niagara in 1679. On board was Robert Cavelier LaSalle, hoping to gain a monopoly in the fur trade with this advanced vessel. As La Salle passed through on the Griffon in 1679, he found time to describe the scene at the mouth of the Detroit River:
“The islands are the finest in the world. They are covered with forests of nut and fruit trees, with wild vines loaded with grapes. From these we made a large quantity of wine. The banks of the Straight are vast meadows and the prospect is terminated with some hills covered with vineyards, trees bearing good fruit, and groves and forests so well arranged that one would think that Nature alone could not have laid out the grounds so effectively without the help of man, so charming was the prospect…The country is well stocked with stags, wild goats, and bears, all of which furnish excellent foods.”
On the feast day of Sainte Claire, La Salle broke a bottle of Michigan wine over the bow of the Griffon and christened the open body of water above the river “Lac Ste. Claire.”
By the end of the 17th century, The Iroquois, aligned with the English, were making incursions into French territory and the Commander of the French fort at Michilimackinac wanted to protect the rights to the land they thought of as theirs.
The English were offering better prices for pelts in Albany and had a shipping advantage through their access to the New York Harbor via the Hudson River, while the French had to rely on the St. Lawrence to gain their shipping port.
French “voyageurs” traveled the river and the lakes in bark canoes.
The St. Lawrence season was so short that the French ships could make only one voyage per year from Montreal up the Ottawa River, across Lake Nipissing and then to the Georgian bay and into the Great Lakes.
The English, too, were interested in claiming the land west of Lake Erie. On July 14, 1701, the Iroquois ceded to the English all the land East and West of Detroit from Lake Ontario to Lake Michigan, even though it was not theirs to give. Ten days later, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who had convinced the French King to open a Fort in the Lower Lakes to protect French interests, stepped ashore on the bank of deTroit, the “Narrows,” and began building a fort to halt the westward expansion of English commercial interests.
Cadillac arrived at Detroit from Montreal with 25 bark canoes, laden with provision for three months.
The bark canoes were formed from birch or elm trees, with the bark removed in sections big enough to cover a cedar frame. With a material called ‘wattap’ (young tree roots) they laced the bark together at each end, and along the frame. Pine gum sealed the joints. War canoes could carry as many as 30 warriors. The fur canoes of the French voyageurs were up to 36-feet long by 6-feet wide and could carry eight or 10 men, 1,000 pounds of provisions and 60 huge packs of furs.
After the Griffon, the first sailing ship on the Great Lakes, sank on her return voyage from Green Bay, the canoe remained the preferred mode of transportation on the Lakes and the Detroit River. Even during the winter the waterways were the easiest route of travel — settlers drove sleighs along frozen banks.
The French inhabitants also built piroques and bateaux. The former were large wooden canoes made from hollowing a tree and splitting it lengthwise, using the halves for the sides of a boat made from planking in the bottom and ends. These could carry three tons of freight and a crew of six. They were paddled and poled close to shore, and were easy to beach. A bateaux was a flat bottomed open boat built of cut timber that could be as big as a barge — 60 feet long, carrying 15 tons and a crew of 12. In deep water, the bateaux were moved along with oars; in shallow water they could be poled or towed by men on shore.
Maj. Robert Rogers with Chief Pontiac.
In 1748, settlers were offered inducements to come to Detroit: a spade, an axe, a plough, a large wagon, a small wagon and seed, and a cow and pig were provided, to be returned by the third harvest. In this way, the French hoped to build up the settlement and strengthen their forces in the new land. By 1760, the population on both sides of the river was 2,500, with 600 within the fort.
All houses were built near the riverbank. The farms were long and narrow, in most cases extending two miles back from the river.
The closeness of the farms provided protection, and allowed all the farmers to be near the river. Water was brought from the river in buckets hung from a wooden yoke.for washing and drink . In the summer, drinking water was kept cool by pouring it into jars partly buried in the ground. The washing was done in the river. Clothes were dipped in the water, rubbed with soap, then pounded with a small paddle called a “battois.”
The remote French settlement on the critical waterway was not to be left in peace for long. In 1760, Major Robert Rogers came from Montreal, where the French had capitulated to the English, with 200 men in whaleboats to take Mackinac and Detroit. He reached Detroit in November, and took the fort for the English.
The Englishwere not as accommodating to the Indians as the French had been, and were besieged by the great Chief Pontiac. Aided by French settlers and a coalition of Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomies and Hurons, Pontiac in 1763 cut off supplies to the English in the fort.
Fur trading in the Great Lakes wilderness.
While all other forts in the area fell to the French-Indian coalition, the English were saved by their access to the Detroit River, allowing troops and supplies to get through from the East. . The English were able to wait out Pontiac’s siege until the French and English signed a peace agreement, and Pontiac’s coalition fell apart.
After the founding of St. Louis in 1764, many of the French left Detroit and went south to St. Louis, leaving the English in control of river and the lakes. In 1780, Great Britain imported 200,000 pounds sterling worth of furs, half from Mackinac, and half from Detroit.
After 1783 Detroit nominally belonged to the new United States of America, but the British remained in control. Fort Malden at the mouth of the Detroit River at Lake Erie, was on the British side and controlled the river. Indians friendly to the British controlled land access from the south. Determined to get the British out, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians near Fallen Timbers in Ohio, resulting in the Treaty of Greenville on August 3, 1795.
In this the Indians gave up claim to Detroit, and all lands north, west and south between the River Raisin and Lake St. Clair and six miles west of the Detroit River.
On July 11, 1796, two small Detroit boats were hired, the Weazell and the Swan. They sailed from Toledo up the Detroit River with Captain Moses Porter and 65 soldiers on board, under the command of Colonel John Francis Hamtramck, to accept the British surrender of Detroit.
Detroit in 1794, from a period painting.
By 1797, Detroit owned one brig and 12 schooners.
The river could not save the city from the great fire of 1805. There had long been fear of a huge fire, and each household was required to have a bucket, a ladder and a barrel of water. Each man was required when the alarm sounded to form a line from the river bank to pass filled buckets to the fire and empty ones back to the river.
These precautions had worked for 100 years, but on one summer day, it was not enough. The flames were so fierce that everything was lost. People escaped into the river in boats and canoes and watched as their homes burned.
Father Gabriel Richard sailed up and down the river all day and night, calling on farmers to provide homes for the villagers. The settlers were a stubborn lot, though, and began rebuilding immediately.
By 1812, there were 800 people and 160 houses in Detroit. But hostilities between the British and the Americans were rising again. The British, from Fort Malden, controlled all water traffic between Lake Erie and Detroit.
The mouth of the river was four miles wide, but the deepest channel, suitable for large ships, lay between Bois Blanc, which belonged to English Canada, and the Canadian shore. The fleets battled on Lake Erie and on the river for control of the areas vast resources. The Indians, led by the great chief Tecumseh, renewed old alliances and fought on the side of the British. In a brief battle, the British took Detroit.
An American fleet led by Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British fleet on Sept. 10, 1813, within sight of Fort Malden. On Sept. 27, Gen. William Henry Harrison’s American forces landed on Canadian soil, killing Tecumseh. Two days later American soldiers entered Detroit.
Detroit in 1820.
After the war soldiers returning to the east told of the rich, cheap lands to be had in Michigan, and interest grew in the westward reaches of the new republic. The river once again was to play a major role in development of the area.
Walk-in-Water in 1818 was the first steam boat to land in Detroit. It reduced travel time between Buffalo and Detroit from 10 days to 42 hours. From May 1 to July 23, 1825, $60,310 worth of land in Detroit was sold. In one day in 1831, $5,600 worth of land was sold.
So many new settlers meant that the burgeoning town had to make accommodation for their needs. In 1827, a water system franchise was granted. Water from the river was raised to a reservoir then piped out through pipes made from logs.
The new residents had to eat as well as drink, and soon the banks of the river were studded with grist mills for flour. The fishing was so good that whitefish became a major export.
Immigration continued at a rapid pace, with new settlers coming not only from the east coast, but from across the Atlantic.
An 1850 census broke down the population of the city: Irish 3,289; German 2,855; English and Welsh 1,245; Scottish 474; French 282, other: 15. Foreign born accounted for 47 percent of the population.
In 1818, the U.S. Land Office opened in Detroit.
Several wooden piers had been built to handle river traffic. One was 140 feet long and could accommodate a vessel carrying 400 tons. Trade was thriving. The river brought goods from Europe and New York.
Detroit’s waterfront in 1836.
Out east, the Erie canal excavation was begun in 1817. and completed in 1825. It allowed quick access from the East coast to Buffalo and Lake Erie. This brought thousands of settlers, businessmen and adventurers to the piers of the now thriving Detroit. They came across the Atlantic , down the Erie canal, across lake Erie and finally up the Detroit River. The fur trade was ending, but the rich lands inland could be timbered and farmed. Detroit’s population swelled from 2,222 in 1830 to 9,102 in 1840, and to 21,019 in 1850. Schooners and steamboats plied the Lakes and the Detroit River. Each month in 1837, 20 teams of horses, 200 yoke of oxen and 800 people crossed the river by ferry from Canada.
Sailing ships from the northlands brought timber to the sawmills in Detroit, and the face of the City changed to accommodate ships full of people and goods.
Piers projected into the river all along the city waterfront. Merchant’s Wharf near the foot of Griswold, the Public Wharf, Wing’s Wharf at Griswold, Hudson’s Wharf at Bates Street, Berthelet’s Wharf at Randolph were all in place before 1830.
Not all Americans had the freedom to travel. The Michigan State Constitution of 1835 prohibited slavery in Michigan and in 1837 the Detroit Anti-Slavery Society was organized. At that time there were 100 Negroes in the state according to a census. There were no slaves (there had been 30 in 1830).
Painting shows fugitive slaves arriving at the home of Levi Coffin, who conducted a way station on the Underground Railroad to Canada and freedom.
In 1850, Congress passed a law allowing slave owners to go anywhere in the United States to bring back runaway slaves. But not all northerners were happy with this idea. An “Underground Railway” sprang up complete with “station agents” and “passenger depots.” The Detroit River was “Route No.1” on the line. Seymour Finney owned a livery stable near the docks at the corner of Griswold and State that became the leading hideaway for escaping slaves.
The Black Second Baptist Church on Fort Street between Beaubien and St. Antoine, founded by freed slaves, was another. Six lines of the ‘railway’ led into the city and thousands of fugitives were sheltered here until they could cross the river to the safety of a Canada that no longer tolerated slavery.
The Canadian Refugee Home Society bought land near Windsor so the escaping men and women could settle there.
Finney also owned a hotel at Woodward and Gratiot where many slave chaser stayed while in town. Those in the know snickered at the slavers holding forth at the bar, unaware that those they considered their property were escaping under the shield of the same man who was hosting them.
Though Detroit was not a scene of fighting in the Civil War, The river was patrolled closely for fear of attack from the Canadian side by Confederate sabotage agents.
The old Finney Barn on the northeast corner of Griswold and State, were runaway slaves were hidden while escaping into Canada.
The city’s people contributed money and their loved ones to the war effort. Thousands of men from Detroit and Michigan fought in the east and the south. The city and its river were host to one small rebel plot however.
In 1864, rebel prisoners, mostly officers, were held at Johnson’s Island near Sandusky, Ohio. Confederate Major C. H. Cole, B. G. Burley of the Confederate Navy, and a wealthy Virginian John Y. Beall, hatched a plot to capture several ships, attack the U.S.S. Michigan, which guarded the island, and free the prisoners.
On Sept.19, 1864, Burley boarded the ferry Philo Parsons at Detroit. Beall got on further downriver and they overpowered the crew, met the ferry Island Queen and captured her as well. They never reached the U.S.S. Michigan, however. The rebel sailors on the two ships lost their courage and forced Beall to turn back, release the crew and abandon ships. It was the closest the war was to come to Detroit.
With the founding of the Bob-Lo Excursion Line in 1898, and the City’s purchase of Belle Isle in 1889, the river, which at one time provided the only means of neighbor communicating with neighbor, now became a hub of recreational activity. Turn of the century families boarded ferryboats for the cooling breezes on the river and its green islands for picnics and swimming.
While picnickers were wending their way to the ferries, more serious commerce was taking place on the river. Detroit was becoming the busiest port in the world.
As the city grew the industrial development on the river testified to the waterway’s importance to the economic well-being of the area.
A 1908 Detroit News article lists the previous year’s statistics for “the Greatest Commercial Artery on Earth”:
Tonnage passing through Detroit in 1907: 67,292,504; through London: 18,727,230; through New York: 20,390,953
It would have taken 89,723 25-car trains to handle such a load. The trains would have stretched for 18,711 miles.
Less than 10 years later, the 18th amendment was passed and a new era for the river was about to begin — a new form of commerce: rum running. The Detroit River, less than a mile across in some places and 28 miles long with thousands of coves and hiding places along the shore and among the islands, was a smuggler’s dream. The Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River carried 75 percent of all liquor smuggled into the United States during Prohibition.
Cargo was dragged beneath boats, old underground tunnels from boathouse to house were reopened, sunken houseboats hid underwater cable delivery systems, and even an underwater pipeline was built. Between Peche Island and the foot of Alter Road on the far east side, an electronically controlled cable hauled metal cylinders filled with up to 50 gallons of liquor under the river.
A pipeline was constructed between a distillery in Windsor and a Detroit bottler. When the river froze over in winter, anything from a single skater towing a sled to a loaded caravan of 75 cars could be seen.
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With the end of Prohibition in 1933, the river waters once again became a peaceful haven for men and women escaping the city, now crowded and impoverished by the Great Depression. The Second World War was coming, but for now the citizens of Detroit found solace in the cool running waters, flowing from the great Northern woodlands, with a whisper of the silent Indians, and an echo of the raucous voyageurs passing by their doorstep
A period postcard shows the Detroit waterfront around 1910.
By Jenny Nolan / The Detroit News