Detroiters will soon see the forthcoming M-1 Rail drastically transform Woodward Avenue! July marked the start of major construction work for the long-awaited rail project in downtown Detroit, and it’s expected to continue through the end of 2016. This $140 million project will establish a 3.3-mile light rail system from the New Center area to the heart of the city. The rail will feature 20 stations that serve key destinations along Woodward Avenue, such as Grand Circus Park and West Grand Boulevard.
Few people know that Woodward Avenue not only served as the main artery of the region, but that it also was the first concrete road in America! Since 1805, Woodward has served as a major thoroughfare linking Detroit with Flint and Saginaw. It was named for Judge Augustus B. Woodward, who played a prominent role in planning the street system and reconstructing Detroit after the extensive fire of 1805. But Woodward was also an important road prior to 1805; the north-south route connected the Mackinaw Trail to the Straits of Mackinac and was used by the Ojibwa tribe. It also became a popular route for trappers and traders in the region.
Woodward was once even part of the Dixie Highway, which connected Michigan with Florida. When Michigan created the State Trunkline Highway System in 1913, it was noted as part of U.S. Highway 10 following the creation of the U.S. Numbered Highway System.
“This trail existed before [Antoine de la Mothe] Cadillac even landed in this area,” said Deborah Schutt, who serves as executive director of the Woodward Avenue Action Association in Detroit. “Most people don’t realize that Woodward was here before white settlers and that natives were using it as a trading trail to Port Huron.”
Schutt said that thanks to the vast logging industry north of Detroit, the route grew valuable as the city became a hub for wagon building. Consequently, the wagon-building industry evolved into a bustling railcar system that naturally evolved into the home of the automobile industry, she said.
“Then this area was like a mud pit and the roads were horrible to travel since much of the area was swamp land,” said Tobi Voigt, the chief curatorial officer for the Detroit Historical Society. “Henry Ford was manufacturing the Model T and he needed good roads to transport them.”
Voigt said Detroit had a larger mass transit system than any other U.S. city in the early 1900s.
“Detroit started constructing streetcars in 1863, and the Woodward line was the second to open on August 27, 1863,” Voigt said. “By 1899 there was 184.07 miles of streetcar track within the city of Detroit, and nearly 600 streetcars were in operation.”
The city’s streetcar lines existed from the 1860s until the 1950s. Since most of the streetcar companies were privately owned, by the time the city purchased the mass transit streetcar system, it was deteriorating. The cost of maintaining the tracks and operating the line became very high. The industry also began to fade as the popularity of the automobile grew. The last streetcar in operation ran along the Woodward corridor and shut down on April 8, 1956.
At one time more than 100 automobile companies existed along the Woodward corridor. Woodward was also the place where early auto engineers tested the performance and designs of newly created cars. They would then provide feedback for early automakers.
“Woodward’s diverse history is steeped in the car companies,” Schutt explained. “Kids in California may have been cruising along the beach, but Woodward is the street with a very unique Americana history.”
Woodward’s past is rich in inventive and historical firsts, such as the Walk to Freedom, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, which was a Civil Rights march in 1963 that served as the precursor to the March on Washington.
“Woodward had the first tri-colored traffic signal, and today we still have a local U.S. patent office because there were so many things being created that related to the evolution of the automobile industry,” said Schutt, whose organization purchased two National Historic Landmark buildings in Highland Park to create an Automobile Heritage Welcome Center.
Voigt also recognized Woodward for its historical significance and said that the M-1 Rail is just the next noteworthy happening in its history.
“Tons of historical events have happened on Woodward, and we’ve been researching some of these significant events so that M-1 Rail riders can read about them at various stations,” said Voigt. “The rail is going to be fantastic because it will give people staying downtown for conventions a chance to hop on and visit our museums farther down Woodward.”
According to the nonprofit organization, M-1 Rail, the rail system will bring approximately $500 million to $1 billion worth of economic development to the Woodward corridor. These benefits include housing, jobs and improved access to jobs, new business development and greater access for the 10.5 million visitors a year that already visit the downtown core.
“It’s about time that we get back to expanding our public transit system,” said Schutt, whose organization raised $200,000 toward improving the crosswalks for the rail. “I’m thrilled about the rail and it will significantly help the revitalization of the city.”
The Woodward Avenue Action Association is responsible for erecting four tributes along the corridor. The organization has installed four but envisions erecting at least 27 along Woodward.
“We’re trying to bring history to life with these Woodward Tributes that tell the area’s history,” she said. “The M-1 Rail will be good for economic sustainability.”