Detroit's Valuable Waterways

Before Detroit was the car capital, its economy was based on water.


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  1. Midwest Cities

Everyone knows Detroit went boom on the strength of its automotive industry. But long before Henry Ford’s factories were turning Midwestern steel into Model Ts, Detroit’s economic value came from its rivers, lakes and waterways. And it was Detroit’s water — and the commerce it attracted — that led to the automotive industry being born in Detroit. 

The French saw the river’s value in the 18th century as a route to reach the region’s rich natural resources. French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac arrived in 1701 at a site the French called deTroit, which means the "Narrows.” Cadillac came from Montreal with a fleet of birch-bark canoes to build a fort to end the western expansion of the English.

The French were so eager to hold onto deTroit and its valuable water access that they offered potential settlers a shovel, an ax, a plow, two wagons, seed, a cow and pig as inducements to come to this wild northern outpost. The incentive plan didn’t work. The British took over Fort du deTroit in 1760. The British surrendered the Fort Detroit to the Americans 36 years later in 1796.

From Boats to Carriages to Cars

By the 1820s the city was home to many shipyards that made vessels for the Great Lakes trade. In the 1840s the city’s shipyards began making steam-powered ocean-going vessels. By the 1860s marine steam engines were a major export from Detroit. At the end of the 19th century, Detroit was home to a sophisticated machine industry. It was here that the first internal combustion engine was developed and put into boats, serving the river port local boosters dubbed “the Greatest Commercial Artery on Earth.”

A city full of engine makers and engine parts was the perfect place for Henry Ford and other auto pioneers to make their horseless carriages. Ford and others were able to put together their prototype automobiles from off-the-shelf parts intended for boat engines. So the automobile was born from the boats made for the waters around Detroit.

Polluted Waters Revived

By the middle of the 20th century, decades of industrialism had made the Detroit River and Lake Erie so polluted that recreational boating nearly disappeared. In the 1960s, 31 miles of the Detroit River were declared unsafe for any water contact sport including boating.

Today, the river and lake have made an amazing comeback. More than 48 miles of the Detroit River and Lake Erie shoreline on the U.S. side have been declared part of the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge. The refuge protects 29 species of waterfowl, including bald eagles, and more than five-dozen varieties of fish. There are more than 12,000 marina slips for recreational boaters on the Detroit River and the economic impact of boating there is estimated at more than $1 billion annually.

Some people call it an ecological miracle. But once again, the abundance of water is what defines Detroit.

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