Detroit/Wayne County Port Authority
Review and History

The Port of Detroit is the largest city in the State of Michigan. It is the seat of Wayne County and a major port serving the United States’ Midwest region. The only major US city that can look south to Canada, it is on the northern shore of the Detroit River, north of Windsor, Canada. Famous as a world automotive center, it is home to the “Big Three” United States automakers (General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler). Nicknamed Motown, it is also the birthplace of some of America’s most popular music.

Port History

French officer Antoine de la Mothe Cadilac founded Fort Detroit there in 1701, establishing the city’s French heritage. Fort Detroit was surrendered to the British in 1760 after the British took it during the French and Indian War. Not too long after that, several indigenous tribes led by Chief Pontiac of the Ottawa laid siege to the Fort, leading to restrictions on while settlement there. The Port of Detroit passed to the United States in 1796.

The Port of Detroit was the capital of Michigan from 1805 to 1847. Falling to British troops during the War of 1812, the United States recaptured the city in 1813 and incorporated it in 1815. Before the American Civil War, its proximity to the Canadian border made the Port of Detroit an important stop on the Underground Railroad. Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant was stationed in the city at the time, and his home still stands on the Michigan State Fairgrounds.

Many Port of Detroit residents volunteered to fight for the Union, and the “Iron Brigade” defended Washington D.C. early during the Civil War. During the War, the Michigan Brigade was led by George Armstrong Custer, who called them the Wolverines.

Called the “Paris of the West,” the Port of Detroit held many mansions and buildings in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. Its strategic location on the Great Lakes made it an important transportation hub for the Nation. Growing steadily from the 1830s, it was home to industries engaged in shipping, shipbuilding, and manufacturing. Then, in 1896, Henry Ford built his first automobile in a workshop on Mack Avenue. The Ford Motor Company was founded in 1904.

The Port of Detroit was soon the world’s automotive capital, home to pioneers like Henry Ford, William Durant, Walter Chrysler, and the Dodge brothers. It also attracted truck manufacturers. During the first half of the 20th Century, the Port of Detroit grew rapidly. New residents poured in from the South to find work in the new automobile plants.

It was for a time the fourth largest city in the United States. European immigrants joined the population flooding into the city, creating stiff competition for housing and jobs and adding to social tensions. During prohibition, the Detroit River was a favorite pathway for Canadian alcohol into the U.S.

In the 1930s, the labor movement was strong in the Port of Detroit. The United Auto Workers and the Port of Detroit’s auto manufacturers were involved in bitter disputes, and labor activism brought national attention to union leaders like Walter Reuther and Jimmy Hoffa. In the 1940s, the world’s first urban depressed freeway was constructed there, and World War II supported continued industrial growth. With thousands of workers moving into the city for work, housing was scarce. Racial tensions blossomed into a riot in 1943.

A complex freeway system was constructed in the 1950s and 1960s that made commutes easier but also destroyed traditionally black neighborhoods, creating a stark decline in the inner city. In 1967, the Twelfth Street Riot, combined with the building of auto plants in the suburbs, further encouraged “white flight” out of the city. Shifting population and industry left the city with a limited tax base. Many businesses and homes were left abandoned, and the Port of Detroit suffered an era of decay and urban blight that lasted for decades.

In the 1970s, further pressure arrived in the form of foreign competition from auto makers who built small, gas-efficient cars. With the auto industry’s base eroding and high-paying jobs in manufacturing disappearing, the Port of Detroit seemed doomed. Drug use and drug-related violence rose, forcing the demolition of abandoned buildings that were used by drug dealers. Large areas of the city became an “urban prairie,” with wild animals seen migrating back into the city.

“Renaissance” has been a local by-word for years, and in the late 1970s, the Renaissance Center was opened downtown. Even this complex of sophisticated skyscrapers, however, could not reverse the decline in the city’s downtown areas.

In the late 1990s, a downtown revival began. New skyscrapers arose. Three popular casinos opened. New stadiums were built downtown for the local sports teams, the Detroit Tigers and Detroit Lions. The city hosted the MLB All-Star Game in 2005 and, in 2006, Super Bowl XL, and the World Series.

Today, development of the city’s riverfront is a top priority. The first areas of the Detroit River Walk were opened in 2007, with parks and fountains, to spur tourism and reinvent the local economy. Million-dollar condos are rising along the river today, and the future looks bright.

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