A History of Detroit

By Tim Lambert

Early Detroit

The great city of Detroit began as a French fort. The French built it on the Detroit River in 1701. Led by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac (1658-1730) 100 soldiers and workers built a wooden palisade. Soon a little settlement grew up by the fort but in 1760 during the Seven Year War Detroit was captured by the British. In 1796 the Americans took control of Detroit. In 1802 Detroit was incorporated as a town. However, in 1805 Detroit was devastated by a fire. Yet it was soon rebuilt. Then in 1812, Detroit was captured by the British.

19th Century Detroit

However, after the War of 1812, Detroit grew quickly. From 1812 steamships sailed to and from Detroit Harbor and in 1825 the Erie Canal opened making transport from Detroit easier. Manufacturing industries in Detroit boomed such as making ships, wagons, buggies, and steam engines. Meanwhile, in 1815 Detroit was incorporated as a city. Then in 1841, Eastern Market was founded. Belle Isle was laid out in the 1880s.

Meanwhile, in 1837, Michigan was admitted to the Union. The state constitution forbade slavery and Detroit became an important stop on the Underground Railroad which helped slaves to escape from slavery in the South.

In the late 19th century, Detroit continued to grow rapidly. Pharmaceuticals became a major industry in the city. Manufacturing in Detroit continued to thrive and stoves, furnaces, engines, and railroad cars were all made there.

20th Century Detroit

In the early 20th century a new industry grew up in Detroit – making cars. Henry Ford made his first Model T in 1908 and soon the auto industry in Detroit was booming.

Meanwhile, The Detroit Institute of Arts moved to its present building in 1927. The Fox Theater opened in 1928. The Fisher Theater also opened in 1928. So did Detroit Zoo. Also in 1928, the Guardian Building was erected in Detroit. The Ambassador Bridge was built in 1929. The Detroit Windsor Tunnel opened in 1930.

Detroit suffered badly in the depression of the 1930s but it flourished again with the Second World War. By 1950 the population of Detroit was almost 1.85 million. In the 1950s and 1960s, Detroit continued to thrive. The Northland Center was the first shopping mall in the USA when it opened in 1954.

In 1963 Martin Luther King gave a speech in Detroit. However, in 1967 there was a huge riot in Detroit which left 43 people dead. Meanwhile, in the 1960s, Detroit became famous for Motown.

In the late 20th century Detroit entered a period of decline. Its industries were struck by recession and its population shrank.

On the other hand, Coleman Young became the first African American mayor of Detroit in 1974. Fairlane Town Center shopping mall opened in 1976 and the first section of the Renaissance Center opened in 1977. Detroit Motown Museum was founded in 1985 and a monument to the boxer Joe Louis was erected in Detroit in 1986. The One Detroit Center was built in 1993.

21st Century Detroit

In 2001 a statue of the French founder of Detroit Antoine de la Mothe was erected in the city. Meanwhile, Comerica Park baseball stadium opened in 2000 and Ford Field football stadium opened in 2002.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit opened in 2006. The Michigan Science Center opened in 2012.

However, the 2010s were a difficult decade for Detroit. The city filed for bankruptcy in 2013. However, it exited bankruptcy in 2014.

On the other hand, the QLINE system of street cars opened in 2017. Little Caesars Arena also opened in 2017.

In 2020 the population of Detroit was 620,000. (It has fallen drastically since its peak of nearly 1.85 million in 1950).

Last revised 2024