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Woodward Ave History

History of Woodward Avenue

The year was 1909, and it was a big year in Detroit. Ty Cobb led the Detroit Tigers to a League Pennant at Bennett Park, Henry Ford introduced the Model T and J.L. Hudson was scouting out a location at Woodward and Farmer for his department store’s new location.

Also that year, the Wayne County Road Commission introduced the world to a new kind of road: Concrete. The only place it could be found that year was Woodward Avenue between Six and Seven Mile Roads in Greenfield Township, which is now northwest Detroit.

Roads up to that point – if they were paved at all - had been built with brick, cobblestone, or a material called macadam, which was not much more than stones sprayed with a tar to form some kind of wear resistant surface. Unfortunately, brick and cobblestone were uneven and labor intensive, while macadam didn’t last long.

The need for a better type of road construction had been evident for years – even before the advent of the automobile. A group of bicyclists, known as the League of American Wheelmen, had initiated what came to be known as the "Good Roads Movement" to help make bicycling more pleasurable than it had been on the area’s rough and rutted roads.

When Henry Ford first started mass producing the automobile, the need for good roads became a much more pressing issue. He, better than anyone, knew the viability of his product was greatly limited unless there was a system of smooth, reliable roads to carry and withstand automobile traffic. Ford himself found himself at the forefront of the issue.

In 1906, the Michigan Legislature created the state’s first road commission in Wayne County, and Henry Ford was a charter member. [Ford, however, would serve only one year. He stepped down to avoid a conflict of interest because of his role in the automobile industry.

Within just three years, the Wayne County Road Commission embarked on an experiment that would revolutionize the way roads were built and create a new standard that has endured right up to the present day.

County engineers had heard success stories from Ohio and Windsor, Ontario where concrete had been used for sidewalks and alleys. Road commissioners Edward Hines and John Haggerty decided the time was right to test concrete on a major thoroughfare. The section of Woodward Avenue between Six Mile Road [McNichols] and Seven Mile Road was selected most likely because that is where the county's jurisdiction began, but also because Ford's new Model T plant down the road in Highland Park would be turning out a large number of new automobiles. Woodward also was a likely candidate because it was one of the major transportation spokes radiating out of downtown.

As for the choice of concrete, this is how the road commission stated their reasoning in its 1909 annual report: "we decided that a concrete road would come more nearly realizing the ideal than any other form. The points considered were comparatively low first cost, low maintenance cost, freedom from dirt and dust [there being no detritus from a concrete road itself] its comparative noiselessness, and ease of traction for vehicles of all descriptions."

The report further went on to state the following: "The cost of this piece of work is considerably lower than the average cost of macadam roads constructed in New York and Pennsylvania as taken from detailed reports of these states, and we believe it to be superior in every feature to the best macadam road that can be built. However, time alone can justify our judgment in the matter."

And it did. News of the accomplishment spread quickly, even for the time. "This road has attracted a great deal of attention among the road builders of the entire country, and numerous delegations have visited it during the past summer. We have also been the recipients of many inquiries for information concerning it," the commission’s 1909 report reads. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of miles of concrete road throughout the world. And despite all of the technological advances of the past few decades, no one has come up with a more reliable, cost effective material to build roads with than concrete.


OTHER FIRSTS IN ROAD HISTORY

Not long after developing the first mile of concrete road, Wayne County also developed the first painted centerline, perfected the snow plow and built the world’s first below-grade superhighway, the Davison. Legend has it that German engineers used Wayne County’s Davison Freeway accomplishment as inspiration for the world famous Autobahn.

In recent years, Wayne County has continued to strive to be innovative. Just last year, the county became the first in the nation to equip some of its salt trucks with Global Positioning Satellite [GPS] technology to monitor the activities and progress of its snow plows. Many expect that this will become a new standard for all snow-belt states, one which will save money and make snow removal much more effective and responsive.