SHARE
Public Domain Downtown Detroit 1920's

Detroit is a city full of surprises. When you dive into its history, you never know what you’ll find. You’ll soon realize, however, that Detroit has played an important role in many industries. Both the medical field and the locomotive industry have Detroit to thank for incredible inventions. Read on to discover 10 more cool facts about Detroit, and if you missed the first round of 10 Detroit facts, you can check them out here.

1Saloons Were Big Business

Sign of the Stonehouse, a long-standing Detroit Saloon.

In the 1830s, Detroit’s population hovered around 2,200, and the city had one saloon for every 13 residents. If you do the math, that puts the number of saloons in Detroit around 170. These weren’t just places to enjoy a drink. At a saloon, Detroiters could get free lunch, smoke, play cards, read the newspaper, and talk about current events. It seems that 1830s Detroiters enjoyed the chance to get together and socialize, just like today.

2“The Real McCoy” Is From Detroit

Elijah McCoy

Detroit was also home to an invention vital to railroad companies: automatic lubricators for oiling steam engines on trains. The man behind the invention, Elijah McCoy, was born in Canada in 1844 to two former slaves. The family moved to the U.S. when he was young, and his parents sent him to Scotland during his teen years so he could receive a good education.

After McCoy returned to Michigan, he started working with the Michigan Central Railroad. At his home shop in Ypsilanti, McCoy began tackling the difficult problem of lubricators. Railroads were extremely interested in functional lubricators because they enabled trains to run more quickly and efficiently.

McCoy’s invention, though not the first automatic lubricator, became one of the most successful on the market. So successful, it’s said that engineers often asked for it by name, which is what may have given rise to the term “the real McCoy.”

3Detroit Was An Important Part of Pharmaceutical Research

The Parke-Davis facility. Photo via Wikipedia (CC) by Andrew Jameson

Parke-Davis and Co. established the first pharmaceutical research lab in Detroit in the late 1800s. Their first building was located in downtown Detroit, but by 1873, they were getting too big to remain in downtown.

The company moved its lab and manufacturing facilities east to near Belle Isle. Between 1891 and 1946, Parke-Davis and Co. built 26 buildings on their campus. In its heyday, Parke-Davis and Co. was one of the leading pharmaceutical research institutions in the world. It helped make Detroit the national center for the growing pharmaceutical industry.

4Houdini Died In Detroit

Not even Harry Houdini could escape death, though he put up a good fight. Historians believe that Houdini contracted appendicitis while he was performing in Montreal. Despite being in pain, he performed two shows before getting on a train to Detroit. His wife, Bess, noticed that he wasn’t feeling well. She arranged to have a doctor meet them at their hotel in Detroit.

Unfortunately, the train was late, so Houdini didn’t have time to stop at his hotel. He went straight to the theater to start his performance. When the doctor finally caught up to the Houdinis at the theater, he diagnosed Houdini with acute appendicitis. He insisted that Houdini go to the hospital. Only after trying and failing to finish his performance did Houdini consent to be taken to Grace Hospital on the afternoon of Sunday, October 24, 1926.

When doctors finally got him into surgery, they discovered that Houdini’s appendix had ruptured. He now had peritonitis, an infection of the tissue lining the inner wall of the abdomen. Houdini fought the infection for four days, but the renowned escape artist couldn’t get himself out of this one. He died on October 31, 1926.

5A Reporter Brought A Horse Into The Newsroom

The Detroit Times, which closed in 1960, was known for its unconventional staff. On a typical day in the Times newsroom, it wasn’t unusual for a reporter to bring in a stripper, or on rarer occasions, a horse. One reporter managed to convince a mounted policeman outside the Times to lend him his horse. The reporter then took the horse into the building through the loading dock and took the freight elevator up to the sixth floor.

6Detroit Was A Major Alcohol Importer During Prohibition

With the passing of the 18th Amendment in 1919, the sale, consumption, and manufacturing of alcohol became illegal. However, that didn’t stop people from drinking it. Detroit was strategically positioned to prosper from Prohibition. With Windsor just across the Detroit River, Detroiters had easy access to alcohol. (At the time, Canada has lax alcohol laws). It’s estimated that 75 percent of the alcohol smuggled into the US during Prohibition crossed the border at the Windsor-Detroit funnel.

71920s Detroit Didn’t Escape Organized Crime

In the 1920s and 30s, the Detroit Underworld was ruled by the Purple Gang. Led by members of the Bernstein family, the Purple Gang consisted mostly of immigrants from Detroit’s lower east side. At its full strength, the gang controlled all of the city’s gambling, alcohol, and drug trade.

Instead of fighting the Purple Gang, Chicago gangster Al Capone decided to partner with them to smuggle whiskey. The gang had very little to fear. Many witnesses were too frightened to testify against them. However, the Purple Gang’s success began to fade in the early 1930s. Internal conflicts and alliances helped speed the once-notorious gang’s demise.

8Detroit Was Crucial In The World War II Effort

With its booming automobile industry and sprawling plants, Detroit was the stronghold of US wartime production. The city only had 2 percent of the US population, but it produced 10 percent of the material for the war. Chrysler produced 25,000 Sherman, Grant, and Patton tanks at its Warren assembly plant. At one point, the plant made 1,000 units per month. Ford Motor Co. made 8,500 B-24 Liberator bombers at its Willow Run factory.

9The Mechanical Heart Pump Was Created In Detroit

Photo Courtesy of General Motors

A mechanical heart pump (aka artificial heart) is a nifty machine that temporarily replaces the human heart’s blood-pumping function and makes open heart surgery possible. It was the brainchild of Dr. Forest Dodrill. In 1952, Dr. Dodrill was a surgeon at Wayne State University’s Harper Hospital and President of the Michigan Heart Association. Previous attempts to create a mechanical heart pump had failed, until Dr. Dodrill brought in a new team.

He turned to a group of engineers and scientist at the General Motors Research Laboratories for help. The collaboration between the medical team and the GM engineering team produced the first mechanical heart pump. It was first used at Harper Hospital in the fall of 1952 with great success.

10Van Gogh’s First Museum Appearance Was In Detroit

If you’ve been to the Detroit Institute of Arts, you know just how incredible the museum’s collection is. It’s ranked among the top six collections in the United States. It also owns Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, the first Van Gogh painting to enter a U.S. museum collection. If you haven’t been to the DIA yet, plan to stop by and check out this awesome Detroit first.

Unique is an Understatement
There are many people who are tempted to compare Detroit to other cities for a variety of reasons. However, those comparisons won’t do justice to Detroit. It’s a city that’s unlike any other, and its history proves that beyond a doubt. If you can’t get enough Detroit facts, check out our previous post of 10 Unbelievable and Cool Facts about Detroit.