While freeways are pretty standard in American cities now, it wasn’t always that way. Instead of the ability to potentially go up to 70 miles an hour like on today’s highways, motorists had to use regular city streets to cross town. That was especially the case for motorists who wanted to cross Highland Park and enter Detroit.
Everyone piled onto Davison Avenue, the only large street that ran through Highland Park and connected to Detroit running roughly east to west. The avenue and freeway was named after an English immigrant from the 1840s that settled in the area, Jared Davison (it was then Hamtramck Township). His farm was approximately between Woodward and Oakland avenues along the south side of the street.
It wasn’t uncommon for drivers to spend 15 minutes sitting in traffic to reach Detroit. By 1940, thanks to Detroit’s growth and the growth of auto factories, Davison Avenue was approaching gridlock during rush hour by 1940.
Most of the traffic didn’t actually have a destination in Highland Park. The goal was usually to get to Detroit. By early 1941, the Highland Park City Council, which controlled Davison Avenue, proposed to rebuild the street as a six-lane, limited-access highway.
The plans were subsequently approved, and the council appropriated $100,000 (around $6 million today) for the construction. The remaining $3.4 million (about $195 million today) was paid by state and federal government appropriations. Construction started later in 1941.
To build the freeway, the south side of Davison Avenue needed to be expanded, leading to the demolition of 69 homes and the removal of an additional 63 homes. Construction on the freeway was going well, but the outbreak of World War II meant that the project’s pace had to be accelerated. The defense plants near the freeway needed access to it.
By November 1942, the five and a half mile long Davison Freeway was finished. It opened without a dedication ceremony, probably due to the desperate need the defense plants had for a functioning freeway. Despite its lack of dedication, the freeway became the first one of its kind – an urban freeway meant to connect one part of a metro area with another with as little interruption as possible.
Travel time to and from Detroit was drastically reduced. Instead of spending fifteen minutes in traffic, and more during rush hour, motorists zipped to Detroit in as little as three or four minutes.
In 1968, the Davison Freeway was extended eastward to where it ends now, near Conant Street. This extension happened because of the opening of I-75, the Chrysler Freeway.
Originally the Davison Freeway was a county road, but Wayne County didn’t properly maintain it. In 1993, the freeway was transferred to the Michigan Department of Transportation and renamed M-8. In the mid 1990s, the Davison Freeway was closed for a $45 million reconstruction project.
At that time, the freeway still had its original concrete surface from the 1940s. It also had three narrow lanes in each direction, no shoulders, and a small median. It was in desperate need of updates and repair. In 1997, the freeway reopened and once again became an important road for Detroiters, especially those looking to quickly switch from I-75 to the Lodge (M-10).
Ironically, the invention from Highland Park eventually played a key role in emptying the city out. In 1992, Chrysler moved their headquarters down the road – off of I-75 with a special off-ramp built for the development – to Auburn Hills, to follow the trend of suburban sprawl that the American highway system helped enable.