The Story Of The Davison, America’s First Urban Freeway

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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.

redit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

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.

Workers coming out of the Highland Park Chrysler Plant in 1942. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Workers coming out of the Highland Park Chrysler Plant in 1942. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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.

Davison widening, looking at South 3rd near Wildemere, 1941. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University
Davison widening, looking at South 3rd near Wildemere, 1941. Credit: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

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.

LONG VIEW WEST, FROM WOODWARD AVENUE BRIDGE - Davison Freeway from M-10 to Oakland Avenue, M-10 to Highland Park, Highland Park, MI. Library of Congress. HAER MICH,82-HIPA,1–17.
LONG VIEW WEST, FROM WOODWARD AVENUE BRIDGE – Davison Freeway from M-10 to Oakland Avenue, M-10 to Highland Park, Highland Park, MI. Library of Congress. HAER MICH,82-HIPA,1–17.

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.

9 comments
  • THIS STORY is so FRESH! I’ve lived by the Davison my whole life and recognize it then and now very great points

  • I grew up around that area off of Davison and Dequinder. Still take that freeway to my parents home. Use to walk to Highland Park along the side of that freeway.

  • As much as I have always been around Davison, I have only heard bits and pieces about how Davison was made. I still remember how antiquated M-8 was until the ’96 closure. I had a friend who lives off of Davison, a few miles east of the freeway ending. I always wondered why – as much as Davison was used – that the freeway portion did not extend all the way to the meeting of the Jeffries (I-96).

    Even more interesting, the M-8 trunkline is only used on the freeway, and not anywhere between the Lodge and the I-96 exchange (even though the indication is said to be west to the Jeffries). Wouldn’t it be better to mark Davison as M-8 from Van Dyke (M-53) to the Jeffries Interchange (or even Wyoming for that matter)?

  • The city was vibrantly healthy and photos show the city was predominantly white. Robust and full of wealth and glory… Then everything changed for the worst. City counsel and police became corrupt, minorities were moving into the city for employment, and the riots of the late 60’s forced many upper to middle class out to the suburbs. Detroit has become the cesspool of corruption and the police are still the same today as in the 60’s… DPD Gerald Beckem #3798 is a perfect example: Detroit will forever be the nucleus of the cesspool….

    • Michael Saari, you are close but not quite with your response. The first race riots in the D were in 1943. The white flight started around 1954/55 with the beginnings of the suburbs north of 8 mile. Yes 60s were huge migration but the ’67 riots were in an area where whites were leaving rapidly, minorities weren’t being “moved in” there they just moved there on their own and school integration got going which also accelerated the migration out of the city. For a great book on this, read “American Odyssey a unique history of america through the life of a great city” by Robert Conot published in 1974 when the details of the migration and riots were fresh and captured in this book. There’s more to the story than just a group moving in. The existing racism of the resident Dems and unions were a huge factor.

      • Don’t under play the effects that black “racism” and black on white violence/crime had on the white working class people “fleeing” -no one gets up and leaves when their family house has devalued over the years (instead of increasing in equity) on a whim. Detroit’s crime statistics from the 1970’s to the present speak for themselves. My dad and mother said Detroit was a wonderful city to grow up in in the 50’s -and then the demographics changed and the amenity eroded quickly. The local small businesses (bakery, bar, drug store etc) got sick of being held up at gun point and closed up, then the windows got broken, boarded up, and you all know how that spiral goes. The 1967 riots said to people… “stop pretending this is going to get better -because this is what you are up against”… even the police weren’t enough to protect the city from its own inhabitants. Time to go….

    • I sure hope you get over that ticket one day. The hate and vengeance that you hold for this officer is an indication that you are a man without purpose and hope. You must be without fault of any kind in your life. Smh… I would never vote for you for anything! If I see your name in 2018 for Senate or anything else I will make sure to share all of the hate you have spreaded over all of these websites. I have made copies of it all. I even saw your post this morning on Facebook. Stop sprewing hate and get a life. If you need prayer I can meet you at the Walmart. I will pray for you to turn away from your ways. It’s very sad. Jesus is coming back soon. Be aware!

  • Wendy has pretty much wrapped up what happened. The schools have been trying (and succeeding, to a large extent) to brainwash it out of children’s minds for decades, but the fact remains that the overwhelming black culture has improved precious FEW areas globally where it is ‘infused’.

  • Nobody has mentioned that after WWII, there were 11 auto assembly plants in metro Detroit including Highland Park were I grew up in the 1950’s. Most were built in the 1920’s or earlier and were too small, obsolete and could not expand to meet the pent-up demand for larger cars and faster assembly lines… so they all closed and new, modern larger plants were built in the suburbs and around the country. Where the jobs go… so go the workers,… that is those who had the courage to pick up their families and relocate. The riots, some Miss guided politicians and unions that perhaps overreached to save declining worker job, were other contributing factors, but old factories was the start of a declining Detroit.

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