Did you know that Detroit had a serious proposal to construct a subway? According to a 1915 report at the New York Public Library and on the Internet Archive titled, “On Detroit Street Railway Traffic and Proposed Subway,” we were pretty darn close to joining other major cities with this amenity.

At the time, cars were just beginning to be a thing. The city had not only streetcars, but there was an interurban rail system to reach faraway places like Northville, Mt. Clemens and Pontiac.

It was a very different Detroit. This plan is audacious and fanciful. We dug through the three hundred plus pages by Barclay, Parsons & Klapp and pulled out some interesting tidbits.

1. The Woodward line would run from downtown to Ford’s Highland Park Plant

Woodward Avenue Subway Plan
1915 Scrapped Woodward Avenue Subway Plan

It’s fascinating to see the diagram of the Woodward line downtown, connecting to all of the streetcars. Imagine if Campus Martius instead was a bustling transit hub for the entire region — because at one time it was, and this would have made it on the level of say The Loop in Chicago. And the address of a recently built (1910), giant Ford factory in Highland Park? 91 Manchester. Ford’s famous $5 a day wage was unveiled the year before in 1914.

2. You would have been able to take the train to Belle Isle 

Detail of the plan on Belle Island for rail service.
Detail of the plan on Belle Island for rail service.

Yes, that would have been a thing. The plan talks about a subway but also details a terminus station that would be set back, almost invisible as to not disturb the beautiful view. You’d hop off your Shoreline Interurban (that ran all the way to Mt. Clemens) and onto a connector train that’d take you onto the island. Back then, most of the island was walking paths (including that big road in the middle that has that horseman statue — that was a brick walkway).

3. They expected 28,000,000 passenger subway trips per year

Thick lines were with the subway, thin lines without.
Thick lines were the transit times with the subway, thin lines without.

4. Factory workers were the focus of these plans


Page after page mentions factory and industrial workers — this subway wasn’t designed for the east coast “Wall Street” types, but as a functional and important tool for the working people of Detroit. At the time, Detroit had a variety of industries based on turning ores and resources from the rest of Michigan into objects. Detroit was known as the Stove Capital of the world. The plans go down to the detail of what companies most people worked for, and where they lived.

5. They’re well thought out


This wasn’t some slapdash meme. This 300 page plus document accounted for everything from sewer lines and dealing with buried creeks to significant trees. There are elevations from downtown all the way to Manchester street. It would have been something Detroit could have been very proud of.

6. Downtown Detroit was way more dense than it is now


So much so that the energy of our city would be totally unrecognizable. Imagine if roughly 20,000 people lived in the combined area where Comerica Park, Ford Field and their parking lots and that slice of I-75 are now like they did in 1915. For comparison there are only 5,269 people living in the entire Central Business District now – an area many times larger.

7. The Woodward line would have cost about $385,400,000 a hundred years later


On page 25 of the report it outlines the costs, and for the Woodward Line that was estimated to be $16,300,000. Using an inflation conversion tool to estimate what those dollars would be worth 100 years later, in 2015, you get approximately $385,400,000.

Of course, in modern times, there may be additional costs – labor rules were different, environmental rules, etc. But by raw comparison, estimates peg the new Little Caesars Arena complex at somewhere around $627 million. The new Q-Line Woodward streetcar running almost exactly half the distance, according the M1-Rail website, is coming in at around $140 million.


It’s important to remember that these plans served a very different city. There was no such thing as freeways, less than 10 percent of Americans owned cars, and they were planning for Detroit to hit a million souls by 1920.

The future of Detroit isn’t written in stone. Back then, city planners could have never imagined the changes coming after World War II. There’s no rule that Detroit has to decline, stay the same, or rise in population. The future is up to us.

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