Happy Birthday Detroit! 315 years is amazing – as Detroit was founded on July 24, 1701.

If only we could get Al Roker on the Monday morning to wish the city a happy birthday on the Today show.

But since that’s probably not happening, let’s celebrate with knowledge. Detroit over more than three centuries has a lot of history that you might – or might not – know about. So let’s get started.

1. Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac didn’t come out of the factory a Cadillac 

There’s a car brand named after the founder of Detroit. But it turns out that last name Mr. Laumet wasn’t born with – he added the name to obscure his past and sound more aristocratic.

Via Neatorama
Via Neatorama

2. His coat of arms was made up, too. A version of it is now on millions of cars.

3. Detroit and New Orleans have lots of connections, both having French roots and all. Here’s another one.

Cadillac was basically hated by everybody (he loved to sell booze to the native population and pocket the profits for himself, against the law) and was shipped out to become the Governor of Louisiana roughly around 1710.

4. Detroit was almost abandoned by the French in 1740

Detroit held on with a stagnant population the first few decades. Plans were drawn up for its abandonment – it only had 17 soldiers to go with the 600 or so europeans and 1,500 native americans – but they were never carried out.

Bronze_Bust_of_Gabriel_Richard5. The real hero of early Detroit should be Father Gabriel Richard, not Cadillac.

Much like the debate of Tesla vs. Edison, we should have a lot more monuments to Father Richard who came up with our motto and devoted his life to the service of the city than Cadillac, who by most accounts was a jerk, stole money off the top for himself, and not very good at his job.

Let’s talk about the Father.

6. He arrived after Cadillac – and was part of Detroit actually starting to make moves. 

He served Detroit from 1802 until his death in 1832. He was the priest of St. Anne’s church. Oh, but that’s not all. He co-founded Michigan University. He was a member of Congress. He printed Detroit’s first newspaper, The Observer. He got looms and spinning equipment so women could learn a trade. He was the last victim of Detroit’s plague in 1832 after tending to the sick.

7. Our motto – Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus – was written by Father Gabriel Richard.

8. Speaking of St. Anne’s – it’s only two days younger than the city itself and the parish still stands today.

Albeit in a newer (though awesome) building over by the Ambassador Bridge. The altar Fr. Richard prayed at is still there.

St. Anne de Detroit. Photo via Wikipedia, Andrew Jameson (Creative Commons)
St. Anne de Detroit. Photo via Wikipedia, Andrew Jameson (Creative Commons)

9. St. Anne’s is the second oldest continuously operating church in the United States

The current building was built in 1886.

10. Detroit didn’t join the United States until 1796

After the international conflict that was the Seven Years War, in 1760 Detroit came under British control for more than thirty years after taking it without firing a shot.

11. Hamtramck brought America to Detroit

The city of Hamtramck is named after the man who took command of Detroit in 1796 – Colonel John Francis (or Jean François) Hamtramck. His house was where Gabriel Richard Park by Belle Isle is now.

12. Detroit was a battleground

In the war of 1812, the city was crucial, and briefly fell into British hands. By 1813, thanks to William Hazard Perry and his flotilla, America took back Detroit.

Dossin exterior June 2013 resized

13. Perry’s cannon can be seen outside of the Dossin Great Lakes museum. They’re awesome.

It’s one of Detroit’s underrated museums. Go sometime.

14. Detroit was the capitol of Michigan until 1847

Capitol park is named as such because the old state house was there. There’s a weird little metal replica in the park.

15. Detroit was the gateway to freedom

In the United States, slavery was legal up to the civil war – and under the law of the time, even if you ran away to a free state, if you were a slave, you could be hunted down, caught, and brought back south. So freedom meant using the Underground Railroad and often getting across the Detroit river to British-controlled Canada, where slavery had been outlawed. There’s a monument to that journey on the riverfront by Hart Plaza, and another to go with it on the other side in Windsor.

16. A church key to the gateway is still providing services

Second Baptist Church, founded by former slaves, is still alive as an organization. The building itself has had various changes, but it’s been on the same spot in Greektown since 1857.

17. Second Baptist Church is the oldest African-American church in the midwest.

Photo via Wikipedia, Andrew Jameson (Creative Commons)
Photo via Wikipedia, Andrew Jameson (Creative Commons)

18. The oldest documented building still standing in Detroit was built in 1826

The Charles C. Trowbridge House, at 1380 East Jefferson Avenue, is the oldest documented building in Detroit. The home cost Trowbridge $2,500 and was surrounded by farmland far from the heart of Detroit. Since Trowbridge’s death in 1883, the house has been a boarding house, single-family residence, and now a privately owned office building. Who needs farms when Bucharest Grill is now less than six blocks away? 

We’re more than halfway through. Time for a Faygo break. Rock ‘n Rye over here.

19. Faygo was originally Feigenson Brothers Bottling Works.

Founded by two brothers in 1907 who were also Russian immigrants, the brand “Faygo” was adopted in 1921.

20. Faygo was a local distributor for Pabst Blue Ribbon for a short while

21. Detroit around the turn of the century was the number one producer of stoves as well as railroad cars (rolling stock)

22. Detroit Police pioneered police radio dispatch

With the Roaring 1920s came a rise in crime, and the Detroit Police Department was desperate to get a handle on the city. Under Commissioner William P. Rutledge, the police department began experimenting with radio-equipped cars. Unfortunately, the police didn’t have their own dedicated frequency, so they often interrupted scheduled radio programming with their dispatches.


Detroit Patrolman Kenneth Cox and engineering student Robert L. Batts built a stable radio receiver and antenna system. After testing and refining it, the system and a corresponding broadcasting station, W8FS, was set up in the police station on Belle Isle. After that, the Detroit Police Department made history by regularly sending radio dispatch.

23. Detroit is home to the worlds only floating post office

The J.W. Westcott II serves international freighters on the Detroit River. It’s named after J.W. Wescott who was born in Detroit and became the youngest Captain on fresh water. He recognized the need to ships to receive important information quickly. In 1874 he put his office on Belle Isle and would row out to the ships. Messages would be exchanged via bucket and the term “mail in the pail” was formed. In 1948 the J.W. Wescott was made an official US Postal Service mail boat. It even has its own zip code, 48222.


24. When Detroit had the same population it does today – in 1910 – it was much smaller in land area

The population-shrunk and sprawled out Detroit of today is very different than the Detroit of 1910. In 1910, the northern border of a peninsula of the city was just above the Boston-Edison district, but most of it was Grand Boulevard. To the east, it ended at Waterworks Park. And to the west, before Fort Wayne, a few blocks west of Clark Park.

25. Fort Wayne has never saw a shot in a war

With construction starting in 1842, Fort Wayne was completed after the threat of potential additional hostilities with British subsided.

26. But Fort Wayne was built on an Indian burial mound

Remains over 900 years have been found there, and some say it’s haunted.

27. 90% of Grand Boulevard was built with donated land

Back when it was completed in 1913, the Grand Boulevard was in many places the outside boundary of the city.

28. Detroit was the “Arsenal of Democracy”

Yeah, you probably knew that. But did you know there’s a cool clickable map to learn more about the locations that were involved in the war effort? Check it out here.

Photo via Detroit Transit History
Photo via Detroit Transit History

29. The first “streetcar” in Detroit, pulled by a horse, was in 1863.

Streetcars back then were privately owned operations. It ran from the Old Michigan Central Depot (not the big one in all the documentaries about Detroit, but a different one, now long gone where basically Joe Louis Arena is now) along Jefferson Avenue to the outlying area of Mt. Elliot Street.

30. The last of the old Detroit streetcar system ran in 1956.

Woodward was the final line, and the cars were sold to Mexico City.

31. Detroit’s freeways -almost- had bus stops

They ended up only getting implemented in a couple of places – Livernois and Gratiot – but at one point, there were going to be bus stops that you could grab at the exits.

Photo via Michigan Department of Transportation
Photo via Michigan Department of Transportation

31.5 Check out these stairs to the freeway

Yes, that’s right. That’s I-94 at Woodward, and they ended up being stairs to nowhere. But the original idea was you could hop off your Woodward bus and take an I-94 bus east or west. That’s all been erased now as the overpasses have been redone for the new M1-Rail a.k.a. QLine – a small return of streetcars to the city streets.

This list is by no means complete. Detroit’s history is fascinating and complex, and shapes much of what we deal with today, for good and for ill. But on this 315th Birthday, let’s celebrate the city we love.

p.s. – If you’re looking for more Detroit facts, we have some Detroit facts here and more Detroit facts here. As well as 10 Historic Detroiters you really should know

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