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history of detroit

Construction continues on the new site, which should be up and running by the end of the week, although your friends aboard the Night Train aren’t making any promises.

One of the luxuries of writing about history, though, is that isn’t subject to the hyper-fast timeline that directs our daily lives. Taking a few days off the blog grind to learn code and play with my stylesheets puts a dent in my traffic stats, but I’m not worried about missing something on Twitter that won’t be relevant by the end of the day.

That isn’t to say that history doesn’t change. We revise it all the time; we change the stories we tell, how we tell them, the way the think about the characters involved. We build new monuments and memorials and tear down old ones. We fight about it. In Detroit, these fights are fever-pitch: the abandoned structures and empty lots that crowd the city are both monuments to a better past (one many Detroiters can personally remember) and painful memento mori of decline.

But there’s older, thicker history in the city that most of us forget after grade school. I like this mustier, more legendary stuff: the fur trade, the settlements, the berobed Jesuits and oak plank roads and war generals. I find it comforting. The past is tenacious, and we are strung to it.

So, scholarly asides aside: it was thus that we approached the tour itinerary provided in the 1933 edition of History of Detroit for Young People by Harriet and Florence Marsh. The original itinerary is bolded with our comments and photos below. Remember, watch for street car crossings and always have an older person with you.

I. THE CAMPUS MARTIUS

a. Find cannon from [Oliver Hazard] Perry’s victory.

No luck here. Does anyone know where this is? The Detroit Historical Society or the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, maybe? We saw some cannons on Washington Blvd., but they belonged to General Macomb, as it turned out.

b. Statues of Cadillac, N.E.corner; Father Marquette, N.W. corner; Father Richard, S.E. corner; La Salle, S.W. corner.

gabriel richard

These are now on the campus of Wayne State University, in a park on Anthony Wayne Street. Father Richard’s aspect is especially haunting, and the Marshes speak lovingly of him, although they do mention that he was a plain, bespectacled man with a scar on his face from a sword wound. Not evident on the statue.

c. Council chamber. Look at picture presented to Detroit by French Government, “Louis XIV delivering to Chevalier de Cadillac the ordinance and grant for the foundation of the City of Detroit.”

Detroit City Hall was razed in 1961. I found this painting during a routine Google Book search, where it appeared on the cover of “Historical Collections” published by the Michigan Historical Society. The painting is credited as part of the “Art Musem of Detroit, 1902” — is it in the DIA now?

2. The Soldiers and Sailors Monument faces the City Hall on the east side of Woodward Avenue. This was designed by Randolph Rogers and unveiled in 1872.

soldiers and sailors fwd

Standing triumphant.

3. Old Andrew’s Hotel, facing the Campus Martius, stood on the site of what now is the Schubert Detroit Opera House.

My dad speaks with a glint in his eye of Detroit’s movie house days, and he remembers the Schubert adoringly. The Schubert was demolished in 1964.

4. The fountain erected to the memory of Governor John J. Bagley stands on the north end of the campus.

bagley

This odd, pyramidal marble structure still stands, although it’s pretty dry as fountains go. It’s got lions in the center. Rawr.

II. CADILLAC SQUARE

1. Detroit Historical Musem is on the 23rd floor of Barlum Tower, rooms 2302-18.

Not anymore!

2. The Wayne County Building is on the east side of the square.

ren cen wayne county

The Wayne County Building may be the finest standing example of Roman Baroque architecture in North America,  says Wikipedia (I have to trust the crowds on this one as I know nothing about architecture and the claim is unsourced), and it’s one of my favorite buildings in the city. We tried to get in to nose around, but the security guard, though evidently delighted to see another human being in the building, regrettably informed us that it was closed, and advised us to call his boss, who has “a big heart for people like you.” (Tourists? History dorks? White kids running around downtown with cameras?)

Mad Anthony has rapidly become an obsession and my boyfriend has obligingly been ordering out-of-print biographies of him through interlibrary loan. The Erie, PA-based Erie Brewing Company makes a delicious American Pale Ale in Mad Anthony’s name and we recommend it.

3. Cadillac Chair of Justice

Buildings of Detroit eloquently describes the fate of the Chair of Justice: “By the late 1930s, the limestone had started to fall apart, and the chair had turned into a favorite resting spot for vagrants and drunks. On Nov. 1, 1941, workers showed up with sledgehammers and it was removed in pieces.”

VI. Points West of Woodward Ave.

We skipped around on this tour, mapless, downtown and on foot as we were.

a. Statue of General Alexander Macomb, born in Detroit and at one time Commander-in-Chief of the Army. It stands on Washington Boulevard at Michigan Avenue, opposite the Book-Cadillac.

Impressive! The glorious Macomb still stands handsomely on Washington Boulevard opposite the still-standing (and gloriously restored and open for business!) Book-Cadillac Hotel. Fun fact: Macomb’s statue is made out of melted down cannons.

general macomb

Also on Washington Boulevard is a statue of Casimir Pulaski.

casimir pulaski

b. Mariner’s Church, northwest corner of Woodward Avenue and Woodbridge Street.

mariners church

Old Mariner’s moved to Woodward and Jefferson in 1955.

h. Fort Shelby, originally Fort Lernoult, was located on what is now W. Fort Street from Griswold to Wayne streets. The Post Office is on this site.

fort lernoult

Not a Post Office anymore.

More to  come!

By the late 1930s, the limestone had started to fall apart, and the chair had turned into a favorite resting spot for vagrants and drunks. On Nov. 1, 1941, workers showed up with sledgehammers and it was removed in pieces.

Two summers ago, over watermelon mojitos, I met with Captain Rick Hake of Adventure Charter Boats, who shocked me with stories of violent storms and deadly shipwrecks in the Lakes’ waters.

“How many people, on average, do you think survived, per wreck?” he asked me.

“Twenty,” I flat-out guessed.

He smirked and shook his head of floppy hair. “One,” he said. “One person, per wreck. On average.”

I was working on a story for VITAL Source (today’s ThirdCoast Digest) and I had no idea lake wrecks were remarkable, let alone abundant, so Rick sent me off to work on my story with an armful of books, site maps and a list of phone numbers for other local wreck divers, some of them legendary. Even more surprising to me than the low rate of survival on Great Lakes wrecks was the fact that people actually get into the limb-numbing waters and stay in it for hours to hang out with some zebra mussel-covered boat frames, but of course, as any wreck diver will tell you, the Great Lakes offer some of the best diving in the world, because the wrecks are so well-preserved by the low temperatures on the lake beds and the lack of corrosive salt. Some divers still hunt for treasure, too, and although they are not legally allowed to take silver egg-cups, musical instruments or fine china from a wreck site, many of them do anyway, following that ageless law of the sea: “If I don’t take it, it’s just going to rot down there.”

After I turned in my story, my editor rewrote my headline and all of my subheads which, to his credit, were probably not great in the first place, BUT: to replace my anemic header copy, he chose quotes from the lyrics of the Gordon Lightfoot song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and I was livid.

“The Fitz sank in Lake Superior,” I told him. “This is a story about wrecks in Lake Michigan.

“Yeah, but it’s the only Great Lakes shipwreck people know about,” he said. “And it’s a good song.”

edmund fitzgerald wreck map

People are still surprised to learn that the Edmund Fitzgerald, although it was the latest and largest Great Lakes shiprweck and the only one so far commemorated in a contemporary folk song, was not, by far, the deadliest disaster. Thousands of ships and more than a thousand lives have been lost on the lakes since Rene La Salle’s fur ship Le Griffon sank in Lake Huron in 1679, many of them killing hundreds of people. (La Salle himself was not on the boat; he took the voyage from Green Bay to Niagra by canoe.)

old mariners church

At 11 a.m. this Sunday, November 8, the Mariner’s Church in Detroit will hold its annual Great Lakes Memorial service in remembrance of the Edmund Fitzgerald (which sank on November 10, 1975, en route from northern Wisconsin to Zug Island, drowning all 29 men on board) and all of the lives lost on our inland seas.

The Mariner’s Church is the oldest structure on the riverfront, commissioned in 1842 by Julia Anderson, the widow of Colonel John Anderson, who commanded a regiment in the War of 1812. Julia specified a stone church that would last the ages and forever offer a free pew anywhere in the church to anyone who wanted to worship, especially sailors, who were marginalized in civil society at the time. Old Mariner’s also served as an important stop on the underground basement; refugees snuck through a tunnel in the basement to the waterfront and thereon across the river to Canada. (The Mariner’s Church website offers a thorough history with a great photo gallery recommended for further reading.)

There are dozens of books about Great Lakes wrecks, published mostly by small regional presses and written largely in a swashbuckling narrative style that sacrifices historical detail for suspenseful flair. They’re delightful nonetheless, and since it’s worth remembering at least one fateful night that didn’t sink the Fitz, here’s an excerpt about the sinking of the sidewheel steamer Atlantic, which sank in Lake Erie en route from Detroit to Buffalo in 1852.

atlantic steamer

From  Great Stories of the Great Lakes by Dwight Boyer (1966):

The Atlantic, back on her Detroit-Buffalo course after a stop at Erie, Pennsylvania, was steaming slowly through a heavy fog in the dark early-morning hours of August 19, 1852. Pacing the wheelhouse sleeplessly as the ship’s bell tolled out warning clangs at regular intervals, Captain J. Byron Pettey was grumbling to the wheelsman about the vessel’s overcrowded condition. There had been more than the normal complement of passengers at Detroit, about three hundred in all, and a great tonnage of freight. Despite this, the Atlantic was committed to stop at Erie to pick up two hundred Norwegian immigrants, bound for Quebec. But the captain had been obliged to leave seventy-five of them on the wharf — there just wasn’t room for them. as it was, those taken aboard were bedded down on the hurricane deck, on the forepeak of and in the companionways. Their trunks, boxes and bundles — their sole wordly possessions — were piled all over the ship. Adding to the Captain’s worries was $36,000 in American Express Company gold, reposing in the purser’s safe.

… There was a flurry of shouted orders, a hasty clamoring of steam whistles, a great clanking of metal as the ship’s big walking-beam engine thrashed violently astern and finally, a hollow rumbling as the Atlantic was rammed forward of the port wheel by the propeller steamer Ogdensburg!

Like two dogs that have tangled viciously but briefly and then backed of to survey the damage wrought, the ships drifted apart after the collision, neither, apparently, seriously holed. But minutes later a begrimed and frightened fireman sought out the Captain to report that the Atlantic was looding below with water spurting up through the engine-room gratings. Captain Pettey gave the “abandon ship” order and the crew began their orderly routine of lowering boats and assigning seats. But the terrified Norwegians, who understood no English, panicked at the shouted orders and began to jump overboard. By now the water had reached the fires and huge clouds of steam began spurting up from the skylights and companionways. In this eerie scene of disaster the Atlantic made her final plunge, leaving the surface of the lake cluttered with wreckage, trunks and drowning passengers … almost 300 people, many of them hapless immigrants, either went down with the ship or drowned while waiting rescue. The Atlantic went to the bottom some four miles off Long Point in 155 feet of water.

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