By Larry Jeddeloh / Special to The Detroit News
Detroit has taken on many nicknames including Motown, The Motor City, Hockeytown, Rock City or just simply “The D.” While we are proud of our automotive heritage and music history, there are lesser-known facts about Detroit.
Here we will explore six facts every Detroiter, historian or enthusiast should know.
1. First city to pave a concrete road
In 1909, Wayne County built the first mile of concrete highway in the world on Woodward Avenue between Six Mile and Seven Mile. Until then, a surfaced road was gravel, and often a horse was employed to pull a car out of the muddy muck. Road builders from near and far came to see how concrete stood up under the heavy traffic of that period. It cost $13,537, including $1,000 in state aid.
The success of this experiment led to other transportation firsts. In 1919 the nation’s first four-way, three-color traffic light was installed on the corner of Woodward and Michigan avenues. In 1930, the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel was completed, making it the first traffic tunnel between two nations.
2. Home to the ice cream soda
Long before A&W introduced its root beer float, the ice cream soda was being served to thirsty Detroiters along Boston Boulevard. Many historians claim Detroit’s own Fred Sanders, a confectioner and owner of The Pavilion of Sweets, first served the drink to two customers in 1876. A popular drink was the sweet cream soda. One day when the ice delivery failed to show, the cream went sour. Sanders instead mixed ice cream with the carbonated beverage and the drink was born.
By the 1880s, the most popular combination for this drink was ginger ale with ice cream, aka the Boston Cooler, which was named after the Boulevard, not the city. James Vernor’s drugstore, located a short distance away, made the unique combination seem very natural. Vernor’s happens to be our nation’s oldest soda.
3. A Prohibition pipeline
In January 1920, the era of Prohibition began in the U.S. The Detroit River, barely one mile across from Canada in some places, was a smuggler’s dream. Enterprising smugglers carried cargo beneath boats, rigged mechanical cables across the river and utilized old underground tunnels to transport their illegal bounty.
A number of government agencies, including the U.S. Customs Department, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Michigan State Police and the Detroit Police Department combined forces to patrol the waterways in an effort to stop the smuggling. Despite their efforts, it’s estimated that more than 75 percent of illegal liquor supplied to the U.S. during Prohibition entered the country by way of the Detroit River, Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River.
4. First ever news radio broadcast
Going on air in Aug. 20, 1920, 8MK, later renamed WWJ, is believed to be the first station to broadcast regular news reports. Financed by The Detroit News, 8MK was initially licensed to Michael DeLisle Lyons.
As was common in the early days of radio, the Scripps family asked Lyons to register the station in his name in case this rather new technology was only a fad. Almost 100 years later, both The Detroit News and WWJ Radio still operate.
5. Only floating post office in the U.S.
The J. W. Westcott II docks just south of the Ambassador Bridge along the western shore of the Detroit River. She is America’s only floating ZIP Code, 48222. Delivering more than 100 years of “mail-by-the-pail,” the J.W. Westcott Co. was originally formed in 1874 by Captain J.W. Westcott to inform passing vessels of changes in orders.
Today the 45-foot vessel’s duties include U.S. mail delivery, freight delivery, storage, forwarding, message service, and passenger service to and from the Port of Detroit.
6. Birthplace of techno music
Most people associate Detroit music with the Motown sound. But another sound that’s a true Detroit original is techno, which originated in the 1980s. Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson, a Detroit trio who were high school friends, are considered the godfathers of techno. Since the year 2000, every Memorial Day Weekend Detroit hosts an electronic music festival where DJs and partiers unite from all corners of the world to celebrate the beats.
Larry Jeddeloh is founder of The Institutional Strategist and author of the Market Intelligence Report.