Life | Locations

In search of Detroit's lost neighborhood

It’s now Roosevelt Park, but once it was home to a lively Detroit working class community, pushed out to make way for the train station

By Bill Loomis / Special to The Detroit News

The late fall day is miserable: dark clouds, 44 degrees, blustery wind, and icy, sideways rain.

A man makes his way across Roosevelt Park in Detroit’s Corktown and calls, “Have you found a T-Rex yet?”

The student excavators laugh, “Not yet.”

These 10 or so students, both graduates and undergraduates, are from Assistant Professor Krysta Ryzewski’s Archaeological Field Methods course at Wayne State University.

In the shadow of Detroit’s famous ruin, the Michigan Central Depot, this small group is excavating a former thriving neighborhood that once occupied the park and adjacent areas; in all, about 20 blocks of streets and alleys that ran from 15th to 20th streets and from the train station to Michigan Avenue. Now all gone.

“We are currently conducting excavations of a 19th century neighborhood in Detroit’s Roosevelt Park, which was demolished to make the entrance for the train station in the 1910s,” said Ryzewski. “We are trying to understand who these people were who lived here.

“Most of the residents are unrecorded; they are not in any record. Many were working class, although not all. There were some medical doctors in this neighborhood.”

Michigan Central Railroad (MCRR) bought up about 300 homes, boarding houses, and other structures in the area. Many homes were torn down, and others were moved to new locations, such as Delray.

Roosevelt Park and the area of the station itself had a grid of streets and alleys that has completely disappeared. The Wayne State anthropology students utilize a detailed street map originally from an insurance company that made a record of all the neighborhood structures and used it to make value estimates of the neighborhood in 1911.

A copy of the map is kept in a ring binder and protected in plastic. It is always near Ryzewski as she and her graduate assistants check it regularly. It shows the streets, houses, small hotels, alleys and other structures in the alleys such as stables, outhouses and garbage dumps.

They use the map to get their bearings and locate streets and alleys, which they mark with little blue flags. They know from the map that Dalzelle Street had houses and a brick building labeled “hotel.” In a city directory published a bit later it was called a “boarding house.”

“We think it became a boarding house when the train station was being built to house construction workers from the station,” Ryzewski explains. They also identify commercial structures through archived city directories, government records and newspaper articles of the times.

Mixed neighborhood

The people in the neighborhood were from mixed nationalities. (Not all were Irish despite popular attitudes about Corktown.) Many were immigrants from Germany and Malta.

The removal of houses and other structures began in 1911 and continued for nearly 10 years to make room for the train station, built in mid-1912 to 1913. In 1915-1918 six homeowners refused to move and held out against Michigan Central Railroad offers. Based on home values of the time the railroad bids were considered fair prices, but the owners held out to remain in their homes.

The railroad hired a local real estate agent, M. Scanlon, to purchase the houses and handle all the paperwork. He grew up in the neighborhood and after 25 years in the real-estate business on the west side (his office was at Michigan Avenue and Grand Boulevard) he knew many of the home owners personally. A newspaper article from 1913 described the process to purchase homes, which was one of the biggest real-estate deals in the state’s history at that time:

“The section wasn’t known as a very desirable one but for residence purposes those who lived in the neighborhood, loved their homes… [Scanlon] knew every foot of property as well as the people. … Of all the lots that were bought only four were vacant. Some of the families with whom Mr. Scanlon had to dicker had lived in their homes nearly forty years or more.

“Mr. Scanlon recalled some of these incidents with much amusement. He told of an old Irish lady on whom he had to call more than two-score of times. ‘It was a great battle of Irish wit and blarney.’ The lady smiled every time that Mr. Scanlon called. But at last he got her to look at the price from his angle, and the deal was closed.” — Detroit Free Press, Dec. 31, 1913

In 1919 the final home was torn down, six years after the train station opened. In all about 1,000 people were moved out.

According to Ryzewski an entire industry grew from the difficult task of moving homes and buildings. House movers had to avoid trees and contact street car linemen to take down power lines which ran down the major streets.

World’s tallest train station

At the time of its opening on Dec. 26, 1913, the Michigan Central Depot was the tallest train station in the world. Roosevelt Park was developed as the grand entrance and drop-off area for travelers who arrived on one side of the station by interurban or street car and the other side by taxi or personal cars.

The station was located away from the center city, which was typical of the day, and it was hoped it would provide an incentive to develop additional large buildings in the area. But that never happened, so it remained somewhat isolated from the downtown area.

Train travel in the United States peaked during the World War I years. At that time the train station was used by 4,000 travelers per day. Three thousand people worked in the offices above the station, most of them MCRR employees.

The Wayne State dig began in 2011 and will continue through next year. Each year the students begin in September and continue digging, screening dirt and exhuming articles for eight weeks.

“For every one day of digging it requires seven days of cleaning, identifying, recording and classifying items,” Ryzewski said.

Finished articles are displayed in Wayne State’s Gordon L. Grosscup Museum of Anthropology, located in Old Main.

“You cannot begin to dig until your paper work is completed!” Ryzewski tells a student.

The rain is steady and cold.

One group of three students is digging up the remains of the old hotel in a small 3 foot by 5 foot trench, finding brick, mortar, pipe and nails.

Digging in this trench and screening soil is Carmen Abrego, an anthropology undergrad. The students encounter a large rusted pipe that runs diagonally across the end of the trench. It’s a nuisance but they must now dig around it. They use common garden shovels and drop soil onto a screen, which is shaken to reveal small items.

Down the “street” and back about 50 feet to the parallel alley, another group of three students is digging another trench; outhouses, horse stables and garbage dumps were located in the alleys. There was no trash pick-up in those days, which is good if you’re an archeologist.

This group has dug a trench that is about three feet wide, six feet long and three to four feet deep. The sides are straight and squared and one can see rusted metal spikes, nails, shards of broken glass and a square bottle sticking out.

Ryzewski has told them to not dig into the side of the trench to remove the items; the changes in soil on the walls of the trench are a key to dating the items they find. This group uses what looks like cement trowels to carefully scrape away dirt and remove items that might be damaged by a shovel.

1,000 items catalogued

A student in the trench, Kathleen Mutch, is older than the others and is a history/anthropology major. She also is on the Board of the Oakland County Historical Commission and is experienced in historical preservation. This is not her first dig and she enjoys explaining what she is doing since it gives her a break from digging and kneeling on the cold, hard soil.

“It’s hard on my knees,” she says, smiling. But she clearly loves history and loves what she is doing.

“We try to keep the floor of the trench level and when the soil changes, we stop to record the depth and other observations. Right now we have hit a level of clay.”

Anthropology graduate student Shawn Fields takes items from Mutch to place in Ziploc bags. The third student who is also busy helping is Kimberly Shay, a graduate student whose field is archeology.

Since 2011 more than 1,000 articles have been catalogued from the dig. In this trench, which was a dump, the students describe some of their findings.

“We are exhuming a lot of children’s things, such as marbles and ceramic doll parts,” Mutch says. “At one time we found two small tobacco pipes then realized they were children’s toy pipes from Cracker Jack toys and could date them to 1912.”

Much of what they bring up is nails, glass shards, hooks and ceramic pieces. This day they have found an intact medicine bottle. Because it was machine molded, not blown by hand, they can date it.

They also check the spout of the bottle to date it. Typically a medicine bottle has the local pharmacy name molded into the side; one bottle came from a pharmacy the team found in a city directory from 1910 which was located at Michigan Avenue and 13th Street, a street that is no more but was a few blocks from Roosevelt Park.

They find clay pipe stems which are older than most of the items they dig up. Many taverns or saloons provided them to guests — a cheap, disposable smoking pipe. Men snapped off the stem-tips before lighting up.

Kimberly Shay explains that to date a clay pipe stem tip they check the size of the stem hole with a set of drill bits, because the hole dimension changed over time. Pipe makers got better at boring the pipe stem so they could bore a larger hole without splitting the stem; therefore, a smaller stem hole means an older pipe.

“This one dates from 1880, I think,” she estimates, looking it over. “We examine them back at the museum.”

They find a fragment of meat bone — the three guess it is beef, a common item since it was a garbage dump. From such fragments they will check and see if the meat was butchered — sawed or cleaved — to get insights on diet and how well people ate.

Mutch unearths a small white ceramic bowl which is completely intact and an intact blue glass bottle. This is a good day and Ryzewski takes pictures of each item before they are placed into Ziploc bags and set carefully into lidded plastic tubs. They commonly find fragments of cloth and leather. Not long ago they found a man’s shoe.

Liquor disguised as medicine

Another medicine bottle unearthed this day has the source molded into the side: “Dr. J.W. Kermott, Detroit.” They have found these more than once, Ryzewski says, examining the bottle; they are from the 1880s. “Medicine in those days was made at the local drug store and contained mostly liquor. Sometimes babies were given morphine.”

Dr. Kermott’s office was at 208 Woodward. One of many testimonial advertisements for his medicine in the 1880s read:

“I wish through the press to say I have been a sufferer all my life from nervous troubles and many times given up to die by several of the best physicians in our country, also pronounced incurable by many others. I feel that I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. J.W. Kermott and Company for their valuable remedies. … No one need despair. There is hope for all!” — Detroit Free Press, 1883

Along the walls of the trench it is easy to see that the first 7 inches are dark brown, which is top soil. This is followed by a band with white powder mixed in. “These are ashes,” Mutch explains. “It tells us when the dump was burned.”

Ryzewski is a “historical archaeologist,” which means she works from written records, as prehistorical archaeologists do not. Previously from Brown University, Ryzewski has been at Wayne State for one year.

“Detroit has long had a strong interest in urban history. There is a wealth of material from across the city and from different eras of Detroit history,” she says.

Ryzewski is the first archaeologist on the Anthropology faculty whose expertise is historical archeology. Her colleague, Tom Killion, began the Roosevelt Park site and continues to be actively involved in Corktown archaeology.

And if you are a jogger who runs through Roosevelt Park and might worry about falling into a deep trench with rusted nails and shards of glass, relax — at the end of the semester Ryzewski calls in the back hoes and fills up the trenches.

Bill Loomis is the author of the book “Detroit’s Delectable Past,” available throughout the Metro Detroit area, and through online retailers and Kindle.