Detroit's street names honor early leaders

Trolley cars, automobiles and pedestrians clog Woodward Avenue at Monroe in 1917. Monroe Avenue was named for President James Monroe.

Local history and legend is seen all over the map of Detroit, in the name of streets and buildings. Most of the street names are biographical in their importance, for in them are found the names of the earlier settlers, farmers, merchants, mayors, and statesmen of long ago.

Some of the names of the earliest streets of Detroit are obscure in origin, but most will tell their own story of the founders and builders of Detroit.

Michigan territorial judge Augustus B. Woodward was the author of the plan to rebuild Detroit after a fire in 1805 nearly destroyed it.

An artist’s rendering of Judge Augustus B. Woodward, who designed Detroit’s diagonal streets and circular plazas.

The Woodward Plan was modeled after Washington, D.C. It called for 200-foot-wide boulevards to run north and south and east and west at right angles. Diagonal streets running between the boulevards would intersect at the same points, forming circular plazas, or “circuses,” much as a hub of a wagon wheel does with its spokes. Disputes modified the plans a bit, but remnants of the original plan are still visible in Detroit today.

Woodward Avenue was named after Woodward, who, in addition to being a judge, was president of one of Detroit’s earliest banks and a colonel in the First Regiment of the Territorial Militia. He insisted that the street was not named in his honor but simply because it “ran towards the woods.”

John R, Elizabeth and Columbia streets are named for personal reasons. John R. Williams was a landowner , merchant and bank president in the first half of the 19th century, who named the street after himself. Baptized John Williams, he adopted the letter “R” to distinguish himself from another John Williams in Detroit. Some of his business ventures, such as publishing an early newspaper, included his uncle, Joseph Campau. Williams was a general in the Territorial Militia, a member of the board of trustees at the “new” University of Michigan and the first elected Detroit mayor in 1824. Williams named Elizabeth after his daughter, and Columbia after a street where he lived in Albany, New York.

Witherall was named after James Witherall, who succeeded Frederick Bates as one of the first Michigan territorial judges in 1808. He was a major in the War of 1812 and commanded General William Hull’s army in Detroit. He was Territorial Secretary in 1828 and prompted the establishment of a public school system.

William Woodbridge was the second governor of Michigan and a U.S. Senator. He gave his name to Woodbridge Avenue and selected the name of Griswold Avenue to honor a Connecticut governor.

Abbott Street was opened in 1835 and was named for James Abbott Jr., born in Detroit in 1776. His father, James Abbott Sr., came to Detroit in 1768 and organized a fur trading partnership with several local men. James Jr. was educated in Montreal, and followed his father into the fur business. His first Detroit store was near the southwest corner of Woodward Avenue and Woodbridge. He also was postmaster from 1806 to 1831. His home, store, post office and fur warehouse were all located below Woodbridge on Woodward.

Abbott was also the first to grow tomatoes in the area.

Randolph Street was named after John Randolph, the Virginia statesman and orator in the early 1800s.

Brush was named after Edmund Askin Brush, son of Elijah Brush, who was a leading lawyer and Detroit’s second appointed mayor. Brush Street was also the Brush property boundary. Edmund studied law, as did his father before him. He was Secretary to the Governor and judge of the Michigan Territory in 1823, a private secretary to Lewis Cass in 1826, a court recorder, a member of the City Planning Commission and a police commissioner.

Beaubien and St. Antoine originated from the two Beaubien brothers, Lambert and Antoine, each of whom received half of the family farm after the death of their father, Jean Baptiste Beaubien, one of the first white settlers on the river, opposite Fort Dearborn. Lambert was a colonel in the First Regiment of Detroit’s militia. He fought in the War of 1812. Antoine chose to name his property after his patron saint, St. Antoine. Antoine was a lieutenant colonel in the Michigan Territorial Militia. He donated a chunk of his land for the Sacred Heart Academy, once located at the corner of Jefferson and St. Antoine.

Griswold was named by Michigan Territorial governor William Woodbridge in honor of Governor Roger Griswold of Connecticut.

Park Avenue received its name in 1835 because of its starting point at Grand Circus Park.

Fort and Shelby streets were named after Fort Shelby, which was located there. The western point of Fort Street was opened and named in 1827 when the remains of Fort Shelby were razed. The fort was named after Gov. Isaac Shelby of Kentucky, who aided Michigan in the War of 1812 with troops from his home state.

In 1908, work begins on the new Grand River Avenue at West Chicago Boulevard. The road was so named because it led westward to the Grand River in Grand Rapids.

     Clifford has a bit of humor attached to its name. Thomas Cliff owned the only home in this area of the city and ran a tavern where the David Whitney Building now stands. A creek crossed the road near the tavern and overflowed onto the road in the spring. When the festive set of Detroit wanted some merry-making, they usually went up to Cliff’s place and crossed over the creek by means of stepping stones. When the roisterers returned they had great difficulty keeping on the stones, so they would return to town wet to their knees (sometimes even elbows). The townspeople referred to the crossing as “Cliff’s ford.” It first appeared on a map published by John Farmer in 1835.

Washington Boulevard was originally named Washington Grand Avenue after General Washington, according to the Woodward Plan. In 1828 it was renamed Wayne after General Anthony Wayne, the American commanding officer at Detroit in 1796. The street was later renamed again after the first president.

Like a number of other streets located west of Woodward, Cass was once a farm boundary line. The Lewis Cass farm, purchased from the Macomb family, was one of the largest Detroit farms, the width of Cass to Third Street and north from the Detroit River to Grand Boulevard in length. The 500 acres bought for $12,000 and the subsequent growth of Detroit made Cass a very wealthy man.

Cass came to Detroit as a schoolmaster in the early 1800s and became a lawyer, a colonel in the militia, and a general in the U.S. Army.

In 1813 President James Madison appointed Cass the second governor of the Michigan territory, a post he held for 18 years. He became a U.S. Senator from Michigan in 1845. In 1848 he ran for president as a Democrat, but lost to Whig Zachary Taylor. He served in the Senate until 1857 and was President James Buchanan’s Secretary of State.

Cass Street was located immediately west of Fort Shelby, and after Cass the streets were named numerically First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, signifying their order west from the fort.

Atwater was named for Reuben Attwater (the spelling was different but early Detroiters didn’t seem to care) and because the street was “at the water.” Attwater was Secretary of the Michigan Territory in 1808 and was acting governor in the absence of Gov. William Hull in the 1800s.

William Woodbridge owned land west of the Cass farm and was active in early Detroit government. He was secretary of the Michigan Territory in 1814, a Michigan representative to Congress in 1819, territorial judge in 1827, governor of Michigan in 1839 and U.S. senator in 1841. His legacy is remembered in Woodbridge Street.

Jefferson Avenue was named for President Thomas Jefferson, who appointed the first Michigan territorial officials and was a good friend of Augustus Woodward. It was first surveyed in 1807 and named “Main Street,” but soon renamed for Jefferson. At its intersection with Griswold it passes through the heart of the old cemetery of St. Anne’s Church where the remains of Detroit’s earliest inhabitants are buried.

Joseph Campau was named for one of the wealthiest and best known citizens of Detroit. His grandfather came here with Cadillac, the founder of Detroit, and established what were afterwards known as James Campau, Chene and Poupard farms. Joseph Campau was a descendant of the third generation, born in Detroit in 1769. He opened a store on Atwater and became the first Detroit merchant to buy goods in Boston. He was the first real estate promoter of Detroit, who made a business of buying vacant lots and building homes on them to sell or rent.

Larned‘s namesake was General Charles Larned. He settled in Detroit after assisting General William Henry Harrison in ridding the town of the British in the War of 1812. He became a U.S. attorney in 1814 and served in local government.

Chandler Street was named for Zachariah Chandler, a U. S. senator, Detroit mayor and merchant.

Congress was named in honor of the 1826 Congress. In that year, Congress granted to Detroit the military reserve through which the street ran.

Most large U.S. cities have a street, park, or square bearing the name of the Revolutionary war hero Marquis de Lafayette. Detroit is no exception.

Macomb owes its name to the Macomb family, one of Detroit’s earliest settlers. They owned large parcels of land and at one time owned Hog Island, later named Belle Isle.

State Street was named in 1835, the year the State of Michigan was organized. The capitol was on the street until 1847, when it was moved to Lansing.

Cadillac Square and the street were named after Detroit’s founder, Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac.

Gratiot originally led to Fort Gratiot, near Port Huron. The fort was named after Colonel Charles Gratiot of General William Henry Harrison’s army.

Bagley Avenue commemorates John J. Bagley, who served two successive terms as Michigan governor from 1877 to 1881. Bagley made Detroit a chewing tobacco leader in the 1840s with Mayflower chewing tobacco. He was also the first president of Michigan Mutual Life Insurance in 1867, a bank trustee, and police commissioner in 1865.

Grand River was part of the original road that led west from Detroit to the Grand River at Grand Rapids.

Chandler is the namesake of Senator Zachariah Chandler, a leading merchant, former mayor of Detroit (1851) and founder of the Republican party. The Detroit News building on Lafayette was built on the site of his former home.

These are just some of the street names that were given by common consent and without official sanction. Today, street names are proposed by the City Planning Commission and approved by the City Council and mayor. The city still honors Detroit heroes by bestowing honary names on streets.

In the 1970s Twelfth Street was changed to Rosa Parks Boulevard, to honor the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement,” and Cherry Street was renamed Kaline Drive, in honor of Tigers great Al Kaline. More recently, Linwood Boulevard was called Elijah Muhammed Boulevard, after the former Nation of Islam leader, in one area, and C.L. Franklin Boulevard in another to commemorate the founder of New Bethel Baptist Church, the father of Aretha Franklin.

Whatever the name, the city’s streets are a visible outline of Detroit’s political, geographical and industrial history.

Jefferson Avenue at Rivard Street is seen 1878, when horse-drawn trolleys traveled on dirt roads. Rivard was named for Jean Baptiste Rivard, one of the earliest settlers of Detroit.


(This story was compiled using clip and photo files of the Detroit News.)
By Mary Bailey / The Detroit News