While on the good ole Internets researching information for another article I took a side trip to Pasty.com which focuses attention on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, particularly The Copper Country in the northwest corner. Every Sunday the site offers a Shoebox Memory where the owner or one of many fans summit a photo from the past and visitors comment on the recollections stirred up. Today’s submission a video of Michigan Outdoors a television show I loved as kid stirred the memory bucket and directed me in a roundabout way to something completely different two places in Detroit of great interest.
After typing into a favorite search engine “ Michigan Outdoors” I came across Pinterest which someone had submitted, setup, or however this is done pictures of Detroit and surrounding suburbs dating from the 1980’s, 70’s, 60’s, and earlier touching off that “I am going home today” feeling. I smiled inside as I clicked my way down memory lane. One of the photographs was of humorous weather man Sunny Eliot who I grew up watching as he mixes jokes with the forecast such as: “The winds are blowing so fast it is like trying to thread a sewing machine in use,” others of shopping malls still in use, the drugstore chain my father worked for, a radio station out of Windsor, Canada with their call tag CKLW “In the Motor City,” and some of buildings stretching into the Michigan sky. Not sure why but two places that Detroit centers on, Grand Circus Park and Campus Martius, came to mind, two places I recall hearing Mom and Dad often talk of. Checking another favorite website, Shorpy.com where the owner publishes mainly black and white photographs of yesteryear dating from 1860’s up into the 1960’s, I type into the search Grand Circus Park and Campus Martius and up pops numerous photos of these historic parks between the years 1900 to 1919. After a fire in 1805 leveled Detroit rebuilding began in 1807 with Judge Augustus Woodward, a friend of Thomas Jefferson and the first practicing lawyer in Washington, was appointed as territorial judge in the fledging Michigan territory and began designing the new street plan like that of Washington D.C. with wide avenues and traffic circles. Looking from a bird’s eye view Grand Circus Park and Campus Martius are the center of a giant wheel and avenues Woodward, Michigan, Grand River, Fort, Gratiot, and Jefferson extend out from it’s center like spokes on a wheel, a car wheel, the Motor City.
Grand Circus Park,established in 1850, connects Detroit’s theatre venues with the financial sector and hosts a healthy dose of history as General George Armstrong Custer read a eulogy to mourn the death of President Abraham Lincoln here. Architect Henry Bacon, creator of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., designed the Russell Alger Memorial Fountain (Alger was the 20th governor and one time senator of Michigan also served under President William McKinley as Secretary of War) in Grand Circus Park. The fountain has a classic Roman figure by American sculptor Daniel French; this guy sculpted the statue of Abraham Lincoln that sits inside the Lincoln Memorial. There is also a fountain for Thomas Edison and four-term mayor of Detroit, 24th Governor of Michigan in the late 19th century Hazen S. Pingree.
The park in the photograph, frozen in time, depicts hustle and bustle and that this was once a place to meet others on a corner to gossip or on a park bench under a shady tree or spread out on the lawn to read the days headlines. From the park it is just a short walk down Woodward Avenue to the Detroit River and by the looks of a 1919 photograph there are plenty of distracts along the way.
A few blocks to the south is Campus Martius with its wide avenues, more open than Grand Circus Park, offered plenty of room to stroll and gather with only horse-drawn carriages and the Interurban to get in the way.
The focal point here is the Soldier and Sailors monument erected after the Civil War which still stands today but something of greater interest I discovered while looking over these photographs “Moon Towers.” These towers consist of six arc-lamps suspended 165’ above the street and so
bright several city blocks are illuminated by one tower with a total of 122 of these lighting up 21 square miles for night-time wandering. Moon Towers were popular from 1882 to about 1917 then came that new invention the incandescent street light dooming these arc lamps pushing them into the back pages of history. Today the towers are still in use but one must travel to Austin, Texas as this is the only known city in the world having them. In fact the movie Dazed and Confused, which takes place in Texas, has a party scene involving one of these.
Checking out a 1917 photograph shows a busy Woodward and Fort Street area jammed packed with pedestrians along the sidewalk with people crammed trolleys moving through Campus Martius men in their 42nd Street Skimmers dodging them. Although no longer the spacious meeting area for people that covered several acres, today Campus Martius is a busy 2.5 acre park downtown hosting music, yoga, food, Christmas Tree lighting, and gets transformed into a busy ice rink bigger than that in Rockefeller Square, New York. The park has always been designated the “point of origin” determining Detroit’s coordinate road system or in other words the city’s roads are based off this spot so seven miles to the north is Seven Mile Road, eight miles is Eight Mile Road, then Nine Mile Road, Ten, Eleven and so on up into northern Macomb county, a base for other streets to branch from. Campus Martius is Latin for Field of Mars and in Ancient Rome was the site of the altar of Mars and the temple of Apollo once a military exercise ground located along the Tiber River floodplain gradually larger public buildings, theatres, gymnasiums, temples as well as the Pantheon (still in existence) were constructed. Campus Martius Detroit began as a military training ground, was filled in due to low,marshy ground, and eventually built upon as well and used as a public gathering place. Eventually both Grand Circus Park and Campus Martius gave way to development and increased motorized vehicle usage shrinking the overall size to what they are today. What I’d give to own a DeLorean time machine to visit both places in their heydays, eh?