Visiting Detroit, Michigan, over the Ambassador Bridge: an impressive, river skyline

State flag of Michigan
State flag of Michigan | Source
The Detroit Skyline from Windsor, Ontario
The Detroit Skyline from Windsor, Ontario | Source
The Ambassador Bridge from the Detroit side of the river
The Ambassador Bridge from the Detroit side of the river | Source
Map location of Detroit, Michigan
Map location of Detroit, Michigan | Source

Crossing the Ambassador Bridge over the Detroit River

It may be a truism to say that the best view of Detroit's waterfront is from Windsor, Ontario, and that the best view of the Windsor skyline is from Detroit, Michigan. But at some level, at least, there is some reality to it, in one way or another. In fact, if one considers the current, mutually stimulating economic relationship between Detroit and Windsor and their past historical relationship, there is something of a mirror/reflection paradigm that lies beyond the physical images of the impressive, riverfront skylines of these two cities, reflected in the Detroit River 's waters.

Reflections and realities

At a deeper level, this elusive relationship between image and reality may cause the observer to conclude that in truth these cities constitute a single entity. But whether or not this is actually true, each side of the Detroit River is informed by quite distinct historical realities, some of which may lie hidden, but they are there nevertheless, driven by territorial psychologies that were as locale-specific as they are geographically close.

Bordering and perceptions

At Detroit, the border of Michigan with Ontario is clear cut, since the Detroit River runs in between. Michigan is definitely Midwest, and some of Michigan's other borders, however, have not been so clear cut. From 1805 to 1837, Michigan was a US Territory. In 1837, Michigan achieved statehood as part of a deal under the grim Missouri Compromise whereby Michigan would be a free state in counterbalance to Arkansas, admitted to the Union in 1836 as a slave state. It is thus sobering to consider how the admission to the Union of even a northern state such as Michigan was bound up with the repercussions of the slavery issue. While neighbouring Ohio achieved statehood as early as 1803, other issues specific to Michigan delayed its admission to the Union, including the fact that Ohioans, already in the Union, claimed the Toledo Strip, also claimed by Michiganders. Following the border skirmishes known as the Toledo War, just before the admission of Michigan to statehood, the southern border was fixed to the exclusion of the Toledo Strip, in return for Michigan being granted the Upper Peninsula (1). Despite the War of 1812, it has been fortuitous that the location of the river boundary between Detroit, Michigan and Windsor, Ontario, has not been subject to serious controversy over most of the past two centuries.

19th and early 20th century issues

This is not to say, however, that the border has not played an interesting, crucial and at times even bizarre role in many of the events which have affected Detroit and its Ontarian neighbour, Windsor, and the surrounding area. In the War of 1812, American forces landed east of the Detroit River and successfully advanced some distance into Lower Canada, before withdrawing. Before the American Civil War, the Detroit/Windsor area saw its poignant share of fugitives brought by the Underground Railroad. The coming of the automobile industry during an era of high tariffs meant that a company such as Ford found it expedient to build factories on both sides of the Detroit River in order to avoid the tariff barrier.

Words and bullets from the Prohibition era

The Prohibition era, also, proved to be complex in local affairs. Prohibition in the US was not mirrored uniformly in Canada, but it was in effect in Ontario (in a manner of speaking, although for a while a somewhat canny Ontario government was happy to allow Ontario distilleries to manufacture their product for export 'somewhere else'). This exhibition of subtle governance was arguably a recipe for conflict in places such as the Windsor/Detroit area. Meanwhile, the Attorney General of Ontario appointed The Reverend J. O. L. Spracklin of Windsor to his Prohibition enforcement team. The rhetorically intense Spracklin, whose career somewhat resembled that of Texan pastor J. Frank Norris (later minister at Temple Baptist Church, Detroit), then proceeded to use assistants of muscular repute in his pursuit of liquor traders. On August 27, 1920, the cruiser Eugenia was halted in the Detroit River after being fired upon by The Reverend J. O. L. Spracklin's speedboat; many arrests followed amidst accusations of whiskey smuggling. In October 1920 Mrs. Spracklin narrowly escaped death under a hail of bullets, in unclear circumstances. In November 1920, The Reverend J. O. L. Spracklin shot and killed an opponent — as did later The Reverend J. Frank Norris of Fort Worth, Texas. Like Norris, Spracklin was acquitted of ensuing charges, in controversial trial circumstances, by presumably pious, teetotalling juries. Whereupon The Reverend J. O. L. Spracklin decamped to the Michigan side of the river and continued his brand of ministerial activities under the auspices of the Anti-Saloon League (2).

Memories of the Detroit/Windsor border in the 1920s are thus redolent of an era somewhat informed by vigorous discourse and thuggish enforcement methods.

A recurring moral?

The recurring moral for a border community such as Detroit/Windsor, in relation to both automobile manufacturing and wider issues, seems to be: since nature abhors a vacuum, similar measures in place on both sides of the Detroit River tend to work more effectively.

The Ambassador Bridge

In addition to the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, completed in 1930, is the Ambassador Bridge, which also links Detroit with Windsor.

This bridge was erected from 1927 to 1929. On completion, it had the longest suspended central span in the world.

Worth seeing

Among examples of noted ecclesiastical architecture of Detroit is the 1886 Gothic Revival Ste. Anne de Détroit church, with its tall, twin spires.

The Detroit riverfront contains a number of impressive skyscrapers; these include:

The GM Renaissance Center complex, which includes the central Detroit Marriott, at 230 metres, built in 1977, the tallest building in Michigan; One Detroit Center , built 1991-1993, with its Flemish-inspired neo-Gothic spires; the Penobscot Building , erected in 1928. Various of these skyscrapers bear testimony to the strength of the financial sector in the city and the abiding presence and great importance of Detroit's automotive industry.

The Detroit Historical Museum, in the city's Cultural Center district, was founded in 1928, and is one of the oldest and largest metropolitan history museums in the United States. This Museum is governed by the Detroit Historical Society, which is also responsible for the Dossin Great Lakes Museum at Detroit's Belle Isle.

The 1886 Michigan Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument was built to commemorate local contributors to the Civil War.

Dearborn (distance: 13.8 kilometres) The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village contain copious memories of, and educational resources about, the history of the Ford Motor Company and its founder; the Fairlane Mall is a well-appointed, local retail hub.

Monroe (distance: 63.1 kilometres); here may be seen the George Armstrong Custer Equestrian Monument, sculpted by Edward Clark Potter, dating from 1910, which commemorates a local figure whose boyhood home Monroe was. There are various, distinguished buildings in Monroe, which include the 1918 Norman Towers, formerly Hall of the Divine Child. Also contained in Monroe is Sterling State Park, which is the only State Park on the Michigan shores of Lake Erie.

Toledo , Ohio (distance: 95.4 kilometres), known as the Glass City. Included in interesting sights at Toledo are historic Fort Meigs and the Toledo Museum of Art. The Maumee River estuary provides fine opportunities for birdwatching.

Port Huron , Michigan (distance: 100.5 kilometres); at the southern end of Lake Huron, Fort Huron has the historic Fort Gratiot Light, which was the state's first lighthouse, built in 1829, when Michigan was still a Territory; it now belongs to Fort Huron Museum.

Windsor , Ontario, Canada (distance: 3.0 kilometres), across the Ambassador Bridge from Detroit, has various distinguished, historic buildings; these include:

The Duff Baby House, originally a late 18th century fur trading post;

The 1812 François Baby House, at which Windsor's Community Museum is now based;

Mackenzie Hall was originally a courthouse and is now a Cultural Centre; it was built in Classical Revival style in 1855/56 by Alexander Mackenzie, later Canadian Prime Minister from 1873 to 1878.

Dieppe Gardens commemorate Canadian losses from the Essex-Kent Scottish Regiment during the ill-fated Dieppe Raid of 1942, during World War Two.

Notes

(1) In her simple yet brilliant book, Quilt of States, Adrienne Yorinks and her project collaborators demonstrate clearly and often poignantly the various competing factors which, state by state, led to the admission of each component to membership of the Union. (Adrienne Yorinks et al., Quilt of States: Piecing Together America, Washington, DC: National Geographic, 2005)

(2) While, even on the Michigan side of the Detroit River, the subsequent reputation of The Reverend J. O. L. Spracklin did not fully recover from the controversies outlined above, yet The Reverend J. Frank Norris succeeded in finding a normative replacement for the role of liquor in his ontology of negation: communism. Norris thus contributed a particular flavour to a considerable, emerging body of anti-Communist discourse, and exercised a profound influence on seminarian John Birch, and on the Bircher climate in Dallas, Texas, and beyond, upon which Arthur J. Schlesinger, Jr., and others, have commented. See also: Robert Bothwell, A Short History of Ontario , Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, Ltd., 1986, p. 126; Arthur M. Schlesinger, A Thousand Days: John F. Kennedy in the White House, London, Great Britain: Mayflower Bell, 1965, p. p. 778-782.

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How to get there: Airlines serving Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, include Continental Airlines, which flies from New York Newark and Chicago O'Hare, and Air Canada, which flies from Toronto Pearson. Car rental is available at Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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