History abounds at the corner of Detroit’s Woodward and Jefferson Avenue. Recently I spent a wonderful afternoon shooting pictures for my Civil War guide. I hadn’t been to Hart Plaza in years, but needed to visit this site for research.
You see, a significant event occurred at the foot of Woodward during the Civil War. The Philo Parsons, a packet steamer with regular runs between Detroit and Sandusky,Ohio, was docked near the foot of Woodward.
On September 19, 1864, Confederate agents disguised as regular passengers boarded the steamer and hijacked the vessel once it reached the open waters of Lake Erie. Their goal was to seize the U.S.S. Michigan, a Union warship stationed near Johnson’s Island, and free all the Confederate prisoners imprisoned on the island.
The Hiram Walker grocery store, a popular hangout of Ulysses. S. Grant, was located on the east side of Woodward just below Jefferson. Grant resided in Detroit from 1848 to 1851. At the time, he was an army lieutenant who commanded the old Detroit Barracks.
All Our Yesterdays: A Brief History of Detroit by Frank B. Woodford and Arthur M. Woodford (Wayne State University Press, 1969) reveals two humorous incidents surrounding Lieutenant Grant’s time in Detroit.
In the first incident, Grant slipped and fell on the icy sidewalk in front of the store belonging to Zachariah Chandler. Although he was unsuccessful in his attempt to sue the merchant, Grant must have liked Chandler. When he became president, Grant appointed Chandler secretary of interior.
In the second incident to merit press, Grant was fined for riding his horse too fast through the streets of Detroit. Authors of All Our Yesterdays opined:
“He might have been hurrying to the grocery store of Hiram Walker on the east side of Woodward just below Jefferson. It would not have been groceries the lieutenant was after, but another choice commodity distilled at the rear of the premises, which became world famous a few years later when Walker established a great distillery on the Canadian shore at Walkerville, now part of Windsor.”
Although I didn’t find any markers at Hart Plaza denoting the Philo Parson’s dock or Hiram Walker grocery store, I found the plaza filled with markers and monuments paying tribute to other aspects of Detroit’s rich history.
On the way to Hart Plaza, I snapped photos of the Spirit of Detroit statue taken during hockey playoff time. The statue is located outside the Coleman A. Young Building located at the NE corner of Woodward and Jefferson.
Another famous piece of art sits in the middle of Woodward and Jefferson. Sports Illustrated gifted the city of Detroit with a 24-foot sculpture depicting an arm and clenched fist as a memorial to the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time and hometown hero Joe Louis.
While Louis’ 1938 victory over Germany’s national hero, Max Schmeling, is often used to symbolize good prevails over evil – a black man defeats Hitler and the racist Nazi doctrine of Aryan supremacy – the statue has not been without controversy at home.
When the statue was first unveiled, many people were in an uproar. They believed the fist was a militant gesture symbolizing “black power.” As recently as 2004, two men were arrested for dousing the statue with white paint.
Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac landed at what is believed to be the foot of Woodward in 1701 and established Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit, the beginning of Detroit as we know it today.
The International Memorial to the Underground Railroad is an impressive work by sculptor Ed Dwight. The bronze and granite sculpture is dedicated to the slaves who traversed the secretive and treacherous trail in search of freedom and to those who helped them in their flight.
Called The Gateway to Freedom, the monument is symbolically perched at the edge of the Detroit River, representing the final steps to freedom.
The Tower of Freedom, a monument depicting two emancipated people being greeted by a Quaker Woman, stands across the river in Windsor, Ontario.
Hart Plaza also pays tribute to Detroit’s Motor City heritage. On June 16, 1903, Ford Motor Company was incorporated as an automobile manufacturer. The Articles of Incorporation were drawn up at the office of Alexander Y. Malcomson, who operated a coal yard at the site where the marker now stands.