Road Trip: Following Fort Street’s history from Trenton to Detroit

If you’re ready for a straight shot of history, great eats and weird sights, fire up your ride and take a cruise down Fort Street, one of Michigan’s oldest state highways and, arguably, one of the most significant, diverse and radically changed radials you’ll have the pleasure to drive.

 

Fort Street, also known as M-85, starts downriver near Rockwood and Gibraltar Road. It stretches about 22 miles, passing through Trenton, Riverview, Southgate, Lincoln Park and Detroit, serving as the border of Detroit’s historic Delray neighborhood. At its north end, Fort finishes at Griswold Street in Detroit, one block west of Woodward Avenue.

 

From the suburbs to the city, Fort Street has enjoyed high society back in the day to low occupancy and extreme change as you see today. There are some stretches along the route that look like vast prairie land even though they are inside one of the most industrial cities in the world.

 

That’s because Fort Street in some ways is a symbol of all that Detroit and downriver has experienced in terms of its history as a military headquarters, its huge wealth, its urbanization, its economic challenges and, most recently, its rebirth as a trendy yet determined destination, full of strong personalities and innovation that makes Detroit and its neighboring cities fascinating places.

 

“Fort Street is a great example of the haphazard and unpredictable way that Detroit's street grid was laid out. It began as part of a hastily drawn survey that the city drew up to sell off a chunk of land it had obtained from the federal government. It grew in fits and starts, taking a century to reach its present length,” explains Paul Sewick, a Detroit history buff and the brains behind “Detroit Urbanism,” a website devoted to Metro Detroit’s roads, borders, and built environment.

 

“The look and use of the oldest parts of the street changed drastically throughout its history: from becoming a fashionable residential district after the Civil War, to serving as an industrial corridor by the beginning of the twentieth century, and to more recent decades marked by vacancies, demolitions, and adaptive reuse,” Sewick adds. “The roads of Metro Detroit are some of the best connections we have to its history, mainly because they're often the oldest remaining landmarks around.”

 

So let’s take a ride down Fort Street and see what we’ll find.

 

(If you want real insider baseball, M-85 in Detroit consists of West Fort from Woodward Avenue downtown to River Rouge and South Fort from River Rouge southward. This matters if you’re trying to find a specific street address or if you’re really into highway trivia.)

 

What's in a name?

 

Fort Street is named after a fort, natch. Depending on who you ask and the time in history, it was known as Fort Lernoult, Fort Detroit or Fort Shelby. The fort was located at what is now the intersection of Fort and Shelby streets. It is the second fort in the area now known as Detroit; the first was the one Antoine Cadillac built when he got here in 1701. The Fort Street fort, which the British built in 1778, was torn down around 1827.

 

What are the major landmarks?

 

There are a number of sights to see. There’s Woodmere Cemetery, one of the oldest and largest cemeteries in the city with famous permanent residents including Dexter M. Ferry of the seed company, David D. Buick of car fame, James Vernor of that fizzy ginger ale and the infamous Rose “Witch of Delray” Veres.

Woodmere Cemetery. Photo by David Lewinski.
There’s the historic Fort Street Presbyterian Church, first organized in 1849 and one of America’s best examples of Goth Revival architecture. If you like weird found art, be sure to look for “Transmission Man,” or the metal sculpture made out of truck parts and tools next to Arrow Trucks and Parts Co. at 2637 W. Fort.

Transmission man. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

Just who lived along Fort Street?

 

Just some of Detroit’s brightest luminaries. According to Detroit Urbanism and Sewich, “In the mid-nineteenth century, Fort Street found itself well-suited to become one of the city's most upscale neighborhoods. Only a new, broad and commanding avenue was appropriately scaled for the mansions to be constructed by Detroit's leading politicians and businessmen. A travel guide of the ‘western’ states, published in New York in 1871, noted in its section on Detroit: ‘West Fort Street is a broad and beautiful street, lined with elegant residences, among which are those of Senator Z[achariah] Chandler, governor Baldwin, James F. Joy, the railroad magnate, and other prominent men.’” Some homeowners along Fort near the Presbyterian church included Russell A. Alger and Theodore S. Buhl.

 

Where should I eat along the way?

 

There are three stops inside Detroit that offer food and great atmosphere. There’s the infamous Anchor Bar, where generations of Detroit News and Detroit Free Press reporters met to drink and debate the great issues of their day. There’s the Fort Street Galley, an upscale food hall at 160 W. Fort that features four unique restaurants; the Freep recently named it onto its Top 10 Best New Restaurants in Detroit. There’s also Johnny Noodle King, a Japanese-inspired restaurant that pays homage to founder Jacques Driscoll’s love of broth, noodles and ramen.

Anchor Bar. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

Driscoll was a devotee of Johnny Ham King, where its sandwiches had a special hold on Driscoll and friends. The Ham King was a tribute to the Albanian family that ran it, including its patriarch, Pete. “The guy made a mean ham sandwich,” Driscoll says, his mouth practically drooling from the memory. Driscoll, who was running the nearby Green Dot Stables, joked with Pete one day about selling the place to him – and Pete quickly agreed. Fast forward a few years, and Johnny Noodle King was born.

 

“It’s weird to have this little restaurant there between the trucking depots and industrial buildings,” Driscoll said. “But it’s a great size – it’s this little spot that is in an area that I love. … You feel like you’re in New York City when you’re inside but you are transported when you go outside. Part of the atmosphere is the surrounding area. You’re right there, practically under the Ambassador Bridge and a block away from the Detroit River.”

Johhny Noodle King. Photo by David Lewinski.

 

What’s new along Fort Street?

 

The answer to this one is a bit tricky. The biggest change along Fort likely is in Detroit, where the Gordie Howe International Bridge is being constructed. The project required the demolition of more than 200 buildings and removal of about 4,000 trees in its 160-acre site. As a result, “there continues to be a great deal of utility work being performed” along that stretch of M-85 or Fort Street, said Michigan Department of Transportation communications spokesperson Diane Cross.

 

That speaks to what Sewick mentioned earlier – there are decades of vacancies and demolitions along Fort Street. Some highlight new construction about to happen, like the bridge. Others highlight examples of blight remediation or, let’s face it, greed.

 

Some, like Johnny Noodle King’s Driscoll, mourn the loss of beautiful buildings, such as the one across from his restaurant. It was known as the Fleet Specialty Warehouse Company, and the three-story building marked “A.D. 1897” and “Jobbers Only,” had one of the most breathtaking views in Detroit, Driscoll said. It was torn down around 2014, demolished by the Detroit International Bridge Company, a part of the Moroun family’s enterprises.

 
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