The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Detroit Post and Tribune (Detroit, MI), June 3, 1880

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Washington, June 2. - Mr. Townsend of Ohio has written a very elaborate and interesting report, opposing the construction of a bridge across the Detroit river at the city of Detroit. The report has not been formally adopted by the committee, but Mr. Townsend was instructed to prepare the report in accordance with their views. The committee are of the opinion that any bridge, even were it built in accordance with the limitations suggested by the board of engineers, would seriously, if not effectually, obstruct navigation of Detroit's straits, and the solution of the question will be found in


under the bed of the river, which can be constructed at a reasonable cost, affording ample relief for the present and future wants of this class of transportation. It is shown that a tunnel could be built about as cheap as a drawbridge, and would be more permanent. Mr. Townsend has collected some very interesting figures, showing the difference between railroad traffic across and railroad traffic through the straits. The stream of railroad commerce by ferry across the straits in 1879, represented an aggregate of 300,000 freight cars, which, if full freighted, would carry 3,600,000 tons of merchandise; 12,500 passenger cars, carrying 162,500 passengers, and 1,200 baggage cars. There was, during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1879,


of 9,765 steamers, 6,827 schooners, 3,895 barges, 1,108 scows, 523 barks and 32 brigs, being 22,150 vessels, observed going up and down between the lakes. The number of tons thus transported through the straits by American vessels during the season of 1879 is stated at actually 12,000,000 tons. But this does not take into consideration the tens of thousands of smaller vessels and their cargoes, not the Canadian tonnage, not the many immense timber rafts floating down. The register of the United States treasury department shows that 3,087 steamers, propellers, tow barges and schooners, with an aggregate tonnage of 587,376, are engaged in the carrying commerce of the lakes, the estimated value of such vessels being nearly $60,000,000, and their carrying capacity per single trip 969,739 tons. The Canadian tonnage of one province alone (Ontario), similarly engaged, is 219,684 tons. Deducting 47,557 tons not passing through the Detroit straits at all, the


(one trip), passing this gateway is at least 1,141,816 tons. Average season, the movement of schooners through the straits each way is 22 passages, and of steamers, propellers and tow barges, 28 passages. After deductions for short cargoes it appears the actual tonnage movement through the straits on these vessels reaches the vast aggregate of 19,991,982 tons in a season of 8 months. To this must be added the pinery tonnage of Michigan, which, in rafts and otherwise, amounts to 2,340,000 tons. The aggregate movement through the waters of the straits is, therefore, not less than 22,331,922 tons, and were the capacity for carrying reckoned as actual carrying, as on the statement of


these figures would have to be increased to 24,430,932 tons, thus showing a tonnage movement up and down the straits about seven and a half times as great as the railroad ferry movement across them. And it is this vast and constantly growing commerce of the lakes that railroad corporations, with their comparatively much smaller tonnage, would in all probability obstruct, cripple, and perchance destroy, by building a bridge across the straits.

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It was 50 years before the Detroit River was spanned, and then by an utomobile bridge. The 1,900 ft main span Ambassador Bridge (suspension) was not completed until 1929 and the 5200 ft Detroit-Windsor tunnel did not open until 1930. Click the following URL for glimpses of the bridge and its building:
The number of rail cars being ferried across the river at the early date of 1879 is almost incredible - more than 850 daily, while near 100,000 tons of waterborne freight passed on the river each day!
In the article the Detroit River is often referred to as "the straits," which, technically, it is. In fact, "de troit" is French for "the strait."
Date of Original:
June 3, 1880
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Dave Swayze
Copyright Statement:
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Detroit Post and Tribune (Detroit, MI), June 3, 1880