June 11, 2010 by Amy Elliott Bragg
June 11, 1805: The fire
It’s the anniversary of Detroit’s Great Fire of 1805 — early Detroit’s defining moment. The fire destroyed the city nearly completely. After the city burned down, Father Richard (whose church, Ste. Anne’s, had just burned down for the second time in its amazing history) coined Detroit’s notorious motto: speramus meliora; resurget cineribus. We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes.
Writes Silas Farmer:
Prior to the fire of 1805, the town embraced an area of about twenty acres. Immediately after the fire, some of the inhabitants erected temporary dweelings in the midst of their former homes. Others determined to take possession of portions of the commons and build thereon.
William Hull, then Governor of the Territory (not yet a territory, actually; though an Act of Congress voted the Territory into existence on January 11, 1805, the act didn’t go into effect until after June 30, 1805), along with territorial Judge Augustus Woodward, were responsible, later that year, for the new Detroit City Plan, which included an extra 10,000 acres granted by the federal government after a visit Hull and Woodward made to Washington, with lot provisions for all pre-fire residents of the city:
The visit of Hull and Woodward to Washington resulted in the passage of the Act of April 21, 1806, which authorize the Governor and Judges to lay out a new town and ten thousand acres of land adjacent, and to convey a lot, not to exceed five thousand feet in size, to every person above the age of seventeen years who owned or inhabited a house in Detroit at the time of the fire, and who did not profess or owe allegiance to any foreign power.
Although so delayed that everyone had to improvise during the winter of 1805, the spring was apparently generous:
Toward Christmas the governor, by agreement, decided the rights of all the claimants, one by one, and located the donation lots; and about New Year every person, male and female, who lived in the town when it was burned, and whom the governor judged eligible, to the number of 251, drew their donation lots.
… Eventually the terms of the Act of 1806 were very liberally construed, and not only individual owners and occupants but in some cases their wives and even their slaves, were the recipients of donation lots.
If you’ve ever wondered why it is so goddamn confusing to drive around downtown Detroit, you may have Judge Woodward’s plan for the city to thank — his “spokes of the wheel” plan, based on Washington, DC’s street grid (see: Gratiot, Michigan, Woodward, Grand River and Jefferson Avenue) was already in place before the plan was otherwise abandoned. You can also send your gratitude his way for Grand Circus Park and the “City of Trees” moniker. Again from Farmer:
We are certainly indebted to Chief Justice Woodward for our half-acre parks and broad avenues bordered with thrifty elms and maples. His suggestions were embodied in one of the earliest Acts of the Governor and Judges, which made provision for the planting of trees on the streets, squares and avenues. Of all the smaller parks, Grand Circus is the most beautiful. As we rest in the shade of the trees, enjoy the plash of the fountains, or watch the children at play upon the lawns, it is hard to realize that up to 1844 these parks were ponds and marshes, enlivened only by the music of the bullfrog, and used as a deposit of refuse of every kind.
Judge Woodward named the new city’s jugular after himself, claiming (cheekily, one hopes) that it ran north — toward the woods. Right. According to contemporary gossip, the Judge was a constant, flagrant drinker; a rude, tail-chasing bachelor; loved to “bathe” outdoors when it rained; didn’t have a desk or bookshelves in his office and just kept his papers all over the floor.
He wasn’t widely considered a very effective Judge or administrator, but he gave us our strange and beautiful streets, which I guess is reason enough to honor his memory with our most celebrated thoroughfare.