By Tom Demerly for Tom Demerly.com
Only a mile and half at its widest, The Detroit River has been a geographical barrier between opposing tribes, rum runners and nations. Few rivers hold this much history. Globally, the Detroit River shares its historical relevance with the Mississippi in the United States, the Bosphorus in Turkey, the Rhine in Germany, the Ganges in India, the Volga in Russia, Paris’ Seine River, Egypt’s Nile, China’s Yangtze and other globally significant waterways like Iraq’s Tigris and Vietnam’s Mekong.
Last Wednesday, as members of the Detroit History Club, my girlfriend Jan Mack and I sailed the historic Detroit River on the 85-foot long Appledore IV two-masted schooner. Appledore IV transports its crew and passengers back in time as soon as they step on board. It is a fitting vessel for a trip back into the remarkable history of Detroit and its unique river.
Our guide on board Appledore IV was Miss Bailey of the Detroit Historical Club. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Detroit history was matched only by her wit and talent. She delivered a fascinating running narration of Detroit’s sensational history from Native conflicts to daring rum-runners driving modified Ford Model-T’s across the frozen river in an occasionally unsuccessful attempt at defying prohibition.
After casting off from the dock in front of Detroit’s Renaissance Center and General Motors headquarters we set sail on moderate winds and calm waters north and east toward Belle Isle and the Hiram Walker distillery. As we sailed across the Detroit River the strong and delicious scent of baking bread drifts off the Windsor shore from the Hiram Walker complex. The yeast processing for spirits production at the distillery produces the delightful aroma, lost on powerboats to their exhaust smell but blissfully preserved onboard the sail-driven Appledore IV.
Once at the top of the river we reversed course under jibbing canvas sails, ducking under swinging booms and picking up winds that brought us downriver toward the majestic Ambassador Bridge. We sailed under, marveling at the incredible volume of truck traffic engaging in the free exchange of goods between Canada and the U.S. that typifies the relationship between the two countries.
To the south we saw the dark silhouette of the industrial monolith of Zug Island, formerly one of the most polluted places on earth, now in the midst of reform into at least a slightly less toxic habitat. Today foxes, peregrine falcons, feral cats and other unusual species share the island with its heavy industrial tenants like steel mills and coke ovens. A rare species of sturgeon lives on one side of the island because of the deposits of coal cinders that collect on the bottom of the river from the industrial activity.
Mystery surrounds much of Zug Island, a private, manmade industrial otherworld that has produced an undefined loud humming sound to the distress of residents as far as ten miles away. Some say it is the sound of wind through industrial structures on the island. Over a million dollars has been spent on studies to find the source of the bizarre sound but the maker of the mechanical music remains a mystery.
Shipping traffic is a huge part of the Detroit River. During our cruise we saw two passages, one a massive ore freighter and the other a smaller cargo vessel, our radios crackling to life with instructions from the river traffic control as Customs and Border Patrol vessels zipped back and forth. The Detroit River is one of the busiest commercial rivers on earth, and ship spotting along its banks is a popular pastime.
This cruise aboard Appledore IV with the Detroit History Club is a rare and intrinsic perspective on Detroit, and one all Detroiters ought imbibe in. People who live in Detroit and its suburbs often have a deep affection for something undefinable about the city that makes it unique. An intrinsic authenticity and resilience belonging to a place that survived riots, wars, fires and economic collapse. Detroit has produced iron and steel, innovation and art. But few people own the deep historical context of Detroit’s remarkable and repetitive penchant for survival and prosperity.
To join the Detroit History Club and enjoy their many fascinating and varied events follow this link: