Time Travel

In the early 20th century, Detroit was a tourist destination — a place to see and be seen. And there was no shortage of excursion companies so visitors could take in the sights of a city on the move // Images Courtesy of Richard Bak
Images courtesy of Richard Bak

One hundred years ago, the most popular way of seeing Detroit was Seeing Detroit. A.C. Dietsche’s oversized Packards were ubiquitous. Whenever a carload of rubbernecking Elks, Masons, or Realtors rumbled past City Hall or the floral clock at Waterworks Park, odds were great that it belonged to the savvy, über-connected German-American entrepreneur. The attractive and comprehensive brochure that each Dietsche customer was given boasted that the company’s fleet of open-air vehicles were “The Only Way to See Detroit,” capable of providing between 20 and 35 passengers with “a quick, restful, and inexpensive way of seeing Detroit and its famous Belle Isle Park, the most magnificent island park in this country, its beautiful river, grand boulevards, handsome residences, and great buildings.” On all Dietsche tours, “competent lecturers” were on hand to “point out and explain all points of interest.”

Detroit’s sightseeing heyday was the turn of the 20th century, when it sat proudly in the front rank of American cities and enjoyed a reputation as a very desirable tourist and convention destination. A variety of operators, large and small, sprang up to service the burgeoning trade in out-of-town day-trippers with regularly scheduled runs and special charters. The Metropolitan Sight Seeing Company conducted business from its main location inside the Oxford Hotel downtown. The Detroit Urban Railway promised that a ride on its special “Yolanda” electric streetcar would show a stranger the best of Detroit in two hours. B.J. Sturn offered the “Finest Sight Seeing Cars In Detroit” from his Woodward location. On Aug. 26, 1910, one satisfied Sturn customer, a tourist from Cleveland, wrote her mother and sister on a postcard provided by the operator. “We are now in Waterworks Park after having had an auto ride in this large car for 25 miles. It is sinfully grand. Wish you could both be here.”

However, for many years nobody cornered the market like A.C. Dietsche & Co. Rivals grumbled about the owner’s “in” with the German aldermen and mayors who dominated local politics during this era. In 1915, Frank Wells complained that Seeing Detroit vehicles were allowed to idle all day and night in a prime location on Woodward near the Opera House, squeezing out competitors like him. “Two of the cars stand there all the time; they don’t move at all,” he told the city attorney. “One at the lower end catches the passengers walking up the avenue and the other at the upper end gets those strolling down.” Once a car was loaded, Wells said, “they pull a third one up alongside and transfer the passengers across. It means we smaller fellows can’t get a stand in there because there isn’t enough room.”

Dietsche maintained the city’s best-stocked souvenir shop at the corner of Woodward and Larned. The store also served as a waiting room for Seeing Detroit’s scheduled hourly departures. Before or after their trip, tourists could pick up a pennant, ashtray, plate, glass, or some other Detroit-centric memento. Lapel buttons declaring “In Detroit Life Is Worth Living” (the city’s slogan was prominently spelled out in a floral display in Grand Circus Park) were popular. Out-of-towners eager to share their experiences in the City by the Strait could choose between hundreds of different mass-produced postcards. Or they could visit the adjacent Cornell Studios and pose behind a whimsically painted backdrop, such as a wheelbarrow or automobile, for a one-of-a-kind “real photo” postcard to mail to a friend or stick in an album. Dietsche produced many of the commercial postcards he sold, including a set of the 1907 pennant-winning Tigers that today is highly prized among baseball-memorabilia collectors.

In an era when millions had yet to set foot inside a car, the excitement of taking in such sights as the Belle Isle Aquarium, Henry Ford’s Model T plant, the giant spruce log in Palmer Park, and the world’s largest stove on Jefferson was heightened by the novelty of doing so inside an automobile. For many Seeing Detroit customers, it was their first ride in a motorcar. For at least one, however, it was her last. “No more autos for me,” Myrtle Campbell of Duluth, Minn., declared one June afternoon in 1907, after the sightseeing car she and her family were riding in collided with a Third Avenue trolley. “I’ve had enough of them. Somebody get a carriage to take us home.

Seeing Detroit Today

Here’s a sampling of guided Detroit tours for history-minded day-trippers to consider. In addition to regularly scheduled excursions, most offer private walking and bus tours.

SEE the past:

Preservation Detroit

Information: preservationdetroit.org.

The organization, founded in 1975 as Preservation Wayne, is Detroit’s foremost architectural-preservation society. Its many activities include the award-winning Detroit Heritage tours, centered on such themes as bootlegging, skyscrapers, cemeteries, theaters, and the auto industry.

RIDE a bus:

McMillan Tours

Information: 313-922-1990, mcmillantours.com.

Longtime Indian Village resident Stewart McMillan has been enthusiastically conducting Detroit tours since 1968. His most popular bus excursions explore the homes of Detroit celebrities and the sites on the Underground Railroad.

TAKE a cruise:

Diamond Jack’s River Tours

Information: 313-843-9376, diamondjack.com.

Experience the Detroit River as the early French settlers might have — that is, if their canoes had been converted island ferries with lounge chairs and drink specials. The two-hour narrated cruises launch from Rivard Plaza downtown and Wyandotte’s Bishop Park twice each afternoon, Thur.-Sun., all summer.

VIEW the city:

Detroit Tour Connections

Information: 313-283-4332, detroittourconnections.com.

Bob Goldsmith is in his ninth year of organizing tours around skyscrapers, sports, and dozens of other topics. The expeditions, most led by Goldsmith, can take place on foot or via bus or People Mover.

Photograph by Cybelle Codish

RIDE a bike:

Wheelhouse Detroit

Information: 313-656-2453; wheelhousedetroit.com.

Cyclists of all ability levels are welcome to join one of the $25 tours put on by this bicycle shop on the Riverwalk. (For bike rental, add $10.) The 16-to-30-mile excursions explore neighborhoods, graveyards, churches, and parks, with frequent stops.

TOUR a factory:

Piquette Avenue Plant

Information: 313-872-8759, tplex.org.

The birthplace of Henry Ford’s Model T is a National Historic Landmark and the only early auto factory open to the public.

TAKE a walk:

Detroit Urban Adventures

Information: detroiturbanadventures.com.

The local arm of Intrepid Urban Adventures offers a pair of two-hour walking tours of downtown. One focuses on the highlights while the other explores the city’s rise, decline, and ongoing revitalization.

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