The year 1909 was a big one in Detroit: Ty Cobb led the Detroit Tigers to a league pennant at Bennett Park, Henry Ford introduced the Model T and J.L. Hudson was scouting a location at Woodward and Farmer for his department store's new site. Also that year, the Wayne County Road Commission introduced the world to a new kind of road, one made of concrete.
The only place a concrete road could be found that year was Woodward Avenue between Six Mile (now McNichols) and Seven Mile in Greenfield Township, now northwest Detroit. If they were paved at all, roads up to that point had been built with brick, cobblestone or a material called macadam, which was not much more than stones sprayed with a tar to form some kind of wear-resistant surface. Unfortunately, brick and cobblestone were uneven and labor intensive, while macadam didn't last long.
The need for a better type of road construction had been evident for years, even before the advent of the automobile. A group of bicyclists, known as the League of American Wheelmen, had initiated what came to be known as the "Good Roads Movement" to help make bicycling more pleasurable than it had been on the area's rough and rutted roads.
When Henry Ford first started mass producing the automobile, the need for good roads became a much more pressing issue. He, better than anyone, knew the viability of his product was greatly limited unless there was a system of smooth, reliable roads to carry and withstand automobile traffic. So Ford found himself at the forefront of the issue.
In 1906, the Michigan Legislature created the state's first road commission in Wayne County, and Ford was a charter member. Ford, however, would serve only one year. He stepped down to avoid a conflict of interest because of his role in the automobile industry. Within just three years, the Wayne County Road Commission embarked on an experiment that would revolutionize the way roads were built and create a new standard that has endured to the present day.
County engineers had heard success stories from Ohio and Windsor, where concrete had been used for sidewalks and alleys. Road Commissioners Edward Hines and John Haggerty decided the time was right to test concrete on a major thoroughfare. The section of Woodward Avenue between Six Mile and Seven Mile was selected most likely because that is where the county's jurisdiction began, but also because Ford's new Model T plant down the road in Highland Park would be turning out many new automobiles. Woodward also was a likely candidate because it was one of the major transportation spokes radiating out of downtown.
As for the choice of concrete, this is how the Road Commission stated its reasoning in its 1909 annual report: "We decided that a concrete road would come more nearly realizing the ideal than any other form. The points considered were comparatively low first cost, low maintenance cost, freedom from dirt and dust (there being no detritus from a concrete road itself), its comparative noiselessness, and ease of traction for vehicles of all descriptions.
"The cost of this piece of work is considerably lower than the average cost of macadam roads constructed in New York and Pennsylvania as taken from detailed reports of these states, and we believe it to be superior in every feature to the best macadam road that can be built. However, time alone can justify our judgment in the matter."
And it did. News of the accomplishment spread quickly, even for the time. "This road has attracted a great deal of attention among the road builders of the entire country, and numerous delegations have visited it during the past summer. We have also been the recipients of many inquiries for information concerning it," the commission said in its 1909 report.
Today, there are millions of miles of concrete road across the United States and around the world. Despite all of the technological advances of the past few decades, no one has come up with a more reliable, cost effective material with which to build roads than concrete.
Not long after developing the first mile of concrete road, Wayne County also developed the first painted center line, improved the snow plow and built the world's first below-grade superhighway, the Davison Freeway. Legend has it that German engineers used the Davison accomplishment as inspiration for the Autobahn.
The Wayne County Department of Public Services Road Division contributed to this report. For more information about other iconic figures, go to Motor Cities National Heritage Area at www.motorcities.org.