Mapping Detroit’s Past

When the El Moore building was first constructed in 1898, it offered a glimpse of a higher density urban landscape that the neighborhood would come to reflect in the following years.  At that time, the city’s population was a modest 260,000 and its industrial economy was largely focused along the Detroit River.  By 1910, this had all changed as the city’s population ballooned by to nearly half a million and the automotive industry had taken a stronghold on Detroit.

While one of our key goals with the El Moore Lodge is to offer our guests the opportunity to experience a more sustainable future, we’re also very interested in honoring our past. The map shown below is an original, 1895 Rand McNally & Co. map of Detroit and the surrounding vicinity. It hangs in the El Moore’s parlor room surrounded by our growing Detroit-themed book collection.


I personally can get lost in a map like this, studying the street patterns that existed at the time and comparing them to what’s present today. In this map, the city’s northernmost edge runs for just a few blocks along Webb Avenue, an area that now associate with the Boston Edison Historic District. Compare that to today when the city’s northern limit spans nearly ten miles, from the Grosse Pointes to Southfield.

There are countless examples of how things have changed and how they have stayed the same. Below I’ve captured two of my favorites….

Belle Isle Park


Many of you know Belle Isle very well, spending summer evenings on Sunset Point overlooking the skyline or weekend mornings hiking out to the lighthouse and looking out at Lake St. Clair.  Take a closer look at Belle Isle in 1895 and you’ll see that those iconic places don’t yet exist.

Railway Transfer Boats

Look closely. Another prominent element that is missing from the 1898 map is any bridges or tunnels across the Detroit River….no Ambassador Bridge. The only way across the Detroit River was by boat. And the most important mode of transportation at the time was the burgeoning railroad industry. To enable trains to move passengers and cargo from the US to Canada, there were railway transfer boats. At this time there were five such transfer boats operating on the river. You can see on the map how they connected with the US and Canadian railway systems on each side of the river. You can image people sitting on the river’s edge, watching all these boats going back and forth all day long. Quite a sight. A sign of progress for the City.


If you’re a map lover, as I am, you know how much we can learn of our past by studying them. In a way these historic maps are our footprints as a city. They also ask us to be aware of what kind of future the footprints of today are leading us toward. This is why we’ve been careful to design the El Moore’s footprint to connect our remarkable past to a more sustainable future.