February 26, 2011

14th Street in 1903

This photo was taken on the east side of 14th Street between Marantette and Baker, facing south. The caption reads: "Apr. 20th 1903. M. Hayes. In front of 224 14th Ave. There had been a new walk put down."

Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (Source)

The sign in front of the house a few doors down reads "Furniture and Piano Moving." That would be the home of furniture mover James Reardon at 218 14th Street. This is the area today:

The charming building in the photo was built in 1940 as a repair center for vehicles owned by the United States Postal Service, and it retains that function today.

The Burton Historical Collection also contains a photo from the same spot but facing north:

Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library (Source)

The same view today:

This is a detail from an 1885 atlas of Detroit showing the houses that stood at the time. (The Bechstein House is highlighted in red.) Below that is a recent satellite photo of the area.

February 19, 2011

A Correction: John W. Geer

In a previous post, I stated that a bricklayer named Joseph S. Greer rented the Bechstein house, where I live, in 1893. That is not correct. The city directory for that year states that "Geer, Joseph W., bricklayer" lived at 195 Wabash. Based on the first name and occupation, I assumed this was a Joseph Greer who appeared in a later census record. However, it was the first name that was incorrect--that right man is John W. Geer. I found this out from an old Detroit Free Press article about a sensational murder trial that occurred at the time Geer lived in my house.

* * * * *

On the evening of November 18, 1892, a twenty-year-old pharmacist named Fred H. Kelly went to work at J. W. Caldwell's drug store at the corner of Grand River Avenue and High Street (now the I-75 service drive). He would sleep in the store and be on call to fill prescriptions throughout the night. Early the next morning the door was found unlocked and Kelly was discovered in the basement, dead from a 32 caliber bullet to the back of the head.

242 Grand River Avenue circa 1910
Former site of J.W. Caldwell's Drug Store
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Detectives visited Frank L. Hayes, another young man who recently held the same position as Kelly but was fired for bringing his girlfriend with him on the night shift. He was also suspected in a robbery of the store immediately after his termination since he knew the combination to the safe, but was never charged. When the detectives interviewed Hayes, he had a packed suitcase that contained a coat, gloves, and revolver that belonged to the murder victim. He was later charged with the crime. He first claimed that the articles were his and that he hadn't been to Caldwell's drug store in weeks, but later changed his story to say that he had been there that evening and that Kelly had loaned him the items.

The following appeared in the Detroit Free Press' coverage of the murder trial the following June:
Testimony of Watchman John Geer.

 John Geer, 195 Wabash avenue, a watchman for Eberts Bros., about a block from Caldwell's store. He remembered November 19.
 "Did you see anyone pass Caldwell' drug store?"
 "Several passed."
 "Did anyone attract your attention?"
 "Yes, sir."
 "At what time?"
 "At my 2 o'clock pull. A man came along in the vicinity of Caldwell' store, and when he saw me he quickened his steps. He crossed to the other side of the street, stood, and then walked quickly to Fourth street and stopped. His movements had made me suspicious, and I came outside to look after him. After standing at Fourth street he walked away. When I was making my 3 o'clock pull I had forgotten about the affair, and then I heard afterward of the murder."
 "What did this man you saw look like?"
 "He was about medium size, slight build, light overcoat and Derby hat."
 "Did you ever see defendant, Hayes?"
 "I saw him in Caldwell's store."
 "What would you say as to Hayes being about the size of the man you saw?" asked Mr. Hunt.
 "He resembled him very much in appearance and dress," aid the witness.
 When this evidence was being given a pin might have been heard fall.
(Detroit Free Press, 16 Jun 1863)

Although the evidence was only circumstantial and no motive ever firmly established, Hayes was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

The building where Geer's employer was situated still stands today at 828 West Fisher Freeway and houses Senate Antiques. This is the vicinity mentioned in the testimony given above, as it appeared in 1885 and a recent satellite image:

The site of Eberts Bros. Roofing today (Source)

John W. Geer was born in Howell, Michigan in 1861. He enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1882 and served in the 1st Cavalry Regiment, Company L until 1887. Soon afterward he married a woman named Martha Stokes and moved to Corktown. They were 32 and 30, respectively, when they rented the Bechstein house in 1893. They had two children at the time: Edward William, age 4, and Susan Mary, born May 23, 1892.

Searching for Geer's name in the historical Free Press archives brings up other unusual stories, including this sad item under "Sayings and Doings" on July 26, 1892:
John M. [sic] Geer, watchman for Eberts Bros.' roofing works, High and Fourth streets, was obliged to shoot his own dog yesterday morning, the animal suddenly exhibiting violent hydrophobia.
Hydrophobia, of course, is a symptom of rabies, which has no cure.

Geer had several jobs over the years in addition to watchman and bricklayer, including gas fitter, bartender, and even restaurant owner. In June of 1905, these notices appeared in the Detroit Free Press:

(4 June 1905)

(9 June 1905)

I don't know whether Geer ever came back home after that. What I do know is that all of the subsequent records show his wife and children living without him. He later shows up in homes for disabled soldiers throughout the Midwest. One of his sons applied for a passport in 1920 and listed "Unknown" for his father's current location. But there must have been limited contact between them, however, since Geer correctly listed the current address of his wife in the papers for his 1924 stay in a home for disabled soldiers in Ohio. John Geer died in Hines, Illinois in 1939.

February 12, 2011

Tappan School

Tappan School, n.w. corner of Vermont and Marantette Streets, c. 1882 (Source)
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

By 1867, the worn out school building on 15th Street could no longer contain the growing student population of Detroit's Ninth Ward. In January of that year, the school board purchased four lots on the west side of Lafferty (now Vermont Street), north of Marantette, from Charles Lafferty for $300.00 each. Lafferty was the grandson of the founders of the Lafferty Farm, where the land was located.

Although some board members questioned whether the construction of such a "large" schoolhouse was warranted, it was decided that the new Ninth Ward School would be a three-story, twelve-room brick structure with a capacity for 800 students. The contract went to the lowest bidder, a company called Dean Brothers owned by James, Edward P. and Richard W. Dean. The building cost $23,915 to build, or over $360,000 in today's money. Soon after completion, it was named for Henry P. Tappan, a popular former President of the University of Michigan.

The surrounding neighborhood in 1885. The X marks the photographer's
approximate location. The Bechstein house is highlighted in red.

Despite the debates over the school's relatively large size, it was immediately filled to capacity when it opened for the school year in September 1868. In January of 1869, it was reported in the Detroit Free Press that, throughout the city, "1,414 children [who] applied for admission to the schools during the year...were excluded for the want of room" (21 Jan 1869).

Apparently there were concerns over the integrity of the structure. The Free Press reported:
Inspector Flanigan, from the Real Estate and Building Committee, reported the result of a visit to the new Ninth Ward school building, in accordance with suggestions made at the last meeting of the Board, in which it was suggested that rumors existed to the effect that the building was not safe, but in danger of failing. The examination made by the committee, accompanied by Mr. Alex Chapoton, revealed not the least sign of weakness or danger, or any settling of walls, or any portion of the building, but they are confident that it is perfectly safe, and that there is no cause for alarm. The teachers employed in the school also inform the committee that they have seen no reason to feel alarm or uneasiness in regard to the building. (2 Feb 1869)
However, later school documents noted, the building "was improved by placing iron columns between the floors of the first and second stories" in the summer of 1872 (Source).

Two additions were made to the original building, in 1886 and in 1902. In 1929, a new Tappan Intermediate School was opened at 11775 American Street. That one was closed in 1990 and demolished in 2001. Today the site of the first Tappan School is a vacant lot known as Muliett Park.

Image courtesy of Google Street View (Source)

February 5, 2011

Double Bridge

In 1874, work began on a bridge that would allow traffic to safely cross Michigan Central Railroad on the western end of Corktown. "On account of its peculiar location," wrote Silas Farmer in The History of Detroit and Michigan, the bridge over Baker and Fifteenth Streets "is curiously constructed, and is, in fact, two bridges in one" (906).

Double Bridge over Baker and Fifteenth Streets, circa 1880
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The New York Times reproduced a detailed description of the bridge that originally appeared in the Detroit Post in July of 1874:
[T]he large gangs of hands at work, both upon the masonry and wood-work, indicate that their completion will be speedily accomplished. At the north side, on Fifteenth street, men are excavating for the foundations of ponderous stone abutments, and on the east side, Baker street, the massive hammered stones are under the hands of a score of stone-masons, being swung into position and cemented together to form the solid pile upon which the bridge is to rest for ages...

The Baker street bridge will be 304 feet in length, and the Fifteenth street bridge 336 feet. Each will be 41 feet in width, and 16 feet clear above the tracks. The carriage-way will be 29 feet in width, and on either side will be a sidewalk 6 feet wide for foot passengers...

Besides the massive stone abutments, the bridge will be supported by 120 wooden posts, 12 by 12 inches in size, four to each bent. (Source)

Click here to view the above photograph at full resolution. Examining the enlarged image in detail is the next best thing to having a window into Corktown of the 1880s.

Detail from photograph above
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The photographer was facing south-east when the photo was taken. The other bridge in the background is part of 14th Street.

Approximate view imposed over an 1885 atlas of the city.
The Bechstein House is highlighted in red.

It's not easy to obtain a photograph from the same view today. A similar position to the 1885 photographer could be the roof of the building at 17th and Newark Streets. Today there is only a bridge for Bagley Street, which is what Baker is now called. Below is a recent satellite image of the area.

The next photograph of the bridge was taken from the Baker Street segment of the bridge looking north along 15th Street.

Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

The church on the far left still stands at the corner of Rose and 17th Streets. The second church on the left was Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church at the corner of Pine and 17th Streets, which was attended by early inhabitants of the Bechstein house. The church was demolished in the 1960s to clear the way for Interstate 75.

It is also worth examining the full-resolution version of this image. Details of the bridge's construction described in the newspaper article above are easily visible:

Detail from photograph above. Note the wooden sidewalk on 15th Street.
Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library

Approximate view imposed over an 1885 atlas of the city.
The Bechstein House is highlighted in red.

The photographer's perspective can be easily matched from the current Bagley Street bridge.