By Craig Hutchison, Staff Writer Discover Downriver
The story of Wyandotte begins with the early French settlers and a Native American tribe known as the Wyandots. Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac landed on the banks of the Detroit River in 1701 to establish a settlement. The Wyandots, who had been living across the Detroit River in Canada, were on friendly terms with the French and decided to join their allies across the River in 1732. They settled about 10 miles south where there was good fishing, hunting, soil suitable for agriculture and easy access to drinking water. The village was named Maquaqua.
Among the early non-native settlers to inhabit the area near Maquaqua was Major John Biddle. Biddle served as an officer in the War of 1812 and as Mayor of Detroit in 1827-28. He acquired 1800 acres in 1818 and eventually built a summer home that he named “The Wyandotte” after the Native American tribe that had resided nearby. As more settlers came to the area in the 19th century, the name gave them a point of reference and would become the name of the village founded in 1854.
By 1867, Wyandotte was a fast growing industrial community and was incorporated as a city. The first major industry was the Eureka Iron Company, built in 1855. The location was perfect as the river and Great Lakes allowed for transportation of iron ore from Northern Michigan. It was in Wyandotte that steel was first commercially produced in the United States. During this same period, the Wyandotte Shipyards began operation producing over 200 ships, everything from small tugs to large steamers.
In the 1890s, a huge salt deposit was discovered by Captain J.B. Ford. Knowing that salt could be used to produce soda-ash, a necessary ingredient in making plate glass, Ford started the Michigan Alkali Company to process the chemicals needed for the process. The company transitioned to the Wyandotte Chemicals Company in the 1940s and made a variety of cleaners, soaps and detergents. The operation became part of B.A.S.F. in 1969 and the B.A.S.F. campus continues to keep the chemical industry in Wyandotte alive and well to this day. From the 1920s to the 1950s, Wyandotte was a major source of toy production. Producing under the name “Wyandotte Toys,” the All Metal Products Company made more toy guns and pistols than anyone else in the United States.
In terms of layout, Wyandotte was designed in a similar fashion to Philadelphia. The focal point was the Detroit River with streets running parallel to it. Beginning with Front Street, each parallel street was thereafter called First Street and proceeded till the boundary was reached. The streets that run perpendicular were named for trees and plants. Waves of immigrants have helped provide a foundation and build the community through the years, notably the Irish, German, Polish and Italian peoples. The area has maintained a small town feel despite having much to offer in terms of education, arts and culture, festivals and activities, and shopping. To learn more about the rich history and culture of this quaint community, visit the Wyandotte Museums where there is much to see and do.
- The village of Maquaqua was used as the nucleus of present day Wyandotte. The original village extended from around Oak Street to Eureka and from Biddle Avenue to the Detroit River.
- The Eureka Iron Company operation, which included two blast furnaces and one rolling mill, was located on the former estate of Major John Biddle (Biddle Avenue is named for him).
- The Biddle house stood slightly behind the present residence located at 2610 Biddle Avenue.
- The Detroit River has played a huge role in the development of Wyandotte. It has served as a transportation route to move people, materials, and food to sustain the area.
- The Irish potato famine had a tremendous impact on Wyandotte. With the need for labor to work at the Eureka Iron Company, a representative of the company traveled east to hire workers. Many of them were Irish immigrants.
- St. Charles Roman Catholic Church was built for the Irish in 1857. It was the first formal church structure in Wyandotte.
- The Michigan Alkali Company, established in 1891, had large company houses built at the north end of Wyandotte for immigrant workers. With the widening of Biddle Avenue in 1917, many of these company houses were moved and can still be seen today on Fifth Street between Goddard and St. John Streets.
- Many of the Wyandots in the area adopted European ways of living and built log cabins. When the tribe left, their cabins were used by white settlers. John Clark, an early pioneer, moved into the log cabin that had belonged to Chief Blue Jacket. It was located between present day Plum and Grove Streets.
- The Eureka Iron Company included the first mill in the United States to produce steel using the Bessemer Process, which became the foundation of the industrial revolution.
- The Wyandotte Shipyards produced many hulls including the famous Columbia, one of the Bob-Lo boats.
- Wyandotte is a sister city to Komaki, Japan, and each year delegates from Komaki come to Wyandotte to tour the city.
- In 1818, the Wyandot tribe signed a treaty with the U.S. government relinquishing their land and moved to an area near Flat Rock, Michigan. They later relocated to Ohio, Kansas and finally Oklahoma. Their name lives on in the form of Wyandotte, Michigan andWyandotte County, Kansas.
- In 1873, Ward’s Wyandotte Iron Ship Building Works built the nation’s earliest steel-hulled vessel, a tugboat called the Sport.
- Wyandotte’s Bishop Park used to have a dock to board the Boblo Boat in order to sail to Boblo Island.
- Wyandotte has its own community owned municipal services, called Wyandotte Municipal Services, it provides its own power through amunicipal power plant and operates a city-owned water plant.
- Lucille Ball, actress and comedian, was raised in the city as a child.
- Lee Majors, actor most noted as “The Six Million Dollar Man,” was born in Wyandotte.
Craig Hutchison is a published author with a passion for local history. He has served in various capacities with several history institutions including The Henry Ford, the Henry Ford Estate, and the Dearborn Historical Museum. Craig believes in bringing history alive by helping people make connections between the past, present, and future. His favorite medium for doing this is through the written word. Read more of Craig’s writing on various and sundry topics at Wandering Wolverine Writings.