Thursday, June 9, 2016

Ypsilanti, Michigan History - What's in a Name?



Dimitrios Ypsilantis
Where the Sauk Native American trail crossed the narrows at a bend of the Huron River, Gabriel Godfroy--a French-Canadian fur trader from Montreal--established his Indian trading post in 1809. Fifteen years later, Judge Augustus B. Woodward of Detroit with two local land speculators--William Harwood and John Stewart--laid-out a town on land they purchased from the original French settlers.

Judge Woodward was a Grecophile who wanted to name the town in honor of Greek war hero Demetrius Ypsilanti--a general famous for successes in his country's war for independence against the Ottoman Turks. This struck a chord with Woodward. America had waged its own war for independence against the British not so very long before.


Ypsilanti Woolen Company

His partners had a different idea with more commercial potential. They favored a name like Waterford or Waterville which highlighted the water-power feature of the Huron River to attract manufacturing business. Judge Woodward--being the major investor in the land project--had the final word. In 1824, the new town of Ypsilanti spanned both sides of the Huron River on the old Chicago Road (soon to be renamed Michigan Avenue). An area which began as a frontier trading outpost eventually became downtown Ypsilanti.

The east side of Ypsilanti developed when the Michigan Central train line began rail service in 1838, making the city an important economic hub for the area’s growing light-industry and agricultural concerns. A lovely, three-story train depot said to be the nicest depot between Detroit and Chicago was built in 1864. A two block long commercial district grew up along both sides of East Cross Street—aptly named Depot Town.

Original Ypsilanti train depot with landscaping.
The Depot Town businesses on the ground floors catered to the needs of weary travelers and light manufacturing. The upper floors were used for lodging, warehousing, or residential use. Depot Town was a destination for the Underground Railroad before and throughout the Civil War. Soldiers of the 14th and 17th Michigan Regiments left for the South from the Ypsilanti train station platform.

Depot Town Today
A fire destroyed the tower and the upper floors of the depot in May of 1910. New owners--Pennsylvania Central Railroad--decided to rebuild only the ground floor. Amtrak ended passenger service in 1982.

There may be some life in the old girl yet. Depot Town could be a stop on the proposed Ann Arbor to Detroit commuter rail line which would bring more activity into the area. Restoring the Depot Town train buildings preserves a remnant of Ypsilanti's history which could be re-purposed on the interior to increase the commercial value of the property.

I can envision a fine dining, Victorian-styled restaurant. Maybe a seafood restaurant. How about a sushi bar or an Asian noodle shop? Something that doesn't take business away from Frenchie's Sidetrack Bar & Grill or Aubree's Pizzeria & Grill. Ypsilanti's very own Gandy Dancer or something similar would be nice.
http://visitypsinow.com/museums/