Sunday, September 28, 2014

Detroit's Liquid Gold - Vernor's Ginger Ale

One of Detroit's most beloved hometown products was Vernor's Ginger Ale, reputed to be the world's first soft-drink. The folklore about the formula was part of the product's trademark advertising, "Aged four years in wood." When the Vernor's family sold the business and trademark in 1966, the company motto underwent a subtle but telling change. It became "Aged for years in wood." Rather than the original four-year formulation, it was cut down to three years. Now, the Dr. Pepper & Snapple Group owns the Vernor's trademark and bottling rights.

The pure cane sugar of the original formula gave way to high fructose corn syrup and other sweeteners. Caramel, vanilla, and extract of ginger root are no longer listed as ingredients, just "artificial flavorings." So people who remember the original Vernor's loved the golden sweetness, the effervescent carbonation, and the ginger root extract taste of the original.

That said, Vernor's is still the tastiest ginger ale drink on the market today. It puts Canada Dry Pale Ginger Ale to shame. Vernor's is a soft-drink, and Canada Dry is a mixer for liquor. The two should never be confused.

Vernor's is the oldest surviving ginger ale brand in the United States. Legend has it that just prior to the beginning of the Civil War, a drugstore clerk, James Vernor tried to duplicate the taste of a popular Irish ginger ale. He was called off to war, so he stored his syrup made from a formula of nineteen ingredients in an oak cask. When he returned from the war in 1865, he opened the keg and found his formula had mellowed from the aging process. Four years to be exact. James was said to have exclaimed, "It's deliciously different," which became the drink's trademark motto. He called his soda fountain creation a "soft drink" because it contained no alcohol or narcotic ingredients. It is said to be the first soft drink. Soon, the company added the motto, "Aged Four Years in Wood."

James Vernor died in Grosse Ile, Michigan on October 29th, 1927 at the age of eighty-four from pneumonia and influenza. He handed his business down to his son James Vernor, Jr. When James was interviewed in 1936, he admitted that his father created the formula after the Civil War. Former company president James Vernor Davis and grandson of the originator confirmed the story in a 1962 interview. According to their trademark application, Vernor's ginger ale first entered commerce records in 1880 and not 1866 as the company's marketing still states.


Originally, Vernor's ginger ale was sold only as a soda fountain drink in his own pharmacy on 235 Woodward Ave on the corner of Clifford St. In 1896, James Vernor sold the drugstore and went full-time into the soda franchising business throughout the Midwest states.

When James Sr. died, his son James Jr. took over the business and expanded it into a 230,000 sq, ft. bottling plant and headquarters on Woodward Ave., one block from the Detroit River. Vernor's was ready for mass production and the home consumption market. His father had limited the franchises to selling the Vernor's syrup to drugstore soda fountains. Now the business took off and became a regional sensation.

Vernor's agreed to move their headquarters and bottling plant in the late 1950s. The city of Detroit needed the land for Cobo Hall and other riverfront projects. There was a property swap. The city traded the Vernor family, the old civic exhibition hall at 4501 Woodward Ave for their prime real estate. That is the Vernor's location the Baby Boomer generation knows best.

The term Detroiters use for soft drinks is "pop." It is said to have originated from the sound that the new capped, highly carbonated Vernor's bottles made when opened. The newer canned product makes more of a swish sound when the tab is pulled.

The Vernor family sold their business in 1966 to United Brands, Inc. They operated for another nineteen years, but they shut down the Detroit bottling plant in 1985 and sold out to Pepsi. Pepsi was itself soon bought by the British company Cadbury/Schweppes. Today, the Vernor's brand name and bottling rights belong to Dr. Pepper & Snapple Group.

The familiar Vernor's gnome mascot trademark, Woody, was a creation of graphic artist Noble Fellows. It has been used since the beginning of the twentieth century but dropped in 1987. Woody fans will be happy to know that he was returned to packaging in the 2000s. 

So much of Detroit's not so distant history has vanished. Just last week, the Bob-Lo Boat Columbia was unceremoniously towed from its moorings in Ecorse, never to ply the Detroit River again. 

But a small part of Vernor's history was recovered recently when a building being torn down on Joy and Inkster roads in Westland, Michigan revealed a 1950s era billboard sign found intact, painted on the side of the building next to the demolished building. This image really reminds me of growing up in the Detroit area.

Joy and Inkster roads in Westland, Michigan

Many Detroiters wonder if the eye-popping Vernor's neon sign still exists and if it will ever be on display anywhere. It lit up Woodward Ave at night and is a piece of Detroit's history. Let's bring the gnome home!

Vernor's Gnome "Woody"

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Delray Backdoor Shut -The West Jefferson Avenue Bridge Still Out of Commission

Rouge River Bridge on West Jefferson Boulevard
After ninety-one years of accident free operation, the Rouge River Bridge, aka the West Jefferson Avenue Bridge, sustained serious damage to its northeast side. Shortly after 2:00 AM on May 12, 2013, an intoxicated bridge operator prematurely lowered the bridge onto the Great Lakes Class freighter, the Herbert C. Jackson. It instantly collided with the north section of the double-leaf bascule bridge. The bridge's hydraulic gearing and its electrical equipment were unharmed in the accident.

The bridge was closed immediately to vehicular and pedestrian traffic, both ends of the double-leaf bridge were left fully open to accommodate unhampered freighter use of the Rouge River. With this bridge in its down position, Great Lakes Class freighter access to the Ford Rouge Plant would cease. 


The single-leaf bascule bridge has a long history. It originated in Medieval Europe to help defend castles and walled towns by using winches and counterweights. Commonly known as drawbridges in English speaking countries, this style of bridge was used for crossing a moat or narrow river leading to the castle gate. Drawn upward with winches and counterweights when under attack, these single-leaf bascule bridges prevented easy access by invaders.

Tower Bridge in London
Probably the most famous double-leaf bascule bridge in the modern world is the Tower Bridge in London. Construction began in 1886 and the bridge opened in 1894. Many people mistake it for London Bridge. The Tower Bridge is a combination of suspension bridge and drawbridge on the Thames River.


The Rouge River Bridge was completed in 1922 after some jurisdictional legal wrangling and some new law writing. The previous narrow swing bridge had needed replacing since the 1910s, and the federal government had plans to dredge the Rouge River to accommodate direct freighter access to Henry Ford's new, massive Rouge Plant Complex. The inadequate Rouge River Bridge and the Fort Street Bridge would both be replaced with double-leaf drawbridges at the cost of one million dollars apiece. Wayne County voters approved a bond issue to fund construction.

To reroute traffic across the Rouge River while the new bridges were being built, an out-of-service railroad truss bridge owned by Michigan Central Railroad was detached from its moorings. A flotilla of scows pumped full of water to lower them in the river were towed under the truss bridge. When the water was pumped out of the scows, they rose and floated the bridge with the help of tugboats to a location 200 yards upstream of W. Jefferson Ave. The Fort Street Bridge and the W. Jefferson  Avenue Bridge were closed on November 13, 1920, after the makeshift railroad truss detour was in place.

Rouge River Bridge fully open in winter.

Each leaf of the dual-leaf bridges is supported by four 12 foot square concrete footings sunk in the clay to the bedrock 70 feet below the waterline. One worker died of "the bends" during construction because he decompressed too quickly after working in a caisson.

The bascule double-leaves of the Rouge River Bridge were lowered for the first time on August 21, 1922. It opened for traffic on October 17th of the same year. Finally, the bridge reconnected the Detroit neighborhood of Delray with the city limits of River Rouge and the rest of the Downriver area. In 1923, the federal government completed dredging the Rouge River and Great Lakes freighters were now able to navigate upstream, unload their cargo, and turn around in a massive turning basin built by the United States government expressly for that purpose.

In our present time, it is estimated that twenty to twenty-five freighters navigate this narrow waterway weekly. The bridge handled 6,400 vehicles daily in 2012, according to Southwest Michigan Council of Governments data.

Once again, after its ninety-one year record of service, the Rouge River Bridge is closed. The collision with the Herbert C. Jackson on May 12, 2013 was the first accident of its kind in the bridge's history. None of the crew on board the freighter were injured. The 670 foot-long ship sustained a 2 inch gash in its hull about 15 feet above the waterline. The freighter's cargo was 23,000 tons of iron ore pellets destined for the Severstal North American plant in Dearborn.

Bridge's Control Station
Cindy Dingell, spokesperson for the Wayne County Operations Office, told reporters that the bridge operator was immediately tested for drugs and alcohol and was fired from her job, but no charges have been filed in connection with the incident.

Dingell said that Wayne County doesn't have the resources to rebuild the bridge and may have to ask voters for a bond issue to fix it to the tune of $850,000 to $1,250,000. The Rouge River Bridge is the only surviving pony truss bascule bridge in the state of Michigan. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on February 10, 2000.

For more information on how a Chicago Type, double-leaf bascule bridge operates, tap on this link:

For information on my upcoming Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel book talk September 30, 2014:

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Bob-Lo Island - Another Fondly Remembered Detroit Tradition

Bob-Lo Island was a family amusement park fondly remembered by Detroiters of a certain age. The park was located at the mouth of the Detroit River on Bois Blanc Island in Canadian waters off Amherstburg, Ontario. The name Bob-Lo is an American corruption of the French name for the island meaning White Woods. The Bob-Lo Island Amusement Park operated from 1902-1991.

The park's signature attractions were the Nightmare, the Falling Star, the Wild Mouse, the Sky Streak, and the Screamer. The park also had a Ferris wheel, a children's zoo, a train, and a carousel.  The island had its own marina.

In 1913, Henry Ford was said to have financed the Dance Pavilion designed by John Scott. The 35,000 square feet of dance floor was the second largest in the world, holding 5,000 dancers at full capacity. For many years early on, this was the park's biggest money maker, charging five cents a dance per couple. Dance police were stationed on the dance floor. "The Turkey Trot, Bunny Hop, and Bear Dances were against the rules. Two Steps, Waltzes, and the Society Walk (Fox Trot) were allowed. Doing the Rag would get you kicked out," wrote Patrick Livingston, author of Summer Dreams: The Story of Bob-Lo Island (Wayne State University Press.)

The dance hall boasted the world's largest mechanical organ called an orchestrion, made in Germany. The contraption with 419 pipes and an automated percussion section was fourteen feet wide and sixteen feet high. It ran on electricity and worked like a player piano. The orchestrion is pictured on the second floor balcony on the right side of the vintage postcard above.

Bob-Lo Boat Columbia - 1903
What longtime Detroiters remember most fondly about Bob-Lo was the boat ride up and down the Detroit River. Ninety-seven year old Helen Robinson remembered going to Bob-Lo Island as a kid with a church group. A sudden squall came up from nowhere and the boat's crew had to lower the canvas flaps and lash them to the railings. Helen said that they all knelt down and prayed. The boat made it to the island, the sun broke through the clouds, and they enjoyed the rest of their day at the park. Adults remember the moonlight cruises to the island.

The Bob-Lo Excursion Company expanded an existing park and operated two excursion steamers out of Detroit and Wyandotte, Michigan. These Bob-Lo Boats were designed by Frank E. Kirby and built by the Toledo Ship Building Company. The Columbia was built in 1901 and went into service in 1902, while the Ste. Claire was built and went into service in 1910. 

Excursion steamers were built primarily for day trips. They were propeller driven, powered by a triple expansion reciprocating steam engine. The boats were 190 feet (58m) long and 50 feet (15m) wide and were said to hold 2,500 passengers. The Columbia and the Ste. Claire are the last two steamers of their type still afloat. The Columbia ran the original Bob-Lo run for eighty-one years, a record of service on a single run unequaled in United States maritime history.

In 1945, Bob-Lo Island Excursion Company made history rather than family memories. Sarah Elizabeth Ray took part in a company sponsored trip to Bob-Lo Island with twelve other female workers involved with the war effort. Ray was removed because she wasn't white. The State of Michigan filed a racial discrimination law suit against the company and won. The case was taken to the Michigan Supreme court and upheld.

The company policy excluded "so called 'zoot-suiters' and 'colored' because they were deemed rowdyish, rough, and boisterous." Their position was that they were operating a private concern in another country not subject to United States jurisdiction. The case was taken to the United States Supreme Court in 1948 where it upheld Michigan's anti-discrimination provisions on the grounds that the company's policy was a violation of United States Commerce Department regulations.

Another company tried to run the park after the Bob-Lo Island Excursion Company sold out in 1991, but the park closed permanently on September 30, 1993 and sold off its rides in 1994. The Columbia and the Ste. Claire have been moth-balled at the U.S. Steel docks in Ecorse, Michigan since 1991.

The Columbia is being restored to the tune of about $15,000,000 with the goal of being completed by September of 2015, to resume active service as a sightseeing attraction trolling the Hudson River in New York City. The Bob-Lo Boat was unceremoniously towed to Toledo, Ohio on Tuesday morning, September 16th, 2014 for a year of restoration.

S.S. Columbia in dry dock awaiting restoration - September 2014

Related links:

Photographs of the Bob-Lo Island amusement rides.

YouTube video of Bob-Lo boats moored on Detroit River outside of U.S. Steel (the old Great Lakes Steel) docks on December 1, 2012.

Bob-Lo Island update, now becoming an upscale residential development.

The Bob-Lo Island Dance Hall Orchestrion: