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The Michigan Historical Review 45:1 (Spring 2019): 27-46©2019 Central Michigan University. ISSN 0890-1686 All Rights Reserved Dredge a River, Make a Nation Great: Shipping, Commerce, and Territoriality in the Detroit River, 1870-1905 By Ramya Swayamprakash Bob-Lo, or Bois Blanc Island, on the Canadian side of the lower Detroit River, is now full of expensive houses. There is no public transportation to or on the island, so to get there you would need to take the car ferry to cross the 1,000-foot channel. If you avoid the houses and go south (in the general direction of the “space needle”), you would enter the remains of Bob-Lo amusement park, which served the area from 1898 until 1994. If you walk to the end of the park, you will get to the head of a long, narrow strip of land. At the end of that strip, with Clifford the family dog’s grave for company, you will see Lake Erie stretching from a mile or so downstream all the way to the horizon. What you probably would not notice is that the long strip of land at the tip of Bois Blanc is all dredged material deposited to create an “upbound” sheltered shipping channel—the one you cross to get on the island in the first place. If you look towards the United States, you will see another sliver of land, covered with trees. That is the tail end of the “downbound” Livingstone Channel, created in the early twentieth century to make lake shipping in the lower Detroit River more efficient by separating it into unidirectional channels. Upstream of Bois Blanc Island and Fort Malden near Amherstburg, Ontario, lies the Limekiln Crossing.1 Dredged since the 1890s, the crossing is the subject of this article. Between 1874 and 1968 (when major dredging operations stopped), construction projects in the Detroit River created 96.5 kilometers (60 miles) of shipping channels, removed over 46,200,000 cubic meters of material, covered 4,050 hectares (40.5 square kilometers) of river bottom with dredge spoils, and built 85 hectares of above-waterline compensating works at a total cost of $283 million, all in the service of commercial 1 Historical sources also refer to the area as “Lime Kiln,” “Limekilns,” and “Limekiln.” For consistency, this article uses “Limekiln Crossing” except when quoting primary sources. 28 The Michigan Historical Review shipping in the Great Lakes.2 Even today, dredging continues as a maintenance act, to keep channels navigable and capable of handling bigger ships with deeper drafts. Dredging is clearly big business. The strip of land on which Clifford rests was constructed in the mid-twentieth century; however, the antecedents of this strip lie in the nineteenth century. This essay conceptualizes dredging as a process that was not merely a technological challenge but also had political underpinnings and territorial ambitions. Dredging is an act of claiming territory through “improvements.” Using the Detroit River in the late nineteenth century as a case study, I contend that dredging involved a process of making place—both physically, as dredge spills created new territory, and in imagination, as dredging helped promote state sovereignty. Dredging exposes the complications of boundary making, territorial control, and commerce. I examine dredging in the Detroit River from 1870 to 1905 for two reasons. First, dredging did not actually begin in the Great Lakes until the second half of the nineteenth century. Second, the possibility of railroad development brought together the shipping industry in its attempt to wield its substantial economic and political clout to stop railroads in their tracks by “improving” the channels through dredging as an important strategy. By 1906, the Detroit-Windsor rail tunnel was under construction. Completed in 1910, the tunnel allowed railroads to bypass the rail ferries that had been the primary means for railroads to cross the river. While the tunnel did not immediately terminate dredging operations, it did present a slow breaking-down of the hegemony of the shipping industry. Between 1870 and 1905, the shipping industry enjoyed almost unparalleled commercial success and political power; thus, this essay also chronicles the heyday of that industry. Why the Detroit River? From the height...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2327-9672
Print ISSN
0890-1686
Pages
pp. 27-46
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-01
Open Access
No
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