It was the site of the world’s first four-way electric traffic light. It has seen everything from horse-drawn carriages to muscle cars cruise its streets. And it has served as a meeting place for young and old petrolheads alike for over a century. This is the story of Michigan’s Woodward Avenue.
Woodward Avenue, also known as M-1, can be traced back as far as 1701 when Native Americans used dry river and lake beds as transportation routes. These routes would eventually become City of Detroit roads in 1805.
As Detroit and the surrounding cities continued to grow, the need to connect such cities was critical. This project, headed by Thomas Jefferson-appointed Judge Augustus Woodward, assumed his name. Augustus Woodward honestly tried to deny naming Woodward after himself. “Not so. The avenue is named Woodward because it runs wood-ward, toward the woods,” he said. Sure, Mr. Woodard. Sure.
Woodward would go on to become a street of firsts. The first automobile to come out of the Motor City was driven on Woodward on March 3, 1896. This occurred only three months prior to Henry Ford’s historic first drive. In 1909, the country’s first mile of concrete road was paved on Woodward. The nation’s first crow’s nest traffic tower complete with a police officer atop directing traffic was unveiled in 1917. And the world’s first four-way red/yellow/green electric traffic light was installed there in 1918.
Ninety-seven years later, Woodward stretches 21.5 miles northwesterly from Detroit to Pontiac and is as exciting as ever.
Pick any time of any day of the work week, and you’re guaranteed to see something driving on Woodward that makes you smile. On the weekends, crowds of young and old alike gather to watch locals cruise in every type of vehicle imaginable. People literally drive to Woodward on any given Friday or Saturday summer night for the sole purpose of watching the flow of enthusiasts’ cars. But that’s nothing compared to the third Saturday of every August.
The Woodward Dream Cruise officially began one August Saturday in 1995 as a fundraiser for a soccer field in Ferndale, Michigan. Roughly 25,000 were expected to attend. 250,000 people showed up, and the rest is history. Today, 1.5 million people assemble annually to show off their rides at the Dream Cruise. People travel from across the globe to participate in what has been called the world’s largest one-day automotive event.
Woodward has been called many things. It is the road that “put the world on wheels.” It is “Detroit’s main street.” And it is the “Father Road” to our nation’s “Mother Road” – Route 66. Whatever you want to call it, Woodward is truly something special.
If you’re ever in the area, go cruise Woodward Avenue. You never know what you might see.
Photo Credit 1: Alex Tillman first picked up a DSLR in 2012 at the age of eighteen. In three short years, he has shot for Jalopnik and Dupont Registry at the North American International Auto Show, the Michigan Gumball Rally, and won numerous contests. Remember the name, Alex Tillman. Better yet, go like him on FaceBook.
Photo Credit 2: Detroit News Archives
Great story, Matt! I can see Woodward from my front window. Love sitting on the porch of my home in Pleasant Ridge and watching the classic cars cruise by. Check out my dad’s ’81 AMC Concord. The guy’s won a ton of trophies, you wouldn’t believe.