Fort St. / Pleasant St. & NW Railroad

mdot historic bridges wayne county Fort St. / Pleasant St. & NW Railroad

County:  Wayne

City/Township:  Detroit

Location:  Fort St. / Pleasant St. & NW Railroad

Year Built:  1928

About this Bridge:
The Fort Street Viaduct is eligible for the National Register as an important example of a major urban grade separation built during a formative period of highway development. It is also significant for successfully overcoming the engineering challenges presented by a project of this scale.

Fort Street bisects an area that was transformed by substantial industrial development during the early twentieth century as Detroit established its reputation as the Motor City. An undated newspaper clipping in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library commented on the "passing of Fort Street West": "Once a social center, it is now a great business artery whose splendid mansions have given way before the march of industrial progress." The Fort Street Viaduct passes over a broad expanse of rail tracks just west of the Rouge River, the spine of Detroit's heavy industry. Companies concentrated factories and warehouses along these efficient transportation corridors. The Ford Motor Company's world-famous Rouge River plant, established in 1917 and significantly expanded in the early to mid-1920s, is just upstream from the Fort Street river crossing. Because of its strategic location, Fort Street was one of the routes chosen in the 1920s to serve as a "superhighway," a system of roads upgraded by the city, county and state to facilitate car and truck access to and through the Detroit area. Superhighways featured 204-foot right-of-ways, central medians, and lighting.

As vehicular traffic volume grew during the early twentieth century, railroad-highway intersections were increasingly the source of travel delays and accidents. Plans to separate the grades at major crossings were made public in March 1928, when the Wayne County Road Commission announced an agreement with the Wabash Railway and the Michigan State Highway Department for a five-year improvement program. The railway pledged to contribute half of the $2 million cost, with the state and county dividing the remainder. The Fort Road project was the first to be tackled under the agreement. The Michigan Central and Pennsylvania railroads joined the Wabash Railway in the effort, each agreeing to provide $200,000. Another party to the project was the city of Detroit, which had recently annexed the area, formerly the village of Oakwood. The project's substantial cost and other design considerations resulted in a protracted planning process, during which at least seven alternatives were considered. The structure was required to permit passage of twelve railroad tracks at an oblique angle to Fort Street, as well as two city streets. To accommodate the two 40-foot paved traffic surfaces of the Fort Superhighway, the overpass had to have at least an 80-foot roadway. Aesthetics and safety were also of concern. The Wayne County Road Commission's 1927-1928 annual report explained that the design would include an "ornamental concrete handrail" supporting "ornamental concrete lamp posts" so that "the entire project will be adequately and beautifully lighted." Construction began in summer 1928, and was completed in 1930. Wayne County's annual report for the fiscal year ending in August 1930 boasted that the viaduct "is a distinct improvement to this section of the City."

The Fort Street Viaduct is noteworthy for its design and size. When the Fort Street Viaduct opened, it was one of only three vehicular overpasses of the 33 road-railroad grade separations in Wayne County. It was usually cheaper to build a railroad bridge and have the street below; highway overpasses were only used when the number of tracks would require construction of a lengthy subway. Of the three Wayne County overpasses, one was a 400-foot-long structure with a 36-foot-wide roadway; another, which carried a 27-foot roadway, extended 1,700 feet. The Fort Street Viaduct, stretching 2,800 feet and providing an 80-foot roadway, was by far the most ambitious structure. As such, it exemplifies the grade separation program that grew in importance in the 1920s as planners sought to promote highway safety and decrease congestion.

While the urn-shaped balusters of the original railing have been replaced by solid concrete panels, the other components of the railings remain intact, including the octagonal lamp posts. Given the scale of this structure and the nature of its significance, the loss of the balusters is unfortunate, but is not a major detriment to its integrity.