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Thirty miles west of Detroit, where an Indian trail crossed the Huron River, Ypsilanti was the camping and burial ground for several Indian tribes. In 1809, three French explorers built a log Indian trading post on the west bank of the river. In 1823, Benjamin Woodruff acquired the trading post and with several companions established a small settlement on the river a mile south of the post. He named it Woodruff's Grove. It was the first settlement in Washtenaw County.

In 1824, Father Gabriel Richard, representative in Congress for the Michigan Territory, urged the building of a federal highway from Detroit to Chicago, later known as the Chicago Road. Following the Sauk Indian trail, the surveying crew put the crossing of the Huron River nearly a mile north of Woodruff's Grove. In 1825 Judge Augustus Woodward, John Stewart, and William Harwood combined portions of their own land to form the original plat for a new settlement at the crossing. It was named for Demetrius Ypsilanti, a hero of the Greek War for Independence, who was much admired by Americans for his part in a struggle for freedom so like their own. When fire destroyed the school at Woodruff's Grove, that small settlement was abandoned in favor of Ypsilanti.

The military road to Chicago was officially opened in 1835. Three years later the railroad from Detroit reached Ypsilanti. The depot was located east of the river, and two decades later, a towered brick masonry station was constructed. Adjacent to the depot rose a small commercial district known as Depot Town. Throughout its history, the fortunes of Depot Town echoed those of the railroad. Both reached their height in the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth. Most of the buildings still standing in Depot Town were built from the 1850s through the 1870s. Their concentration at the depot end of Cross Street, thinning out toward the river, reflects the central role played by the railroad and the depot.

A second business district developed on the west side of the river along the Chicago Road (now Michigan Avenue). The businesses outfitted travelers and settlers migrating into Michigan. Both business districts were also commercial centers for the agricultural development of the surrounding area.

In 1845 the state legislature established Ypsilanti Seminary, one of Michigan's first publicly supported secondary schools, and in 1849 a teachers' training school, Michigan State Normal School (now Eastern Michigan University; see WA14). In the twentieth century the river industries of the mid- to late nineteenth century yielded to manufacturing and in 1941 the Ford Motor Company erected an auto plant in the meadows east of the city at Willow Run. When the United States entered World War II, that plant was quickly converted to wartime production. After the war, and until its bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, General Motors built and assembled cars here.

Writing Credits

Kathryn Bishop Eckert

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