Revenue Stream: How the Detroit River Built the University of Michigan - Detroit River Story Lab

Revenue Stream

How the Detroit River Built the University of Michigan

In the 19th century it was furs and timber; in the 20th it was automobiles and pharmaceuticals. No matter the cargo, the Detroit River was and is an essential shipping route between the Great Lakes region and the Atlantic Ocean. Wealth derived from the  Detroit River’s commercial shipping industry has flowed into the University of Michigan for the past two hundred years, financing everything from new buildings to scholarships.

An 1852 print of the Detroit River shows a busy waterway trafficked by steamers and sailboats. By 1900 Detroit was the world’s largest manufacturer of stoves, ships, pharmaceuticals, rail cars, and foundry products, sending much of its supply East via the Detroit River. (“View of Detroit, Michigan, from Sandwich, Canada,” 1852. Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library, The University of Michigan.)

A University for the City of the Straits

At the turn of the 19th century, Detroit was little more than a fur-trading post of around 800 residents: but local leaders Chief Justice Agustus Woodward, Reverend John Monteith, and Father Richard Gabriel envisioned a world-class city of culture and industry. As part of their push to make Detroit the jewel of the Midwest, in 1817 they drew up the founding charter for the “University of Michigania.” Although they imagined building an institution of higher education that would rival–and surpass–East Coast universities, they recognized that Detroit first needed a foundation of primary and secondary education. To that end, the first “University” building they opened was a small combined primary and high school on Bates Street–just a block from the Detroit River.

The early donations that funded the new schoolhouse’s construction came from prominent Detroit citizens who had made their fortunes in river trade. These included James May, a merchant who shipped goods on the Detroit River ($5 yearly for five years); William Woodbridge, customs collector of the Port of Detroit 1814-1827 and later a University trustee ($200); and James Abbott, the American Fur Company agent in Detroit ($250). Members of the Campau clan–one of the first families to settle in French Detroit–also made critical donations to the University’s first building. Joseph Campau, known as Detroit’s first millionaire, amassed wealth by trading fur and speculating on valuable land along the banks of the Detroit River. At one point he even owned the Detroit River’s Belle Isle, which British lieutenant George McDougall had illegally obtained from indigenous people in 1769. His family wealth found its way into the University’s coffers in the form of a $250 donation from Campau’s masonic lodge and a $300 donation from his nephew John R. Williams (better known as Detroit’s first mayor).

These early donations—totaling over $20,000 in today’s currency—affirmed the Detroit River’s importance as an economic driver for the University’s growth. By the time the University moved out of the little Bates Street schoolhouse and began offering college-level classes on its expansive Ann Arbor campus in 1841, its reliance on the Detroit River economy was well established: and showed no signs of decreasing.

William Livingstone is pictured here opening the Livingstone Channel on October 19, 1912.

(Courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Age of Industry

Detroit’s transformation from a small trading post into an industrial city began in earnest with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1827. Thanks to this feat of engineering, goods manufactured in Detroit could be quickly shipped down the Detroit River, across Lake Erie, and through the Erie Canal towards East Coast markets. The river also brought raw materials such as timber and ores down from the Upper Great Lakes region to fuel the city’s manufacturing plants. By 1907 the Detroit River shipped more goods by weight than the ports of New York and London combined. Another major maritime engineering project–the Livingstone Channel–was completed in 1912, deepening and widening the Detroit River between Bois Blanc Island and Grosse Ile. The channel allowed cargo ships to pass more safely from the upper Detroit River into Lake Erie, making Detroit’s maritime shipping industry even more efficient and profitable.

Although Detroit ultimately became synonymous with the automobile industry, in the early twentieth century its diverse manufacturing economy included stoves, ships, metal parts, rail cars, and pharmaceuticals. In this era, a new generation of river traders shaped the University; if the Detroit River’s early fur-trading wealth came to the University of Michigan in a trickle, its later industrial wealth was a flood.


Helen Newberry donates $18,000 to build Newberry Hall, now the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology.

Michigan alumnus John Stoughton Newberry co-founded the Michigan Car Company in 1864, manufacturing railcars out of the Detroit River township of Springwells in the age of steam travel. After his death in 1887, his widow Helen donated a portion of his railway fortune to the University of Michigan to build a headquarters for the Students’ Christian Association: Newberry Hall. Later, Helen and John’s children continued their legacy of both Detroit manufacture and generosity. Their son founded the Packard Motor Car Company, and with his siblings donated $75,000 in 1915 to build the Helen Newberry Residence beside Newberry Hall. The Newberry Residence was, and still serves as, the University’s first women’s residence hall.


Dexter M. Ferry founds a U-M botany fellowship awarded until 1908, a total donation of $4,800

D. M. Ferry & Company (founded 1879) was one of the world’s largest producers of flower and vegetable seeds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, operating out of an 850-acre farm north of Detroit and five germinating warehouses in Detroit proper. The company advertised their wares with colorful trade cards, like the one for candytuft seeds shown above (from the collections of The Henry Ford Museum).

While Ferry’s botany fellowships might seem most aligned with his business interests, he also made several other major donations. In 1902 and 1904 Ferry gave the University 27 acres of land for a football playing field (now vanished) and $9,500 for a limestone wall and wrought-iron gate, the latter designed by noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn and still visible at the Yost Ice Arena. In 1931, Ferry’s seed fortune provided another $43,000 to construct a building for the University of Michigan Press.


Frederick K. Stearns donates a musical instrument collection valued at $72,000. Stearns continued to add to the collection until 1907, at which point it totaled over 2,500 objects.

Frederick K. Stearns joined his father’s pharmaceutical firm in 1875 after graduating from the University of Michigan. By 1887 Frederick Stearns and Co. was the largest drug manufacturer in Detroit, using the Detroit River to distribute their products not only the rest of the United States but also to the entire world; Stearns and Co. eventually opened offices in Australia, South America, and Europe. In addition to its sheer scale, Stearns and Co. was noted for being among the first pharmaceutical companies to include an ingredient list with their products. Stearns used his pharmaceutical fortune to collect the rare musical instruments he later donated to his alma mater. Stearns’ initial gift and U-M’s later acquisitions have created a collection noted for its diversity, including instruments from cultures on six continents and at least four centuries.
A small sample of the collection can be viewed in Hill Auditorium’s lower lobby (author photo).

“The University of Michigan is located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe people. In 1817, the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadami Nations made the largest single land transfer to the University of Michigan. This was offered ceremonially as a gift through the Treaty at the Foot of the Rapids so that their children could be educated. Through these words of acknowledgment, their contemporary and ancestral ties to the land and their contributions to the University are renewed and reaffirmed.”

University of Michigan Land Acknowledgment.

Indigenous Land

The extravagant wealth produced by Detroit industries and river trade in the 19th and 20th centuries came at a cost: the exploitation of Black and indigenous enslaved people, and the dispossession of indigenous people from their ancestral lands. That dispossession benefited the University of Michigan both directly and indirectly. Indirectly, the “Indian Removal” policies of the mid-1800s set the stage for the increases in Euro-American population and industry that allowed the University of Michigan to flourish. But the University also benefited directly from the forced sale of indigenous land holdings on the Detroit River.

In 1817, Lewis Cass coercively negotiated the Treaty of Fort Meigs, transferring 4.2 million acres of Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadami into Euro-American hands. One clause of the treaty specified that 1,920 acres of this land should be used for the education of indigenous children. In order to fulfill this requirement, Cass handed the large parcel over to an educational institution founded that same year: the University of Michigan. Some of this land lay along the Detroit River, making it especially valuable.

In 1825 the University sold these Detroit River lands for an undisclosed amount; however, history records that the University raised a total of $5,880 by selling off the Fort Meigs parcel piecemeal between 1825 and 1936. At the time, the University used these monies to pay off debts and support the Bates Street school in its early days. Today, the University publicly acknowledges these funds as the foundation of its endowment.

As a minor recompense for its first major gift, in 1932 the University of Michigan established the American Indian Scholarships (now the Michigan Indian Tuition Waiver Program) to fund indigenous young people’s college studies.


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