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Davison: Nation's first freeway was built right the first time

Date Posted: August 3 2001

Detroit has a lot of firsts associated with the automobile. The first production line. The first paved road. The first traffic light.

One of the firsts to come along well after the turn of the century was the Davison Expressway, the nation's "first urban depressed freeway," a 2.85 mile stretch of road built in 1944 by the Wayne County Road Commission without traffic lights and cross streets. It was originally built to provide better access for workers at the automobile plants in the area.

By the early 1990s, the Davison in Highland Park was nearly 50 years old. It was well past its prime, but not necessarily because of the surface of the road.

"The pavement held up incredibly well," said Wayne County Roads Commission spokesman John Roach. "In all its years, it was never resurfaced. There were some rough patches, but potholes were really not a problem. The Davison's problem was that it had become functionally obsolete and unsafe."

The Davison wasn't built for such high traffic volumes and its lack of shoulders and the inadequate grassy median made it just a question of time before it would be replaced.

Instead of renovating the freeway, the Michigan Department of Transportation reportedly was discussing "filling in" the freeway ditch, and making it a surface street. A hue and cry from the City of Detroit blocked any such talk, an agreement was reached with the state, and $45 million in renovations were completed in 1997.

Roach said the contractor tearing out the original Davison roadbed had to use dynamite in some areas to get the job done. He said one of the reasons for its great strength may have been that the concrete was cured by flooding the surface - 100 percent humidity apparently strengthens the concrete during the curing process.

The renovated freeway now has a total of eight lanes (instead of six), as well as ample shoulders on the left and right sides. There is now an interchange at M-1/Woodward Ave, where there used to be none.

Originally, the expressway's western terminus was at the corner of Davison Ave. and what is now Rosa Parks Blvd. Today it connects with the John C. Lodge Freeway. The eastern terminus was at the corner of Davison Ave. and Gallagher Street, four block west of Conant. Today the eastern end connects to the I-75/Chrysler Freeway.

The Davison was the forerunner of the nation's first great freeway, the Edsel Ford Freeway, later I-94, which moved workers to and from Detroit and the Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti.

THE WORLD'S "first urban depressed freeway," the Davison in Highland Park, is shown above shortly after it opened in 1944. The original pavement lasted for more than 50 years. Below is a photo that we're pretty certain is from the same view, taken from Woodward as construction was beginning.