History of the Detroit/Windsor Tunnel

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From the late 1860s until the late 1920s the idea of a tunnel constructed between Windsor and Detroit caused a lively debate.



The construction of the Detroit-Canada Tunnel is still regarded as one of the great engineering wonders of the world.



From its opening day to the present day, the tunnel has gone through many changes.

Tunnel Pre-construction

Debates regarding the building of a tunnel between the United States and Canada began as early as the late 1860s. Some people felt that a bridge was the more practical approach, as it was believed that a bridge could be constructed faster and would cost less. However, ships with very high masts navigated the Detroit River and critics believed it would be difficult to build a bridge high enough.

Before there was a tunnel or a bridge connecting the U.S. with Canada, private boats and ferries carried people and goods across the river. But winter ice was a serious obstacle and some other way seemed necessary.

Construction of a railway tunnel connecting Windsor and Detroit began in 1871. The project was abandoned when a pocket of sulphur gas claimed the lives of two workers and sickened many others. A second attempt was made between Grosse Isle, Michigan and Amherstburg, Ontario, seven years later. This project was also abandoned when limestone formations made excavation costs too high.

An American man named Luther Beecher saw the great potential in building a railway tunnel. He formed a company to devise a tunneling plan. The tunneling plan was known as "Uncle Luther's Mole". Nearly forty years after the first disastrous attempt, the Michigan Central Railway Tunnel was available for the shipping of both people and goods across the U.S./Canada border.

Even with a new railway tunnel, supporters of the bridge and automobile tunnel concepts remained devoted to their causes. With the automobile industry constantly expanding, both projects found favour.

Windsor Mayor Edward Blake Winter approached Detroit politicians with the idea of building the vehicle tunnel as a World War I memorial and international connection. After Detroit Mayor James Couzens approved the idea, Winter asked the Canadian government to construct the tunnel. However the project was discouraged, as the government was suffering financially after the war.

Despite the lack of funding and a popular fear that anyone using the tunnel would die of carbon monoxide poisoning, discussion continued through the 1920s. Determined tunnel supporters would not accept defeat, although they did accept that private funding would be needed.

View video Fred Martin became vice president of the company in charge of "The Detroit River Subway Project" in the mid 1920s. He became one of the biggest promoters of the project and was responsible for obtaining the funding needed to begin the project.

In 1926, Parsons, Klapp, Brinkerhoff and Douglas, a prestigious architectural firm in New York predicted that the tunnel would not only be feasible but also profitable. A group of Detroit bankers then made an agreement to fund the project, as long as the firm would design the tunnel and guarantee its construction costs.

An agreement was made between the two cities and the Detroit Canada Tunnel Corporation (DCTC), in which ownership of the tunnel would be transferred to the cities of Detroit and Windsor after 60 years of operation. This condition was made in exchange for the cities allowing construction beneath public rights-of-way.

Finally, though not without its doubters, construction of the Detroit/ Windsor Tunnel began in the summer of 1928.