The rise and fall of Detroit: A timeline

The sad story of how one of America's great cities boomed, transformed the country, struggled, went bankrupt, and became a cautionary tale

On Thursday, Detroit made history — and not in a good way. The heart of the U.S. auto industry and home to the Detroit Tigers, Eminem and the White Stripes, Motown, and (maybe) Jimmy Hoffa's body became the largest city ever to file for bankruptcy. In many ways, this financial crisis is 60 years in the making. As the Motor City faces an uncertain future, here's a look back at some key dates in the long, storied past of one of America's great cities:

July 24, 1701
Antoine de La Mothe Cadillac establishes a French settlement, Fort Ponchartrain du Détroit (the strait), along with 100 French soldiers and an equal number of Algonquins.

Britain wins the city from the French.

U.S. forces capture Detroit from the British.

Feb. 1, 1802
Detroit becomes a chartered city, covering about 20 acres. It is incorporated as a city of Michigan territory in 1806, unincorporated in 1809, then reincorporated in 1815, this time for good. The population in 1815 is about 850.

Detroit adopts its forward-looking city motto: Speramus Meliora; Resurget Cineribus (We hope for better days; it shall rise from the ashes).

Bernhard Stroh opens Stroh Brewery Company. Over the years, Stroh's acquires several rival brands, including Schaefer, Schlitz, Old Milwaukee, Lone Star, and Colt 45.

The Stroh Brewery Company, circa 1864. (Creative Commons/Wikipedia)

June 4, 1896
Henry Ford test drives his first automobile on the streets of Detroit.

Ford establishes the Detroit Automobile Co., producing all of two cars before the company fails three years later.

Ransom E. Olds opens Detroit's first auto manufacturing plant.

Nov. 3, 1901
Ford opens his second car company, Henry Ford Co. Ford leaves the company in August 1902, and it becomes the Cadillac Motor Co. Detroit is America's 13th biggest city, with a population of about 286,000.

June 16, 1903
Ford starts the Ford Motor Co. in Detroit; among the 12 initial investors are brothers John and Horace Dodge, who start manufacturing their own Dodge cars in 1915. Ford soon moves his operations to the suburb of Dearborn. (The company hasn't built a car in Detroit since 1910.)

Shift change at the Ford factory in Detroit, circa 1910. (Library of Congress)

Sept. 16, 1908
William Durant and Charles Stewart Mott found General Motors in Flint, Mich., as a holding company for Buick. (Today, GM is now the only one of the major U.S. automakers headquartered in Detroit proper.)

June 6, 1925
Walter Chrysler starts the Chrysler Corp. in Detroit. It is now headquartered in Auburn Hills, a Detroit suburb.

Detroit's population hits 1.85 million, making it America's fourth-largest city, with 296,000 manufacturing jobs.

The 3,500,000-square-foot Packard Motor Car Co. factory in Detroit, opened in 1903, is shuttered. It still stands today, a symbol of Detroit's long, slow decline.

The crumbling Packard plant, in October 2009. (Albert Duce/Creative Commons)

Berry Gordy founds Motown Records. He names the record company's center of operations — a two-story house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard — "Hitsville USA." And he isn't exaggerating. With artists like the Supremes, the Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and the Jackson 5, Motown has 120 singles hit the Top 20 in the 1960s, and changes the direction of popular music.

July 23-28, 1967
The Twelfth Street riot, one of the biggest in U.S. history, pits inner-city black residents against police, then National Guard troops sent in by Gov. George Romney and Army soldiers deployed by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In five days of rioting, 43 people are killed, 467 injured, and more than 7,200 arrested. Some 2,000 buildings are destroyed.

The gasoline crises help give smaller, more fuel-efficient foreign-made cars a toehold in the U.S., signaling a long period of crisis for Detroit's Big Three automakers.

A vehicle is crushed at U.S. Auto Supply in Detroit on August 3, 2009. (REUTERS/Rebecca Cook)

Detroit elects Coleman Young as its first black mayor. He serves until 1993.

July 1992
Moody's cuts Detroit's debt rating to junk status.

Under Mayor Dennis Archer, the city's credit rating rises to a solid investment grade, on the back of a bout of urban renewal.

Stroh's Brewery Company is sold to Pabst and Miller, with its brands either divided between the two breweries or discontinued.

Under Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, the city's credit ratings start to slide back into junk territory.

September 2008
Kilpatrick pleads guilty to obstruction of justice charges and leaves office.

December 2008
President Bush gives a provisional $17.4 billion bailout to GM and Chrysler.

May-July 2009
Chrysler and GM declare bankruptcy, and the Obama administration provides financing and guides the automakers through expedited bankruptcy proceedings.

March 2011
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Detroit's population has fallen to 713,777, a 25 percent plummet from 2000 and the lowest level in 100 years. Detroit's finances are premised on a minimum tax base of 750,000 people. A new law, Public Act 4, that allows the state to intervene in financially troubled local governments takes effect.

Dec. 21, 2011
Michigan Treasurer Andy Dillon says that the state will conduct a formal review of Detroit's finances.

November 2012
Voter repeal Public Act 4. The next month, Gov. Rick Snyder signs a replacement bill, Public Act 436, that lets struggling local governments choose between mediation, a deal with the state, a state-appointed emergency financial manager, or Chapter 9 bankruptcy.

Feb. 19, 2013
A state review board appointed by Snyder decides that Detroit is in "operational dysfunction," unable or unwilling to restructure its finances, and needs intervention from the state.

March 25, 2013
Kevyn Orr, a restructuring specialist appointed by Snyder as Detroit emergency manager, takes office, at an annual salary of $275,000.

May 13, 2013
Orr, in his first public report on Detroit's finances, calls the city "clearly insolvent."

June 14, 2013
Orr says Detroit will stop making payments on some of its $18.5 billion in debt, putting it in technical default. Orr also lays out a plan to restructure Detroit's finances to avoid bankruptcy, including cuts to the pensions and health benefits of retired city workers and a steep haircut on municipal bonds.

July 18, 2013
Orr files a Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition on behalf of Detroit, marking the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in history and sending the Motor City into unknown territory.

Sources: BusinessWeek, Detroit Historical Society, Detroit News, Reuters, Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Wikipedia (2)


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