You didn’t think I’d forget the Ypsilanti Water Tower, did you? Built with stone in 1890 for the astronomic sum of exactly $21,435.63, this engineering marvel can hold up to 250,000 gallons of water within its massive steel tank. Next to the intersection of Washtenaw Ave and Cross Street and right across from Eastern Michigan University, it’s a landmark, a testament to the great ambitions of humble, little ol’ Ypsilanti. Erected on the highest point in Ypsilanti, it stands 147 feet tall, rearing its head all over town, and… and….
Well, it looks like a giant penis. I mean, come on! In 2003, ultra-hip Brooklyn mag Cabinet even declared it the most phallic building in the world. It joins a long line of iconic phallic monuments, a venerable club that includes the Empire State Building in New York and the many of obelisks of Egypt. Not too shabby, eh?
Today, the water bill for the average person in Ypsilanti is about $100. In 1898, shortly after the Ypsilanti Water Tower was completed, your water bill was exactly $7 a year if you had a faucet and a bathtub. Tack on extra dollar per cow, and you were all set. And they say technology has made life simpler!
When the railroad first connected Detroit to Ypsilanti in 1838, it was a cause for celebration. The governor of Michigan took on the first train bound for Ypsilanti, and though the train broke down on the return trip and the passengers were forced to walk the rest of the way back to Detroit, legend has it they broke out into song anyway. The immense economic impact the railroad would have on Michigan was abundantly clear. The good times were (pun intended this time) right around the bend.
Actually, almost as soon the first train car rolled into Ypsilanti the foundations were laid for a series of three- and four-story brick buildings, the beginnings of what would become Depot Town, a bustling business district. Tailors, barmaids, firemen, lawyers, junk dealers, the manufacturers quickly moved in – brushstrokes of life in an ever-changing mural.
Elijah McCoy was a common sight in Depot Town in the early days, oiling steam engines and shoveling coal into the orange glow of the boiler as an employee for Michigan Central Railroad. Down the street in his small Ypsilanti machine shop, he’d spend the the most the rest of his time tinkering. Usually, he was toiling away on some improvement to his automatic lubricator for steam engines, by far his most successful invention. Imagine, all that, so he could slack off a bit on the job. And it wasn’t even “the real McCoy” – William McCoy’s smuggled Prohibition Era liquor holds that honor.
His parents George and Mildred McCoy, interestingly enough, worked for a very different kind of railroad: the Underground Railroad. A letter from a certain Mr. Hatfield of Cincinnati meant that runaway slaves were on the way to the family’s house. Before nightfall, Mildred baked fresh bread and ham and brewed coffee for the runaways, and in the wee hours of the morning George snuck them from Ypsilanti to Wyandotte, Michigan. From there, runaways could cross the Detroit River to Canada and sweet, sweet freedom.
Now, Depot Town is where you go if you want good food, retro clothes, antiques, and… the history of Hudson Motors? Yep, that’s right. On the corner of Cross and River, inside what was the last remaining Hudson dealership, you can take a quick peek inside curator Jack Miller’s transmission-obsessed, Hudson loving mind. And what a wonderful world his sprawling Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum is.
Just check out Herb Thomas’ 1952 Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Oh, and please ignore the “Don’t Touch Me – I’m Not That Type of Car” sign. Caress the Hornet’s 124 inch wheelbase; fondle the love handles on this 1 1/2 beast. Never before or since has baby blue struck such fear into NASCAR drivers. Some say it was over-engineered, but that’s like saying Barry Bonds was over-steroided. Sure, but he was a damn good baseball player, wasn’t he?
The sprawling showrooms are home to more than Hudson Motors cars, however. Maybe short-lived Kaiser-Frazer is more your style? Or is the Chevrolet Corvair, with its exclusive air-cooled rear-mounted engine, what really gets you stoked? If it’s a car that somehow has ties to Ypsilanti, it’s probably here, right next to some dirty rags and scattered tools.
The sense of pride for the Willow Run plant, in particular, is palpable. After B-24 production under Ford ceased following the end of World War II, the plant was purchased by Kaiser and then General Motors, making Ypsilanti a center for automobile production. The city helped win the war and put the world on wheels. What else could you ask for?
Believe it or not, Ypsilanti has a population of only 19,000. Even at its peak, it never hit 30,000, but man does it have some history and character. That’s why it’s sad, for example, to see Eastern Michigan University’s football team chasing after Big Ten coaches – hiring Ron English from the University of Michigan as head coach ended in a 0-12 season the first year.
Forget Ann Arbor. You can do it Ypsilanti!