Detroit, The Airship City
While sources describing cities of the past can be found throughout the library collections, another way to view urban history is by looking at predictions of the future. In his self-published Poetical Drifts of Thought, or, Problems of Progress (Detroit, 1884), Lyman E. Stowe (b. 1843) envisioned the city of Detroit in the year 2100.
It would be difficult to summarize the exuberant and wide-ranging contents of Poetical Drifts of Thought, which includes discussion of “The Mistakes of the Christian Church” and poems on subjects from religious faith to scientific progress, astronomy, evolution, technological innovations, racial equality, and the Civil War. Stowe’s thoughts on future technologies bore a striking resemblance to later science-fiction tropes, including flying machines, the absorption of food in a gaseous form, and even instantaneous travel “on the electric current with the speed of thought.” The final section of the book was devoted to the past, present, and future of Detroit, the “City of the Straits.” It began with six pages of prose about the city’s population and resources, likely drawn from printed sources such as city directories and newspapers.
The first poem on “Detroit in the Past” gave a brief overview of the city’s history, including the Indigenous people who first lived in the area, the arrival of French and English settlers, and a section covering Pontiac’s siege of Detroit in 1763. The second poem, “Detroit of the Present,” which he noted could be sung to the tune of “Yankee Doodle,” provided an upbeat description of the rapidly-growing city, including bustling businesses and factories, the booming real estate market, parks and riverfront views, and famous landmarks such as the Soldiers’ Monument and the Detroit Opera House. This text was accompanied by a three-foot-long fold-out view of the Detroit riverfront, based on a photograph taken from the balcony of the Crawford House, Windsor.
Stowe himself was a Detroit businessman, being at various times a subscription book agent, a publisher, and the owner of a shop that sold pictures, frames, and clocks. According to the Detroit city directories from 1880 to 1883, Stowe’s shop was located at 121 Gratiot Avenue, near what is now the Skillman branch of the Detroit Public Library.
Lyman E. Stowe’s store; Stowe is the tallest figure in the back row. Courtesy of the Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library.
In “Detroit of the Future,” Stowe predicted the city’s anticipated wonders, including both technological innovations and great societal changes. He thought the city of Detroit in 2100 would be enclosed, “covered with iron and glass for 20 miles square.” With geothermal heat and electric lights, the residents would experience “perpetual summer day, and tropical fruits and flowers growing the year around.” By that time, the city itself would extend the full length of the river on both sides, with a population of more than 1.5 million people. Factories would have moved outside the city, to which workers would travel through pneumatic tubes or in aerial ships. Stowe’s utopian vision included the end of poverty and hunger, as “superfl’us wealth has had its fall, And equal rights now govern all.” Indigence and crime would be abolished, removing the need for police, lawyers, judges, prisons, and poorhouses.
Stowe’s ideas about electricity, flying machines, and other advances may have drawn inspiration from his vast and eclectic reading, including poetry, novels, newspapers and magazines, and a vast range of nonfiction books including Alexander Winchell’s Sketches of Creation (New York, 1870), Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (London, 1859), and Orson Squire Fowler’s volumes on phrenology. According to his introduction, he attributed his enjoyment of reading to popular fiction, “that much abused little dime novel.”
In compensating for a lack of early education, he credited “the great public educators, the daily and weekly papers” for providing him with much information. The breadth of his reading can be seen in the list of sources provided at the end of the book as well as the citations given throughout the text. However, he cautioned that while he would always try to give credit where it was due, he had “read so much that I can hardly say where all of my ideas came from, or what is my own or what I have borrowed from others.” To make up for this, he inserted a pair of large quotation marks in his introduction and asked the “fastidious reader to place them where they belong.”
“A scene in Detroit in the year 2100, looking down Boulevard ave.—the City covered with iron and glass for 20 miles square.” Lyman E, Stowe, Poetical Drifts of Thought (1884).
“The Flying Machine of the near Future,” Poetical Drifts of Thought (1884).
David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography, real-photo postcard by Louis James Pesha, 1911.
David V. TInder Collection of Michigan Photography, real-photo postcard, 1910.
Poetical Drifts of Thought is illustrated throughout with a mixture of original wood engravings and stock illustrations borrowed from other sources. The engravings commissioned by Stowe are signed by “E. A. Young of Detroit.” Stowe did not seem entirely satisfied with the outcome of Young’s work, commenting under one image that “The above cut misrepresents the author’s idea. It is a mistake of the engraver, that we had not time to correct.” The caption for the flying machine notes: “The above cut is not supposed to be an accurate description of the future flying machine. The author of this work [Stowe] has in contemplation a flying machine that he believes will work perfectly, and which he will soon test.” Engraving blocks for many of these illustrations are now at the American Antiquarian Society in the Lyman Stowe Collection of Matrices.
Stowe was not the only one to envision airships hovering in the skies above Detroit. In the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography, there are several examples of 20th century real-photo postcards that depict Detroit with aircraft of various kinds flying low over the city. However, these flying machines have been cut and pasted into the skyline of the city, adding visual interest to the postcard and suggesting a more urbanized and futuristic cityscape. For example, the postcard “Detroit the Airship City” includes an airship as well as an airplane, unintentionally echoing Stowe’s visions of a futuristic Detroit.
Another postcard from Trenton, Michigan, takes a more cynical view of the future of flight, contrary to Stowe’s vision of social equality. This postcard, depicting a pasted-in airplane flying low over a street scene, included a printed poem under the image that forecasted an increasing class divide with the rise of air travel. It read:
In nineteen hundred and sixteen
We all shall be flying—perhaps!
And racing with sea-gulls and
In dizzy aerial laps
We’ll go to our business each
In speedy aeroplanes,
And move our dirigible baloons
To steeples or weather vanes
Then all will be joy to the chaps who fly,
But days full of fear and dread
For the common people who have
Things dropping from overhead
Stillson wrenches and gasoline cans,
And champagne bottles and corks
Will cover the buildings and fields
And bury the chap who walks.
Although present-day pedestrians in the “City of the Straits” do not enjoy fantastical views of airships and biplanes overhead, nor need they scramble for shelter from falling debris, perhaps some of Stowe’s other visions will yet come to pass by the year 2100.
Curator of Books