New book tells Detroit's unique history through Detroit News images

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what hundreds of photos would say about Detroit's history. 

They would tell the story of a bustling city that grew exponentially after the Civil War. They would tell the story of a city shaped by Henry Ford's Model T, the assembly line, immigration and a resilient population obsessed with sports.

Now, there's a new photo book that shares Detroit's remarkable story from the late 19th century to 1939 — all through the lens of The Detroit News and its photographers.

Horses pull their Detroit City Railway car along Congress and Baker Streets in Detroit in the 1870s. The arrow  at right points to a bell on the horse's collar.

"Iconic Images of Detroit's Past: History through the lens of The Detroit News" (Pediment, $44.95) features 230 photos of the city's past, from Detroit's rising skyline after the Civil War through Prohibition and the Great Depression.

Pediment is a Washington-based publisher that specializes in pictorial history books from newspapers across the country. They've published roughly 1,200 books from newspapers in nearly every state in the country, said Brad Fenison, Pediment's CEO.

But they've never done a book with images from The Detroit News before. Fenison, who has published books on Detroit, said he'd regularly stumble on stunning images from the city before but couldn't use them because they belonged to The News.

A group of Detroit News employees have a swell time at Adams Restaurant in Detroit in 1933, the year Prohibition ended. Incidentally, they're drinking Eidelweiss beer, a Chicago brew.

So when The Detroit News reached out to Fenison about creating a book, "I knew they had something special," said Fenison, who works with his son, Chris, Pediment's president. "In the process of doing those previous pictorial history books, I kept running across these stunning photos but finding out we couldn't use them. So when they called and I had the opportunity to do a book using these top- notch photos that these Detroit News photographers had taken, we jumped at that chance."

The 160-page book — which is divided by decade — starts in the late 19th century with the advent of photography (early photos, before the newspaper had staff photographers were captured by commercial photographers who sold them to the paper, said Fenison) and runs until 1939. Fenison said they stopped at 1940 because so much happened in the time period after that, it would be enough for another book (though that isn't the plan — for now).

A crowd scene celebrates outside the B&C Club in Detroit's Paradise Valley after Joe Louis' win in a rematch against German boxer Max Schmeling on June 22, 1938. Louis had lost to Schmeling in 1936, but this time knocked him out in the first round.

Vivid photos depict Detroit's first version of mass transportation, a streetcar pulled by horses; workers building the Ambassador Bridge in 1929; liquor flowing out of buildings at the end of Prohibition; and of course, sports.

Charlotte Massey, a former assistant photo editor at The News, is one of three retired staffers along with Pam Shermeyer and Bill McMillan who helped with photo research and editing. She said it couldn't have been done without the help of Wayne State University's Walter P. Reuther Library, which has most of The Detroit News' original negatives and has digitized them. Many newspapers haven't held on to their archives, she said.

The book's cover depicts a fleet of Detroit News trucks circa 1912-1913.

For Massey, the book shows how influential Detroit is — and resilient, she said.

Detroit is "one of America’s greatest boom towns ever," said Massey, who spent 18 years at The News. "It just grew and grew and grew. The only thing that stopped it was the Great Depression. It started out as this little fur trading settlement and got up to close to 2 million people."

'Iconic Images of Detroit’s Past: History through the lens of The Detroit News'

Published by Pediment; available for $44.95.

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