How Detroit’s Industrial History Set the Stage for the Auto Business

In his new book, “Detroit: Engine of America,” author R.J. King examines the history of Detroit through the industries that made it an economic powerhouse.

The city of Detroit has been an economic driver of the American economy for a long time.

Detroit author and journalist RJ King dug into the city’s role in the national economy when he began writing his book “Detroit: Engine of America.”

“By 1896 when the first car was driven in Detroit, you had not only industrial output but also a steel workforce that came together to launch the automotive industry.” — R.J. King, author

Published last year, the book just won a gold medal at the Midwest Book Awards for cover design.

Listen: Author R.J. King on his new book “Detroit: Engine of America”


RJ King, author of “Detroit: Engine of America,” and editor of DBusiness magazine, says Detroit is a unique city in part due to its age and location between the east coast colonies and the western frontier.

“Detroit is the oldest city in the Midwest, more than 80 years older than the country,” he says. “We were the only game in town for decades if you wanted to move West, especially in the northern part of the country.”

King says there were multiple factors that came together to create Detroit’s automotive boom in the late 1800’s.

“By 1896 when the first car was driven in Detroit, you had not only industrial output but also a steel workforce that came together to launch the automotive industry,” King says.

Although the auto industry earned Detroit the moniker of “Motor City,” King says Detroit housed other prosperous industries like pharmaceuticals, ship building and musical instrument manufacturing. In fact, King says the musical instrument industry in Detroit was so renowned Queen Victoria ordered organs made in Detroit.

King says farming and livestock were also major industries in Detroit, and led Belle Isle to formerly be known as Hog Island.

“The farmers would take their livestock over to [the island] at night to prevent wolves from hunting them,” he says.

Much of “Engine of America” deals with historical figures in Michigan’s history, many of whom have had a moment of reckoning recently over their racist backgrounds.

One of these figures is Lewis Cass, a slave owner and proponent of the “Trail of Tears,” a program that included forced relocation of thousands of Native Americans, which has led many to call for removal of his namesake from buildings and monuments. However, King says that complete removal of controversial historical figures like Cass isn’t the answer.

“You can’t undo history — it happened — I understand why some people would want to take down statues or monuments but at the same time we can’t totally wipe out history and pretend it never happened,” King says.

This article was written by Detroit Today student producer Ali Audet.

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