Zachariah Chandler arrives in Detroit & Abraham Lincoln in New Salem

Statue of young Lincoln


Two places in early America: Detroit and New Salem. Both were frontier posts in 1830. Both seemed to have promising futures. Both had waterways that potentially could aid in their progress. Detroit had the Detroit River and New Salem had the Sangamon River. When Zachariah Chandler arrived in Michigan Territory’s Detroit in 1833, the city was already over one hundred years old. It had changed “hands”  several times by then. Young Chandler came to Detroit from “back East” in Bedford.  He was full of hope that young men had in those days to carve out a future and, perhaps, make a name for himself. He started business in dry-goods. Detroit had no railroads, no sewerage, and no paved streets. Its population numbered less than four-thousand inhabitants. But Chandler was fortunate, for Detroit, was going to experience amazing growth. In the next decade, Detroit would boast having 27 dry goods stores, 25 grocery stores, 8 drug stores, 7 clothing stores, 8 jewelry shops, 4 printing offices, 3 bookstores, 2 daily newspapers, 37 lawyers, 22 doctors, and 5 private colleges/seminaries. In one week, Detroit would see as many as 2,610 passengers arrive from Buffalo. And, of course, Detroit’s streets began to get paved-starting with Jefferson Avenue which had wooden blocks laid down. Zachariah Chandler lived to see all of the immense change and progress that Detroit would undergo.

At New Salem, in Illinois, young Abraham Lincoln had his hopes and dreams, as well. He was 22 years old when he arrived there in 1831. He also had followed a western path to his destination. He had never lived away from his family until then. New Salem couldn’t even be called a city. It was a village. It didn’t have the past that Detroit had already had by then. It must have been “rustic” compared to Detroit. It had a population of 25 families. New Salem had a cooper, a blacksmith, a cobbler, and a few other tradesmen. It had 2 doctors. There were also 2 stores, 2 saloons, and a post office. There was also a ferry on the Sangamon. Lincoln also worked in dry-goods. Unlike Detroit, the next decade would see New Salem decline and die. The hopes that the river raised did not occur. It was Chicago (to the north) that had the boom. Chandler kept Detroit as his home. Lincoln left New Salem. However, both men were successful in their careers and aspirations.

Today, New Salem is a tourist attraction. The village is rebuilt to give viewers a clearer understanding of what it looked like for the pioneers and for young Abraham Lincoln. Detroit has been in decline in many ways for a half-century. It does show signs of rebirth. Zachariah Chandler lays resting in Detroit’s Elmwood Cemetery. He would not recognize the city today. He probably would be filled with sadness at the obvious decay of the place. But maybe he, too, would have some hope come alive at signs of the city’s revival. I’d like to think that he walks along Jefferson Avenue and stops at the location where his brick store was-at Jefferson and Woodward-and marvel at the sight of the new skyscrapers towering towards the sun.



Information partially gleaned from the following sources:

Elmwood Endures: History of a Detroit Cemetery by Michael S. Franck

Life of Zachariah Chandler published by Post & Tribune-Detroit

Abraham Lincoln by Benjamin Thomas

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One Response to “Zachariah Chandler arrives in Detroit & Abraham Lincoln in New Salem”

  1. Chicago actually did not exist as a city until 1837 (Lincoln was in the legislature when it was incorporated, and at that time it was about the same size as New Salem). By this time New Salem was on the decline. Its hopes rose when the Talisman made it up the river that far, but it declined when it had trouble making it back down – so for it to survive, it needed improvements, either making the Sangamon more navigable, or railroads (which were expensive), Lincoln was for the former, and neither actually happened in the end.

    Interestingly, Lincoln helped pass a bill in 1837 that would get two railroads built in Illinois, forming a cross – one from Meredosia (on the Illinois River) to east of Danville at the Indiana state line, the other from Cairo to Galena (a spur was added to the newly formed city of Chicago at the last minute.) Due to the crash of 1837 only about 40 miles of railroad from Jacksonville (west of Springfield) to Springfield (where the railroads would have crossed) was built in the end.

    I did not know Detroit was that big in the 1830s (or that it had paved streets).

    It’s interesting how Chicago from 1980-now has been a boomtown, while Detroit has declined for most of those years.

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