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 ThomasMail this post