Thinking Digital…

Having dabbled in digital projects, I have often wondered about audience engagement. In specific, how a project might actively engage with different kinds of users whilst also being able to generate new audiences. As I think about a new project, I cannot help but go back to an old idea I had. But before I get into the project itself, I want to give some context and background. As I have mentioned before, my doctoral project is about dredging and the Detroit River, in specific, trying to understand dredging as a historical, material, and ecological process. Dredging affected the river, but it also affected humans who lived on either bank. It changed access to the river and fundamentally altered its ecology. Dredging was a deeply ‘modern’ intervention—an attempt at recasting the natural world into a legible landscape of intervention and resource base for returns.[1]It eschewed the social and environmental worlds in an effort to recast nature for financial returns. But why the Detroit River? Dredging has been carried out throughout the Great Lakes (and continues to be). Yet, it is the Detroit River that was a historical choke point in the river. Originally a wide but evenly efficient channel—towards the middle of the channel, the river bottom was a beautiful U-shaped one, allowing an efficient and trustworthy course for indigenous canoes when the fur-trade was at its height; close to the banks however, the river was slow, and marshy, offering a great fish habitat—the river was fundamentally altered to serve one master: shipping. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century (mid nineteenth century to be precise) that dredging began. Till that time, the river was an important but untrustworthy friend of the shipping industry. It was however, an important ally for enslaved people escaping to Canada, offering them shelter on its many islands and a swift channel to cross in the night as they rowed their way to freedom.[2]While the American Civil War and emancipation officially ‘freed’ formerly enslaved peoples, in the first half of the nineteenth century, Detroit was an important terminus of the Underground Railroad. In fact, on both sides of the river, the legacies of the escape routes remain. The Detroit River was also the first battleground of the War of 1812. It wasn’t until the War of 1812 that the U.S.-Canada border along the Detroit River became a realized entity.[3]Thus, in the nineteenth century, the Detroit River played multiple roles in the service of many ends. Yet, it has yet to be studied for these roles. 

            Now that the context is set, the project I have in mind is the following: a long dureé examination of the multiple roles of the Detroit River with a special emphasis on the nineteenth century. Visually, I see this project mapping historical change over time through maps. Thanks to the USGS and other mapping agencies, there are reliable maps of the Detroit River region dating back to the seventeenth century. We also have a sense of where ribbon farms existed along the riverbanks, where settler encampments and indigenous villages existed as well as where the cities of Detroit and Windsor took root. Plotting these on a map that changes over time to show what and where things changed would be important. For instance, the Battle of Bloody Run—the site of the bloodiest battle during Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763—was fought on the site of present-day Elmwood Cemetery in Detroit. Incidentally the cemetery and the nearby Belle Isle were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted in the nineteenth century. Building the cemetery involved partially covering up the Bloody Run creek. Throughout the nineteenth century, the ribbon farms of Detroit made way for railroad yards. Creeks that fed the Detroit River were covered up and ship yards came up. A border crossing came up with the coming of the ferry dock downtown, where passengers embarked and disembarked on their way to or from the other side of the river. Indigenous villages were slowly destroyed to make way for settler encampments and then the city of Detroit. Enslaved people running away, used some docks closest to the narrowest points in the river, and sometimes hid overnight in a boat in order to make their escape. Others used the shelter of islands downstream to hop from one island to another, eventually crossing the nearly three mile wide river (at its mouth) to cross into safety.[4]Dredging involved removing of material from the river bed but also altering its banks. Bigger ships with deeper drafts needed a deeper, wider channel throughout the length of the river. Carving such a channel was a challenge. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, islands were augmented with dredge spoils or chipped away to make way for the shipping channel. 

            In tying together various historical events and actors along one physical axis—the Detroit River—this project would offer, in my opinion, an interesting examination of change over time. It would most obviously bring to light the changes in the river itself as well its place in the history of Detroit and Windsor. Furthermore, by concentrating on the nineteenth century more than others, it will bring to light the myriad changes the river underwent in that one century—monumental changes that had not been undertaken hitherto and have not been ever since. Such a project would however come with multiple challenges. One, would be sources, and translating them. Not all maps are made using the same projection. Nor are all maps accurate. Establishing a baseline will be important, as will knowing which maps to trust. Furthermore, in order for this project to be accessible and available, it would need geotagging and georectification to reflect all changes in the same way across different time periods. Two, related to sources, will be finding interesting stories that draw users in. Recent scholarship has brought to light the Underground Railroad, as well as the role of slavery and trade in Detroit.[5]Collating this material and curating it into a coherent narrative will be challenge which will involve going back to the original archival material as well as look for new material (especially in smaller archives such as those in Windsor and Amherstburg). Three, translating these materials into a visual format that is incisive as well as appealing will be an important challenge. On both banks, river communities are more than the urban centers of Detroit and Windsor. In order for this project to be successful, it would need to provide an inclusive narrative that brings together all these communities and is not only stuck to urban centers. A visual medium that is able to show the multiple stories on one platform without being geographically biased is important. A final challenge will be crowdsourcing material as well as using crowdsourcing to sift through and categorize materials as well as offer further insights. While crowdsourcing research is a double-edged sword and will need greater alertness to make sure no inaccuracies exist, crowdsourcing is a great way to make the project a community driven one. 


Dan: Dan is 50-year old living in Metro Detroit, interested in finding out more about the place he grew up in. Libraries are daunting, and he does not have the time to weed through multiple sources to get what he needs. Having lived in Metro Detroit his entire life, Dan has seen Detroit decline and be on the rise again. He went to Bob-Lo as a kid but now wants to know about the island and what happened to the park after it was in disuse. He has seen the Underground Railroad memorial on the Detroit River Trail but he is unclear about the working of the railroad. He is too young to remember all the railroad yards that dotted the river banks in the mid-twentieth century, but his father, a railroad worker told him all about it. He now wants to know more. Dan, like so many Metro Detroiters went to Windsor for his first drink (since Canada had a lower drinking age) and has heard so much about Prohibition, but he wants to know if there really are barrels at the bottom of the river from the era. This site presents him with a platform where he can examine changes over time and space. He was recently able to see the railroad yard where his father worked, which is now a part of the river trail. 

Alexa: A high-school student working on a project on the role of Grosse Ile in the Underground Railroad, Alexa is looking for some quick and reliable answers about the underground railroad, where enslaved people took shelter on the island, and when they were able to make their escapes. When she first thought of the project, Alexa was unsure about where to find material. As a third generation Grosse Ile resident who is socially conscious, Alexa has long wondered about the island she calls home. She recently visited some family across the river and visited the Underground Railroad memorial on the Windsor side. She later went to the Museum Windsor, where she learned about the War of 1812 and the 1838 Rebellions. She was fascinated and when she was asked to propose a project for her AP History class, she thought the Underground Railroad was the perfect choice. This website has given her important sources and a larger temporal understanding of what Grosse Ile looked like in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. After having perused the website in great detail, she now knows where to look for more information and has just gotten in touch with the Grosse Ile historical society as well as the Detroit Public library to access more material for her project. 

Jack: Born in Windsor, Jack was called to the Ontario Bar in 1980 and is currently the Senior Legal Counsel for the City of Windsor. He has written books and papers on legal history in Canada, and especially on transborder issues but has recently become interested in exploring the shipping industry’s past in Windsor and Detroit. In specific, Jack wants to know more about the role of dredging. He has seen dredging issues pop up in old legal cases from the 1880s and 1890s and thinks there is a compelling story to be told but does not quite know where to start. This website has given him important information on the role of dredging in altering the riverscape as well as its impact on the shipping industry. 

[1]I draw upon the Heidegger when thinking about the ordering of nature of returns. A lot of this ordering was dependent on mathematization and calculation. That the state was the most equipped actor to carry out this sustained form of surveillance, calculation, and change is chronicled by James Scott in Seeing Like a Statealbeit for the early-mid twentieth century. When drawing upon Scott for my own project, I think about the ability of the state to use its massive infrastructural machine in the service of ordering nature, a practice first begun in the nineteenth century with the rise of engineering as an applied science.  See Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt, Works (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1996); James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Nachdr., Yale Agrarian Studies (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Univ. Press, 1998).

[2]Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker, eds., A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland, Great Lakes Books Series (Detroit MI: Wayne State University Press, 2016).

[3]Denver Alexander Brunsman et al., Border Crossings: The Detroit River Region in the War of 1812, 2012.

[4]Frost and Tucker, A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland.

[5]Tiya Miles, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits(New York ; London: The New Press, 2017); Frost and Tucker, A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland; Catherine Cangany, Frontier Seaport: Detroit’s Transformation into an Atlantic Entrepôt, American Beginnings, 1500-1900 (Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press, 2014); Brunsman et al., Border Crossings; John J. Buckowczyk et al., Permeable Border: The Great Lakes Basin as Transnational Region, 1650 – 1990(Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh Press; University of Calgary Press, 2005).

Please note: There is a long term Digital History Project, the Detroit River Border Digital History Project at the Centre for Digital Scgolarship at the University of Windsor. However, very little is known about the temporal and spatial scope of the project. It currently has a Facebook page which does not have a lot of information about the project itself. When I first conceived of my project, this project was not on the horizon but now that it is, I will need to know more about it to avoid redundancies.