The earliest residents
in this area of Michigan, were the Wyandots (or Huron) Native Americans. They were under French control until the British captured Detroit in 1760. The early tribes used Gibraltar as the "Head Village." It was the headquarters of the Council House and the International Council Fires. Since the Wyandot were always a leading tribe in the Northwest Territory, the Great Council of the Confederacy was also held here.
The area was called, "Chenal de la Presque Isle" on early French maps. This roughly translates into "Channel of the near (or almost near) Island." The theory is that when the English began to settle in the area, they called it Gibraltar, which in their opinion, was the greatest rock of all. When original land plats were registered for the area, the spelling was "Gibralter." It was not until the year 1900, that the spelling was changed to "Gibraltar," which is the current spelling of today.
The Brownstown Treaty was signed in 1807, which opened up the southeastern portion of Michigan for survey, settlement, and new roads. West Jefferson Road follows along an old Native American trail traveling from Ohio to the north. It is said that in the spring, Native American families were travel north and leave their mares on what is now called Horse Island, to foal. The horses would live the summer on this island to feed and mate, and were picked up by the Natives on their return trip south, in the fall. The Native American tribes took advantage of the abundance of reeds for making baskets, and for the good hunting and fishing in the area.
Following the successful opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, local entrepreneurs had also invisioned builing such a canal to go from Gibraltar to Lake Michigan. The Gibralter-Flat Rock Land and Canal Company was organized on July 20, 1836, for this purpose. Their plans were to build a canal between Gibraltar and Flat Rock, extending to Ypsilanti, with an ultimate goal of reaching Muskegon.
The offices of the Canal Company were located on the second floor of the two-and-a-half story hotel in Gibraltar. Two leaders associated with this enterprise were Lewis Cass, former Governor, and Daniel Webster, a renowned orator and national political figure of that time.
Lewis Cass, who lived in Detroit, and Daniel Webster were invited to Gibraltar to discuss the details and deliver speeches from the hotel explaining the great benefits this canal would bring to Michigan. Webster announced he would personally acquire $20,000 of Canal Company stock.
The Gibralter-Flat Rock Land and Canal Company actually filled the area with a number of its settlers. It was widely advertised and created a great confidence with the pioneers that lots were sold for $5,000 or more.
Dredging did begin along the Huron River, however the project failed in 1838.
Gibraltar, was platted and recorded on March 14, 1837, by Peter Godfroy, Benjamin B. Kerchival, and Joshua Howard, all Trustees of the Land and Canal Company.
Amos Dunbar became the first Postmaster on October 2, 1837. The post office was renamed, Woodbury on December 8, 1838, but was named back to Gibraltar by May 13, 1839.
Many of the early settlers arrived here by boat. Many came from the east coast by way of the Erie Canal and across Lake Erie. It was the safer method of travel, because of the undeveloped territory in between. Some settlers originally came from Europe on sailing vessels, taking on average six weeks to cross the ocean.
As with most of the communities in the area, farming, lumber, and shipbuilding became important economic products. Scottish shipwrights, French woodsmen, and Irish laborers poured into Gibraltar to build schooners. The men in the woods, cut the lumber needed for the sawmill. Most of the houses took in sailors and workers as boarders, and the two-and-a-half-story hotel was always full. The lumber provided planks for the ships and material for the basket shop. A coopersmith shop was also in operation. Sand and cement for the shipyards were brought in by water.
One of the shipyards was owned by R. Linn, who was born in Scotland. He came to Gibtraltar in 1841, where he became a shipbuilder. He was joined in business in 1866 by Captain J. Craig, who was from New York. They became pioneers in building merchant vessels in the area.
Other shipbuilding names during this period, from about 1860 through 1894 were, Alford, Calkins, Clark, and Morgan. The shipyards stretched from Grandview north on the riverfront. Records indicate at least 23 vessels were built in Gibtraltar from 1863 to 1882. They included 11 propeller, 6 barges, and 6 schooners.
The population of Gibraltar in 1873 was approximately 400 people.
Local Business Directory Lists:
Herman Alford - General Store & Shipbuilder
John Brown - Blacksmith
Doremus & itcheell - Cigar Manufacturers
Linn & Craig - Sawmill & Shipbuilders
E. Seaton - Steamboat Captain
William Stoddard - Collector of Customs
E. Sullivan - Hotel Proprietor
W. Thompson - Stove Manufacturer
M. Vreeland - Lighthouse Keeper
At one time, a small steamboat running between Detroit and Cleveland would occasionally stop at Gibraltar. By the 1860s regular service had been established. A vessel named, Olive Branch came through the West Trenton Channel on her round trip from Gibraltar to Detroit, stopping at Trenton and Wyandotte. Other ships providing local service to Gibraltar were The Princess, Island Queen, Newsboy and Massasauga.
The Massasauga met with disaster in August of 1890, when a fire broke out on the steamer, and by the time it was discovered, it was impossible to save it from ruin.
Hector Munro, originally from Scotland, first stopped in Sandusky and Toledo, Ohio before coming to Gibraltar in 1879. He had originally been a ship builder as well, but when he came to Gibraltar he operated his own schooner, hauling freight on the Great Lakes. While living in Sandusky, he sailed to Canada to pick up his wife and sons, who had arrived from Scotland. His oldest son, Daniel soon had his own schooner, the Oak Leaf.
The Oak Leaf was built by the Munros in 1895. It was 86 feet long, 24 feet wide, and weighed 93 gross tons. She, along with the schooner, Charles Chamber, which was built in Grosse Isle, were the last trading schooners built on the Detroit River.
As mentioned earlier, there were about 30 steamboats cruising the Great Lakes by 1837. The importance of the aid to navigation was becoming more critical as lake travel increased. The U.S. Congress appropriated $5,000 on March 3, 1837, to build a lighthouse at the mouth of the Detroit River in Gibraltar. A lighthouse inspector's report taken in 1838, states in part:
"Gibralter Lighthouse, at the mouth of the Detroit River, on the western channel: This is lighted with eleven lamps and an equal number of relectors, fixed. It is a new building, and in excellent order. I am inclined to believe,..that the keeper is doing his utmost, and will, upon his recover, give perfect satisfaction."
There is no mention of the lighthouse keeper by name, nor what he may have been taken ill with.
In 1868, Coast Guard records show extensive repairs needed at the original Gibraltar Lighthouse. In 1869, it was reported that the dwelling and tower were in very bad condition and a new building was necessary. In 1871, an appropriation of $10,000 was recommended, and on June 10, 1872, it was approved. The new building occupied the land of the previous lighthouse and was completed February 1, 1873. The lighthouse was discontinued in 1879. In 1895, the buildings and grounds were sold at public auction and the lantern and iron stairway of the tower were removed.
Everyday Life in Gibraltar
People obtained their cooking and drinking water from the River, walking out onto small docks and dipping usually two pails at a time. During the winter, ice was cut from the river and stored in icehouses, for use later in the year. After being cut from the river, the blocks would be hauled up a ramp, loaded on a stone-type wagon, and hauled to icehouses. There it was heavily insulated with sawdust to insure it would last until the next winter season. It was usually cut into 2 foot-square blocks and sold for about 1.5 cents per block.
The area newspaper was called the Wayne County Courier and in an article dated January 22, 1885, it made mention "R.W. Linn's shipyard being put in order for work.... A mill will again start up after the weather moderates.... The new barge building will employ quite a large force of men.
Claston and Parsons have opened a stone quarry near the Gibraltar Station, expecting to do quite a large business in stone trade. The railroad company is putting in side tracks for them.
Edmund Hall intends making improvements on this river-front during early spring. He is having a pile driver built for the purpose of sheet piling, and dredging.
Captain H. Alford, the shipbuilder, has contracted to build a scow for Detroit parties."
One particular farm, has an important nautical history to Gibraltar, located at the south end of today's, Lowell Street at Grandview. The Edmund Hall farm had a large frame house, a boat house on the water, and was seperated from Horse Island by a dredged channel on the east side of the property. The farm had pastures and lanes running through it, where cattle grazed, with barns near the area of Stoeflet and Adams Streets. Edmund Hall gave many local residents jobs, at $1 per day. He also had a blacksmith shop, a carpenter shop, carriage house, icehouse, and a granary.
During this time, the area of Gibraltar was largely a swampy area, with a musch decreased population of approximately 100 inhabitants.
In the early 1920's, Horse Island, which had formerly been owned by Edmund Hall's daughter, Frances Chaney Strong, was platted and lots were sold for building sites, used primarily for summer cottages. The remainder of Hall's land was plated into lots in 1925, and sold. Another part of Hall's original land claim, included Edmund Island (formerly known as Big Snake Island). The first private home was built here in 1929 by a dentist, Dr. Vasik.
The Horse Island Boat Basin was one of the early boatyards in the area, and was started in the early 1920's by Otto O. Rieger, when he constructed a home, store, and docks on the north end of Horse Island. It was later sold to the Tenant family in 1958, then to the City of Gibraltar in 1993. The city tore down the original buildings and docks to make room for a replacement Horse Island Bridge, however, the bridge which had originally been built in the early 1920's was declared a historic site, and uneligible for destruction. This meant a new bridge would have to be built next to the old one, if it were actually declared unsafe. In 1996, the original bridge was declared safe and therefore, it never had to be replaced.
The Chalk Boat Works was open on North Gibraltar Road in 1939, where E. Chalk had boat wells, repair facilities, and storage. It is no longer there, however. By 1946, the Gibraltar Boat Yard began is business run by Fred Blakely and Hazen Munro. It originally consisted of about 20 boats wells, and later added gas pumps and marine accessories and parts. It was later sold to Jack Bulh in 1968.
Heinrich Marine (currenly Humbug Marina) was opened in 1954 by E.W. Heinrich. He purchased the property on Middle Gibraltar Road from William Lawson, when it was only a large swamp area. After a couple years of dredging, there was room for about 100 boat wells. It was sold in 1964 to Evertte Hedke and renamed, Humbug Marina.
It wasn't until 1954, that Gibraltar became incorporated as a village. They had their own police patrol by 1956, and by 1961, had a population of 2,187. It became the "second smallest" city in Michigan.
The residents of Gibraltar and its neighboring Cherry Island have lived through many floods over the years. The most remembered occurred in 1952, 1972-73, and 1985. The Army Corps of Enginners had built stone dikes along the water's edge throughout Gibraltar, in 1973, as a result of the floods in late 1972. These dikes are several feet high and limited the water view from most of the houses. These dikes remained here until the wood framework rotted and they began to fall, or the property owners tore them down, preferring a nice view of the water, to a potential flood. The floods in early 1985, convinced most of them to construct clay dikes along their property, whic were constructed by the city in 1986.