Water Works

The Cadillaqua festival in 1912 showcased Detroit’s love of aquatic sports, along with its penchant for fireworks — be it pyrotechnics or political scandals.



A century ago, the Detroit Board of Commerce organized the Cadillaqua festival with an eye toward casting the city as the aquatic sports capital of the world. The Motor City moniker, it seems, wasn’t enough. With civic pride billowing their sails, festival organizers were quick to raise $70,000 of the estimated $200,000 needed for the nearly week-long celebration.

“They hope to make it the biggest festival of its kind ever held in this country,” The New York Times reported in advance, breathlessly listing rowing and swimming contests, yacht and powerboat races, and even a gripping showdown between a “floatplane” racing through the air against a speedboat on the water. In addition, there would be fireworks displays, pageantry, and parades.

As the frenzy grew to commemorate the anniversary of the city’s founding by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac on July 24, 1701, the popular organizing chairman, Andrew H. Green Jr., found himself declining offers to run for mayor. However, his modesty only ran so deep. Green, general manager of Solvay Process Co., agreed without much coaxing to play the role of Cadillac in the pageant.

A spectacular fireworks display kicked off the festival on Monday evening, July 22. The next day, Green, as Cadillac, led a costumed cast of 100 French-Canadian voyageurs from their northern camp along the St. Clair River. After negotiating the waters of Lake St. Clair and entering the Detroit River, their longboats were met at Belle Isle by a fleet of federal vessels and private yachts. One-term Gov. Chase Osborn welcomed Cadillac aboard the flagship of the fleet. A few hours later, at the foot of Third Street, Cadillac joined a parade of 5,000 automobiles.

Leading the motor parade to the reviewing stand at Grand Circus Park was the Briggs-Detroiter Co.’s very first Detroiter touring car, introduced at the 1912 Detroit auto show in January. The car’s owner, florist Robert W. Jean, lavished the hood with roses. “It is estimated that more than $25 million worth of machines will take part in this procession,” The New York Times reported. Full of enthusiasm, organizers boasted the 5,000 cars would, together, cover 103,000 parade miles; burn 5,000 gallons of gasoline; and eat up “the equivalent of 20 complete sets of tires.” One attendee, Edward Jewett, 75, drove his Hudson all the way from Phoenix, Ariz., just to join the fun.

Another highlight of the week was the Thursday night boat parade at Belle Isle, viewable from “Cadillaqua Court” — a platform which measured 2,000 feet long and 300 feet wide, and sat atop pilings in the Detroit River opposite the island’s beach. An orchestra and choir added poignancy as the electric-illuminated boats paraded by. Friday night’s grand finale featured a Venetian Night, with canoes plying Belle Isle’s colorfully lit lagoons and canals.

Another set of fireworks captured the public’s eye that evening — and well into the following weeks. With $10,000 of his own money, Cadillaqua chairman Green secretly hired detective William J. Burns, then known as America’s Sherlock Holmes, to ferret out corruption and insider dealings within City Hall.

With newspaper reporters duly tipped off, Council President Thomas Glinnan and 10 city council members were arrested in a series of raids. They were accused of bribery in exchange for approving Wabash Railroad’s petition to close a street near the Fort Street Union Station (demolished in 1974 and replaced by Wayne County Community College). But the charges didn’t stick; only Glinnan was tried, and he was eventually acquitted. db

Related Articles

Craft and Glaze

Tapping an ancient art form, Mary Chase Perry Stratton moved Pewabic Pottery to the center of the Arts & Crafts movement.

Transformer Ships

Two Great Lakes excursion vessels made in Detroit became aircraft carriers for naval trainees during World War II.

The Whiz Kids

Ford Motor Co. was in shambles following World War II, and was on the road to bankruptcy, until young Henry Ford II hired 10 bright financial managers.

Christmas at Hudson's

Detroit's greatest department store decked the halls on a grand scale that's unimaginable today.

No Small Stretch

A vote for progress, following a nasty public squabble, propelled the Ambassador Bridge.

Most Popular

  1. Exclusive: Downtown Royal Oak Draws Four Restaurants, Including B Spot Burgers
    Four new restaurants are coming to downtown Royal Oak, including a B Spot Burgers by Iron Chef...
  2. Hat Trick
    Three stadiums north of downtown Detroit, including a new $450-million arena for the Detroit Red...
  3. It’s Your Party, Detroit: Area Organizations Celebrate the City’s 313th
    Thursday marks the 313th anniversary of Detroit’s founding by the French explorer Antoine de la...
  4. Midtown and Northwest Detroit Draw New Apartments, Businesses, Expansions
    Business is booming in Midtown and northwest Detroit, where several stores and restaurants are...
  5. ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ Heads to Southfield for First-Ever Michigan Casting Call
    The Great Lakes Culinary Center in Southfield may be best known for its cooking classes,...
  6. GM’s Mary Barra: Connectivity of Cars Will Save Lives, Protect Environment
    General Motors CEO Mary Barra will discuss changes in the transportation environment, as well as...