Along Detroit River, city treasures and rare cars hidden in bubble wrap

An old truck depot on the edge of Historic Fort Wayne contains 50 historic cars, most wrapped in protective plastic bubbles. The cars are owned by the City of Detroit and managed by the nonprofit Detroit Historical Society. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth) Click the arrows for a slideshow.

The collection includes a Lincoln Mark IV specially made for auto legend Lee Iacocca in 1973. It was custom-made for him when he was president of Ford Motor Co., before he left for Chrysler. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

This 1980 Fleetwood Cadillac limo was used for years by Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young. It was reportedly one of two bulletproof limos used by the mayor. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

The armor-plated Cadillac used by Coleman Young was driven until his death, and had about 43,000 miles. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

An old city of Detroit fire truck sits near the Detroit River alongside one-of-a-kind vehicles safeguarded by the Detroit Historical Society (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

The 100,000 square-foot warehouse contains thousands of donated items, running the gamut from old cannons to Detroit News camera equipment. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

The Detroit Historical Society collection includes statue heads that once rested atop the Old Wayne County Building on Randolph, the site of Detroit’s first City Hall. The heads were supposed to be restored and placed back atop the building, but never were. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

A sign from TV legend Soupy Sales’ children’s show found its way to the warehouse. Although the joke on the chalkboard could have come from Sales, the message likely was written long after the show went off the air. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

Jeremy Dimick, manager of collections for the Detroit Historical Society, chats with Detroit-Windsor Truck Ferry President Gregg Ward, who tagged along with Bridge Magazine on a tour of the city’s historical warehouse. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

The warehouse, a former truck depot, is on the grounds of Historic Fort Wayne. The five-star fort was built in the mid-1800s and some community leaders hope it could become a national park. (Bridge photo by Joel Kurth)

A century of Detroit treasure is stashed in a desolate trucking depot in the shadow of the Ambassador Bridge that connects the Motor City to Canada.

The warehouse has peeling paint, no signs and is so secret that creditors may have forgotten about it during Detroit’s bankruptcy that threatened the city’s assets.

Inside is 100,000 square-feet of catalogued artifacts and curios, including what’s been described as some of America’s rarest cars:  Concept cars; the first AMC Pacer to roll off the line in 1975; a Lincoln Mark IV specially made for auto legend Lee Iacocca in 1973, and a 1980 armor-plated Fleetwood Cadillac limousine used by former Mayor Coleman A. Young.

Most of the 50 cars are encased in giant inflatable bubbles to protect the vehicles because that wing of the warehouse lacks heat, said Jeremy Dimick, manager of collections for the Detroit Historical Society, which safeguards the collection owned by the City of Detroit.

Related: Michigan leaders want to make crumbling Detroit fort into national park
Related: A new bridge is dawning in Detroit. Matty Moroun isn’t the only one unhappy.

Photos: A truck ferry offers a rare, gorgeous glimpse of Detroit River​

“We’re pretty discreet here,” Dimick said. “I think they forgot about all this during the bankruptcy.”

The secret may be out soon. The building is part of quiet discussions among state and city leaders over what to do with land on the periphery of the Gordie Howe International Bridge, a span from Southwest Detroit across the Detroit River to Windsor, Ontario, whose construction is planned to start this fall.

The warehouse is part of Historic Fort Wayne, a mid-19th-century complex that was built for a war that never came. Now owned by the City of Detroit, the grounds include the Midwest’s only star-shaped fort and 39 buildings in various states of disrepair.

The most action the fort sees nowadays is during youth soccer games and Civil War reenactments. But it sits on 96 acres of Detroit Riverfront that could become prime redevelopment land with the construction of the new bridge, whose plans include a network of green spaces, parks and walkways.

Community leaders, along with aides to Gov. Rick Snyder, are lobbying to make the fort into a national park, Bridge Magazine has learned from officials involved in the discussions.

Rumors about the hidden stash of Detroit artifacts have been the stuff of legend. Occasionally, blogs have reported on the site, likening it to a Midwestern version of King Tut’s tomb. Usually, the location was kept secret.

Related: Goodbye to Delray, the Detroit enclave residents are getting paid to leave
 Fond memories and burned homes: That’s Delray, the woebegone corner of Detroit

Bridge Magazine gained entry the old-fashioned way. It rang the bell, asked to see the stuff and was given a 40-minute tour by Dimick.

Inside are rows and rows of shelves, well-maintained with protective cloths and organized by category. Fans control the temperature of the cavernous building.

“Anywhere we can find a spot, we store furniture. We have a lot of furniture,” said Dimick, pointing to 19th century chairs and a Victorian Era wooden wheelchair.

The warehouse holds artifacts that can’t fit into the Detroit Historical Museum in Midtown. The city began its collection in the 1920s, and most items are donated, Dimick said. Many are photographed, put online, and placed on shelves or shoved in corners.

For history buffs, it’s Xanadu.

Paintings of long-dead industrialists. Elaborate turn-of-the-century dollhouses and slot machines. Tea sets and saucers that are part of what Dimick said is the world’s largest collection of chinaware used in Great Lakes freighters.

There are also motorboats, models of boats, and boat memorabilia.

On one cart sits old promotional films made by the Detroit Police Department in the 1970s. On another are mammoth statues of heads that once sat atop the ornate Old Wayne County Building in downtown Detroit. In another room, that building’s mammoth clockworks.

There’s clothes from every era, signage from the long-gone Tiger Stadium, a set piece from Soupy Sales’ television show, and Detroit Tigers great Charlie Gehringer’s bat, bound with electrical tape.

But it’s the cars that everyone wants to see, Dimick said.

The collection represents both one-of-a-kind items like a 1963 Cougar concept car from Ford that supposedly could reach 170 mph, and vehicles that are historically significant but mostly worthless, like a 1984 Dodge Cavaran, the minivan that helped save Chrysler.

Other cars include an old fire truck alongside an 1870 Phaeton Carriage car, a 1911 Model T, and Coleman Young’s armor-plated Cadillac with 43,000 miles.

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Thu, 05/03/2018 - 9:17am

Wow! What a treasure! Wouldn't it be great to turn Ft. Wayne into a national park and use the buildings/grounds to put all this on public display!

Ted Fines
Thu, 05/03/2018 - 4:25pm

I was in there about 10 years ago as a member of 'Exposure Detroit'. Really interesting.

Kevin Grand
Sat, 05/05/2018 - 2:38pm

I've heard about this warehouse, but I thought that it was somewhere between Russell & Rivard just north of the Eastern Market.

While it's good to hear that someone is hanging on to some remnants of the past, it's disappointing to see how it is being maintained (i.e. dust covered vehicles, no temperature controls in some areas).

I am in NO WAY faulting the Detroit Historical Society for what they have done, They're doing a yeoman's job with what they have to work with. I'm placing the blame solely on the the City of Detroit which has unarguably demonstrated time and time again it has absolutely no interest in taking care of its assets or its history.

I would also fault the Michigan republican party for not addressing this during the bailout. I can only surmise that Ron Weiser likes pretty pictures far more than actual history.

That been said, I would STRONGLY advise against turning anything in and/or around Fort Wayne over to the NPS. In the most recent report (2017), the NPS has at least $11.6 billion in deferred maintenance. That number rose 2.5% from the year prior. Adding another item to their list will only make matters much worse.

What I would recommend is turning the warehouse collection and Fort Wayne itself over to the volunteers that have clearly demonstrated that they care about it and want to see it preserved (Historic Fort Wayne Coalition, Tuskeegee Airmen, etc.)

Since this is a sizable vehicle collection, I would also recommend a collaboration with the local automotive museums (the Henry Ford, T-Plex, Stahl's, Wills St. Claire, Gilmore), loaning out the vehicles for display for a period of time, in exchange for their restoration. I don't see why they wouldn't want to jump at the opportunity to have additional items on display for their respective visitors.

Sun, 05/06/2018 - 2:22pm

Was just there yesterday with local chapter of the Volvo Club of America (then on to Stahl's!). Indeed it is a treasure. With a massive infusion of restoration funds, would make a wonderful site for condos--like the Presidio in California or Grand Traverse Commons (site of a former state hospital). The restorations to date are a labor of love from a dedicated group. A few of the "bubble encased" vehicles came from other museums, including the Gilmore, others are private donations. Detroit Historical Society staff archives all items. Yet another Detroit hidden treasure. As we traveled along Jefferson, saw the sign for the truck ferry--who knew?

D money
Sun, 05/06/2018 - 5:56pm

There's a bunch of articles of these cars and this one doesn't add anything. Total clickbait and garbage.

Tue, 06/05/2018 - 12:03pm

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Allen Courser
Fri, 03/13/2020 - 11:35am

Isn't Fort Wayne where induction physicals for Military service was conducted. Last time I was there was Sept. 14, 1967. At that time I raised my right hand and was sworn into the U.S. Army and then off to Ft. Knox. So many of Michigan's finest passed thru those grounds. For that alone it should be preserved!