When Air Raid Sirens Sounded over Ypsilanti

October 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

On a summer evening nearly six decades ago, Ypsilanti went dark.

It was a citywide blackout—on purpose. No cars moved on the streets. Homes and businesses were quiet. Families brought their newspapers, books, and sewing to their homes’ “blackout rooms,” whose windows were lined with heavy fabric to block any leaking light.

During World War II, Ypsilanti residents, like those in other Michigan cities, took precautions for hometown civil defense should enemy planes appear overhead. Of course the city seemed like an especially vulnerable target due to its nearby bomber plant.

Not long prior to the city’s first test blackout, the City Council had passed an ordinance detailing the rules relating to blackouts and air raid procedures. The ordinance specified that all lights within a home must be extinguished. It   also said that for any home displaying light under blackout conditions, police had the right to enter the home “using no more than reasonable and necessary force” in order to extinguish the illumination. Violators could be fined $100 [$1,300 today] or jailed for 90 days, or both.

Furthermore, citizens were barred from making any siren or horn sound similar to the air raid signal siren.

The main air raid siren stood on top of the Hotel Huron, now the Centennial Center at Pearl and Washington. It consisted of four large horns pointed in four different directions. The Hotel Huron’s horns were augmented by hand-operated mobile sirens at such outlying locations around the city as Prospect and Forest streets.
The air raid sirens sounded one of four signals as mandated by Michigan’s State Director of Civilian Defense.

The initial “Blue Warning,” signifying that an air raid was probable, consisted of a two-minute steady blast of horns, sirens, or whistles. Civilian defense personnel were mobilized, lights were turned out, and traffic switched to low-beam headlights.

Next could come the “Red Warning,” meaning that an air raid was imminent. The horn would sound a series of short blasts. All lights had to be extinguished, traffic except for emergency vehicles had to stop and turn off lights, and the public was to take shelter.

If the immediate danger was past, another alert, also confusingly named a “Blue Warning,” would be sounded. This signified that “Raiders May Return,” and although traffic was allowed to move again, with low-beam lights, homes and factories remained dark.

The all clear signal was three one-minute blasts, at which sound lights could be relit and normal conditions resumed.

For local Civil Defense workers, the U.S. Citizens Defense Corps of Michigan prepared a booklet of “Tactical Training Operations.” The work consists of sixteen scenarios involving war strikes in various parts of the city and were meant as mental training exercises. The apocalyptic scenarios likely approximated some city residents’ fears.

A crude hand-drawn map accompanied the first scenario.

A crude hand-drawn map accompanied the first scenario.

It is 2:15 a.m. Ypsilanti is in blackout. The [pictured] map above shows the area which you are patrolling.

A bomb has exploded on the pavement of Woods Road at the corner or intersection of Summit Street, blocking Woods Road entirely. An incendiary bomb has started a fire at 117 Linden. A bomb exploded in the lawn beside Woods Road, where a party had been in progress. At least 20 people were known to [have been] in the house. A corner of the house is blown in. No fire. By the light of an incendiary burning on the street nearby you can see the building might collapse. Women scream behind the wreckage. You cannot tell if anyone is injured.

Another scenario reads,

A raid is in progress. It is 2 p.m. Traffic has stopped and the only people to be seen are two air raid wardens bravely making their rounds. One of then suddenly stops as a man calls to him from the doorway of 603 Emmet Street, shouting, “We’ve been gassed!”

A wind is blowing from the South. The warden notices a strong, very pleasant smell in the air, like the fragrance of green corn or new mown hay. Another man in the house begins vomiting. He appears dopey, and cannot tell what is the matter. A neighbor rushes up and offers the sick man a drink of whiskey as a stimulant.

A third reads,

Bombs exploding at the intersection of River and Cross Streets have demolished the building on the southwest corner. Rubble blocks the railroad tracks, a section of which is torn up. Windows are broken from the O. E. Thompson building and a small fire is starting at the bottom of the railroad watchman’s tower.

Each scenario ends with the question, “What would you do?”

On the night of Thursday, June 25, the city made a trial blackout run. The newspaper had run instructions the day before, including the warning to refrain from smoking a pipe, cigar, or cigarette where it could be seen from the air.

At 10:27 p.m. the initial signal sounded. Citizens had three minutes to make sure all was dark by 10:30. Drivers pulled over their cars and shut off their lights. Air raid wardens, who had met a half hour ago at the 20 air raid stations around the city, set off walking on inspection rounds to ensure compliance.

Finally, at the all-clear signal, cars were restarted and windows lit up. The sound of a radio came drifting through a screen door.

But for fifteen minutes, the city had been still and dark, practicing for the dread sound of approaching bombers in an enemy air raid which thankfully never came.

Have an old-time story to share? Contact Laura at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

The Mystery of the Bell Street Bones

October 4, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

With Halloween on the horizon, local author Laura Bien spins a tale of a skeleton–four, actually–in Ypsilanti’s past.

As seen in this 1915 plat map, Belle Street began at the conjunction of Grove and Prospect roads.

As seen in this 1915 plat map, Belle Street began at the conjunction of Grove and Prospect roads.

On a chilly January day in the depths of the Depression, a macabre find by city sewer workers excited the curiosity of an entire city.

“Discovery of a human skeleton three feet below the surface of the ground on Bell Street this morning has given rise to numerous guesses as to how it came there,” read the January 17, 1933 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

Bell (earlier spelled “Belle Street”) was a onetime route wending east from the intersection of Grove and Prospect towards Belleville. Today the street is called Tyler Road. On a modern Ypsilanti map, it appears as three discrete sections, chopped into pieces over the years by the construction of I-94 and the Willow Run bomber plant. Bell Street first appears on 1864 Ypsilanti plat maps.

The paper continued, “The bones were of an adult person of large build and were discovered by a workman digging on the sewer. Tom Smith [found] the first bones and discovered they were in no order, skull and jaw bones lying next to those of the thigh and the legs.

“A box had evidently contained the remains at one time, as rotted fragments were uncovered around the bones. That burial had taken place not so many years ago was indicated by the fact that bits of rusted metal which appeared to be screws were found imbedded in the wood . . . although cavities were located in the teeth, no dental work was evident.”

The paper went on to say that the placement of the bones was all the more strange as a sewer main ran directly under them. Hadn’t the former sewer diggers found the grisly objects?

The find was the talk of the town. The following day’s paper suggested that the bones might not have been discovered by the former sewer diggers because they had used a tunneling technique that bored beneath the bones, leaving them undisturbed, instead of digging a ditch that might have uncovered the remains.

On January 19, an expert was called in to assess the site: U-M anthropology professor W. B. Hinsdale. Hinsdale was known for his 1927 book The Indians of Washtenaw County, Michigan in which he discussed area burial mounds and identified many Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti roads as onetime Indian trails.

The bones “are those of four persons, two men and a woman, and a child,” according to Hinsdale, reported the January 19 Ypsilanti Daily Press.

“No implements, jewelry, or other trinkets were found with the bones and their position in the earth led to the belief that the bodies may have been crowded into a small box in a cramped position and buried in that way.”

The paper continued, “Dr. Hinsdale states that the bones of several individual were frequently buried together by the Indians of this region, and only a few months ago a large quantity of bones of men, women, and children were discovered together on property near here owned by the Ford Motor Co. The presence of the fragments of board, however, is a disturbing element.”

Finally a local old-timer came forth to contribute information. “An explanation of the mystery of the bones in the box that has aroused local imagination since Tuesday was offered today by Robert Simons . . . The bones were placed where they were found on Bell St. by workmen about thirty-five years ago according to Mr. Simons. He stated that they were first found when the ditch for the water main was being dug . . .”

“Mr. Simons was foreman of this crew and said he thought the main was installed around 1896. There was something of a mystery about the discovery at that time, as the bones were found directly in the center of the road. Mr. Simons says that he had lived in Ypsilanti since shortly after 1860 and the road which is now Bell Street was there at this time.

The paper reported local residents’ speculation that the bones could be those from an Indian burial, but added “No trinkets, trophies, or weapons commonly associated with Indian burials were found in the grave.”

And then the story faded from the paper.

No further mention was made as to whether the bones had been collected, taken to U-M by Hinsdale, or reburied.

Not once in this series of newspaper articles was there any mention that the Prospect and Grove intersection was the onetime site of Woodruff’s Grove, the original 1823 settlement that predated Ypsilanti. A plaque tucked within the intersection of the two streets marks the settlement’s approximate spot.

Woodruff’s Grove had its own small graveyard, on land later known as the Foerster Farm, overlooking the river. Several early Grove settlers succumbed to “chills and fever” or “fever and ague” (malaria) and other diseases and were buried there. The land lay just south of Bell Street and the intersection of Prospect and Grove, and extended to the riverbank. Many years later much of Foerster’s Farm was flooded by Henry Ford’s 1933 damming of the Huron leading to the creation of Ford Lake.

Were the Bell Street bones the remains of Woodruff’s Grove settlers? Perhaps those of Benjamin Woodruff himself? A grave marker stands for Woodruff in Ann Arbor’s Forest Hill Cemetery—but Woodruff died in 1837, long before Forest Hill was dedicated in 1859. There’s speculation that this grave marker is just a cenotaph, a memorial erected in honor of a deceased person whose remains lie elsewhere.

Do the aged Bell Street bones still lie beneath Tyler Road near the meeting-point of Prospect and Grove?

Ypsilanti may never know.

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales of the Ypsilanti Archives.” Have an idea for a column? Contact her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.