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Rochester's Woodward Was a Farmer Who Brought Railroad to Town

It's Woodward Dream Cruise week, so Rochester Patch takes a look at our own Woodward legacy.

As the 17th annual Woodward Dream Cruise approaches, let’s take a look at Rochester’s own Woodward Street and its namesake, one of Rochester’s most important historical figures.

Rochester pioneer, politician, farmer and businessman Lysander Woodward was born in Connecticut and made his way to Rochester in 1838. Together with his wife, the former Peninah Axford Simpson, the Woodwards built a prosperous farm in Rochester, where they raised a family of five children: Robert, Hubert, Emma, Eva and Harriet.

According to Hometown Rochester: A History of Avon Township, Rochester and Rochester Hills Michigan by Deborah J. Larsen, Woodward owned 420 acres of land in Rochester – most of it farmland.

Woodward and his wife built a home on the land located on what is now 1385 North Main St. just south of Tienken Road.

In addition to farming, Woodward held a number of significant political positions.

“As a Republican, he held numerous public offices in the gift of the people,” it was noted in History of Oakland County written by Thaddeus De Witt Seeley in 1912. “The office of the Justice of the Peace has been creditably filled by him, and he was several times elected supervisor of the township in which he lived.”

Woodward also served one term in the Michigan State Legislature as a representative of the 1st District of Oakland County in 1860. He was the county treasurer from 1866 to 1870, the president of the Oakland County Agricultural Society for three years and an Oakland County delegate to the state’s constitutional commission in 1873.

Woodward brings the world to Rochester

Perhaps the most significant accomplishment of Woodward’s career was the founding of the Detroit & Bay City Railroad.

“Mr. Woodward was among the first to conceive and advocate the building of the Detroit and Bay City railway and spent much time and money in its construction,” Seeley wrote. “In 1871, he was chosen the first president of the company, and held that office for two years . . .”

As Larsen noted, it was Woodward who helped bring the railway through Rochester and Avon Township in 1872, connecting the communities “to the world with reliable, speedy transportation and an effective way to deliver crops to market.”

The railroad was a boon to Rochester.

“Within five years,” Larsen wrote, “the Rochester depot was shipping out an average of slightly more than 1 million pounds of freight per month.”

Eventually, the Michigan Central took control of the Detroit & Bay City Railroad, which became part of the New York Central and Pennsylvania railroads five decades later.

“Rochester’s oldest rail line became known as the Penn-Central, the name it would carry until the line was abandoned in 1976 . . .” noted Larsen.

Rochester mourns Woodward’s passing

Woodward was held in high esteem among the citizens of Rochester. When he died in Jan. 1880, the Rochester Era wrote a lengthy obituary, as noted by the history blog Remembering Rochester.

“A beautiful casket with plate glass sides and top, and lined with white satin, contained all that remained of our respected townsman ... the cortege following the remains to the grave was nearly half-a-mile in length and every manifestation of sorrow was expressed upon all sides as it slowly moved towards our beautiful Cemetery, where all that was mortal of Lysander Woodward was tenderly laid to rest.”

Woodward was buried in Mount Avon Cemetery.

The Woodward family legacy

After Woodward’s passing, his children continued to leave an indelible legacy on Rochester and the nation at large.

His son, Robert Simpson Woodward, was a noted and well-respected physicist and mathematician.

As a young man, Robert Woodward worked as an astronomer and chief geographer for the U.S. Geological Survey. He later served as Professor of Mechanics and Mathematical Physics at Columbia University and then president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington D.C.

In National Academy of Science Biographical Memoir of Robert Simpson Woodward 1849-1924, written by F.E. Wright in 1937, it’s noted that “Dr. Woodward acquired an interest in the earth as a whole – in its shape, its tides, its atmosphere, and in the host of geophysical problems, many of which still await solution. This keen interest was maintained throughout his life and led him during the next decade to investigate some of the outstanding geophysical problems, and to solve them in spite of formidable mathematical difficulties.”

Robert Woodward died in June 1924. His second Washington D.C. home, located at 1513 16th Street, was named a National Historic Landmark in 1976.  

Lysander Woodward’s daughter, Eva Woodward Parker, was born in 1855 and lived in the Woodward home on Main Street until her death in 1933.

As noted in two previous “A Patch of History” columns, a portion of Paker’s estate was allocated for the construction of Rochester’s first public library in 1949. Named the Woodward Memorial Library in Parker’s honor, the library was located on the northeast corner of what is now University and Pine streets and designed by famed Detroit architect William Edward Kapp, who also designed Meadow Brook Hall.

Today, the former library building houses a number of boutiques and retailers including Rochester Play and Maria’s Bridal.

Another daughter, Emma Catherine Woodward, married architect John Scott*, who designed their residence at 84 East Ferry Street in Detroit, now home to the Inn on Ferry Street, and the Wayne County Building, both of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

According to “Remembering Rochester," the Stones retired to Avon Township and both are buried at Mount Avon Cemetery.

Rochester honors the Woodward name

The Woodward name is emblazoned on a number of city properties, most notably Lysander and Woodward streets. In 1926, the former Woodward School was built on Sugar Avenue, so named for the Detroit Sugar Company that once sat nearby along the Paint Creek. The street’s name was changed to Woodward several years after the Detroit Sugar Company closed and was demolished. After, Woodward School was built.

According to the web site for the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, the school was named for Lysander Woodward because “he had sold his farmland to the Rochester Development Company who in turn used the land to construct the school.”

Woodward School closed in June 1983. It was later occupied by the Older Persons Commission until 2003 and then demolished to make way for new homes.

Update: The Woodward home

The Woodward’s home at 1385 North Main was the subject of a recent preservation debate. In 2010, Singh Development proposed purchasing the property from a private owner and demolishing the house, which may be the oldest building in Rochester (circa 1844 to 1848), in order to build and expand the Waltonwood Senior Living complex. Local preservationists and members of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society opposed plans to demolish the house and met with Singh representatives in the hopes that the house could be preserved and become part of the nursing home complex.

A proposal to move the home was rejected by the historical society on grounds that it would lose its chance at becoming a nationally registered historic site. Another plan to incorporate the home with the senior living complex fell through when neighbors protested the development altogether.

For the time being, the home is still owned privately and was recently nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

Editor's note: An earlier version of the story incorrectly identified John Scott. Patch regrets the error.

author Orrin Woodward November 14, 2012 at 12:39 PM
Orrin initially followed the lessons of his fourth grade teacher who repeatedly said "When the going gets tough, the tough get going". He took this seriously and applied in his life to gain success and loyalty. The greatest support of his life and the confidence that he attained to fight battles was from his father, a philosopher of life and his mother a fanatical worker. From his fourth grade he followed what he received from his mother’s ethics on work with his father’s thinking complimented with his teachers tough principle. These concepts brought in a true revolution in his life to be what he is now - the master in leadership and personal development.

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