Contractors dig up clues from Birmingham’s past under Old Woodward

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 21, 2018

 Vic Strek, a senior engineering technician, holds a soda bottle discovered under the pavement on Old Woodward Avenue, in front of the Birmingham Theatre.

Vic Strek, a senior engineering technician, holds a soda bottle discovered under the pavement on Old Woodward Avenue, in front of the Birmingham Theatre.

Photo provided by Kevin Byrnes, of the city of Birmingham

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BIRMINGHAM — With historical buildings and well-preserved landmarks, Birmingham’s story can be found pretty much anywhere you look around town, including right under your feet.

As contractors have been pulling up pavement for the city’s $7 million Old Woodward Avenue reconstruction project, they’ve made a few interesting discoveries, including an interurban rail spike and two glass bottles.

The artifacts range in age from about 76 years old to about 128 years old. Leslie Pielack, director of the Birmingham Museum, said it’s only fitting that these fun finds be unearthed in the same year as the city’s bicentennial.

“These kinds of finds are exciting and bring us closer to life along Old Woodward 100 years ago, even as it undergoes its current transformation to a new chapter,” Pielack said in an email. “We have historic photos and accounts from the turn of the 20th century, but these physical objects give us an up-close look at everyday life.”

The interurban rail spike was found in the middle of Old Woodward, just south of Maple Road. Pielack said it’s the type of spike that was used to hold wooden ties in place for the rail line of the Detroit United Railway, a streetcar line that was used from the 1890s until the late 1920s between Detroit and Flint.

In Birmingham, the streetcar ran directly up the middle of Old Woodward, then called Saginaw, named for the precursor to Woodward Avenue, the Saginaw Trail. At first, Saginaw was a dirt road. Later, brick pavers were laid around the rail lines to pave the road. Several of those pavers have been found during the construction work.

Near that spike, contractors found a utilitarian glass bottle, suspected to be from the time when the streetcar existed. It features a wide mouth and a screw top, which was different from alcohol bottles or flasks. It’s likely that a passenger dropped the bottle from the Detroit United Railway, and it became covered in mud before it could be picked up and was later paved over.

Even farther south, just outside the Birmingham Theatre, workers found a Nesbitt’s soda bottle, a drink that was popular from about 1942 to about 1952. Orange was the most popular flavor of the Los Angeles-made drink, and it’s still available today. The Birmingham Museum used the fairly clear label to estimate the age of the bottle.

“The Nesbitt’s soda bottle was found while crews were working in front of the Birmingham Theatre,” said Vic Strek, a senior engineering technician for the city of Birmingham who found the interurban rail spike. “We have instructed the crews to please let us know when they found something that looks historical.”

These artifacts and others — along with the stories behind them — can be found at the Birmingham Museum, 556 W. Maple Road in downtown Birmingham. For more information, including a list of bicentennial celebrations and educational events, visit bhamgov.org/museum.

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