Historic Detroit

Hurlbut Memorial Gate

When Chauncey Hurlbut died in 1885, he left his hefty estate to beautify his beloved Water Works Park.

And one of the first things the city did with that fortune was build a monument to Hurlbut, a city water commissioner and civic benefactor who had been instrumental in creating the park.

The monument opened in 1894 and would serve as the park’s grand entrance, carved from stone and loaded with oodles of arches and stairways. A giant eagle tops off the monument like a stone cherry. And people weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the gate: It features shells flowing with water that doubled as troughs for horses.

The gate cost $30,000 to build, about $766,000 today. The rest of Hurlbut’s fortune — said to be some $200,000 in total, or about $5.1 million, when adjusted for inflation — went toward park upkeep and beautification.

The park closed to the public over national security concerns during World War I and World War II over fear that the city’s water supply could be compromised. The same threat barred the gates at the start of World War II, and the park didn’t reopen until Aug. 15, 1945, V-J Day. But it wouldn’t last. The decision was made to close the entire park for good in January 1951 during the Korean War. In 1957, after years of protest, a mere 7 acres of the park were reopened along the riverfront. In 1961, another six acres were reopened along Jefferson after the old Pumping Station No. 1 was put out of commission. But these 13 divided acres were nothing compared with the 110 acres generations of Detroiters had enjoyed. In the 1960s, the city Health Department condemned the lagoon as being unsanitary and had it filled in. In the era of terrorism, the park is once again sealed off to the public.

With the steady stream of visitors dried up, the gate fell into neglect — and became the target of thieves and vandals.

Decades ago, somebody stole the bronze bust of Chauncey Hurlbut from its pedestal in the gate.

In December 2000, thieves stole the ornate wrought-iron gates at the center of the gate. “Measuring several feet across and weighing hundreds of pounds, the gates would have required a good-sized truck, heavy equipment and perhaps two or three men” to steal, the Detroit Free Press noted.

After seven years of trying, the gate was finally renovated in 2007, with work beginning in January and wrapping up that fall. The cost of the work was estimated at between $600,000 and $800,000, with a portion of the proceeds being underwritten by the Hurlbut Trust, the initial fund that was set up more than 125 years ago.

Even though the park is closed, the gate remains an elegant testament to Detroit’s glory days and the beauty that can be achieved thanks to benefactors.