The Real Estate Wheeling and Dealing of P.W. Norris and his Son

Image: Scan uprightP. W. Norris. Wikimedia Commons.

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Philetus W. Norris is best known for his work as Yellowstone’s second superintendent; but he played a major role in the Midwest before following his wanderlust to the west.  Specifically, P.W. Norris helped develop what would later become North East Detroit with the founding of a village in his own name.  From 1865 to 1877 he burned the candle at both ends by constantly selling property while facilitating the expansion of the railroad into the territory he was helping to settle.

Norris declared the Village of Norris on January 24, 1874, within the Township of Hamtramck. Until his departure from Michigan in 1877, he labored intensively as a real estate agent and speculator, and evidence of his work can be found in the numerous records of sales recorded in the Register’s office, which are still available through the archives of the Detroit Free Press. Norris biographer Don Binkowski describes Norris as “a superb salesman,” swaying prospective buyers with his charisma, military background, and wide-ranging personal interests and military background. He was not, however, above embellishing the truth, as he falsely described the Conner Creek land to be the wettest of any northern city in a bid to attract farmers.

 The village may have floundered had Norris lacked business prowess: Binkowski claims that the advertisements Norris placed in local papers brought great publicity to the village, which, in turn, brought publicity to Norris himself. A representative advertisement, pictured below, ran in the Detroit Free Press on January 1, 1875.  The advertisement reports that the village is flourishing, with “large dry business, residence and suburban lots.”  Norris’ motivation to sell is captured in the ad’s laconic declaration of “Title perfect.  Terms easy.”  This advertisement ran multiple times and was one of many similar ads.


1875 Norris Real Estate Ad, Detroit Free Press, Jan. 1 1875.

For the village to succeed, Norris knew that it would need to be connected to local and regional transportation networks. Among Norris’ most important accomplishments was connecting his village with the village of Warren by procuring a plank road company in 1871 to create the necessary streets. Additionally, Norris did everything in his power to aid the progress of the Detroit & Bay City Railroad, going so far as to donate land for the right of way.  These dual techniques for infrastructural development served to provide two methods by which the surrounding farmers could transport their goods to the market, and the promise of connectivity was appealing to investors and speculators.

At the same time that the Village of Norris began to grow, Michigan was actively recruiting more German settlers, and many came to settle in Hamtramck.  Norris made his largest sale, 20 acres, to the German Evangelical Orphan Aid Society.  This, along with the construction of a Lutheran church, raised the village’s reputation. One of the primary investors in the new village was Joshua W. Waterman, a speculator made wealthy through his work on the East coast who would later become a benefactor of the University of Michigan, donating money for the Waterman Gymnasium. A newspaper in 1874 proclaimed it to be “A Suburban Village” and went on to describe the village attractively.  That same year, Norris further publicized the village with an article declaring its rapid growth and increasing importance.  The village’s eminence is exemplified by the fact that the circus came to town, which wouldn’t have been possible without the railroads.

Although Norris’ time in Detroit was short, the impacts of his works have been long-lasting. He played a pivotal role in advancing the railroads and single-handedly brought in a plank road company, making Detroit appealing to speculators as a possible hub for future businesses.

The anamnesis of Norris’ accolades center on his work after leaving Michigan, when he became the second superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Binkowski posits that P.W. Norris left due to “an insufficient number of new Detroiters to buy lots in his village,” probably due to the terrible economic depression in the fall of 1873, which would hamper national development in the succeeding years. But Norris’ son, Edward A. Norris, continued his father’s legacy, as seen in the numerous accounts of real estate sales in the younger Norris’ name.

When Philetus died in 1885, Edward took on the role of managing the entire business; but he was not blessed with his father’s charisma and was prosecuted many times in petty lawsuits. One particularly contentious dispute revolved around the extension of railroads into Hamtramck, which residents claimed had been done illegally. It has been speculated that the area’s name was changed from “Norris” to “North Detroit” due to Edward’s contentious nature, although no formal explanation for the change was ever given. Edward, the last surviving member of Col. Norris’ immediate family, died in 1929.  By that time, the village P. W. Norris had founded had been incorporated into the CIty of Detroit and no longer bore his name. Most of the original houses have since been destroyed or marred by fire.

Norris was only in Detroit for twelve years and there are few extant accounts from the settlers that knew him personally. As such, Col. Norris slipped into the recesses of historical memory. This highlights the importance of any artifacts linking Norris, a crucial figure in the rise of Detroit, to the city—artifacts like the Norris house, which he built himself, and which still stands on its original location at 17815 Mt. Elliott Ave. But the house, like many in the neighborhood, has been terribly tarnished by arson.  The Nortown Community Development Corporation owns the property and has plans to restore it, but lack of funding has delayed the project for years.  The house seems doomed to stay in its current dilapidated state, unless someone can harness the energy of Philetus Norris and breathe new life into the long-stalled project.

  • Binkowski, Don. Col. P.W. Norris: Yellowstone’s Greatest Superintendent. Etowah: C & D of Warren, 1995.
  • “Display Ad 1 — No Title,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, January 1, 1875, 2.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, September 21, 1867, 1.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, January 5, 1868, 1.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, September 9, 1873, 1.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, September 14, 1873, 1.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, September 21. 1873, 1.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, September 30, 1873, 1.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, October 17, 1873, 1.
  • “Real Estate Sales,” Detroit (MI) Free Press, October 18, 1873, 1.

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