How Deep Is the Detroit River?

Written by Kyle Glatz
Updated: June 14, 2023
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Key Points:

  • Throughout its history, the city of Detroit has relied on the Detroit River for essential resources such as drinking water, transportation, and irrigation.
  • The uniqueness of the Detroit River lies in its dual nature as both a river and a strait.
  • The history of the Detroit River is deeply intertwined with the surrounding areas on its banks, as it played a significant role in the North American fur trade as a crucial territory.

Detroit is the biggest, most populous city in Michigan as well as one of the oldest cities in the state. Like many other industrial powerhouses of the past, the city of Detroit was built along a river. The Detroit River has provided its namesake city with drinking water, transportation, and irrigation throughout its history. So, how deep is the Detroit River? Find out just how deep this river goes, where it runs, and its significance to the region.

Where Does the Detroit River Start and End?

Sunrise over Lake St. Clair, Michigan

Boating at Lake St. Clair is a popular activity.

©Dave Bosen/Shutterstock.com

The Detroit River is somewhat unusual in that it is both a river as well as a strait. The river’s source is Lake St. Clair, a part of the Great Lakes system. The river flows through the city of Detroit and ends in Lake Erie. All told, the river runs for a length of 28 miles. Although this is a fairly short river, the river does hold a fair amount of significance for the area.  

The River’s Historical Significance

Detroit skyline from Windsor, Ontario

View of Detroit skyline from Windsor, Ontario, Canada, a place where rum-running was popular.

©iStock.com/vladacanon

The Detroit River is steeped in the history of areas on both of its banks. The river served as an important territory for the North American fur trade. That was the era during which Detroit was founded.

Later, the city of Detroit would become the end of the line for the Underground Railroad for many slaves seeking freedom in Canada. Ships would transport individuals across the river into Canada where slavery had been outlawed.

The river became a hotspot of rum-running throughout the Prohibition era in the United States, and in the following decades facilitated the rapid urbanization and industrialization of the area. Today, the Detroit River remains an important economic element, facilitating trade and shipping, and even tourism.

Although the river is much shorter than the largest rivers in the United States, it’s still significant to its region.

How Deep is the Detroit River?

View of Ambassador Bridge connecting Windsor, Ontario to Detroit Michigan at sunset time

The river is deepest near the Ambassador Bridge that connects Detroit and Windsor.

©Roxana Gonzalez/Shutterstock.com

The Detroit River is 53 feet deep at its greatest depth according to a recent NOAA nautical chart. The deepest portions of the river are found near the Ambassador Bridge, where the water is between 35 and 50 feet deep. The most recent river charts show a depth of 53 feet slightly upriver from the Ambassador Bridge on the Canadian side of the river.  The river’s depth varies quite a bit from place to place, though.

Most of the deepest places in the river are channels used for shipping. For example, the Fighting Island Channel in the Detroit River has a depth of about 30 to 35 feet throughout. Areas to the sides of those channels tend to be much shallower.  

So, how deep is the Detroit River? Well, it depends, but the deepest part of the river is about 53 feet deep according to the most recent measurements.

How Wide is the Detroit River?

The Detroit River ranges in width throughout its run, but the widest measure of the island is 2.5 miles. For the most part, the river tends to be between 0.5 and 2 miles wide. The river becomes narrower near the place where it is deepest. Near the ambassador bridge, the Detroit River is only about 1,900 feet wide, less than half a mile.

Can You Swim in the River?

Belle Isle Park

The river is too wide, polluted, and populated to safely swim in.

©DJ Adamz/Shutterstock.com

It is unwise to swim in the Detroit River for many reasons. For one thing, the river has a pollution problem from urban development, industrial development, and other runoff. The river has high levels of pollutants and bacteria that can cause significant harm to humans. So, it’s not a good idea to swim in this river for that fact alone.

However, the EPA and other agencies have made significant strides in helping to clean up the river. Future generations will hopefully experience a better, safer version of the Detroit River.

Yet, other reasons exist that people should consider avoiding this river for swimming. For one thing, the river is used for commercial traffic. That means many ships go up and down the river each day. With all these boats and ships, it may not be safe for a swimmer to enter the waters.

Also, the river is known for having a strong undertow and current. Those factors can be challenging to the strongest swimmers, making the water outright dangerous for people that are not good at swimming.

Overall, it’s best to avoid swimming in the Detroit River for a whole slew of reasons.

Facts About the Detroit River

Downtown Detroit in Michigan, USA

The Detroit River helped make the city a manufacturing powerhouse in the past.

©iStock.com/f11photo

Knowing how deep the Detroit River is, it’s time to learn some other interesting facts about this river.

  • The Detroit River is the only river that is designed as an American Heritage River and a Canadian Heritage River.
  • The river basin is roughly 700 square miles.
  • 31 different islands are in the Detroit River.
  • It’s both a river and a strait.

The Detroit River is not the deepest in the United States or the most important. Nevertheless, it’s a river with a storied history that continues to be important in the U.S. today.

Where is The Detroit River Located on a Map?

As a strait within the Great Lakes system, the Detroit River extends for 24 nautical miles from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie, flowing in a westward and southward direction.

Here is The Detroit River on a map:

The photo featured at the top of this post is © f11photo/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

Kyle Glatz is a writer at A-Z-Animals where his primary focus is on geography and mammals. Kyle has been writing for researching and writing about animals and numerous other topics for 10 years, and he holds a Bachelor's Degree in English and Education from Rowan University. A resident of New Jersey, Kyle enjoys reading, writing, and playing video games.

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