Why her Windsor go to in 1959 stands out

Michiganders and Canadians — who have long expressed fascination, apathy and even, at times, distaste for royalty — offered their sympathy and respect Thursday to the British people and the family of Queen Elizabeth II, who died at 96.

gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the queen had “lived through and shaped history” and the governor ordered, in accordance with President Joe Biden’s proclamation, that American flags be lowered to honor the late monarch’s memory. “My thoughts,” Whitmer added, “are with the royal family and the people of the United Kingdom.”

The longest-reigning British monarch — surpassing her great-great-grandmother Victoria — Elizabeth left a legacy as a leader who had circled the globe, including three celebrated visits to Windsor, Ontario.

And each time the queen stopped at Windsor, she tilted the world’s spotlight toward the British Commonwealth.

More:Queen Elizabeth II died at 96; King Charles III takes the throne

More:A look at the British royal family tree, spanning four generations.

Downtown Detroit serves as a backdrop as the Canadian flag is lowered to half mast in Windsor, Canada across the Detroit River on September 8, 2022, following the passing of Queen Elizabeth II.

For those old enough to remember it, the queen’s visit to Windsor in 1959 stood out as a moment with much pomp and circumstance. It drew thousands of people who wanted to get a glimpse of royalty. It was such an important visit, it even helped launch the Detroit-Windsor International Freedom Festival, which still continues.

In Canada, Windsor Mayor Drew Dilkens said he was “deeply saddened to learn about the death of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II,” adding that “on behalf of all Windsor residents, we extend our condolences across the entire Commonwealth.”

He heard the news, his staff said, while watching CNN.

Dilkens called the queen “a leader with quiet influence and immeasurable grace,” and pointed out that for many, she “was a fixture throughout our entire lives.” He said that her “lifetime of service will be honored and treasured, recognized and debated in the coming days and weeks.”

Queen Elizabeth II is greeted by Vincent Massey, Governor General of Canada, as she arrived to begin a royal tour of all of the Canadian provinces, on June 18, 1959. At right, coming down the ramp is Prince Philip after their jet plane landed at Tarbay Airport in Newfoundland.

Toronto resident Marlaine Koehler, who was in Windsor on Thursday, said she was “raised learning a bit about British history and the story of the royals,” in part because her “mom has British roots.” Also, she added, because “Britain’s history is more exciting than Canadian.”

The queen, Koehler said, spent a lifetime carrying out her duty, “with honor and grace and not an ounce of resentment.” And when she visited Canada, as she did many countries in the British Commonwealth, “everyone would show up.”

The queen embodies Britain.

To Anglican Protestants, the queen was also “Defender of the Faith” and “the Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” the mother church of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

At St. John’s Episcopal, a historic place of worship in Detroit close to Comerica Park, church bells tolled for 30 minutes. The chimes also could be heard on video clips that the Rev. Steven Kelly, the church rector, posted on social media with the words: “Rest in Peace Queen Elizabeth.”

In this June 20, 1959 file photo, Britain's Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip are pictured in Schefferville, as they listen to an explanation of the workings of an iron ore mine on another stop in their royal tour of Canada.

Kelly, who was in church when he heard the news, said he offered a prayer for the “repose of her soul.”

British Prime Minister Liz Truss tweeted that the queen was in the nation’s thoughts. And hours later, Buckingham Palace released a statement that the queen died peacefully at Balmoral. She had four children, eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.

Charles, Elizabeth’s eldest son, became king at 73.

The conversation, a nonprofit news organization, concluded the queen’s death marks “the end of an era for Canada,” noting that 1950s high school students across English Canada waved the Union Jack and sang “God Save the Queen,” but in time “Canada became dramatically less Anglophone and Anglophile.”

David Crombie, a former Canadian minister of multiculturalism, said the queen carried out her job with “great grace over all those years,” adding that “even when there’s fights in the family, fights in the country, fights in the world, she was Steady Eddie.”

He added: “She’s the queen of Canada, not just the queen of Great Britain,” and “her sense of duty was extraordinary.”

Three granddaughters of Canadian Gov.  Gen. Vincent Massey have their box cameras ready to make a picture of Queen Elizabeth II as she strolls about the grounds of the government house with the Governor General, Oct.  15, 1957, in Ottawa.  The occasion was a tree-planting ceremony.

There were “good and bad” prime ministers, but Elizabeth remained the same, offering “a sense of stability.”

And a show of stability in a changing world after becoming queen at 25 in 1952 is what prompted her global tours. While some celebrated the glory of the former British Empire, others, as Britain’s power waned, became increasingly critical of it.

In 1959, the queen and her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, arrived in Windsor by train and car and departed by ship, traveling down the Detroit River, close enough for thousands to see her blue-hulled, 412-foot Royal Yacht Britannia, touted as the largest in the world, and cheer.

Queen Elizabeth II's ship the Brittania sails on the Detroit River near the Boblo Boat after a visit to Windsor, Ontario, in July 1959.

In a black-and-white photo of her stop, a crowd of well-wishers, the Britannia and the Detroit skyline are visible.

The visit was significant enough for the Free Press to run a front-page headline: “This is the day we say hello to the Queen.” It was stripped across the top, but it wasn’t the biggest story of the day. There was a larger and bolder headline: “Dearborn boy kills his mother’s suitor.”

Still, the report on the visit said thousands of Americans were expected to join Canadian crowds along the route of the “young monarch” and then line the Detroit River to watch fireworks explode for the Freedom Festival, the first year it was being held.

The queen’s visit, the article said, had been “planned by stopwatch.”

Lining the rail of the royal yacht Britannia as it moves up the St. Lawrence Seaway at St. Lambert, Quebec, June 26, 1959, after official opening ceremonies are, from left: first lady Mamie Eisenhower, Queen Elizabeth II, Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Prince Philip and Olive Diefenbaker, wife of the Canadian prime minister.

The queen, then 33, had come to Canada and America as part of a longer tour. She ceremoniously opened the St. Lawrence Seaway, a system of locks and canals connecting the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, with then-President Dwight Eisenhower, and went on to other destinations.

Elizabeth had visited Windsor once before, in 1951 as a princess.

During that trip, reports at the time said, she wanted to see a Ford factory — and did. The Canadian factory, a Ford account of the visit added, was “spotless and tidy.” And she met with what in America might be considered royalty, William Clay Ford and his wife.

But, her whirlwind visit to Windsor in 1959 was as a reigning monarch.

The next day, the Free Press headline was: “All hail a tired Queen! She waves as we cheer.” She had arrived in a 1939 open Lincoln that had been borrowed from Greenfield Village, the article said. The plan was for her to yacht near Mackinac Island afterward.

Lawrence Rubin, former executive secretary of the Mackinac Bridge Authority, said in a book that as the vessel moved underneath the bridge, motorists got out of their cars, ran to see it, waving and rubbernecking. But some, he added to his embarrassment, spat over the side.

At Mackinac, Michigan’s then Gov. G. Mennen Williams said in the Free Press report, the National Guard would salute the queen. But the governor also took the opportunity to make a little joke, a reminder that British-American relations were not always so amicable.

A file picture taken on June 4, 2012, shows Britain's Prince Charles kissing the hand of his mother Queen Elizabeth II at a Jubilee concert at Buckingham Palace in London.

“The last time Americans fired from the Island, the British took it over,” Williams said with a chuckle.

The royal couple visited Windsor again in 1984.

On that trip, a crowd of 5,000 or more packed the Canadian riverfront park, waving British flags, while Detroit Police — and other agencies — kept a watchful eye on the proceedings from security boats. There’s video of her planting a maple, Canada’s arboreal emblem.

A broadcast clip called the visit “the biggest thing to happen in Windsor in years.” A resident, who said she spoke to the queen, told the newscaster she was “still shaking” with excitement. And as an aside, the newsman noted that Windsor is usually in Detroit’s shadow, but not that day.

Dilkens said Thursday that the there will be “several days of official mourning, commemoration and memorial events” in Windsor, and the city would announce the schedule. But, he added, “Today, we honor the memory of a formidable public servant. God Save the Queen.”

Free Press staff writers Emma Stein and Niraj Warikoo, and pop culture critic Julie Hinds contributed.

Contact Frank Witsil: 313-222-5022 or [email protected].

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