Rouge Park Mysteries

Special thanks to my friend Andrea of Telling the Stories of Detroit's Parks for her indispensable research help on this post. My photos date from 2012 to 2013. 

Rouge Park started in the 1920s when the City of Detroit was on an annexation binge, and bought up land from six farmers at the western edge of the city. Today it covers a total of 1,184 acres, making it one of the biggest municipal parks that probably exists in the world—bigger even than Belle Isle, and New York's Central Park.

At Spinoza Drive & Sawyer Street (just north of Warren) there is a weird little triangular traffic island off to the side, with this cannon sitting in the middle of it, and just past it Spinoza suddenly dead-ends in a grassy field. It didn't take me long to suspect that this wasn't always so—and as it turns out, the cannon might actually be a clue to the puzzle...


Spinoza Drive is one of the main roads that meanders through Rouge Park, so it's a little odd that it would suddenly terminate like this:

Image from Google Maps
Detroitmemories.com has one of those "You might be a Detroiter if you remember _____" lists, stating that Rouge Park's Spinoza Drive was also once unofficially referred to as Lover's Lane (I suppose by that yardstick I'm not a real Detroiter, but I do know that Junction Avenue in Southwest Detroit used to be officially called Lover's Lane in the early 1800s, before Fort Wayne was built).

My knowledge of this cannon began several years ago when I learned that Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne was angling to get it relocated from this spot onto the grounds of Fort Wayne, so that it could join its other historic artillery brethren in a new cannon display there. At the time I think Fort Wayne's site manager Jim Conway typed up a short page of historical notes on this cannon, which revealed that it was actually of Spanish origin, and quite old.


Across the middle of the gun is the word "Encono," which is EspaƱol for "animosity," or "rancor," and is apparently the name of the cannon. The other intricate engravings on the piece indicate that it was forged at Sevilla, under the reign of King Charles III of Spain—which might explain the large Roman numeral "III" engraved under what I presume is his coat-of-arms.


There is also the date "29 de Mayo de 1779," which just so happens to be about one month prior to Spain's declaration of war against Great Britain, on June 21st, 1779. Britain was already embroiled in the American Revolutionary War, and Spain wanted to quietly aid the American cause—but more importantly they also wanted to use the opportunity to regain their long-lost territory of Gibraltar from the Brits as well.

Another Fort Wayne re-enactor and artillery historian, Lloyd Hevelhorst, was quoted by PreservationDetroit as saying that this gun was most likely a war trophy taken by the U.S. during the Spanish-American War, after the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, in 1898. During this dramatic engagement the U.S. Navy decimated the Spanish fleet completely when the tragically out-numbered and out-gunned Spaniards tried to break through the American blockade in Havana.


The Vizcaya was the only Spanish ship to make it through without being sunk, but she finally took a severe hit from the USS Brooklyn and ran aground, where four American ships circled and battered her to pieces. Ironically, the Vizcaya had been stationed in New York Harbor in reciprocity for the USS Maine being in Havana on the very day the USS Maine was allegedly sabotaged, serving as the original catalyst for the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Vizcaya's destruction by USS Brooklyn was thought to have been retribution for the tragedy of the Maine.

The Vizcaya's main gun, which had inflicted the only American casualty of the battle, was removed and brought to Detroit as a trophy, supposedly due to the fact that the USS Brooklyn was manned almost entirely by sailors from Detroit (and/or the one U.S. casualty of the battle was a Detroit-born sailor aboard the Brooklyn, I'm not sure which). It sat on display in front of the old Wayne County Building for most of a century. According to a vague story I heard, it was allegedly rescued from being junked once, by an employee of the Detroit Historical Museum waving $20 bills in the face of the truck driver, bribing him to drop it off at Fort Wayne instead of the scrap yard. It has been sitting there rusting anonymously for many years while the Encono gun sits rusting quietly here in Rouge Park.


I am not certain exactly how Encono got here in Rouge Park, but it does seem plausible that it came at the same time as the one from Vizcaya. So far Encono has not moved from this spot, though preparations for building the new display at Fort Wayne have begun. Whether or not community proponents of Rouge Park are happy about seeing an attraction taken from their park, I can only speculate.

And how did Spinoza Drive get its name? I was anticipating that it would have Spanish origins to go along with our cannon, but britannica.com says that Benedict de Spinoza was a Dutch Jewish philosopher who lived from 1632 to 1677, "one of the foremost exponents of 17th-century Rationalism and one of the early and seminal figures of the Enlightenment." Like any good skeptic, it seems he was excommunicated from his synagogue as a heretic for questioning the historical accuracy of the Bible, as well as the notion that it is the literal word of God. I find it pretty unexpected that Detroit would name a major road after this guy.


Anyway, the cannon is not the only interesting thing to be found at Spinoza & Sawyer. Several years ago I decided to attend a Friends of Rouge Park meeting at the Don Bosco Center, since I lived in the Warrendale area at the time, and because the Detroit Future City thing was just then coming out with its first maps and plans to show the community what parts of the city would be "saved," and what parts would be allowed to go back to nature (to put it crudely).

During the meeting I learned a couple very interesting things about Rouge Park, which is Detroit's largest. One member said that they had received an official reply back from the Department of the Army to a letter they had sent asking about the disposition of the former Nike missile base that was once there.


I knew that in the 1950s there had been a large Nike-Ajax base located in the part of the park that is near Joy Road, but according to this letter from the Army, the base had never been totally demolished. In fact the missile silos still existed under the park beneath a layer of fill dirt, and the missiles were still in their tubes with their warheads intact, albeit disarmed. Somebody get a shovel...

Anyway, the other piece of juicy information that I learned about the park at this meeting came from the presentation of a study on the park recently completed by students of Lawrence Tech if I recall correctly. They had generated an interpretive map of Rouge Park, which indicated (among other things) the presence of stone fence ruins along the Rouge River near Warren Avenue that lined a former pathway. I thought I might have been mistaken, but swore I also heard someone say that somewhere in the woods there was also the foundation of an old farm house nearby that predated the park. Naturally, having heard the "R-word," I was already gearing up for an expedition.


I set out the next morning, ready to hike. It was pretty easy to find the ruined stone piers along the river pathway, which was at the bottom of this shattered stairway:


Here was the beginning of the fancy old pathway:


Clearly it had been left abandoned for a couple decades, judging by the thickness of the trees growing on or near the trail...


This section of trail only seemed to go maybe 100 or 200 yards at the most. This might imply that this was more of a "river viewing area" than a true trail that actually went somewhere. Which might suggest the existence of a former recreation center nearby...


Erosion control was clearly done here at some point in the past to protect the trail and the escarpment from being eaten up by the voracious Rouge River:


Finding this trail had been simple, but finding the supposed farmstead's ruins eluded me. Or so I thought, up until now...


Another stairway led back up on top of the tall bank that looked over this trail, where I immediately spotted a long rectangular foundation. At the time I thought little of it, since to me it seemed more like it would likely have been a modern recreation center, or other mundane service building of the park.


I asked my friend (and fellow Capricorn) Andrea Gallucci, who studies the histories of Detroit parks and writes about them at cityliterate.com, whether she knew anything about a potential rec center in this area. Her response was much more fascinating than I expected.


She said that according to her notes there was a "recreation center and servicemen's clubhouse" here, but it was originally an old farm house. The center was called "Rouge Rec Center," as well as "Rouge Park Casino," and it served as a place where, among other things, "they would dole out the military decorations to the surviving families of Detroit boys who died in WWII."

A servicemen's clubhouse? Well that might explain why there is a cannon sitting on display out in front of where it used to stand.


Andrea then dug up this photo, showing an aerial view of the structure, with the Encono cannon visible in the traffic island, sitting basically in what would have been the building's front yard:

Photo from rougepark.org
But the thing that caught my interest the most was her revelation that the old farm house itself was originally donated to the city in the 1920s as part of the park by someone named Sorenson...instantly I wondered if it could be Charles Sorenson, the infamous right-hand man of Henry Ford, whose derelict yacht I had explored in a recent post.

Charles E. Sorenson was one of Henry Ford's highest-ranking lieutenants—once upon a time among the most powerful and feared men in the Motor City. I go into much deeper biographical detail on Mr. Sorenson in that post about his yacht Helene, if you would like to know more about him and his importance within Ford Motor Co.


I quickly began searching for ties between Sorenson and Rouge Park, and turned up a few articles on Google Books that indeed correlated the two. A mention in the 1927 volume of Parks & Recreation describes the existence of a "casino" in the park, that was "formerly the beautiful country home of Charles E. Sorenson, general superintendent of the Ford Motor Company."

So according to that (and the Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Department of Parks and Boulevards), it looks like Belle Isle wasn't the only Detroit park that had a casino. A quick search revealed that Palmer Park had one too, according to a historic photo I found in the Detroit Public Library's Digital Collections


Remember that in this context a "casino" is not a horrible windowless place of gambling, maddening noises, hypnotizing lights, and free booze; it was instead an old-timey gathering place for the purpose of recreation. It was a building in a pastoral setting that you might rent for a family reunion, club meeting, wedding reception, or similar function. In fact "casino" comes from the Latin word for "cottage," according to merriam-webster.com.


Another brief mention I found in a c.1919 article by Henry W. Busch, Commissioner of Parks and Boulevards, said that when Rouge Park opened "two refectories will be in operation," implying that there was another "casino" somewhere in Rouge Park. This was possibly the "Smith House," another old farm house that once stood near the corner of Outer Drive and West Chicago, according to a Detroit Parks & Rec map of the park from August of 1970 that Andrea found.

The same map shows this structure, and labels it as the "Sorenson Recreation Center." Its address was 7601 Spinoza.


The 1942 Annual Report of the Parks & Rec Dept. shows that a "new community center was opened in River Rouge Park in what was formerly the Charles Sorenson home." I suspect that this is when the "Rouge Park Casino" took on more of the WWII "veteran's center" function that Andrea described earlier. Mr. Sorenson was the production master of Ford's Willow Run Bomber Plant by that time, tasked with making the B-17s fly off of its assembly line once every hour.

This close-up on the foundation reveals that it is made of piled stone, and features a coal-chute marked with the name "Smith-Matthews Foundry," a company which Clarence Burton indicates was formed in Detroit in 1910:


I tried to bring up this area on Sanborn maps to see if I could figure out when the Sorenson house was built, but none of the ones I could pull up show the area where this building would have stood; it was still part of Dearborn Township back in the 1920s, and I guess Sanborn didn't deem Dearborn's eastern fringes as worthy of documenting yet. So I went to the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Wayne County, Michigan of 1876, which showed the triangular parcel of land to be owned by "Ford":


In the c.1893 Detailed Official Atlas of Wayne County, Michigan, the ownership notation is shown as "Wm. Ford," (Henry Ford's father, a farmer) and the path of the Rouge River had either meandered wildly since 1876, or this atlas was drawn more precisely:


According to My Forty Years with Ford, a biography about Charles Sorenson, he was the son of a Danish farmer/model-maker, and was born in Copenhagen in 1881. He came to America at age four, and worked as a pattern-maker in Buffalo and Milwaukee. Sorenson did not arrive in Detroit until 1904, at which time he was married to his wife Helen and hired in at Ford's Piquette Plant in 1905. Sorenson became second in command of Model-T production at Piquette by 1907, and was instrumental in helping Mr. Ford develop the assembly line. He was assigned to organize production at the Fordson Tractor plant in Dearborn during WWI. 

So it is plausible that this farmhouse could have existed at least as far back as 1876, owned by the Fords, and Mr. Sorenson may have been offered the old property by the family as a residence, upon his promotion within the company. The stamping on the coal chute does seem to suggest the 1910s, although this might merely indicate the time period in which the house was updated from wood to coal heating. By looking at the architectural style of the house, I thought it could possibly have been older:

Photo from Wayne State University Virtual Motor City Archives
However, local architecture guru Benjamin Gravel informs me that this house was in fact designed by Louis Kamper--the architect of the Broderick Tower, Book-Cadillac Hotel, and many other famous Detroit structures. Since Kamper designed it, this means it most likely was built in the early 1900s.

By the 1920s when he donated this farmhouse to the park, Sorenson was at the height of his power within Ford Motor Co., acting as the czar of the new Rouge Plant in Dearborn where the first Model-A was being built. He also purchased the aforementioned yacht Helene a few years later, and his address reflected that he resided in the Detroit Towers on the waterfront across from Belle Isle. Sorenson's later use of engine casting methods for developing the one-piece Ford V8 engine block was perhaps his greatest innovation. It was produced for 21 years. He claimed to have known Henry Ford "better than any man dead or alive."


Once Andrea completed her initial archive dive, she uncovered a very useful article as well as some official city documents that helped reconstruct the history of the Sorenson house. The article was from The Suburban News, entitled "Vandalism Heavy, So Recreation Center Will Die," and refers to it as the "Rouge Recreation Center." The building had burned in late July of 1984, it reported, probably irreparably.

The article was supported by documents forwarded to the Suburban News staff by Geraldine V. Lamb, the Parks & Rec Department's "Properties Record Technician." From this it was confirmed that the Sorenson house was acquired by the city in April 1923, and contained a club room, gaming room, a hall, dining room, lobby, several meeting rooms, and an office at that time. Supposedly it comprised 4,240 square feet of space.

Photo from Detroit Dept. of Recreation
It was built atop Derby Hill, and became colloquially known to locals as the "White House" by mid-century. The neighborhoods of the Warrendale area still had not been built up yet prior to WWII, so this was essentially still the outskirts of civilization as far as urban Detroit was concerned.

The article confirmed that during WWII the Sorenson house was used as a USO site, offering recreation to local servicemen, many of whom were billeted in Rouge Park itself during the war. It provided billiards, ping-pong, music, dancing, and canteen facilities.

Photo from Detroit Dept. of Recreation
There was a fire on the second floor in January 1947, which destroyed many original furnishings, but the city paid to renovate the house afterward, which included some modernization. The article noted that there was some "unusual decorative woodwork," high "ballroom-style" ceilings, and fireplaces.

By the looks of this next photo, the sprawling building was most likely added-onto at least once over the decades, which means the c.1910s portion of the structure may not have been the original part, nor the last part to be built:

Photo from Detroit Dept. of Recreation
There was a stone bridge across the river somewhere as well, whose ruins I apparently did not see, or didn't photograph for some reason:

Photo from Detroit Dept. of Recreation
This next photo from the archive shows the bridge ruins in the 1980s(?)...perhaps they have been eroded away by now?

Photo from Detroit Dept. of Recreation
Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts also used this building over the years, and by the 1960s a program for senior citizens was being developed here. Andrea noted that the building might have suffered another minor fire in the early 1970s, and that knitting classes were offered there as late as 1977.


The article says these stone steps and stone wall along the river behind the house were built during Mr. Sorenson's residency, not as later additions by the park. I have to wonder then if he did not employ the services of famous landscape architect Jens Jenson, who did all of the landscaping at Henry Ford's own Fair Lane Estate nearby—apparently with the same type of stone, if my eyes do not deceive me.

This stone breastwork also resembles that found at the Dahlinger Estate, which Ford built further down the Rouge River for his alleged mistress, Evangeline Cote. Jensen also designed the landscape at Edsel Ford's Haven Hill Estate.


The Suburban News article states that the floodplain area behind the house has remained basically undisturbed by human influence thus far, and isolated from traffic noise by the escarpment it sits upon. I tend to agree with this; it was indeed a very unsuspecting piece of natural land to find oneself in. Supposedly blue herons, hawks, and other wild birds inhabited the area even in the 1980s, and there were also two "islands" found in the river at the time.


The old Sorenson house stood vacant for a few years before being demolished on October 9th, 1984. Here is a photo of it all boarded-up, presumably right before the fire that led to its demise:

Photo from Detroit Dept. of Recreation
I kept on wandering down the river to see what else there might be hidden in these woods, but I didn't find much. There was a little micro-waterfall here though:


And a little concrete slide here, presumably designed to halt erosion:


Elsewhere in Rouge Park, at 21800 Joy Road, stands the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center, in what was previously an abandoned Detroit Police Mounted Division station:


Prior to being used by the Detroit Police, I strongly suspect that it was part of the Sorenson farm as well. A reference in the introduction of My Forty Years with Ford, definitely seems to confirm this.


The Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Association had been allowed to use this stables for several years through a series of short-term agreements with the city, but in 2012 they finally secured long-term use of the facility. Around that time they held a volunteer event that I went and helped out with, to fix up the grounds and the building, which was when I took these photos.


The "Buffalo Soldiers" were cavalry regiments of African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army that were formed in 1866, and served out on the western frontier. There they earned their "buffalo" nickname from the Cheyenne people, out of respect for their prowess in battle (and supposedly not their complexion).


This was the main stable, but out back toward the woods were a couple other structures that I didn't investigate:


Here is a historic photo of the Smith House, which I briefly mentioned earlier...it was also demolished in 1984 along with the Sorenson house:

Photo from Detroit Dept. of Recreation
An official document from the Parks & Rec Department lists the Smith House as standing at 14245 West Outer Drive, and describes it as an "old farm house" that was used for many years as a "crippled children's center." The property was destroyed by fire in December 1982, after it had been abandoned for six or seven years, and it was demolished in February of 1984.


Today it is the place of the Parks & Rec Department's Walter I. Meyers Nursery, and I could not see much there in the way of ruins that might have once been a house.


References:
Illustrated Historical Atlas of Wayne County, Michigan, H. Belden & Co. (1876)
Detailed Official Atlas of Wayne County, Michigan (1893)
McAlpine's Wayne County Farm Atlas, 1925
Twenty-Fifth Annual Report of the Department of Parks and Boulevards, City of Detroit, June 30, 1914
1942 Annual Report of the Detroit Department of Parks & Recreation, p. 20
Parks & Recreation, Vol. 10 (1927), by the American Institute of Park Executives, p. 515
My Forty Years with Ford, by Charles E. Sorensen, Samuel T. Williams, p. xvii
"May Open River Park in Spring," Detroit Free Press, Sept. 4th, 1919, p. 5
"The River Rouge Park to be Detroit's Finest," by Henry W. Busch, Commissioner of Parks and Boulevards
"Vandalism Heavy, So Recreation Center Will Die," The Suburban News, Vol. 85, No. 33, p. 1
The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922, Vol. 4, by Clarence Monroe Burton, William Stocking, Gordon K. Miller, p. 660-663
http://www.rougepark.org/history.html
http://dlxs.lib.wayne.edu/cgi/i/image/image-idx?id=S-VMC-X-50891%5D50891
http://nikehercules.tripod.com/d-69.html
Detroit Free Press, July 12, 1953, p. 51
http://www.detroitmemories.com
http://preservationdetroit.org/exploring-artillery-in-historic-warrendale/
http://www.warrendaleblog.com/2012/12/buffalo-soldiers-take-over-house-barn.html
http://www.buffalosoldiersdetroit.org
http://claslinux.clas.wayne.edu/photos/part1/low_res/aerial_photos/wayne/1949/ha-17-118.pdf
http://detroit1701.org/River%20Rouge%20Park.html
http://www.britannica.com/biography/Benedict-de-Spinoza