Stony Island, Detroit's Boat Graveyard (Pt. 2)

Continued from part 1.

We slowly hooked over into the next lagoon looking for a good secluded place to climb up on land and leave the boat tied up. This segment of the island seems to have been Dunbar & Sullivan’s center of operations, and at least the edges of it seemed to be made up of more sunken barges:

Before unloading our barbeque supplies, we made a cursory explore of the island. We were on the opposite side of the steel building, which had a large set of doors pockmarked by buckshot, and graffiti saying “ENTER,” though we found every entrance firmly welded shut.

I stuck my camera in through a small window for a shot, and moved on:

Here was the open concrete area:

It looked like we were not the first people to think about partying here. Everything was riddled with buckshot or bullet holes, and tons of empty shell casings lay strewn about.

The hot summer sun beat down on Stony Island as we explored and looked for a good place to build a fire for a barbeque.

The midday heat had turned this structure into an oven, and scorching hot air escaped out of its portholes.

We had a nice view of our surroundings however...

According to an older article in the Detroit Free Press, a hermit named Jack Mather was still living on Stony Island as a caretaker for Dunbar & Sullivan in 1984, keeping solitary watch over the company's forlorn dredging equipment, under the premise that they might actually come back for it some day. He lived in a green two-room shack on a barge with his two black Labradors, Sweetheart and Bruiser.

Another article entitled "Seaman Relishes Life on Rusty River Barge" delves more into the strange life of Mr. Mather who had been living the hermit's life here since 1977. In it he described the lonely life that living in a place like this might presumably entail, including lots of time for fishing, thinking, and reading. He waved to ship captains as they passed, and in the winter when the river froze, his dogs would roam for miles across the ice during the day.

Mather interacted with ice fishermen, and sometimes complained about their messy, drunken habits. Getting groceries out to his little hut was a challenge, especially in winter, which usually involved falling through the ice a few times. He was actually married to a nurse in Trenton who he rarely saw, but they were apparently quite happy with allowing each other plenty of personal space. Mather departed Stony Island in 1990 when Dunbar & Sullivan sold their property here, and it continued to slowly descend into ruin after that.

There's our barge-turned-planter again:

The rafted boats we had passed earlier, as well as one of the abandoned barges:

I got a better look at another cabin cruiser I had spotted through the trees just after we arrived in this lagoon, to find out that it was not some other party of pleasure boaters seeking seclusion on this island for potentially nefarious activities as I had initially expected, but rather a beached, abandoned wreck:

So we did have this place to ourselves after all.

My two comrades began walking over in that direction to investigate the beached craft.

After re-beering, I followed.

More 12-gauge carnage:

Apparently there are just never enough things to shoot at during duck season, so electrical infrastructure gets raged on when you’re too blitzed to hit something with wings.

Boats on the other hand, are always fun to shoot at:

At the back of this slip, yet more skeletal remains of a barge or dredge boat:

*Note to self: grapeshot will not penetrate fiberglass boat hull. Use slugs.

I dug up an article from May of 1965, where a boat like this one collided with a freighter in the Livingstone Channel nearby, resulting in one man missing and another killed. The swamped boat was towed here by the Coast Guard for recovery, and from the photo I thought  for a second that it might be this same boat, but it's not. Anyway, the moral of the story is stay way the hell away from those freighters—they create an undertow around them and small craft are easily pulled under by their wake.

Standing atop its pilothouse I was able to look down into the water and see more of the wreckage that sat behind it:

A collapsing metal shack hidden in the brush to the left was the only remaining structure we could find on the island:

My crew mates had wandered off down the trail ahead of me so I climbed down and went to investigate the hut. Pushing my way through the dense thicket, I crawled into the collapsed metal hut like a raccoon. Oddly enough the roof structure looked quite a bit older than the modern cinderblock walls.

As I was writing this, I found out a very interesting facet of downriver history that I had never dreamed would've been factual—there used to be a rail line from Michigan to Canada, via a bridge that hopped to Grosse Ile and Stony Island from Trenton (Monguagon). In 1873 the Chicago & Canadian Southern RR completed their Detroit-to-Buffalo segment via a bridge from Trenton to Grosse Ile, slicing across the middle of the island, and straight over to Stony Island where the railcars were then loaded onto ferries to cross the shipping channel of the river to Amherstberg—right where General Chemical is today.

If you look at an aerial map you can see where the extant railroads line up today on the American and Canadian sides of the river, but no bridge links them anymore (MAP). The line would have followed what is now the Grosse Ile Parkway. Here is an image of what it would have looked like, from a c.1893 map of Wayne County:

The south bridge to Grosse Ile was built solely for the Chicago & Canadian Southern RR but they terminated their rail ferry service at Stony Island around 1883 due to “financial difficulties.” In 1879 however, there was enough traffic on that line that they had started working on a rail tunnel underneath Grosse Ile to replace this cumbersome swing-bridge/ferry setup, but it was found that the limestone under the river here was not strong enough, and to complete the tunnel would be cost-prohibitive, so it was abandoned. If this tunnel had been completed, it would have preceded the famed St. Clair River Tunnel in Port Huron as the world’s first underwater vehicular tunnel (and first international tunnel) by about 12 years.

This was also the site of the first international telephone connected the Canada Southern Railroad's office on Stony Island to Gorden, Ontario, according to

The Michigan Central RR later built a passenger depot on Grosse Ile (today home to the Grosse Ile Historical Society), which allowed vastly better access for residents to and from the island, but in the 1930s the bridge to Grosse Ile was converted for automobile traffic as a WPA project. The bridge from Grosse Ile to Stony Island must have been scrapped about that same time, but where I was standing here at this little steel-roofed hut would have been in the right-of-way of that rail line to Amherstberg (in the next photo, my partners are standing directly in the middle of the right-of-way).

In fact somewhere right around here was where the railcars would have been loaded onto the ferries. By the way, all these forgotten facts are outlined in the c.1941 book Michigan, a Guide to the Wolverine State, which was a product of the WPA Writers’ Program. Maybe we did get our (grandparents’) tax money’s worth out of some of those federal make-work programs?

The metal shed faced out onto another separate lagoon:

The triangle-shaped lagoon has a rope swing hanging from a tree in its far corner, and is a popular chill spot for boaters who like a quieter resting place to drop anchor, without all the partying.

On that note, I gave up looking for the other two and returned to the Jane for our charcoal and the cooler. It was time to get the fire started. As soon as I had the fire going my crew mates showed back up and the cooking commenced.

Another ship of the Algoma Line now rumbled down the Livingstone Channel next to us as the baked potatoes and venison steaks (which I had killed) were cooking.

'Dis how we do in Michigan:

Now fed and feeling extremely relaxed on this hot summer's day, I casually explored our surroundings a bit more.

There were random holes in the "ground," which the clumsy hiker could fall into and become trapped, and maybe drown...

Nothing handy to start a fire with? Why not light a pile of the empty shotgun shells that you used to blast everything in sight?

Everywhere in the tall weeds were scattered random remnants of marine implementia, including a lot of rusty steel cable:

Unfortunately we were completely unaware at the time of another important facet of Stony Island's history as we lazed about the site near our boat. Had I delved much deeper into the nearby woods I would have discovered remnants of a workers' village that existed on the island from about 1908 to 1912, which was when the great Livingstone Channel was dug.

For mariners, this area between Stony Island and Boblo Island was once a treacherous shallows known as Lime Kiln Crossing; in order to improve conditions for shipping, a deep rock cut was dug through the area to provide the safe, straight passage known as the Livingstone Channel. Dunbar & Sullivan's workers lived on the island with their families in this shack-town for the duration of the massive project.

Here is a LINK to some pictures from the Library of Congress showing construction on the Stony Island section of the Livingstone Channel, and the village that once existed here. Clearly, further investigative missions to Stony Island would be needed to look into the whereabouts and possible remnants of this well as more barbecuing. Stay tuned.

Here, Great Lakes Steel’s Ecorse Works were visible as the backdrop of this quintessential summertime scene:

We laid about on the hot concrete napping for a bit, before we noticed the sun starting to sink, so we packed everything back up and started up the Jane for our slow return trip.

On the way out of the lagoon back to the main body of the Detroit River, we passed by a few more ruined barges. They were probably abandoned here when they had outlived their seaworthiness.

We waved to the party boaters as we left the protection of Stony Island’s still coves before throttling up the motor and fighting our way through the waves again. My intent was to take us further upriver actually, just a little ways, so we could take a “secret” way back to the marina. The peaceful and scenic Thoroughfare Canal slashes through the middle of Grosse Ile on an angle, and its upper entrance lay just north of here, marked by the Grosse Ile North Channel Front Range Light, whose white shape I was aiming at from Stony Island:

I figured it would be much more convenient than trying to circumnavigate the entirety of Grosse Ile again, since the Thoroughfare’s lower entrance would spit us out directly across from our marina at Trenton. This light was lit in 1906, rebuilt from an older structure dating to 1894.

Now, the Thoroughfare Canal is not just some manmade canal recently dug out for yuppies’ boat access as one might think; it shows up on maps going back to at least 1855.

But there sure were a lot of yuppies here, heh:

In fact Ransom Eli Olds (founder of Oldsmobile) had an Albert Kahn-designed estate here on Elba Island in 1916, named “Elbamar”…actually he owned that entire island at the time.

Another (in)famous character from the auto industry had a house on Grosse Ile’s upper west shoreline: Henry Ford’s bodyguard Harry Bennett. His 1939 boathouse sits directly across from McLouth Steel and is shaped like an oriental pagoda…of course it had the requisite Bennett-esque escape tunnel and secret passages as well. That’s in addition to the equally nutty fortresses he had built in Ypsilanti and Clare County.

An ancient “no wake” speed limit sign:

As evening wore on the temperature began to get a little milder on this absolutely perfect day, as we putted at idle speed down the scenic Thoroughfare with my arm resting slothfully on the tiller.

Finally the towering smokestacks of Trenton Power presided over the last leg of our journey for the day, guiding us in to port like giant field goal posts.

Here was the south Grosse Ile Bridge again (the one that had started out as the railroad bridge):

Click to continue to Part 3

Michigan, a Guide to the Wolverine State, WPA Writer's Program (1941)
Images of America: Grosse Ile, by the Grosse Ile Historical Society, p. 55-58
General Map of Wayne County, Wm. Sauer (1893)
"Islands in the Stream: Local Tales," Detroit Free Press, May 3, 1984, p. 135
"Seaman Relishes Life on Rusty River Barge," Detroit Free Press, January 19, 1984, p. 124
"Two Lost in River Collision," Detroit Free Press, May 24, 1965, p. 1

1 comment:

  1. I grew up on Grosse Ile in the 60s. I remember The old bridge abutments going from the Island to Stony Island. We would fish around those for silver bass. Stony Island was private, but sometimes we would explore. Supposedly, one of the old steam engines were still in service on the Stony Island back then, and rumor had it that an old sailing vessel was in the north bay of the island, laying on her side. Leftover from the 20s.