The Coal King

Photos date from 2006 to 2010.

Lying along an abandoned stretch of the Grand Trunk Railroad was a nasty industrial site that used to be a coal storage facility, and contributed greatly to Eastern Market's grimy ambiance (for better or for worse). It actually stood at the northern end of what is commonly known as the Dequindre Cut, a trench that carried a section of track dating to the 1830s up from the Detroit riverfront to various industries on its way to Pontiac.


A quick look at the Sanborn map shows this to be the remnants of the Peter Koenig Coal Co., but this facility and its six tall silos have been knocked down in the past couple years with the transformation of the Dequindre Cut into the Dequindre "Greenway." And since what I do on this website is take ugly worthless old eyesores that no longer exist and dredge them back up to tell you why they were important, here is the story of some dirty old coal silos.


The History of Wayne County by Clarence M. Burton says that a German Detroiter named Peter Koenig founded the business that was to become the Koenig Coal & Supply Co. in 1870, by starting with the sale of firewood. His first yard was on Gratiot at Rivard, to which farmers would haul wood, where he would have it cut to customers' desired length. After his business began to grow he ordered shipments by boat.

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After eight or nine years, Burton says, Herr Koenig got into dealing hard coal, at which approximate time he acquired the land here at 1909 Erskine Street, and another yard at the intersection of Gratiot and the Belt Line Railroad.


A volume of the Coal Trade Journal from 1891 explains that due to a recent crash in coal prices, Peter Koenig was awarded the contract to supply the Detroit Water Works with stove-size anthracite--on account of being the only person to bid on it. He also had the contract for supplying Detroit City Hall, the Municipal Court, and Central Market. Apparently the coal market had shrunk the number of suppliers that were able to stay in business, and Koenig was left with the lion's share, despite reduced revenues.


Burton writes that Herr Koenig invested in other interests that did not pan out successfully, and it ended up nearly ruining him, but he nonetheless started over and reincorporated his interests in 1895. At that time he was dealing in both hard and soft coal. The Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory for 1897 shows Joseph A. Koenig as secretary and treasurer of the company, and that they had offices at 364 Atwater Street and 368 Gratiot Avenue.


A nifty c.1890s ad was posted on the DetroitYes message board by user Mikeg several years ago, while a second German-language ad from c.1903 shows that Koenig Coal had a branch office at 1332 Gratiot Avenue, and the telephone number for the silos was MAin-5320.


Mikeg posted a c.1920 photo of the silos as well, which shows a large advertisement affixed to the silos themselves, touting that Koenig dealt in Lehigh Valley Anthracite (found in Pennsylvania)--"The Coal That Satisfies."

I talked about the one-time Michigan coal mining industry in an older post.


I found another historic photo in a c.1919 volume of the trade publication The Black Diamond, featuring a Packard truck with a load of coal ready for shipment. The caption explains that the Koenig yards at 454 Gratiot were brick-paved, and "among the best equipped in the United States":

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Peter Koenig died February 15th, 1910, according to a different volume of the Coal Trade Journal. The business stayed in the family and John F. Koenig became president of the P. Koenig Coal Co., according to the book Coal Men of America, and he was also invested in the Elkhorn Coal Co. at the time.


By the 1920s the Koenigs had branched out again to deal in sand, gravel, crushed stone, brick, tile, lath, plaster, and cement, according to Clarence Burton. By 1930 these materials had eclipsed coal as the mainstay of Koenig's business, and they operated two new yards on Plymouth Road and Seven Mile Road, though the company still handled coke for Ford Motor Co. and Solvay Process.


If I am not mistaken, the company still continues operating to this day under the Koenig name, as I recall seeing their huge cement-mixer trucks everywhere. I think they have a yard on Plymouth west of Telegraph.


Several times I've wandered through the various ruins of the Koenig Coal silos on the periphery of Eastern Market, while either entering or exiting that once jungle-like haven of complete anarchy known as the Dequindre Cut. Before it was cleaned up and turned into a bike path, the Cut served as a graffiti paradise, a home to the homeless, and the de facto dumping grounds for anything you needed to get rid of that wouldn't fit in a dumpster.


The Koenig silos and the Dequindre Cut (which I'll feature in another post) seemed to me to be another one of the vast nether-areas of lawlessness that had been abandoned by the city, and which embodied the kind of "Delta City" image that so many people have come to come to associate with Detroit. I think that by cleaning all of it up the city has gone a long way toward improving its image.


I have to admit though that I'll miss the freedom that came with having such large off-the-grid areas to wander in and do whatever you felt like doing. Pretty soon there will not be a single place left in the city where you won't be under some kind of surveillance. Next they'll have some kind of thermal imaging cameras installed so that you can't even fart in a crowd without being caught and held accountable.


I imagine that Koenig most recently took coal shipments by railcar, and probably had an underground bin that a rail spur passed over so that hopper cars could dump their loads into it, and the conveyor scoop system would transfer said coal up into the tops of the silos.


The embedded ties of an old forgotten railroad spur led off into the urban forest:


Here, a smaller outbuilding served as someone's makeshift home:


Inside one of the larger buildings I found the blackened remnants of a hatchback that had undoubtedly been stolen or made the victim of an insurance job:


I of course checked it for any dead bodies, just to make sure.


If I remember correctly the stair that went to the second floor had been totally destroyed, so getting up there was a precarious climb:


Getting up on top of the silos themselves was no easy task either, since the stairs had been cut off about 12 feet from the ground...but nonetheless it needed to be done.


I estimated the view would be pretty decent from up there. The structure might've been a little worse for the wear...


Huh...


...maybe a lot worse for the wear.


Here can be seen the Detroit Water & Sewerage Department's old abandoned warehouse:


Finally reaching the top, there was indeed a splendid panorama of the neighborhood:


An assemblage of large gears drove the conveyor system that dispensed coal from the delivery bins below, up to the various silos for storage:


The Packard Plant fills up the horizon to the northeast:


The Dequindre Cut extending to the south, through Eastern Market and toward the river:


 Fisher Body Plant #10, Hoban Cold Storage, and Grand Trunk Cold Storage are seen to the north:


Sweetest Heart of Mary Church:




The Thornapple Valley slaughterhouse, and many others:


I wish I could say I came back up here for nighttime shots, but alas, I never did.


Tall buildings line the east riverfront:


Downtown, Ford Field, and Shed 3:


The Detroit Water & Sewer Dept.'s old abandoned warehouse, seen across a vacant field that once served as a pipe storage depot:


St. Albertus, and the Poletown Plant:


In the background of this shot you can see the Brewster-Douglas Towers, the Eddystone Hotel, the Hotel Park Avenue, Cass Tech, and Michigan Central Station, and the Detroit Fire Department's repair facility in the foreground:




Looking down at the immediate surroundings emphasized what a desolate prairie we were situated in the middle of:


These silos were popular with scrappers for a while in the late-2000s, not as a place of copper harvest, but as a place for burning the insulation off of one's wire crop so that it would be worth more at the scale. It was common to see smoke rising from such fires here and elsewhere in the Dequindre Cut.


Here, one of the denizens of this lonely land bends over to organize his personal items as he returns to his makeshift hovel for the night.


Here we see an example of urban mosquito farming:


Demolition of the Koenig Coal Co. facility at 1909 Erskine was completed by late 2013 if I recall correctly.


References:
Sanborn Insurance Maps for Detroit, 1921
The History of Wayne County and the City of Detroit, Michigan, Vol. 5, by Clarence M. Burton & M. Agnes Burton, et al, p. 719-720
http://www.atdetroit.net/forum/messages/6790/154684.html?1226977562
The Black Diamond, Vol. 63, (1919), p. 595
Coal Trade Journal, Vol. 30, (1891), edited by Frederick Edward Saward, p. 357
Coal Trade Journal, Vol. 49, February 23, 1910, p. 150
Michigan State Gazetteer and Business Directory, Vol. XIII, (1897), p. 637
Coal Men of America: A Biographical and Historical Review of the World's Greatest Industry, edited by Arthur M. Hull, Sydney A. Hale, p. 162

1 comment:

  1. PLEASE keep doing what you do, the old pictures, the history, the storytelling, all of it. People forget to quickly what it took to build the Dequindre Cut Cycling Path.

    ReplyDelete