Just Another Boring Warehouse?

Photos date from 2005 and later.

The place down by the river that everyone refers to as "The Boblo Terminal" (or some variation thereof) was actually built by the Detroit Railway & Harbor Terminal Co. (DR&HTC) and became part of the Port of Detroit. The part of its life where it had anything to do with the Boblo Island Amusement Company was very brief indeed, but because their name is emblazoned on the side of the building in letters 50 feet tall, that's what everyone calls it.

I think the first time I ever snuck inside was in early 2005, and I have been there many times since. At first it was well-sealed, and getting in was something of an accomplishment at the time, but it seems like it stayed wide open to trespass with but a few exceptions, all the way up until December of 2012 when a new fence was erected around it and fresh boards bolted over its entrances. It took a couple years before it was cracked open again. I remember two friends telling me of a time in 2004 when they once had to duck out of sight there, because a Coast Guard patrol boat with a deck-mounted machine-gun was on the prowl for them. It seems hard to believe now that the place has been so easily accessible for so long, that it once was a place where stealth was required to explore it.


This part of Detroit, the western waterfront, used to be the heavy industry part of town, where lots of foundries, smelters, and rolling mills all worked various metals to supply the three main industries that sustained Detroit in those days before the dawn of the automobile: stove manufacturing, railroad car manufacturing, and ship building.

The c.1921 Sanborn map for the area shows the spot at the foot of McKinstry Avenue where this new building would stand to be completely occupied at the time by the American Car & Foundry Rolling Mill, with the Detroit Copper & Brass Rolling Mill immediately to the west of it (those who remember this area from back before 2005 might recall seeing that vacant building with its long sawtooth roof butting up against the "Boblo Terminal" before it was torn down in favor of an empty gravel lot). The Peninsular Smelting & Refining Co. was the next neighbor down the road in the direction of Fort Wayne.


There used to be at least four blast furnaces located where the "Boblo Terminal" now stands, and two heat-treating furnaces. The c.1897 Sanborn map shows this area to be occupied by the forge of the Michigan Peninsular Car Co., alongside a rolling mill, and machine shop as well.

Reaching even further back in time, the c.1884 Sanborn map shows the old location of the Michigan Peninsular Car Co. as being occupied by the Baugh Steam Forge Co., but apparently with the same structures still extant as were shown on the 1897 map. There was also a blacksmith shop and furnaces, and the parcel that is now occupied by the empty shipping yard of the Port of Detroit was then the Springwells Dry Dock Co., which featured a couple ship-building slips. Just one block down Jefferson Avenue toward Fort Wayne was the Detroit & Lake Superior Copper Co.'s Detroit plant.


A real estate advertisement in the May, 1925 issue of The Milwaukee Journal says the parcel that this massive warehouse now sits on had just been bought, and a William J. Hogan, Esq., was president of the Detroit Railway & Harbor Terminal Co. He was also head of the National Terminals Corp., which had terminals in Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Indianapolis, and planned to develop a new one right here.

The Buhl family of Detroit however were the largest stockholders in the Detroit Railway & Harbor Terminal Co. (DR&HTC), having owned this land for over 50 years prior. Among the family's concerns were Buhl Stamping Co., Buhl Malleable Co., and Buhl Sons' Company. At the same time they were building this warehouse the family was also erecting the landmark Buhl Building downtown, which today stands as the most visible monument to their legacy in the city.


Arthur H. Buhl and Lawrence D. Buhl would be trustees on the DR&HTC's board of management, along with Franz Kuhn (president of Michigan Bell Telephone Co.), Mason P. Rumney (president of Detroit Steel Products Co.), and H.S. Covington (president of the National Bank of Commerce).

The lengthy advert also said that "Waterfront property in Detroit is exceptionally valuable because of its limited extent." It further asserted that the DR&HTC was located on the "most desirable" site in Detroit for such a venture, being that it was the only large tract then on the market where rail and waterfront access were both available. The lot comprised 12 acres and 1,100 feet of harbor front, and was valued at about $3.6 million by the Detroit Security & Trust Co. DR&HTC planned this terminal to be eight stories, the largest such terminal in Detroit at 900,000 square-feet, with an additional 200,000 square-feet of cold storage space. The advertisement suggests that there was a shortage of adequate warehousing space at the time in Detroit, probably due to the rapid explosion of its population since 1919. The land included in the parcel still had enough room left over to increase the storage capacity of this warehouse 300%.


According to archival info I dug up for another post about the ship graveyard on Stony Island, it was the same Dunbar & Sullivan dredging company based on Stony Island that built this warehouse. Their "Contract #258" was executed in 1925 for the pilings, foundation, and dock of the "Detroit Railway and Harbor Terminals Co. of Detroit." The record also shows that this building and its waterfront were extended further out in both 1926 and 1927.


Mason P. Rumney's membership on the DR&HTC board of trustees is interesting because according to The Michigan Alumnus, he succeeded Mr. Hogan as president of the company in 1926. Rumney had served as a major in the U.S. Army during World War I, and was attached to the office of the chief of ordinance, supervising production of all artillery vehicles and coordinating their shipment overseas. If I am not mistaken, the Army Ordinance Department was in control of Fort Wayne at that time, barely a quarter-mile down the street from this warehouse; Rumney would undoubtedly have been stationed there if he held such an office. Notably, it was during WWI that the Army began adapting motorized artillery and mobility; Fort Wayne, being located in the Motor City, played an instrumental role in this. Rumney's status as son of the founder of Detroit Steel Products no doubt influenced his attainment of this military office, though upon taking the reigns of DR&HTC he stepped down as president of his own company so that he could focus completely on DR&HTC.

The Michigan Alumnus article stated also that the DR&HTC was modeled very much after the Bush Terminals in New York City, and that it had quickly become quite prominent in the region as a transportation hub. Some of the shipments it handled were directly from Europe, and it was Rumney's intent to increase this type of business in the future, and to diversify beyond mere warehousing. Rumney was also well known as left end on University of Michigan's varsity football team during his college days, and was an early director of U of M's alumni program when it was in its infancy.


From the above photograph you should be able to spot a very strong resemblance to another warehouse that I've featured before, the Grand Trunk Cold Storage, since both were designed by Albert Kahn.

It seems as though there was some kind of financial trouble early in the game for DR&HTC however, as Rumney resigned his position as its president in 1928. According to an issue of the Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record that year, the DR&HTC was then put in receivership under Detroit Security & Trust Co. and Harold L. Brown. Sounds like they were getting a jump start on the Great Depression maybe.


Speaking of Fort Wayne, according to a book by James Conway and David Jamroz, this warehouse actually became part of Fort Wayne during WWII, and was connected to the fort's grounds via a short railroad along the riverfront that facilitated the shipping and storage of military vehicles and parts. During WWII, Detroit's Fort Wayne became the headquarters of the Motor Supply Depot of the entire U.S. Army, meaning it was the central logistics point for all the vehicles that were built and used in the American war effort. All the tanks, trucks, Jeeps, and spare parts made in Detroit's factories were shipped out to the warfront under the auspices of Fort Wayne, which was given the authority to control the Port of Detroit and commandeer this warehouse for military use, since this massive flow of materiel couldn't be contained within the Fort's own huge warehouses.

An illustrated map of the Fort Wayne supply network in the 1940s shows this warehouse as then being labeled the "Fort Wayne Harbor Terminal Warehouse," and comprising 489,600 square-feet of bulk storage capacity: CLICK FOR ILLUSTRATION. As you can see from that picture, the Michigan State Fair Grounds was also used as a staging area. There also seems to have been a boat slip near this terminal, which is no longer there.


This trench running through the middle of the ground floor was to accommodate trains backing into the terminal to be loaded with freight that had arrived via ship (or vice-versa):


There are also the many loading docks for trucks along the western side of the building, seen in previous photos above; this facility was built to accommodate all modes of transportation except airplanes.


This compressed view is a straight shot all the way from the front of the building to the bay doors at the rear, which open up onto the riverfront:


Undoubtedly the most interesting part of this building was the room that contained all of these giant compressor engines, an unexpected (and very photogenic) thing to find behind an easily-overlooked door:


These photos were taken many years ago, before the compressor engines were dismantled for scrap.


They are still there, but this is what they looked like when they were still somewhat intact.


If there was any doubt as to who designed this behemoth of a structure, his name was etched into the instrument panel on the wall of this room...good ole Albert Kahn, a hometown favorite:


A closer look however reveals another name as well...


According to their own company history, the Vilter Mfg. Co. of Milwaukee built commercial refrigeration and cooling equipment for ice houses, breweries, meatpacking and cold storage warehouses, etc.


Vilter got their start in 1867, and by World War II they had developed machines that apparently made packing ice for use in steamships that carried foodstuffs to troops in Europe and the Pacific. Most likely these compressors here ran the cooling system for the cold storage areas of this warehouse, but it's possible that a packing ice machine could also have been in operation here at one time. Speaking of refrigeration, I wrote about the development of the refrigeration industry in Detroit in an older post.


Many of these pipes are heavily insulated, perhaps not because they contained hot water or steam as one might assume; I suspect they may have contained cooled refrigerant for distribution throughout the cold storage areas of the building on the floors above us:


I found a couple York compressors very similar to these in the second basement of the State Theater, if you remember back to that older post.


It must have really been something to see all these beasts in operation.


The basement under this room is usually flooded, and contained more equipment—in this case what looks to have been a boiler:


Stepping back outside briefly, it is easy to see where the cold storage section of the building was; it is the part that doesn't have windows:


It was also the half of the building that was closest to the water.

Back inside we found a woodshop on one of the floors, most likely used for making or altering pallets and crates used in shipping. Looks like someone was a little careless while using the bandsaw...remember that scene in UHF where the shop teacher slices his thumb off and gets blood everywhere?


Somebody needs to use spellchecker on their stencil:


This big long shed building seen out the window in the next photo was built as the "Brazed Tube & Seamless Tube Mill" of the Detroit Copper & Brass Rolling Mills, according to Sanborn insurance maps:


It is sort of a "sole survivor" of that old copper & brassworking era of Detroit's manufacturing history that I mentioned earlier. Studebaker's #3 and #4 plants used to stand on the east side of Clark Street, which the Port of Detroit occupies now as a storage yard.


I came across a volume of the trade publication Iron Age that said the address of this building was 4461 West Jefferson Avenue, and by searching that address I was able to come up with a few companies that were based here, or attached to this building in some way, most likely as lessors of warehouse space within it.

Among them were the Lonz Winery (in 1928), The Twin-Flex Corp (1930), Dunn-Rainey Co. (1960), and the Maico Motor Co. / Engray Industries Inc. (importing motorcycles in 1962). As you may recall from my earlier post about another very similar bulk warehouse on the Detroit River, these kinds of places often leased out each floor of the building to a different company for warehousing use.


A promotional (and perhaps slightly hyperbolic) book from 1927 entitled Michigan's Thirty-Seven Million Acres of Diamonds boldly asserted that the Detroit River was "the greatest maritime thoroughfare in the world"...
The freight carried on vessels passing through the Detroit River is several times the foreign tonnage of New York harbor for the same period. A significant point of fact is that while the tonnage out of New York harbor is mostly finished products, the tonnage passing through Detroit is 81% raw materials.
The ships of nearly 100 different navigation companies plied the waves of the Great Lakes in those days, according to the book. Things are different now.


This building went through different ownership over the decades according to several search engine results; Detroit Harbor Terminals, Inc. controlled it in the 1960s-1970s, and their name is still shown over the front doorway to the warehouse's offices. Later it was controlled by Detroit Marine Terminals, Inc. (whose name is still painted on the western side of the building), while most recently it fell under the ownership of Nicholson Terminal & Dock Co., who have docks in River Rouge too.


A lot of the floors look exactly like this—identical, and empty—so we tended to skip a lot of them.


Hey, remember when there used to be railings in these stairways, and no graffiti?


I was actually glad when the graffiti started appearing, since it made the building more interesting to wander.


Here is a panoramic photo I stitched together from several individual photos, showing the view from the roof. You can click it for full size, but please remember that this (and all of my other images) are copyrighted, and I have a team of very expensive lawyers...

Click image for full size (copyrighted)
One time a friend and I climbed up on top of one of these elevator penthouses for a better view, and found an unopened fifth of Jameson! That ended up being a pretty good day...


These storage tanks, if I am not mistaken, contain the fuel for the ships of the Great Lakes—essentially it is the gas station for all the freighters of the American side:


There is another one on the other side of the river for Canadian vessels.


As a result, this is an excellent place to watch ships, if that is your thing.


But other than Belle Isle, this is the closest thing you will find to a beach here in Detroit—hard concrete:


I used to have a stack of old Port of Detroit annual reports that came in snazzy, glossy stock magazine covers featuring cool photos of this building on it back from the 1980s to early 2000s, which I found in—of all places—the Packard Plant. They contained all kinds of useful information about the Port of Detroit, such as how many ships had come through this year, what countries goods were being moved to or from, how much freight in tonnage had been shipped, types of freight, what the projections for next year were, and what companies had used the port.

I wish I knew where those things have gotten to. Oh well, this is the kind of thing that happens when you own a thousand books.


So the question is, how could a building that is part of the actual port of a large maritime city, at North America's busiest international border, become abandoned? At what point does a port just not have the need for a warehouse anymore? That's a good question, but the fact is that nowadays, compared to other cities like say, Boston or San Francisco, we almost don't even have a port.

Because of my own activities in the Delray area I happened to pass the Port of Detroit on an almost daily basis from 2009 to 2014, and it was not common to see ships in port here. Plenty of ships passed by, but few ever stopped to load or unload anything. Detroit just doesn't seem to send anything by ship anymore I guess?


Now trucks however...we have trucks. Look at the Ambassador Bridge at any busy time of day (or the middle of the night) and you'll see that it is more often than not a traffic jam of semi-trucks sitting bumper-to-bumper on the bridge over the river, while the port sits empty (though to be fair, the entity referred to as the "Port of Detroit" actually encompasses more than just this one facility—there are several docks around the city that fall under the jurisdiction). Most of the material that I see stored in the yard (often for long periods of time) is usually steel products such as sheet steel coils, rod, or industrial steel wire.

The most activity I ever saw here was when a Navy destroyer came to port during "Navy Week," and security was suddenly increased, featuring two beefcakes in BDUs with AR-15 rifles strapped across their chests, standing guard at the front gate.


For those who just can't get high enough [snicker], the watertower offers a slightly better view of one's surroundings.


One day I even climbed up to the ventilator ball on the top of the water tank. There's fewer and fewer of these old-style watertowers around the city anymore, whereas they once defined the skyline of most American cities.


In this zoomed-in view down West Jefferson, you can actually see some of the buildings of Fort Wayne in the trees in the distance past Mistersky Power Station:


The Ternstedt Mfg. Co. Plant #8, with the Ford Rouge Plant in the background...the modern white watertower belonged to Sybill Oil Inc., which I climbed before in an older post:


Click HERE for a reverse view, showing the Boblo Terminal as seen from the Sybill watertower.

Roberts Brass, another remnant of Southwest Detroit's malleable metalworking past:


On one occasion, I was surprised to get to the waterfront side of the building to find a barge moored here with no one attending it...


The Imp of the Perverse whispered in my ear and told me that I could untie this vessel and watch the current carry it away, but the amount of havoc that would cause could land one in prison for quite some time.

This next shot illustrates just how close Canada really is...you can see houses and steeples, seemingly within a stone's throw:


I have actually heard a story that in the mid-1800s around the time Fort Wayne was built, an Irish farmer named Forscyth lived here at the foot of Clark Street, who served as the unofficial caretaker of the fort during the 1850s when it was briefly abandoned by the Army. I also heard that he had a side business ferrying people back and forth to Canada (back when that was still legal). Furthermore, it is rumored that he also assisted escaped slaves in getting to Canada on the Underground Railroad when no one was looking.


I also have it on good authority that the long-discussed second railroad freight tunnel under the Detroit River has been planned to cross the river in this area, passing almost underneath the terminal itself. It will be a long, long time before this project gets underway however.


Around Devil's Night of 2008, a large fire burned on the 5th floor of this building, though not much actual damage occurred. Another three-alarm fire struck this building on June 29th of 2016, but again the structural damage appears to have been minimal.


The port isn't always empty, but when there is a ship here it is usually the Federal Nakagawa or one of that fleet, which I believe hails from Hong Kong or China:


This one was a tanker barge from Cleveland:


Thoughts of becoming a stowaway to Hong Kong, where the weather is more tropical...


Personally, I liked the Ambassador Bridge better when it had these old red incandescent lights rather than the new blue LED ones.


This part of town, for me, is associated with a certain set of sensory experiences that go along with living in the industrial areas of the Great Lakes, which include the intoxicating scent of freshwater and dead fish, as well as the occasional deep, throbbing bass sound of churning freighter engines, and the "one long, two short" call of their horns echoing mournfully though the silent concrete city at night.


Taking a nighttime exposure of a ship can be a tricky proposition...they are moving faster than you think:


Night is actually a great time to be here.


I never get tired of that skyline view...


It's also the perfect place to watch maritime mail drops from the world's only floating post office, the boat J.W. Westcott, ZIP code 48222. The ship in the next photo was receiving mail (and maybe a pizza) from the Westcott when I took the shot:


Despite its awesome location on the riverfront, this is one building that isn't likely to be converted to residential lofts any time soon. If Detroit were to experience the same level of "over-gentrification" that is currently affecting New York City however, that could certainly change.



References:
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 1, Sheet 106, 108 (1921)
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 1, Sheet 110 (1897)
Sanborn maps for Detroit, Vol. 1, Sheet 24b (1884)
Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne, by James Conway and David F. Jamroz, p. 99
The Milwaukee Journal, May 5, 1925, p. 21
The Michigan Alumnus, Vol. 33, p. 517
The Michigan Technic, Vols. 42-43, (December 1928), p. 17
The Michigan Alumnus, Volume 41, (October 13, 1934), p. 7
The Michigan Technic, Vols. 42-43, (January 1929), p. 22
Michigan Manufacturer and Financial Record, Volume 42 (1928)
Michigan's Thirty-Seven Million Acres of Diamonds, by Clyde L. Newnom p. 5
Iron Age, Vol. 120, p. 589
http://detroithistorical.org/learn/encyclopedia-of-detroit/buhl-building
http://substreet.org/detroit-harbor-terminal/
http://www.emersonclimate.com/en-us/brands/vilter/pages/vilterhistory.aspx

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