Escape From McLouth Steel

From early 2006.

If you follow Jefferson Avenue out of Detroit, all the way downriver into Trenton, that's where you'll see the enormous, completely black hulk of the former McLouth Steel...once the fourth-largest steel producer in this once-great nation (aerial shot).

It's a mill in the same industrial style of the Ford Rouge Plant and all those others with their vast, windowless sides and starkly geometrical masses that among other things inspired so many artists and composers and other social commentators to portray the dehumanizing aesthetics of industrialized society in the early 20th century, despite largely improved conditions from the 19th.  

Driving past it in your car you'll see the main building right off the road looming with its titanic buckhorn-shaped roof vents pointing up threateningly at the sky, and if you watch your odometer you'll find that it is just shy of a mile long–equal in length to the Packard Plant

There is one section where the wall is made up of windows, but the small panes are either broken out or stained dark oily brown from long decades of acid rain and smog. When the sun does show through them, it illuminates the cavernous black interior with a sickly, but warm dirt-yellowed glow. The plant itself is situated on a strip of barren land right on the shore of the Detroit River, directly across from Grosse Ile. 

One can tell by the wildlife to be found there that if it weren't for the foundry's constant expulsions of dirt and crud, this would have been a beautiful, if swampy piece of land. Undoubtedly it sits on filled wetland. There was another McLouth plant in nearby Gibraltar, and it stood vacant for a long time as well. A more dilapidated Vulcan Steel was also still standing in Trenton, but that's a story for a different day... 

We had known about this mill for a long time, because obviously its size and stature make it very tempting to explore, but we had always heard that the place was watched and well secured, and on top of that no one had ever publicly claimed to have been inside lately, as far as we knew. My comrade Chisel started doing recon on it in late 2005, and by spring we decided to take a stab at getting in. There were three of us that day and the sun was already going down, so we were only able to make a quick overview of the place, but what we saw in that short time absolutely blew us away. 

We had attacked from the south, where a high, wooded berm formed the property boundary and held a couple old abandoned rail spurs of the plant. Climbing up this hill was an arduous task but made for excellent cover, and allowed us to overlook the property and scout entrances to the plant. We could see no sign of a security guard; it was too good to be true. We descended and quickly got inside, because we could easily be seen from the road. As soon as we got inside through one of the ocean-liner-sized bay doors, we could see the incredible expansiveness of this gigantic shed extending away from us indefinitely into the darkness. 

There was no ceiling, just endless open trusses 40 feet above our heads. The double corridor that we were in was lit at our end by the huge monitor of dingy brown windows for about 300 yards, but beyond that darkness swallowed everything. On the left side of the room we were in was a train of cars that were essentially ladles for molten steel, having been lined on their insides with firebrick.

We made a pretty thorough go-over that evening, given our limited daylight, and oddly it seemed as though there was little security present.  Just before leaving, we made our way into the apparent security trailer to find it vacant, though there were signs that someone had been here pretty recently.  Actually, within the last several hours.

I recently got hold of a book that details some of McLouth’s history. It is entitled The Technology Century and was put out by the Engineering Society of Detroit for their 100th anniversary in 1995. It is full of excellent factoids about every aspect of industry and technology in Detroit, from the formation of the auto suppliers to the history of Michigan Bell Telephone and Square D.

McLouth Steel Corp., it says, was founded in 1934 by scrap dealer Donald McLouth with a strip mill, using slabs from other firms. After WWII, he bought a couple government surplus electric furnaces and began turning out steel from scrap (probably obtained from decommissioned naval ships). In the 1950s, the scrap market slowed, and McLouth opted to begin making its own raw steel. They “took a chance on new technology,” and became the first American firm (and fourth worldwide) to adopt the basic oxygen furnace developed in Austria. I don’t know a whole lot about the business, but if I am not mistaken the basic oxygen furnace is now industry-standard.

In 1964, McLouth again led the way when it became the first American integrated producer to base all of its production on continuous casting. However, “adoption of new technology was not enough to insulate McLouth from the changing climate for steel makers.” By 1981, the company had filed for Chapter 11 and in 1982 it was bought by a private enterprise. In 1988, “employees purchased 85% of the company under an employee stock ownership plan.”

It goes on to talk about National Steel, Great Lakes, Ford Rouge, Zug, and others. It also talks of the dawn of Detroit steel making.... In 1856, on the shore of the Detroit River across from Belle Isle, Dr. George B. Russell built the first American iron blast furnace west of Pittsburg. It operated ‘til 1905.

As a matter of fact, the first steel produced in America by the Bessemer process was made by Dr. Eber Brock Ward’s Eureka Iron Company at Wyandotte, Michigan in 1864. (You may recognize the name of modern-day Eureka Road).

"Unfortunately," the book notes, "Ward was unable to capitalize on his development, and Pennsylvania became the center of Bessemer steel production. Three major steel companies continue the legacy begun by Russell and Ward: Great Lakes, McLouth, and Rouge."

…Well, two anyway. For a more detailed history of McLouth, be sure to see my second post regarding this plant.

With this MAP you can see just how much of the plant was demolished before we even explored it.

We knew the window of opportunity for a partially unguarded, still-full-of-stuff McLouth was likely to be very fleeting, so we took full advantage as soon as we could. On the return trip there were several of us. Chisel led one group, and since I knew my way around the place too I led Paul and Hank and explored off on our own in the northern end of the mill. 

The grounds around the mill were scarred and covered in slag piles, and the shrapnel of partially demolished buildings. Indeed as massive as this place was, it had apparently been twice as big before the demo had stopped. We decided to go up in the catwalks and get some pics, and maybe try to get on the roof, since there was a stair going all the way up. After encountering some fat "roof spiders" blocking our path we decided to retreat, but on our way down we heard the sound of a truck driving around on the grounds...

We were on a catwalk between the Induction Heat and Slab Storage buildings and could see everything below us. It was an old loud F-150. We heard it circle the Slab Storage building, and just as we were about to call the others and warn them, Paul's phone rang. It was Chisel, telling us about what we already were keeping an eye on from the dim bowers of the catwalk. We were mostly dressed in black, and there was really no way we could be spotted to the casual passerby if we remained still. 

The truck drove inside at the far north end of Slab Storage, and slowly ambled over the earthen floor in our general direction with headlights on. It stopped every now and then; as if he were looking for something. Was this a scrapper casing the joint? He didn't seem like a professional security guard...though with scrap metal prices at an all-time high, it seemed amazing for there not to be a guard.

Gradually he neared, and we became more nervous as we watched the driver scan around with a flashlight amongst the rows of equipment sitting on the factory floor. We hunkered down in the relative darkness and made no sound, while still scoping him out. We then saw that he was wearing a uniform jacket of some kind. We decided it was time to move to a better hiding spot. A couple feet away was a 100-50 Ton crane, so we crawled over toward its wheels and got a closer view of the truck. It stopped and turned off its motor. The guy got out and wandered about, looking at stuff, and started inspecting a giant forklift parked nearby.

We looked at each other with increased nervousness, though glad we had moved while the noise of the truck was masking our footsteps. We hunkered down further and were silent. Paul took the battery out of his phone. By this point we were filthy from crawling in the black soot that completely covered the crane catwalk in a thick blanket nearly an inch deep. 

Hank and I were by the crane itself, but Paul was still further out on the catwalk so he could see the guard. We watched for several minutes, while the guard seemed to do nothing. Paul and I communicated by hand signals and barely audible whispers directly into each others' ear. I told him that we were pretty much stuck up here where we were, but agreed that we were in a safe spot and that there was no way we could've been seen. I went back to Hank and filled her in that we were just going to sit this out for a bit and wait for the guard to go away. So we sat down and relaxed in our dirty hiding spots for several minutes, enjoying the cool air inside this darkened building. After awhile I started to go back over to Paul to see what was up, but he suddenly put on an almost frantic expression that I took to mean, "No, no--stay where you are" and he pressed himself down flatter onto the sooty catwalk. 

I had no idea what could be happening since I couldn't hear any movement, so I just laid low, almost face-down in the black ferrous dust, grease, and soot now covering my hands and forearms completely black, which I didn't so much mind, since it added camouflage. I could feel myself getting cancer. My camera too was getting inundated with the pitchy dust. It saturated my clothes, and my hair. I could see it sticking to Paul's sweaty face in splotches. 

I knew that the guard had begun to wander around near the foot of our staircase, and though I knew he would never come up here, Paul's sudden consternation put me on alert; I knew something was awry, so I just did as he directed and made perfectly silent...relaxed, and became part of the building. I looked over at Hank and she appeared a little worried as well. But I knew that if the guard came up the metal stairs we would at least hear it, so I assumed he was still down below. After all–why the hell would he come up here if he didn't know we were here? I never suspected that there would've existed a security guard as deliberately stealthy as any of us.

Several more minutes passed, and we heard the truck start up again and saw it drive out of the south end of the building. I peeked up to watch through our narrow grimy crevice amongst the machinery, a contented smile on my face. Finally Paul crawled over to us and whispered, "He was right there! He was right fucking there!" and pointed to a platform not 10 feet away. I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Paul said he didn't know what the hell the guy was doing, but he actually tiptoed up into the catwalks silently and just hung out there for like 10 minutes, as if he were listening for us. Not 10 feet away! Hank and I suddenly contracted in fear and disbelief, our smugness for having thought we were safe evaporating into a state of alarm once again. None of us had ever dealt with a security guard this crafty, but so far it seemed we were still ahead of the game.

We seemed to be in the clear for now, but that guy was still prowling, and we had a bad feeling he'd circle back around, or that he had a cohort lurking somewhere or skulking around on foot in the dark, waiting to ambush us once his buddy flushed us out. We knew he knew we were here, but we also knew we had to get out; it just seemed too risky to go down the stairs to ground level again and make a break for it. I proposed we stay in the catwalks and navigate our way toward an exit while aloft before making our dash for freedom.

We tried calling the others once again to apprise them of the situation, and when Chisel picked up he was speaking in an almost inaudible whisper, saying that the truck was some kind of guard and that he had driven right past them in the open, somehow missing them. They were now in hiding, after a mad scramble into the large ConCast Strand tunnels that ran from the remnants of the Oxygen Process Building, and under the road that the truck was now rolling down. Chisel abruptly said "I gotta go–he's coming right now. Get the fuck out!" and hung up.

We were now in survival mode. Yeah, we were only risking trespassing really, but were determined to get out alive and uncaught. Not to mention Trenton cops are notorious dicks, and if I recall correctly, one of our group might've had warrants in this city. I had rode in Hank's car with Paul, and the others had come in Chisel's car, both of which were parked across the street from the Finishing & Shipping Building.

I led my group out onto the catwalks...I was almost certain we could use them to somehow find a way to the south end where we had come in. We started by walking across the crane to the other side of the bay, and trying to plot a course all the way down the long main corridor from Induction Heat to the Rolling Mill. It was so dark that it was hard to see. This was difficult going. As soon as we were on the other side of Induction Heat, we had to start climbing through a jungle gym of filthy metal beams and pipes and crap. There was a spot where we had to jump across a gap of about three feet to get to the catwalk, which was a slow and tediously careful maneuver. 

Eventually we came to a dead end. I was wrong in my assumption that we could easily take catwalks down the length of the building. We were absolutely filthy, sweaty, and panting, and the urgency of our escape had been muted by the exhausting drudgery of this crawl. 

I felt I could continue on by climbing over more shit to see if there was a way through, but Hank was not up to what lay ahead, so after a grim decision, she and Paul opted to go back down the last staircase we had passed and make a run for it through the darkness of the open corridor.

I escorted them back to the stairs and wished them luck before watching them nervously look both ways and desperately scamper off into the blackness as soon as they hit bottom. I turned and climbed back to the catwalk and began trying to navigate a way through the blackened steel maze once more. 

After several minutes however I started realizing there was no direct way I could take into the Rolling Mill. I was forced to turn back to the staircase that Hank and Paul had taken. But now I was even more desperate because I knew I had wasted so much time fooling around up in the jungle gym. 

It was likely that everyone else had gotten back to the cars and were worriedly circling around looking for me, putting themselves at further risk. I made as much haste as I could, and cursed before plunging down the stairs and darting off into the mammoth open corridor.

I had my flashlight handy but was more concerned with moving swiftly and silently as possible, staying near the edge so that if I had to I could duck in among the random machinery that filled the darkest edges of the corridor. I knew my way around here somewhat, which gave me a slight advantage over the others, but I knew I was way behind, so I ran as often as possible. At one point I thought I heard something–knew I heard something; some movement immediately off to my left side among the heavy machines between the Rolling Mill and Pickling Building. Was it a guard? Was it my friends? 

I wasn't about to risk testing any theories, so I just kept putting distance between me and whoever it was. I was quickly nearing the Finishing and Shipping Buildings with their giant wall of windows letting in a flood of evening twilight--blinding in comparison with the blackness of the other windowless buildings. 

Once I was in the light, I would be in even more danger of being spotted from a distance, so speed was of the essence.  I saw no sign of Chisel's group anywhere; I assumed they were the first ones out since they were already in the south end, and because my group had screwed around so long in the catwalks.

My heart began racing as I entered the lit Finishing department. This was the final "do or die" stretch, and only luck would protect me once I made my break. I began jogging the last several hundred yards to the bay doors at the end. 

I stopped briefly at the doors to listen and look around, and saw that the front office buildings would shield me from the road for another hundred yards before I had to cross the first set of railroad tracks. Not hearing the truck anywhere, I ran across the open pallet storage lot to the edge of the office buildings. I could see there was a white S-10 now parked at the distant security office by the front gate. The lights were on inside and I could see a dude in there. No sign of the F-150. I cringed, but knew it was now or never, so I made a quick move, angling my path away from the office so as to minimize the window of time where there would be a direct line of sight between him and me. 

I kept my arms at my side instead of swinging them so as to reduce the amount of motion that could attract his attention. I made it safely across the yard and charged into the brambles that covered the berm, but struggled in getting a good footing to climb it. I ended up sliding noisily back down the steep incline several times, so I angrily and desperately dug into the dirt with my bare fingers and clawed my way up to the top of the former rail spur like an animal.

I was panting heavily again, laying on my face, just dying of thirst. I am not certain I have ever felt so filthy and grimy and exhausted in my life as I did at that moment. I rested a bit and kept an eye out across the barren lot between the main plant and the boiler house, while practically lying down on the old rails. I knew I was basically home free at this point. A few seconds later I saw the junky old F-150 loping along across the yard, apparently coming back to the front office.

I decided it was time to finally get off the property and cross the bridge to the other side of Jefferson. I army-crawled so as not to protrude above the foliage that covered the berm until I was safely hidden behind the tall steel walls of the abandoned rail viaduct. Once on the other side of the bridge it was a simple matter of waiting for traffic to clear so I could descend the berm, and crash through the brush out onto the sidewalk. I somewhat regretted being covered in the black ferrous soot in case the cops were looking for us, so I took my memory card out and crotched it.

Twilight was beginning to fade, but soon I could see from a distance that both cars were still parked where we had left them–and no sign of the others anywhere to be found. Had they gone into the restaurant to wash up? Unlikely I thought, and upon glancing in the front door I could see that this was an establishment that (surprisingly) had some level of class. There was no way they could be in there. But where the hell could they be? They couldn't still be in the plant–there was no way...but why would they leave their cars here? I was totally confused. Something wasn't right. Had they been caught...?

I decided I could not afford to loiter here; it was imperative that I both get in contact with the others and get something to drink before I died of dehydration. However, I was not familiar with the area at all, back then; I had no idea where the nearest store, gas station, or payphone was, or even which direction would be best to start looking for them. So I just started walking north on Jefferson. The area is totally desolate and solely industrial; there was not even a hint of a gas station to be found. I started to work out a cover story in my head as to why I was all grungy and walking alone, if questioned. 

After several minutes of walking across the street from the sinister, black mill, I saw a Trenton Police cruiser sitting in front of a car wash, facing the road. I was thankful since it was probably my only chance to get some info. As I neared the cop sitting in his car, I noticed that he wasn't the only one. Four other cruisers were lit up and parked behind the place, and several officers were milling about a white Chevy truck. The entire Trenton night shift must've been sitting right here. Which made me feel a little better since I now knew they were occupied with something other than looking for us. 

I approached the cop (who was writing a ticket or something), and he seemed to tense up when I made eye contact and began walking directly toward him. Of course I must've looked like some maniac–my shirt was torn, my hair all disheveled, and I was looking like a fuckin coal miner. I asked him where the nearest payphone was and he tersely told me "Up there on Sibley, and go left." I thanked him and with a huge feeling of relief noticed that the car wash had a vending machine.

So I went up there to buy a beverage. I inserted my bill. It spit it back out. I straightened the thing on the edge of the machine. Again, rejected. I tried a different bill. Same result. I tried over and over again, but it just spat my money back out at me again and again. I began to get enraged. I was ever so thirsty. I tried every bill in my pocket and that fuck of a vending machine laughed at me. Stopping short of kicking the shit out of it in front of the cops, I hung my head, defeated, and resigned to the long walk to the nearest store. I figured I shouldn't push my luck any longer, and that it was best to get lost before these cops started getting curious about why I was covered in soot, or heard a call over the radio about trespassers in the steel mill.

I continued walking north for the last half mile of the plant to where it ended at Sibley, and I turned left. All I could see down Sibley was industrial shops and houses. It was late on a Saturday night, and there was no one about. Even car traffic was sparse in this desolate wasteland. I walked and walked and walked. This was getting ridiculous! My legs and shoulders and back were sore, and all I wanted was something to drink before I collapsed. I knew I could walk a long way; the furthest I had ever walked without stopping to rest was about eight miles, but my house was over 20 miles away. I had to find a payphone.

All kinds of thoughts raced through my head; I tried figuring out what had happened to the others by running scenario after scenario in my mind. None of them seemed to add up...there were six other people with me; it seemed odd that I had not seen a sign of any of them. They must've been out of the plant before me, but if they weren't in their cars, where were they? The other option was that they had been caught...but if that was the case then why had I not seen them, or any cops on the grounds?

Another variable that nagged at me was the polyester convention at the car coincidental is it that five Trenton cops show up right across the street at the same time we were chased out of the plant...? It was now well past nightfall, and after another 10 minutes of walking, I finally saw the party store the cop had told me about. I immediately used the payphone in the empty parking lot to call Chisel and let them know I was out. No answer, so I tried Paul. No answer. Not cool. I didn't even know anyone else's number.

Turns out I had walked a mile and a half from the plant, and was now in a different city–Riverview. I went into the store and grabbed a huge beverage, immediately quaffing half of it down in the middle of the aisle before even going up to pay for it. I was the only person in here except for the store owner and his son.  I was washed over with a massive feeling of relief and contentment now that I had finally tended to my physical survival. However I was still worried for the others. I wandered back out into the parking lot and sat down right on the ground under the lone streetlight, wondering what to do. If they drove past, they would at least see me here. It was a pleasantly warm evening, and I was grateful that I could finally take a rest after nearly two straight hours of exertion and adrenaline. I wearily watched the moths fluttering around the dim sodium-orange streetlight, and listened to the electric buzz of its ballast. 

Every now and then the store owner's son came outside to light off a few firecrackers, breaking the country-like silence, which was entertaining. I decided to try and call Chisel again. This time I actually got through, though it was a poor connection and it sounded like he was in the midst of some chaos; I could hear what sounded like a herd of people jogging through a field of potato chips while trying to be stealthy. I told him I was out and safe I heard him excitedly whisper to the others, "Holy shit! It's him! Dude–where the fuck are you?!" I replied, "Uhh, a party store...I dunno." Chisel (obviously dumbfounded) had to cut me off, saying, "Shit, I gotta let ya go, we're about to make a break for it here–call me back in five minutes," and hung up.

They were only just now getting out of the plant? I couldn't believe it. I sat and waited some more, swatting mosquitos while sipping the rest of my drink. This was an awfully lonely part of town. I waited about 10 minutes and called back. He answered and said they were in their car and needed to know where I was. I told them my location and asked if they knew what happened to Paul and Hank. He said they were in their own car, not far behind. I was amazed that I had been the first one out; it seemed impossible that I had escaped and made it on another city before they were even out of the building.

 Several minutes later, Chisel's Ford roared up to my resting spot and a very filthy, very happy group of comrades got out, marveling at how the hell I had gotten so far away. We instantly began telling our sides of the story and what we had done to escape. Turns out they had to play cat & mouse with the guard for quite awhile, but ended up making a mad dash directly across Jefferson right out in the open. A minute later Hank pulled up and the two of them got out and started asking how the hell I got out before them. We had quite a reunion going on. The store owner even came outside to join in our impromptu celebration (and light off more fireworks) after the group had gone in to buy drinks and smokes. He said he was just happy to see people at his store, since it was usually pretty dead around here.

Finally we decided that it was time to get a case of beer and go home to hose this nasty black shit off of us. We busted open a dirty thirty in the backyard around the fire, and passed the rest of the evening basking in the glory of summertime in the D. 

Hank raised her beer and said, "Here's to not spending the night in jail again!"

CLICK for part 2

The Technology Century, the Engineering Society of Detroit, edited by Mike Davis