Modest Ruins of Western Wayne County

Written October, 2008

One place that has somewhat ducked the sweeping hands of time and overdevelopment in the Northville-Plymouth area is the old Wilcox Roadyard, a whitewashed concrete building built into the slope of a reservoir embankment. It is a landmark to be passed whenever I cruise Hines Drive. I never gave it much thought other than it must be a place where the county stores junk like plows or lawn mowers, seeing as the front of it (along Wilcox Rd.) is solely garage doors.

I never suspected that there was more to it than that, or that a spillway abutted it that has been hidden from my prying wanderer’s eyes for decades. To me it was never more than a quaint physical reminder of old Wayne County’s public works; a vestige of its former prowess. It had been boarded up since I could remember.

But it so happened that my path one day put me on foot in the area instead of on four wheels as I had always otherwise been. I knew there must be some kind of spillway or tunnels about, since there was a dam on Wilcox Lake, and that was what I purposed to see today (amongst other features of the landscape that I had always merely driven past).

I was surprised to find several different tunnels intersecting here:

When I was done gawking at this, I hiked over to the other side to see them from that angle, and eventually decided to walk right up to the Wilcox blg and see it up close, just for the hell of it. As soon as I did this, I noticed that it too had a spillway beneath it, though it seemed to be out of service or abandoned.

The building’s decrepitude was more advanced than I expected, and the spillway itself was in a crumbling state as well. The water in the canal was still as stone, and leaves carpeted it all about. The building itself was obviously seldom frequented by workers, but down in the spillway was even more lonely, left long to the ravages of Hines’ hungry, ever-advancing vegetation.

It was so dense with snaring brush that I was challenged to push my way through it to the canal’s edge to survey its length. The canal extended off into the snaggle of overgrowth out of my sight.

This is of course no block-buster find here, but it made me happy…I was tickled by that good sensation of having discovered something hidden right under my nose.

Just a pretty, lonely, nostalgic place for a nailhed to sit and dream for a while of the days long gone, and be away from the cheapness of the world for an hour, commiserating with the ruins of a time I so admired, built by the great old men I so admired; hoping to soak up some of their spirit that I might be strengthened by it for my eventual return to the vulgar world that waited just outside of this shaded and leaf-perfumed warren.

Little did I know, what I was calling the "Wilcox Roadyard" all this time is actually known as the "Plymouth Mill," and was built by Henry Ford as part of his "Village Industries" program. It stands where the old Hardenburg Gristmill stood since 1850, which Ford bought in 1920. The old gristmill was so dilapidated that Ford tore it down and built this current structure in 1923, where he produced generator cutouts, and later it was converted to be the main supplier of taps used by Ford Motor Co. The Plymouth Mill employed 30 men at $6 a day. During WWII, it employed 60 men who made B24 bomber engine parts. In 1948 it was deeded over to Wayne County to become part of Hines Park. It is a mill in the sense that it was powered by a hydroelectric generator—hence the old spillway.

Anyway, here’s another small, very nearby ruin of something long forgotten:

It’s a foundation to some sort of brick building that housed pumps and valves and other such hydraulic implementia, right next to a popular rail viaduct over the Middle Rouge.

It seems to me that in the olden days there were a lot more workings along the banks of the Rouge such as dams and pump houses and the like. Their ruins can be found scattered all through the woods of Hines. This happens to be right by what’s called Gunsolly Mills. The Gunsolly Carding Mill stood here since the mid-1800s, and as a boy Henry Ford used to come here with his father to bring the wool from their farm in Dearborn to be carded so that it could be spun. The Burroughs Corp. deeded the land to Wayne County and Henry bought the mill structure in 1928 to have it moved to Greenfield Village, where it stands today.

Looking down into the foundation:

It’s possibly what I found this day that inspired me to finally take a jaunt over toward Niles, where I knew another dam to be abandoned.

*    *   *

In October of 2008 I was about on foot again in Holliday Park, and came across yet another new find that appears to have been a dam or floodgate of some sort. 

First I came upon a square concrete footing next to the Tonquish Creek, and in the slanting golden rays of the sinking October sun filtering through a haze of yellow boughs I saw scrawlings upon it which I could not make out, apparently describing something to be found on the north side of the stone; a date, two names, and what those two had done here, but it was unintelligible:

Just back in the woods was a pile of concrete drainpipe sections, one of which had obviously been made into a residence by some modern hobbit:

Hiking north along the Tonquish I found the slumping ruins of this newer pump house:

An electric motor perched on top of the slumping foundation:

Where do the homeless of Wayne County’s suburbs go?

There are a couple places I’ve always known to harbor the homeless of the western ‘burbs, but lately (thanks to this Not-So-Great Depression) I’ve been noticing more and more hovels in peripheral places well-hidden from the eyes of the passing world. Directly next to this pump house I stumbled upon such a ramshackle shelter hobbled together by some eremite out of branches and a silt-fence, tied together with pieces of a power cord from a vacuum-cleaner, and decorated with a raccoon skull:

Last winter I came across a meticulously constructed log fort next to some railroad tracks that looked to be a blind for some poacher. Koppernick was the closest road.

Holliday also once contained a lot more picnic shelters and comfort stations than it does now…

Most have now been demolished, having been abused to the point of decrepitude by teeny park-goers and bonfire-setters. In fact, by the Cowan Rd. entrance to the park there is a trippy spot you walk past on the trail that will surprise you because under the leaves on the ground you’ll suddenly catch glimpses of a mosaic tile floor beneath your feet. It is the foundation of one of those former comfort stations.

Here’s another mysterious odd or end:

If you have an eagle-eye, you may have spotted this while driving along Hines Drive as you’re approaching Bennett Arboretum. It’s easier to see in winter, of course. Yet another example of something I’ve ogled for years from the luxury of my speeding car, yet never dismounted to see up close.

A gateway to something…but what? Turns out, it’s just a horse riding trail. Maybe back in the 1930s when these stones were likely laid, it had a more defined purpose. Today they repose in sleepiness, couched deeply into the overgrowth. Getting back to bridge ruins, here are the cobblestone footings of a bridge in Hines that used to span the Rouge not far from “Waterford Bend”:

According to the Wayne County Land Atlas of 1876, this is the approximate location where Meads Mill Bell Foundry used to be located, in the lost village of Waterford. It would have been on the other side of the river. However, the ruined piers in this picture do not look old enough to be part of Meads Mill. They were probably merely part of a footbridge that was constructed for Hines Park in the 1930s.

Of course there’s always the good ole “Meads Mill Picnic Area” ruins, one of my favorite meditation spots in the entire county:

I’ve heard that it was the circa-1800s Meads Mill Bell Foundry, and that the ruins were moved downstream from their original location when the Parkway was built, but this is not true. This was actually built in 1937 by the WPA as a waterwheel/water intake site for the Wayne County Training School powerhouse, which as kids we called the “Northville Tunnels.” 

Whether it was built using material from the old Meads Mill, I don’t know. According to the Motor Cities Automotive Heritage Tour however, a local widow bequeathed money to the Wayne County Road Commission from her estate to save the ruins. Hmmm...I wonder what's going on with that?

The Meads Mill Picnic Area used to be the parking spot to sneak into the old Northville Tunnels when I was in high school. Up until several years ago there was a comfort station there, that had been closed for a long time, but it was demolished in about 2007:

It was nearly identical to the abandoned one at Gunsolly Mills:

Thankfully, when the one at Meads Mill was demolished, the Gunsolly one was renovated. The one at Springbrook did not fare as well however, and also met its doom at the blade of the bulldozer:

These comfort stations all had slate roofs and copper gutters by the way. Here is the Plymouth Riverside station:

Newburgh Pointe, which sits on the site of the old c.1870 Bovee Cider Mill:

…and the Cass-Benton station:

All of these comfort stations were closed and in disrepair at some point, but all of them have now been restored and reopened, thanks in part to the Motor Cities National Automotive Heritage Area program, which has placed historical markers by many of them, explaining their significance.

 Jesse Merle Bennett was the Wayne County Forester. He became the first Superintendent of Wayne County Parks, and promoted roadside development, and plantings, beautification, and rest stations—even authoring books on these topics. He is considered a pioneer in developing modern roadside amenities, a field of study that we take completely and utterly for granted today, but at one time was nonexistent. The Bennett Arboretum section of Hines Drive is named after him, and is one of the first of its kind to be built with public funds and opened to the public free of charge.

The goal of the continuous chain of amenities built by the Wayne County Parks System and Wayne County Road Commission along Hines Drive was to change the way people travel across the nation, at a time when the automobile was becoming more and more prevalent.

The Haggerty West station (seen above) was designed to have a 24-hour attendant on duty there, as part of a systematic development of roadside improvements that launched the concept of round-the-clock travel centers. The land acquisition process for Hines Drive began in the 1920s with the goal of developing a pattern not unlike the Bronx Parkway Plan of New York. But Wayne County’s plan was very aggressive and proposed establishing parkways along every major river course in America.

The Cass-Benton station was named after former Wayne County Road Commissioner, Cassius Benton, who owned the land. His will stipulated that it be turned into a park upon the death of his widow, but due to popularity of the area with picnickers, she graciously decided to enact this before she died.

This area is also infamously known as “Beer Hill” to old-timers. During prohibition there was a moonshine operation here, which would be moved and hidden in the nearby woods when the revenuers came by on patrol. The name of Beer Hill has somehow stuck, and it became a local party spot for teens in the 1980s.

And just south of the Burroughs Mill, west of Haggerty, lies this mysterious little tunnel:

…which goes for quite a ways:

…and, if you head up the hill from there you’ll come to this huge wall:

…which serves as the ominous boundary of the Riverside Cemetery. If you climb it, you will probably come first to the infamous Fuller Crypt, which is detached from the rest of the graveyard, and faces away from it—into the woods—sitting down on the slope almost out of sight from the cemetery. There’s a story behind that….

Supposedly Fuller was the sworn enemy of this guy named Shaw, who is buried under an ostentatious obelisk in the center of the cemetery. Fuller's crypt faces in the exact opposite direction from this obelisk. I've also heard rumors that involve ghostly activity between these two gravesites, and that Shaw's other enemies (or fellow Freemasons, or something like that?) are buried around him in a pattern that resembles a pentagram from above...hahaha. Just one of those ridiculous teenage urban legends that I read somewhere. Probably none of that is true.

Speaking of the Burroughs Mill…

Its old towering brick smokestack remains one of my earliest memories as a landmark, but was torn down many years ago. This plant was built by Albert Kahn for the famous Burroughs Adding Machine Co. of Detroit, and sits just outside of Hines Park. This plant is where the famous Norden Bombsight was built during WWII, an instrument that made high-altitude bombing possible, and is considered to be the most significant invention that contributed to the shortening of WWII.

Further out into the “country,” or, what used to be the country, is the Plymouth Fractal School, and the adjoining Thayer Cemetery:

Or, if you remember its brief but vibrant and controversial chapter in Wayne County exploration—the Ardmore Center, a privately operated rehab/funny farm in Livonia, which dates to 1925:

It was demolished, and the land infilled with sprawlburban sprawlchitecture.

The old sign out front...mysteriously disappeared into the trunk of an associate's car, just before demolition:

As aforementioned I was never much an explorer of houses, but if something’s out in the woods I’ll eventually be exploring it, no matter what it is.

This one’s practically across the street from Burroughs Mill too, lost in the woods of Hines.

The there’s the story of the Chief Tonquish Burial Site in Holliday Park. From the Canton Historical Society,
Chief Tonquish, who lived in western Wayne County, was locally famous. The Potawatomis saw the settlement of the area by whites as in intrusion on their traditional ways of life, and resorted to petty thieving to demonstrate their disapproval. Although no white person was ever injured in these forays, the settlers became irritated and staged an attack on the Indians. 
After crossing what is now known as Tonquish Creek, Chief Tonquish and his men were captured. The Chief's son tried to escape and was shot and killed by the butt of another man's rifle caving in his head, that same evening in 1819. That incident ended the Indian resistance in these parts. A Michigan State historic marker was erected on the site where this event happened on Wayne Road, just south of Joy.
There are of course different versions of this story, but the one I tend to ascribe to observes that Tonquish’s tribe did not merely “resort to petty thieving to demonstrate their disapproval,” they did so because the invasion of the white man’s farms destroyed their hunting grounds, causing them to go hungry, and resort to begging and stealing.

Local legend has it Chief Tonquish was buried sitting straight up, and his grave was marked by a large black stone, the like of which is not naturally found in this region. I have never found such a stone in all my hikes, nor have I ever heard of anyone finding it (though I know many have tried).

This version comes from a defunct site about Plymouth Twp’s history:
Tonquish (Tonguish, Toga) was chief of the Native American tribe that lived in the "Toguish's Village" located near the River Rouge. An account of the death of Tonquish was written by Melvin D. Osband in 1886, in the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collection. Osband was told by pioneers that in 1819, Tonquish's son, in a dispute of over bread, had shot and killed a settler named Sergeant who lived near the Rouge. 
Whites, lead by Major Macomb, caught the young man and his father at Tonquish Creek, near Nankin Mills. Tonquish then attacked Macomb with a knife, but was driven off by another white man. Macomb shot and killed him as he ran away. It was also noted that approximately twenty miles west of Detroit on Dimmick farm, was the burial ground with the Natives erected. After the year 1837, some boys opened the graves and took from them the chief's gun, and some personal ornaments.
Today the only inhabitant of this site is a homeless guy who lives under the Wayne Rd. bridge there where it crosses the Tonquish Creek.