Roman Ruins on the Forest Moon of Endor

July, 2007.

I am a ruins explorer. I love ruins of this decrepitude almost more than anything else because they force me to use my imagination more: to try and figure out the original shapes of the structures, what functions they served, and to recreate the scene of bustle and industry that once took place in a spot where now a forest stands.

Ruins teach us about the nature of time, or at least how we think about the nature of time in relation to ourselves, and they can show us our humble place in the scale of the universe. How transient a creature is man. Here one minute, replaced by trees and moss the next. How long until downtown Detroit looks like this? How long until Washington DC? New York? It’s only a matter of time. Time triumphs over all. I learned that much at an early age, from seeing the 1960 film version of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

These here are the ruins of the Great Northern Portland Cement Company in Lake County, in the northwestern part of Michigan’s “Mitten.” The nearest port is in Ludington, a county away. Built around 1900 this was then the world’s largest cement plant, but today it is forgotten by probably all but .5% of the residents of this state, and 99% of those .5% call it the “Marlborough Ruins,” as they have never heard its real name, or its history. Those who do know the true name and history of this site probably live in the immediate vicinity.

The whole town of Marlborough was based around this monstrous plant, and its surrounding company town, which vaporized around 1907 when a cheaper method was devised to make cement. That was a mere two years after Albert Kahn started on the landmark Packard Plant Building #10 in Detroit, which was the world’s first example of modern trussed-concrete industrial architecture…and ironically is today in a state of ruin only a few shades removed from that which you see here. Did some of Packard's cement come from Marlborough's last gasp?

As it turns out I was recently told by Michael Smith (co-author of the website "Albert Kahn: 400 Buildings in Metro Detroit", which sadly seems to be malfunctioning right now) that this plant at Marlborough was one of the first concrete projects constructed by Julius Kahn, Albert Kahn's older brother...
The Great Northern Portland Cement factory was the first (known) use by the Kahns of the "Kahn System" and the first reinforced concrete building designed by Kahn's firm. It was probably the first reinforced concrete building in Michigan, though I can't say that with certainty.
Julius patented the "Kahn System" of reinforced concrete in 1902, which was the technological breakthrough that made factories like the Packard Plant possible, and which was the brothers' first claim to fame.

Cement is still one of Michigan’s biggest exports however, due to the huge deposits of limestone in the northern Mitten. And we still have the world’s largest cement plant (in Alpena), and the world’s largest limestone quarry is at Calcite, near Rogers City. I explored the Fiborn Quarry, and the Rockport Quarry in other posts on this website.

I had been trying to find these ruins for years, and even when DopeNess Monster and I finally managed to figure out their approximate location, it still took us several hours of searching both by car and hiking on foot before we stumbled upon them. Keep in mind, this was when Google Maps's online aerial imagery was still in its infancy, and all of Greater Michigan was just a big green mitten-shaped blur. 

Hey, remember when you actually had to have some kind of sleuthing skills to be an explorer? Nowadays the f@#$ing Packard Plant is actually marked in Google Maps, and you can just type in the name of almost any ghost town and it will pop up for you with precise coordinates.

Anyway, when we did find the Marlborough Ruins, they seemed to keep going on forever; with every step we took deeper into the jaws of the forest, more and more ruins seemed to appear just at the edge of our vision, no matter what direction we walked in. The Manistee National Forest had been hungrily at work devouring this place for decades.

I had no way of knowing whether we actually saw all or even half of what is buried back there, since there really is no readily available map to the place, and since even with high-resolution satellite imagery, the trees obscure 90% of it anyway. I later went to the State Archives in Lansing, and found pictures of every other Northern Portland Cement plant in Michigan, but not this one.

Not to mention that you can only see so many yards in any one direction with all the foliage, and you can’t tell what all is enveloped in moss and leaves beneath your feet. For much of the time we were there, it meant walking on a loose pile of broken concrete and greenery with no discernable bottom…kind of like a giant tossed salad with concrete croutons.

The ground was so varied and uncertain and hollow in spots that one could not always tell what lay below, whatever it was having already been swallowed long ago. Often while walking on a slab or platform, we could hear the resonation of a chamber below—be it a basement, tunnel, or other unknown cavity. 

Other times we descended down a giant cliff-like wall and waded through the dense forest some more, only to eventually find another identical wall and realize that we had merely been down in the basement foundation of a colossal, long-vanished building:

Marlborough's ruins have been described as “Roman” in character. At first I was very skeptical of this, but now upon seeing the place first-hand, I can definitely relate. Everywhere are cracked, crumbling, and crumbled walls...fallen pillars, foliage-drowned arcades, and moss-covered foundations that have long since become planters for thick, mature trees. 

The ruins don't always make one think of a factory…it is easy to see the palaces of some long forgotten emperor. Some of the structures also had what looked like moats surrounding them.


This was like some Tomb Raider-type stuff…I kept expecting to find ancient spearheads or swords, or other such medieval treasure. The feeling of loneliness, of being “lost” in the middle of nowhere, was pervasive. 


I caught myself envisioning Ewoks wandering around on the forest floor below. At times, the sight of the monolithic forms jutting up out of the forest canopy gave the distinct feeling of being one of the first explorers to ever find the Mayan pyramids in the Guatemalan jungle, or the lost city of Machu Picchu.

The occasional broken-open tunnel presented itself as well, but rarely led more than a few feet before being clogged with soil:

DopeNess, setting up a shot:


Here, down in a pit, there looked to be some non-concrete remains, steel tanks perhaps considered too difficult to extract for their metal value:

This huge, decoratively carved stone eagle must have been part of what might have once been a plant administrative office building:

Nearby, some pillars carved from the same type of stone were stacked up:

Pretty fancy for what was just an industrial concern in remote part of Michigan. Perhaps they expected the town to grow into a thriving metropolis of thousands of citizens, and planned accordingly with proud architecture? I can only imagine what this place looked like before destruction befell it. Or maybe these fancier stone bits originated from elsewhere, and were merely deposited here for storage?

One of my deepest desires from every time I’ve watched an archaeology show as a kid, was that I wished I could explore those types of legendary places they go to on TV. This is about as close as one can come without actually hopping on a plane and paying for the guided tour. But this is wild and untamed stuff, not King Tut's tomb—there are no khaki-clad archaeology show hosts about to come here. The McHistory Channel doesn’t know about Marlborough, Michigan, and you will probably never see it on TV. Marlborough's plant was only closed down for 12 years when King Tutankhamun's tomb was opened anyway.

Michigan is the sole domain of the true explorer for now; unassuming enough to fly under the radar of the McHistory Channel and globe-trotting Egyptologist types, yet still significant enough to hold interest for the modern ruins-wanderer (i.e., trespasser), and instill in me an immense feeling of heritage and real discovery, and conquest of a sort. Europe has Rome, Greece, and Stonehenge; Michigan has Marlborough, Detroit, and Calumet. 

I really have no need of a plane ticket to some far-flung, exotic locale in order to find remnants of a lost civilization, I merely need merely to look to the state flag of Michigan, and follow its admonition to CIRCUMSPICE...or in other words, to "look about me." 

We are living in a dying time, when the empire that forged our way of life is fading--sliding into the bottom half of the hourglass of history. The subject of the humble, unknown local historian today becomes the fodder of the giddy archaeology TV show host of a century from now. Only after something is falling into the jaws of oblivion does anyone think to try and recover its past.

In the midst of this contemplative reverie, all of a sudden DopeNess and I came across a somewhat freshly discarded ice cream container with a spoon in it, sitting on top of one of the taller ruins. This was private property, in a very sparsely populated part of Michigan, so I doubt the place sees much foot traffic. 

Even if someone had hiked out here with their ice cream, it seems it would have melted long before they got this far back into the woods in the summer. We should have seen it discarded much closer to the trail. We decided that the only way it could have gotten back here was by chance, as some private airplane pilot must have been cruising over while getting his Haagen-Dazs on, and chucked the empty container out the window hahaha.

Anyway, for those who think that exploring in Michigan begins and ends with Detroit, they have merely scratched the surface. And for those who think that Michigan history began and ended with the invention of the automobile, they’re wrong again. 

For example, there are ancient aboriginal earthworks elsewhere in northern Michigan that are as old as the ruins of Rome and ancient Greece. That’s a few millennia of human history that we know about…which has not received mainstream attention since it was discovered in the 1800s.

I explored some of these ancient earthworks in another post.

Now that I am re-writing this entry for posting, I'm obviously re-googling to see what info has been put online about Marlborough since I last looked seven years ago. Turns out that there was in fact a book published in 1986 on the history of this plant, entitled, Great Northern Portland Cement Co., Marlborough, Michigan: (Baldwin 1902-1908), by Paul E. Rudbeck, but it is hard to come by.

There is now also a Ministry of Truth Wikipedia page that talks about the site and has a period photo, and a Michigan Center for Geographical Information webpage as well. According to that, the Great Northern Portland Cement Co. began building this plant in the late 1890s to produce cement from the "unlimited" local marl deposits found here (marl is a type of limestone). The builder of this enterprise was Howard H. Parsons of Detroit. The village itself was built in 1902, and it peaked in population in 1905, at a total of 400 people, 200 of whom worked in the plant. Many of those who came were Hungarian immigrants, signing up to labor for 15 cents per hour.

A book by the Lake County Historical Society says that Detroit banker and aesthete Frederic Farnsworth also had a major hand in founding a town here, and as a lover of the arts he took steps to ensure that it was a place of some culture, as opposed to just being some crass workers' settlement like so many lumber camps.

The page describes the problems that led to the closure of the plant as being rooted in the fact that the local marl found here proved inferior to the products of plants in other localities entering the market later. It was more costly to produce into cement, which stemmed from the exorbitant electricity demands that the Marlborough plant required to operate; they had to build what was the Lower Peninsula's largest power plant in order to feed the thing with juice, which made it tough to stay in competition with other producers' bottom lines.

The Great Northern Portland Cement Co. was in receivership by 1906, and both the plant and the town's houses were sold to a salvage company. The plant was dynamited, and denuded of its scrap iron, reduced to a pile of ruins by 1910.

The ruins are spread over 80 acres. The town of Marlborough comprised 72 houses, some of which were described as "stately" in a book written by the Lake County Historical Society. There were streetlights, an opera house, a school, post office, stores, and an 88-room "hostelry," or boardinghouse, but none of these structures remain. As far as I know only the ruins of the plant are still evident. By 1910 the town was bankrupt and its buildings vacant, soon demolished; Marlborough had run out of marl right about the same time as the loggers ran out of white pine to cut, and like so many other towns in northern Michigan during this time, boom quickly went to bust.

The plant (as you can see by the now exposed rods) was constructed using primitive reinforced concrete. As mentioned earlier, it was designed by Julius Kahn, and was perhaps the last structure of this type built before he patented the Kahn System.

The storage warehouse was several hundred feet in length, the plant had six kilns, and 14 grinding mills. 

"Marlborough Historic District represents an experimental stage of one of Michigan's largest industries." It was designated in the Michigan State Historic Register in 1971, and the National Historic Register in 1972, but we saw no plaques or markers on site.

Marlborough lies not far from the equally historic ghost town of Idlewild, Michigan, known as a resort town for African-Americans in the early 20th century. It sprung up in 1912, almost immediately after Marlborough had died, and was one of the only places in America where black people could purchase real estate. During its peak, it would attract up to 25,000 black people from the cities of Michigan to see famous performers and enjoy the Michigan outdoors.

Lake County, 1871-1960, by Lake County Historical Society, p. 7, 46-48,
Great Northern Portland Cement Co., Marlborough, Michigan: (Baldwin 1902-1908), by Paul E. Rudbeck