"Alternative History" Bay City, Pt. 1

December, 2008.

I went to visit my native mid-Michigan buddy DopeNess Monster around Xmas-time, and we decided to meet up in good old Bay City. We aimed to visit the Industrial Works / American Brownhoist plant, which sat basically right downtown in the heart of this old city, on the east bank of the Saginaw River.

Click each number for old aerial views: 1, 2, 3, 4

I had been inside it once before in 2004, and loved it. Dope had shown me a few videos he had saved from a local cable access show “Time Traveler,” which discussed Bay City’s fading history from an “alternative perspective." Basically this Raymond Nagy guy, the host, who is a Ted Nugent look-alike contest runner-up, ranted and raved on historical points for the whole show, wandering about the city’s margins and little-known areas (i.e., trespassing), and explaining how things used to be, and why they are the way they are now.

The guy is a total kook, but the good kind; the fatherly-but-nutty-high-school-science-teacher kind. He reminds me of a couple nutty teachers I had in school. I always looked forward to those classes.

He in fact was the proprietor of Phoenix Antiques downtown, and from what Dope had told me, the guy claimed to have access in the basement of his old 1800s storefront to the lost Bay City "Catacombs." We drove down 3rd St., but it seemed that old Raymond’s store had closed up.

I had sat down at home and watched the three episodes that DopeNess supplied me with, to study up before our trip. Raymond mentions “the Brownhoist” in all three episodes, and as a result I learned a lot more about the place, which made me chomp at the bit to get back there. As it turned out, the place had not changed one iota since I was there over four years prior.

As DopeNess and I met in front of city hall at 9am, we formed our plan of attack. The last time I came, I just macho’d my way right up to the front gate of the place at high noon and squeezed between the fence posts. DopeNess was calling for a little more subtlety this time, since he always handled this place with some caution. There was no complaint from me; I love circuitous approaches, especially if they involve water.

The plan was to circle south, then cut to the river’s edge and climb across the old ruined footing of a bridge that no longer spanned the Saginaw. Such forgotten vestiges of Bay City were the prime fodder for the “Time Traveler” show.

Once on the other side, we climbed back up the bank and looked out across the expansive snow-sodden field that we had to cross to reach the remaining buildings of the once-mighty Brownhoist complex. The wind was cold and whipped bitterly over the grey waves.

The Brownhoist has been a millstone around Bay City’s neck for many years as you can see, the typical story of deindustrialization’s aftermath except that there’s no vampiric land speculator (or, “developer,” if you prefer) waiting to swoop in and snap it up. Remember—this is Michigan, circa-2008, so basically the Dark Ages.

We stayed along the river’s edge and made our way first to what I believe was the foundry building (the one closest to the water). It was probably the second-oldest remaining structure. Along the way we found evidence of old docks and such.

Once when DopeNess and his brother were here at night, a large freighter came down the river, through the drawbridge to the north, and past the Brownhoist site where they stood. The ship’s searchlight swept over the grounds, illuminating the area with its huge beam.

Inside the foundry:

I had read that when the Saginaw River’s level is low, one can see the skeleton of the steamship Sacramento on the bottom; there were many famous shipyards and shipbuilders along this part of the river which comprised Bay City’s early industry and primary export (besides lumber), and in fact directly across the river from us, the great Defoe Shipyard built cruisers and destroyers for the U.S. Navy from 1873 to 1975.

As the number of shipbuilders in Bay City declined by the late 19th century, mothballed boats were often left in their slips and sunk, or buried in place. Wooden pilings from these early shipyards can be seen poking up from the water’s surface all down the river. Bay City has direct waterway access to Lake Huron, and (along with Detroit Dry Dock) was once one of the great shipbuilding capitals of the world.

They later pioneered the "rollover method" of constructing steel ship hulls, which during WWII allowed them to increase the pace of production astronomically; because of this, Bay City produced 156 naval ships during that war alone, earning praise from President Roosevelt himself. In fact, the Knorr (the ship that Captain Ballard used to discover the Titanic’s wreck, as well as that of the Bismarck, and the Edmund Fitzgerald as well as many others worldwide), was built in Bay City at Defoe Shipyard. It was only the narrowness of the Saginaw River that limited the production ability of the Defoe Shipyard and led to their decline, prohibiting them from building the larger ships that the Navy was looking for in the modern era.

DopeNess and I now began making our way toward the main buildings. It was not shipbuilding that we had come to investigate today; we were more concerned with Bay City’s railroad products, the cranes and derricks of the Industrial Works, also known as "the Brownhoist."

Every steam shovel, railroad derrick, or overhead factory crane that was built in this country until WWII was built exclusively here at this plant in Bay City. The machines that dug the foundations of the buildings and skyscrapers of our great cities? Brownhoist. The cranes that built the Mackinaw Bridge? Brownhoist. The derricks that built and kept the nation’s railways in working order, facilitating our westward expansion? Brownhoist again. The 101 steam shovels that dug the Panama Canal—the first of which had President Teddy Roosevelt at the controls? All Brownhoist.

And they were all forged here in Bay City, put together with hand-hammered rivets in one of Michigan’s toughest towns.

According to the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), Bay City's Industrial Works was founded in 1873, and manufactured general machinery. In 1879 they began making railroad steam shovels, and just a few years later the Industrial Works was specializing in building heavy-duty railroad wrecking cranes.

By 1920 the Industrial Works was "reputed" to consist of 59 buildings, comprising 440,000 square feet of space, basically completely filling their parcel's footprint in the heart of Bay City. By 1923 there were 1,800 people employed in the plant. In 1927 the Industrial Works merged with the Brown Hoisting Machinery Co. of Cleveland, Ohio to form the "Industrial Brownhoist Corporation." By 1931 the Cleveland plant closed and all manufacturing was done at Bay City.

The two oldest surviving buildings in the complex are the brick-walled and timber-framed mill style buildings, dating to the early 1890s. The steel-framed foundry dates to 1910, while the machine shop dates to 1918. According to "Time Traveler," there was another merger in 1960, at which time they merged with American Hoist and became known as the Industrial Brownhoist Division of American Hoist. The Industrial Works finally closed in 1983, and today essentially all but these buildings were demolished in 2009.

The Industrial Works (IW) was the company that pioneered the design of the railroad derrick, a piece of equipment that is still in use today using many of the original concepts found on IW cranes over a century ago. In 1893 their cranes came in first place at the Chicago World's Fair. In 1933 the IW received an award from the Franklin Institute for their railway ballast cleaner, and they developed the first portable steel rail saw, and the first rail-mounted pile driver in 1886. The factory had the capacity to produce up to 20 cranes simultaneously, and IW eventually had a worldwide presence, with 18 domestic factories and 11 foreign offices—one on every continent except Antarctica.

Among other major feats accomplished by IW's cranes were the building of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, raising the USS Maine from the bottom of Havana Harbor in 1898, and hoisting the St. Louis Arch into position over the Mississippi River. According to an article quoting Ron Bloomfield of the Bay County Historical Museum, "Every railroad company had at least one IW crane." He went on to further state that during WWII, the Brownhoist built cranes to lift airplanes onto Navy aircraft carriers, winning the coveted Army and Navy "E" Awards for the design. Raymond Nagy further claims that Warner Bros. Studios used IW cranes to build their movie sets.

When I was out in Colorado the previous summer visiting friends, we traveled through the foothills to check out a mill in Valmont, but out front sat something that arrested my attention much more than the abandoned mill itself:

It was a particularly old railroad derrick, somehow washed up here in this dry, forlorn patch of the wild West. I had to wonder how the hell this thing was still sitting out here, and if it had actually been in service up until recent years when the Valmont mill closed down. It's possible also that someone who knew what it was had kept it around for collector value.

It was still proudly wearing its "MANUFACTURED BY INDUSTRIAL WORKS, BAY CITY, MICH" nameplate, meaning that it was built before the 1927 merger with Brownhoist. I'd bet money that with some grease and a minimal amount of fab-work, this Michigan monster could live, breathe, and do work again.

When I explored the Kalamazoo Paper Co. Mill a year prior, I came across a generator room with an example of Brownhoist’s more modern products. Even as late as 1981, Brownhoist was making history, when they produced the 750-foot tall "Super Skyhook" crane.

Climbing up into the catwalks, Dope and I checked out the overhead crane:

From the forge we moved across the open snowfields again toward the main assembly building.

This relatively newer and extremely long building was reputedly designed by Albert Kahn:

Raymond Nagy refers to it as the "erector shed" or "assembly building," whereas the HAER seems to indicate that it is the 200x600 "machine shop" of 1918. Most sources I have at my disposal agree that this most modern building of the Industrial Works was designed by Albert Kahn, but I am not 100% sure myself.

The U of M Bentley Historical Library holds the Albert Kahn Papers, and their online index to them indicates only one structure at the IW, Job No. 362 of 1907. I assume this is the IW office building, which still stands, and which was designed by Albert Kahn. I unfortunately do not have a photo of it.

William Clements, president of the Industrial Works, was enamored with Albert Kahn's abilities as an architect, and that, Raymond Nagy offers, is why Clements hired Kahn to not only build the IW's front office building, but also his own residence (on Center Street at Park) in Bay City. Clements was also a renowned collector of antiquarian books and papers, especially dealing with early Americana, and was a member of the University of Michigan Board of Regents. In case you Albert Kahn fans out there haven't already drawn the parallel, U of M's Clements Library was named after him and the collection of materials he donated—and it was also designed by Albert Kahn. Today the Clements Library is renowned as one of the absolute foremost collections of early American documents, especially dealing with the British colonial period of the Great Lakes region. William Clements got a job at the Industrial Works upon graduating from the University of Michigan, "occupying the positions of engineer, superintendent, and manager, and finally president, which position he held for 20 years before his retirement in 1925." The Clements mansion in Bay City was demolished in the 1950s.

Anyway, it was in this mammoth hall of a building that all the components were assembled from all the other buildings and shops at the Brownhoist complex. You could’ve sailed a dreadnought into this f#$%# barn…what a huge piece of construction. It reminded me a lot of McLouth Steel back home.

Train tracks ran the length of the three-story open bays, so that the overhead cranes could piece together the new derricks, and then wheel them out the other side for delivery by rail to wherever in the world it was that they were needed.

Photo c.2004
The biggest one ever built was a self-propelled, double-ended rail crane that was special ordered by the New York subway system. It was its own locomotive, and had a crane on each end so that it wouldn’t need to turn around in the subway tubes. It was a gangly looking juggernaut for sure; built stoutly enough so that it could lift a whole derailed locomotive off the ground and set it back on the tracks. I wonder if it’s still down there under New York somewhere…? After all, they found President Franklin Roosevelt’s old personal railcar down there under Grand Central Station.

This newer building was linked to another archaic mill building that was still of the old wood construction and starting to show some decay:

Sort of miraculous that a structure this old is still around, and never burned down.

It was even sitting on a stacked fieldstone foundation in spots:

Sometime after 1983 when the Brownhoist closed down, the site was occupied by Bay Aggregates and Stress-Con, the company that provided concrete beams for the construction of Comerica Park, the Detroit Tigers' new stadium. Together, they used three of the buildings on the site up until about 2001 when the city took over the parcel with hopes of redevelopment.

Across the bleak distance, the brownstone clocktower of city hall could still be seen, peeking up watchfully over the devastated Industrial Works property:

In the main assembly floor, there was a staircase going down to a flooded steam tunnel:

We went upstairs, and were able to look out over the craneway:

I would guess by their dimensions that these areas on the third floor in the connected building were the machine shops or steel fabrication shop:

The building had a way of making itself seem endless:

Last, we went to the smallest remaining structure in the complex, the old powerstation, which neither of us had really been in before:

You might better recognize this view of the front, taken in 2004:

This was one weird building here. Or, maybe more like it was approximately two and a half buildings, all having morphed out of each other over time with various additions.

The old power station seemed to have been cobbled up on top of an older structure, based on all the different building materials and wear-patterns on them, as well as irregular seams, disembodied window arches now bricked up, and the like.

As it turns out, this structure was not part of the Industrial Brownhoist Works, it was the Monarch Building, a generating station that powered Bay City's trolley system, the Consolidated Street Railway Co., via overhead wires. It was was constructed in 1893 and designed by local architects Pratt & Koeppe. Its facade was originally quite different.

As a matter of fact, according to the city's own website, Bay City "was the first city in Michigan to adopt electricity for general street lighting purposes and the second city in the nation to have electric street cars." In 1923 however, all the street cars were replaced with buses.

There was a section made of piled fieldstone or limestone, that had a very primitive look and feel to it:

If I'm not mistaken, this type of brick support arches is endemic to the 1860s:

In one half of the lower level were large empty cabinets where possibly transformers used to be. Each one had large diameter conduit piped to it at one time:

Nearby were two identical sets of stairs going up and popping out in the middle of the main floor.

For some reason, this half of the building just screamed old-time municipal architecture / utility infrastructure to me. It lacked only a Beaux-Arts flair.

The room was huge and had a peaked roof.

Just out the window we could see the current power substation which now handled the city’s electricity distribution.

We started making our way out, back through the IW complex.

Up in the loft areas of the building by the river again, we found a large fan unit that bore a fancy nameplate, but it was not built by Brownhoist, and not in Bay City:

A quick sidenote on American Blower Corp. According to their corporate webpage,
It all started back in 1881, when an organization called the Huyett & Smith Manufacturing Company was founded by a pair of Detroit natives, M.C. Huyett, a mill owner and W.D. Smith, a millwright who invented a "double-discharge" exhaust fan while employed at Huyett's mill. Mr. Smith fought in the Civil War, rising to the rank of Captain in a Michigan regiment. He survived internment at several prison camps, including the infamous Andersonville, before escaping toward the war's conclusion.
Located at 6000 Russell St., Detroit (also referenced as 1400), they created a successful business around the Smith Fan, used for carrying off shavings in wood-working shops, on the believed premise that it greatly reduced the horsepower required to do a given amount of work. It was only many years later that this claim was proven false and the fans discontinued. Rounding out their sales were heating apparatus consisting of fans and steam coils, and ventilating fans.
When Smith departed in 1895, the company was renamed the American Blower Company.
They were also briefly allied with Inglis.
In the days when the industrial era in our country was just gaining momentum, American Blower was among the first to manufacture ventilating fans, blowers for pneumatic conveying systems in sawmills, vertical steam engines, and hot blast heating equipment.
One of the company's two best known product names was introduced in 1909 with the arrival of the first forwardly curved centrifugal fan, the Sirocco, through a trade agreement with its inventor, Samuel Davidson, Davidson & Co., Belfast. For a time, Davidson had probed the possibility of opening another works to cater to the American market but abandoned the idea when he decided that it would occupy to much of his time.
After two years of unsuccessfully attempting to disprove the Sirocco's effectiveness, American Blower changed tactics and entered into negotiations to purchase Davidson's sole American outpost, Sirocco Engineering of Troy, NY. Its primary asset was the right to manufacture Sirocco Fans under Davidson patents.
Although it was only half the size of the paddle wheel type popular at that time, it could handle the same volume of air at greatly reduced speed, and - it was quiet. This desirable combination resulted in quick acceptance of the unit.
This unit was as large as your living room—just the fan unit and distribution chamber alone:

We could open the door and walk inside.
The signature squat engine appearance was an original Huyett & Smith design that American Blower slapped their name on. It had an aesthetic aspect they found appealing as revealed in the following paragraph from a 1923 catalog:
"A description of the engine would not be complete without calling attention to its appearance. Notice the easy curves and graceful lines; it will attract the attention of everybody, and will be something your engineer will take pride in caring for instead of despising and neglecting."
Now how about that for philosophy? "Our product will improve your company's bottom line because it looks so cool, your maintenance guy will be proud to keep it running well." Just where the hell has that mentality gone?

As DopeNess and I slowly left the Industrial Brownhoist Works behind, we suddenly heard the peal of city hall’s carillon chiming out "Halls of Montezuma," the Marine Corps march, adding an ironic feeling of patriotism to this murder scene and symbol of our country’s recent failure, and its disinvestment in the past that made it great. It was the stroke of noon—time for the song of the day I guess. I walked in step to the beat, hearing the bells faintly carry across the empty field as we returned to the banks of the Saginaw and the ruined bridge footing.

We hopped back down to water level, and clambered back up the other side, ready for the next leg of our adventure (following lunch, beer, and warming up at a local pub, of course). Stay tuned for the next episode, "The Alkali Ruins."

CLICK for part two

*   *   *

DopeNess saved the three episodes of the “Time Traveler” cable show online, if you’d like to view them. I highly recommend watching at least the first two:

Industrial Brownhoist (Episode 004): http://www.lunagenlabs.com/dump/TT004web.mov
Alkali & shipyards (Episode 005): http://www.lunagenlabs.com/dump/TT005web.mov
Third Street Bridge (Episode A1): http://www.lunagenlabs.com/dump/TT1A.mov

Lower Peninsula of Michigan Inventory of Historic Engineering and Industrial Sites, HAER, 1976
"Time Traveler," Episode 004, by Raymond Nagy, G.C. Kirkland


  1. Not sure exactly what year the name changed, but I know for sure that it was called American Hoist & Derrick by 1978. I worked in a small foundry that used to make parts for them and although many of the patterns we used were marked IBH, we sold and delivered them to American Hoist & Derrick. AH&D was located on the same premises

  2. Another reminder of how times have changed in my home town. Brownhoist, Bay City Shovel, Defoe, Alladin Homes, and others now just memories of what an important player in the industrial makeup of this region Bay City once was. A big part of that success was the quality of workmanship that was present in Bay City plants. I worked at Bay City Chevrolet in the 70's, and was told by Bob McKenzie from the Industrial Engineering Department that the quality of the products that came out of the plant was well known by the GM establishment, which led to increased production at the place. Production of parts wasn't just assigned to a plant; the OK to make something at a plant was determined by a bidding process. BCC was able to put together bids that brought work into the plant , and a large part of their winning bids was the plant's reputation for quality. Too bad it's fallen on hard times; when I was back in 2009, the parking lot was mostly roped off, with maybe 100 -200 cars in the lot, a far cry from the 60's-70's when it was full.

  3. Valmont-Boulder Valley Ry. Historical Society
    Industrial Works C/N 3983 Steam 1920
    Public Service Co. of Colorado #1 Valmont, CO
    Bill Miekle (stored at Sloss, CO)
    BCRHS 2000 (museum closed 2015)
    (As of 2015 the crane was still at Sloss setting on land owned by the City of Boulder.)

  4. my grandfather worked there... he was crushed by some equipment and was left to die. He was just a Pollack... his buddy carried him to nearby Mercy Hospital where they figured he wasn't going to make it and left him on a cart in the hallway to die. His buddy, Mr. Linda, raised a fit, and he was finally brought into the ER. He lived another 15 years, crippled.

  5. I worked there making concrete deviders in 1997 i can still remember the cold chill coming through the broken widows and when a coworker lost his life when he was sucked through the gears of a crane. That place should of never stayed open for as long as it did

  6. I worked there when it became Stress-Con from 1999 to 2008. Took care of HR duties Stress-Con built lots of products for the roads and even helped with The Firekeepers Casino

  7. Hey, Do you know of how or where they had fresh water pumped in or was it all river water? I am looking for some info on Bay City's first water plants. My parents own the property across the street. Now "Ric's Auto, The Vienna Bakery and the old Arnold TV" I grew up next to a retired Brownhoist employee and did many Clandestine Tours of the old place.

    1. Sorry, I don't know anything about the water supply.

  8. I stumbled across your content last night trying to find info on the old slaughterhouse on Morton St in Bay City. We used to explore that and the Alkali as teenagers. Thank you so much for this look into my city's history. I didn't even know about the old sugar beet factory where the old scrap yard was. Thanks to Dow there are folks who have lived in the area their whole lives and never knew we had a lighthouse standing.


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