McLouth, The Return

If you haven't done so, you may want to read my first McLouth post before beginning this one. MAP, and historic PHOTO for reference.

In early November of 2009 I received an invite from Rummy, a colleague from down south who is a professional photographer of disused commercial sites, to pay a legal visit to the old McLouth Steel mill again. He had also invited David Kohrman along from Kalamazoo, to round-out our three-man photography team. Rummy had made it all possible with a simple letter to the mayor of Trenton, who I guess knew the owner of the McLouth property or something like this, and both were reportedly enthused to let photographers into the plant. I won’t even go into how totally bizarre that is, or how flabbergasted I was when he told me the scoop. But I'll take it.

I knew that Rummy and David were going to be moving at a plodding, exacting pace, dragging lots of heavy gear and getting high-quality shots I could never hope to shoot with my cheesy camera, so I planned to split off from them and utilize speed to try and cover as much of the place as possible. This was actually Rummy and David's third consecutive day shooting the plant; they had gotten a hotel room nearby for the excursion. My advantage was that I already knew the place fairly well, having been here twice already over a period of a few years; I knew what shots I already had, which ones I needed to retake, and where I still had yet to explore.

As I drove into the gates of the plant on Jefferson Avenue where Rummy had told me to meet him, I couldn't help thinking how surreal this was…this was the same place I had crawled out of on my belly like a friggin’ animal the last time I was here, and had to hike miles to a different city covered in soot to escape. Now I was pulling my vehicle right into their lot and strutting up through the gates into the front door of the plant office!

I pushed through the front door to the lobby to see Rummy and David standing there bundled up for a full day of full-contact photography. They were both helmeted in hardhats, and their gear was lined up on the sidewalk by the doors…I had passed it when I came in and dropped my own minimal photo gear in line with theirs. It looked like the National Guard was about to deploy at McLouth or something.

What I had been told about this little event was that we were being allowed almost free reign of the property just so long as we arrived no later than 0830hrs, and departed no later than 1700hrs. Also, we would have to sign in at the front desk, we would be issued hardhats, shown a map and briefed on which areas we were not allowed to go.

Soon after I had walked in, the site manager appeared once again with a bran-new replacement hardhat for Rummy (who apparently had a habit of misplacing them in the plant), and asked if I was “the other guy.” Rummy quickly jumped in and spoke for me saying, “Yes, this is our history guy;” I guess he had convinced them that I was some sort of local history buff who was interested in the history of McLouth in order to get me in. I in fact had only the most rudimentary knowledge of the history at the time however, but yes, I suppose that was all true. I was just happy to be a contestant.

This site manager guy seemed pretty suspicious of, and mildly annoyed by our presence. Nonetheless Rummy had told me over the phone the night before that it would be no problem, and that the guy usually takes off after a few hours.

We stepped outside into the crisp November morning air, a bit of sunshine beginning to beam, and donned our gear.

We walked directly into the plant, wasting no time. As soon as we were in the Rolling Mill we started setting up our gear. Those two guys wanted to take advantage of the morning sun, since it had been cloudy the previous two days. Our first stop was the huge sunbeam that was glaring in from the monitors near the end of the Roll Mill.

From there we sort of broke off on our own separate paths. I had a few goals I wanted to achieve; David asked me how much was changed at the mill since I was here last. I said not a hell of a lot, other than the Melt Shop / Concast building was totally gone, and the stairs had been cut off of the cooling tower structure of the water plant.

And there was a lot more water in the Concast tunnels…vehicles had been moved about, but that was about it. Oh—and the long, yellow electrical hut in the No.2 Finishing & Shipping building where I had seen lights on before was all cut up and abated. Also I guess the water plant had been gashed into and was laying in partial ruins…but still, 90% of the place remained as it had been three years ago. Of course the train of ladle cars had been removed from the mill, but that happened a while ago.

By the way, “Concast” is a abbreviation of “continuous casting.” In case you were wondering.

I know I have said before that I will not use Wikipedia as a reference, but in the case of McLouth Steel, using the extensive page that someone has put up there will be easier than tracking down the seemingly obscure materials that they have purportedly quoted. (Those materials are: Ironmaking and Steelmaking 2004, Vol. 31, No. 6.; "Slab Casting Pays Off," Iron Age, by George J. McManus, November 30, 1972; and Induction Heating of Slabs at McLouth Steel, by Ronald H. Craig, Chief Electrical Engineer. The full text of the first one is apparently available HERE if you subscribe.)

Anyway, according to those sources, after McLouth began its $100 million expansion into the new Trenton mill in 1947, it had four 60-ton electric arc furnaces installed there, as well as soaking pits, a blooming mill, a Steckel mill, a down-coiler, and finishing equipment. Though the smaller original McLouth plant at 300 S. Livernois Avenue in Detroit was kept online for the production of stainless steel, pouring of iron ingots was underway at Trenton by 1949, and expansion continued.

In 1954 the Number One blast furnace was constructed and placed online with a capacity of 1,250 tons per day. Three 60-ton basic oxygen furnace vessels were installed, and McLouth became the first plant in North America to make steel via the basic oxygen process. One of these original vessels still remains on the grounds of the plant, on display along Jefferson Avenue.

Other additions to the melt shop in 1954 were two 200-ton electric arc furnaces, and the reversing Steckel mill was replaced by a six stand continuous 60-inch hot strip rolling mill.

The year 1958 marked even more expansions and upgrades for the McLouth Trenton mill. The Number Two blast furnace was put online, as well as two more 110-ton basic oxygen furnace vessels and two Rust Furnace Co. slab reheat furnaces to handle stainless steel. A few years later another 110-ton basic oxygen furnace vessel was added.

The Ironmaking and Steelmaking article notes that McLouth pioneered the first use of computer control in steelmaking:
Online computer control of steel making processes became a reality with the first use of computers on a hot strip mill in 1962. McLouth Steel used a General Electric 312 computer for gauge control on the finishing train of a semi-continuous mill. The aim was to set up the initial roll gap and then establish correct gauge as soon as the head end of the strip emerged onto the runout table.
The first "straight stick" slab caster was also installed during this period, the first in the United States.

McLouth operated quite profitably through the 1950s and 1960s, undoubtedly because evvvverything was made of steel back then, and because the Detroit automotive industry was in full swing. Coupled with the Korean War and the onset of the Vietnam War, this prompted McLouth to keep increasing their production capacity so that by 1967 they saw the need to build North America's first continuous casting department.

This was actualized with the installation of four curved-mold continuous casting strands and six lines of three induction slab reheaters, and the two remaining original 60-ton basic oxygen furnace vessels were replaced with new 110-ton vessels. With these upgrades McLouth steel was at its peak, and became "the first steel mill to eventually produce 100% of its product by the continuous casting process, which added significantly to the efficiency of the operations and improved the quality of the finished product."

Unfortunately however, even though McLouth was the first American steelmaker to install basic oxygen furnaces, the profitability came at a cost, according to the book Working Detroit, by Steve Babson. Whereas with the old furnaces it took four hours to "cook" iron into steel, with the new basic oxygen process this was accomplished in 30 minutes, and company management seemed to want to rush the workers while the new process was still being learned. This resulted in a wave of injuries in the early 1950s because of management's impatience in getting the new equipment online and up to full capacity. Babson quotes a former union officer, Harry Lester, who recalled,
We had some terrific explosions...and a lot of burn victims just learning the new process. We knew little about it, and the supervisors at the time were really pushy. It was go, go, go.... It seemed [some days] like we had an ambulance run every two or three hours out of the plant.

In regard to the continuous casting of slabs, the McManus article says,
Initial slab sizes were 8" x 36", afterwards they began to cast bigger slabs by about 10" increments up too 10" x 52". There was a noted improvement in quality, as with the ability to cast using larger molds. The pilot plant was limited to about 50 "heats" (ladles of molten steel), from the original Oxygen Process shop. Over the course of operation, the pilot plant cast a little over 300,000 tons of steel. The five year run of the plant produced the opportunity to help develop both the equipment and casting techniques. Extensive work was performed on the design of the molds and the casting speed relative to the slab quality.

The book Michigan Yesterday & Today, by Ferris E. Lewis indicates that McLouth's continuous cast process produced what was called "rimmed" steel slabs. It was so called, because of a certain chemical composition they used in their molten steel that resulted in a "boiling action" as it solidified, causing the outside molecules to form a very smooth surface on the product. Many steel finishing processes could be eliminated by utilizing this method.

One thing I was psyched about was being able to walk freely around outside the plant. This phone booth captured my attention for about ten minutes, as I tried to find a way to fit it into my backpack to take home with me:

Another of the things I had wanted to try today was to climb up into this beast, the last remnant of the Oxygen Process building, if I’m not mistaken:

The bastard must be as tall as the Wurlitzer Building! The only problem was that it would require some sketchy free-climbing, as its stairs had been hacked out. But since I couldn’t let the guards or the guys in the office see me climbing anything, I decided to be a good boy and stay on the ground so we didn't get kicked out.

The foundations of the former Concast building had filled in and become a great lake:

…and the strand tunnels were likewise full of water now, making for an interesting setting:

I wandered into the No. 2 Wash House, which is basically the same as a “dry house” at a mine…it’s where the workers change out of their soiled work coveralls and can shower off:

Working in a steel mill is crazy dirty. And the temperature in the production buildings never goes below 90 degrees, even in the dead of winter. I had a friend who worked as a hydraulics technician in the Rouge Steel plant when it was still operated by Ford, and he was always bundled up in warm clothes even on nice spring days because he was so acclimated to the heat inside the mill.

Honestly though, there wasn’t much of interest in the wash house, besides endless rows of lockers, and a lot of darkness. And some union bulletin boards.

The incredible scale of this plant still did not fail to amaze me, even on this, my third time inside the place:

This is potentially the most intensely explorable location I’ve ever been to...there was just so must depth to the place, so many nooks and crannies to get into, I could have crawled around in here for days and days. This cavernous space was the Induction Heating plant.

According to an article by Ronald H. Craig, McLouth's Chief Electrical Engineer, the first use of slab induction heating was tried out at the Trenton mill, a joint experiment carried out with a firm from Ohio.
Several induction heating companies were contacted to determine if they would be interested in a project of this magnitude. Just one company expressed interest. Ajax Magnethermic from Warren, Ohio. Ajax informed McLouth that they had a new coil design which would be capable of doing the job. After discussions, McLouth entered into a shared cost, joint development venture with the company to design, build, and test a prototype coil system.

The quote continues, 
McLouth Steel's decision to cast unusually thick slabs (12 inch) led them to reheat the slabs inductively. The whole setup was difficult to undertake, as well as uneconomical to use. The giant heaters resembled upside-down toasters, and made a loud buzzing sound when in operation.  
The nature of the induction heating process is such that heat input to the slab is not restricted to the surface, but actually penetrates into the slab. The depth of penetration is determined by the frequency of the electrical power supply and the metallurgical makeup of the steel.

This series of concrete piers looked like they might be the giant "upside-down toasters" referred to by Mr. Craig:

This is inside the adjacent Reheat Furnace Building:

Craig's article continues,
Although induction heating was well established as an effective and economical process for fulfilling many types of heating requirements, it had never been seriously considered for heating anything like the 12" thick by 60" wide by 26' long, 30 ton slabs McLouth wanted to produce. The fact that they wanted over 600 tons of steel per hour did nothing to help the situation. 
Early in 1965, several small 12" thick slabs of rimmed steel were repetitively heated in a prototype 1,000 kW rectangular coil. The tests proved that cold 12" thick slabs could be heated to rolling temperature in less than one hour.

In 1966 McLouth began a $105 million program to expand the hot metal facilities and ordered 21 heaters (including three spares), a four-strand caster, and the new induction heaters. 

I imagine this was part of the move toward continuous casting. Production capacity at the plant subsequently jumped from 1,800,000 tons per year to 2,400,000.

Continuing from the quote,
A full size computer system was installed to automatically switch heaters on or off as required to rebalance the phase loading and to remove the threat of a 120KV line outage. Detroit Edison permitted McLouth a maximum phase imbalance of 43 megawatts. The computer shut off heaters if a limit was reached and provided printouts of hourly demands, alarms, engineering logs, as well as maintenance logs.

Of the slab induction heating experiment, Craig says that overall it was "a novel idea, but really only worked on paper."
Auto transformer failures were frequent, as were bus connection failures. When all 18 heaters were running at full capacity, McLouth Steel was Michigan's second largest consumer of electricity (the first was the city of Detroit). The environmental impact was very low due to a closed water cooling system and heaters being shut off during non-operating hours.

Despite their prowess as a leader in the steel industry, the “adoption of new technology was not enough to insulate McLouth from the changing climate for steel makers,” according to the book The Technology Century, published by the Engineering Society of Detroit. By December 1981, the company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The book Working Detroit, by Steve Babson says that company officials blamed two things for the closure--a slumping demand for steel in the auto industry, and the union's $26/hr wage and benefit package. The United Steelworkers however cited different reasons: "poor investments by management in trucking companies and out-of-state coke ovens; failure to reduce the company's near-total dependence on sales to GM; heavy reliance on expensive outside contractors; and a top-heavy ratio of one supervisor for every four workers, compared to the 1-to15 ratio [the union] proposed."

The union agreed to concessions in return for a reduction in supervisors in order to save the firm from bankruptcy, but the company still said it would close the plant in March of 1982. Since no buyer was interested in the plant, banks favored a liquidation of assets, a move that would of course result in the loss of workers' jobs and their pension credits. The union developed an employee stock ownership buyout proposal, with aid from "local mayors, utilities, and other suppliers who wished to preserve McLouth as an ongoing customer and employer." The Technology Century stated that by 1988, employees owned 85% of the company. This kept the mill going, at least until Tang Industries of Chicago bought it out, at which time the union again renegotiated to lower wages and benefits to $18 per hour in order to preserve jobs and pensions.

The Wikipedia article says that the plant was sold in 1996 to Detroit Steel Company, who failed to restart steelmaking operations at the plant after several attempts. Demolition of the main steelmaking shop was carried out in 2006, scrapping of the electrical infrastructure was carried out in summer 2009 (just months before this visit), and the lime storage building was detonated with explosives in April, 2010. As of October 2011, over $4.7 million in back taxes was owed to Wayne County Treasurer's office, going back to 2005. The remaining shreds of meat still clinging to the bones of the McLouth mill  have been offered for sale, which could total in the millions of dollars on the scrap metal market, essentially meaning that this once-mighty industrial power will be cannibalized by its healthier brethren.

In October of 2012, rumors were confirmed by the Trenton Fire Department that Kid Rock had filmed scenes for his music video "Let's Ride" on the grounds of McLouth Steel. The Insane Clown Posse had likewise filmed a music video there for the song "Chris Benoit" only a few months prior. I can only imagine that this was all prompted by an earlier reference to the McLouth plant in the song "Downriver" by much lesser-known local musician Ty Stone, who had grown up in the shadow of the mill where his father had worked.

I was very happy on this trip to be able to wander into the boiler house for the first time, though these days it contains more modern power equipment.

The first thing I did was to climb up the back of it into the catwalk-mania:

Great view of the river from here too.

This area is where the old blast furnaces would’ve been located:

The yacht docked on the opposite shore is not in Canada, that’s Grosse Ile, Michigan…a large island community that is mostly high-end real estate. Rummy mentioned to me that the current McLouth property owner was actually some old British guy who lived there directly across from the plant, and often people had been busted trespassing here because they had messed around down by the riverfront and he had seen them, and called the cops. I wonder if that's his yacht.

Inside the powerhouse, I found immediately that I had missed out on something significant by not coming here on my previous trips.

While not quite as illustrious as the great “Turbine Hall” of Bethlehem Steel, this was probably the most photo-worthy powerhouse I had yet been in.

I ascended up into the catwalks of its higher reaches.

Green translucent panels in the roof allowed some light in, casting the interior in a weird hue:

And here was the Air Separation Plant, which I presume had something to do with the Oxygen Process for the blast furnaces (and was most likely missing a lot of large equipment):

For awhile, David was with me while I meandered through there.

Back up in the powerhouse catwalks:

Uppermost level of the powerhouse:

Looking out a window, I checked my watch to see that it was almost time to vacate the premises. After I finished up in this building, I would head back to the main plant and try to reconnoiter with the other two.

Asbestos mess:

Back down on the ground level, the belly of the beast:

There was some serious electrical infrastructure on hand here…

This place pumped more juice than some small cities.

Back in the main plant again:

This craneway in the slab storage building is the single biggest such implement I have ever seen…it is as big and as wide as the street I live on, including all the houses. In fact, the claw could probably pick up my house….

One of the things I wanted to do while I was here was finish climbing the long staircase that my comrades and I had started to go up the first time we were here, but were turned back by hordes of monster arachnids. However to get to it I would have to go right up to the electrical service room where the dismantlers were up there cutting shit out for salvage, and we had been warned to stay out of the areas where work was being done.

The racket was deafening when I got up there, and when I passed the doorway to the electrical hut I was careful not to be seen, but took a brief peek inside nonetheless. The monster Detroit Edison transformers were no longer there. Up, up, and up I went, perhaps about 10 stories it seemed, until I came to a weird place where there was a gap in the wall and I could overlook the huge electrical service room where they were cutting:

The noise was deafening, and the haze of smoke from the demolition saws and whatever torches they were using was awfully acrid, so I kept upward until I was in a small room with a door leading onto the roof.

The twin stacks of the old Trenton Power are visible in the distance:

Up here on the roof of this black steel behemoth, the monstrous scale of its geometry felt overwhelming. Being up here felt different from any building I’d ever roofed before; perhaps it was the fact that this roof was not really meant for human occupancy…it felt a little like being on the Silverdome roof. In fact I never would’ve even guessed that one could get on this roof.

Below I could see the zigzags of the housetops of Trenton, and in the distance the Detroit River shimmered sapphire in the afternoon sun all the way to the downtown skyline.

From here one can also see how much of this plant’s north end had been demolished well before I even made my first trip here. The blank spots where rails and other buildings had been showed as naked, barren footprints.

Nice view of the buildings to the south as well. Come to think of it, I’ve never seen pictures from anyone else from the roof of the plant anywhere.

I walked down the centerline of the slab building which actually had a gutter running in the middle of it. At one point I found where a welder had left his mark:

Yep. Couldn't've said it better myself.

Michigan Yesterday & Today, Ninth Edition, by Ferris E. Lewis, pages 575-576
Ironmaking and Steelmaking 2004, Vol. 31, No. 6 (via Wikipedia)
"Slab Casting Pays Off," Iron Age, by George J. McManus, November 30, 1972 (via Wikipedia)
Induction Heating of Slabs at McLouth Steel, by Ronald H. Craig, Chief Electrical Engineer (via Wikipedia)
The Technology Century, by the Engineering Society of Detroit
Working Detroit, by Steve Babson, pg. 184, 237, 240


  1. Great story! Thanks. My dad spent his adult life working swing shift, fresh out of high school up until he died of a massive coronary two weeks prior to retirement. 1991 or so. He was the third employee of his age to check out in 4 months. That last picture, perfect.

  2. The very tall Structure you said you thought might have been part of the Oxygen process building is actually the lime storage building. It was separated from the OP by a road about 50 feet wide. It was fed by a long conveyor from the north that was about 175 foot high at the highest and fed the OP with conveyors below the hoppers.

    I don't know where you got the idea that it was always hot in the Production buildings but that was absolutely not true. In the winter it was just as cold inside the buildings as it was outside. If you didn't leave the water running in the men's room the pipes would freeze We would collect wood pallets and build fires right in the middle of the melt shop floor to keep warm. In the pit where they poured steel into the ladles (what your map calls the materials building) there would often be snow on the ground... you could be standing in snow and walk 5 feet and be right next to a huge mass of red hot steel.

    1. admittedly limited knowledge of steel mills comes from a friend I knew who was a hydraulics technician at Rouge Steel (when it was still under Ford), who constantly ran the heater in his truck to full blast while wearing Carhartts, because he complained that leaving the hot steel mill in the winter was too much of a temperature shock after he had become acclimated to the mill. Then again, he was kind of a weird dude...

    2. We call the lime hopper the flux house here at US Steel. I work in the bop alot also. Unless they sit a hot ladle down for me to clean with the gradall. It's not warm here in the winter.


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