Down The Rouge

December, 2009.

There are very few places in the Motor City that you cannot get to by car.

Driving the Southfield or Ford Freeways, it is easy to see when you cross over the Rouge River that it has wide concrete banks, suitable for walking or biking on. "One of these days, I am going to get around to doing that," I always said as I sped along. In the early winter of 2009, I actually got around to it. What's ironic is that as soon as I got home from this adventure, I went online and did some googling only to learn that Joel Thurtell had just released a book on basically the same topic--exploring the neglected Rouge--only he did it in the summer, with a boat. My goals were not quite the same as his, as I mainly just wanted to see if I could get some new or creative up-close photographic angles of the Ford Rouge Plant. It would be a while yet before I owned a boat.

I walked down Michigan Avenue and once I got to the gap in the fence, I scrambled down into the flood plain toward the river. The going at first was very easy. However, there was not a helluva lot to look at, and walking on the angled surface soon became uncomfortable. This is why I am not one of those drain freaks.

On my left, peeking through the trees was the giant emblem of Ford World Headquarters. Just to remind me of whose turf I was on:

Drain outfall tunnels punctuated the stark plainness of the concrete riverbanks every couple hundred yards, but none could be explored without a raft. Tree trunks and other flotsam lay strewn about, as did a plethora of feces. I think I saw more different varieties of dookage today than on any other single day of my life. The honking of geese flocking south broke the relative quiet of this makeshift sanctuary from the city noise. This was the first day of December, and the iron-grey sky threatened snow.

Soon I came to the first snag. I could hear the loud whirring of the pumps grow louder for several minutes as I approached. One of the obstacles I had found on Google Maps was this water treatment plant, which I had never known about before.

The only way I could now pass was if I either climbed up the retaining wall and balance-beamed across the spillways, or walked up onto the property and around the other side. Seeing the situation firsthand now made me rue both options. The Google aerial imagery made it seem like an unmanned station…as I crept cautiously up the incline to grade-level, I could see the top of a vehicle. 

I tried to think of another way to do this. The only option I could come up with was to go all the way back to Michigan, cross over to the south bank, and start again from square one (and hopefully be able to cross back over to the north bank somewhere if I ran into another obstacle). Dammit, this looked totally doable from the satellite imagery. I knew I still had a hell of a trek ahead and that darkness would fall at about 5pm, and I just wasted a mile of backtracking. I was cutting it close.

Here’s what the spillway looked like from the other bank:

I began pouring on the speed, and looked back as the Hyatt Regency and Ford World Headquarters faded into the distance:

There were about ten bridge crossings that I would go under today, and this was the one for Rotunda Drive:

You can see the need for investing in infrastructure maintenance in America. Even the ones that are in good shape aren’t in that good of shape. Here’s the Ford Freeway (I-94), and beyond it you can see the Grand Trunk rail line that serves the Rouge plant:

As I came under the overpass, I suddenly tensed up. Twenty feet in front of me, a pickup truck roared down the gravel on the far side of the support stanchions and whipped past me without pausing…it was an old Chevy with two dudes and a chick.

They drove past me within inches, yet did not even look at me. Sure, there was plenty of graffiti present everywhere to tell me that kids regularly got away with being here, but there’s no way it’s allowed for someone to be down here in a vehicle like this, so I’m guessing they were up to some sketchy shit, or the driver was showing off to his buddies. 

I watched this old pickup for awhile, and couldn’t figure out what they were doing. He backed up onto the grass once, then turned around, then turned around again, and finally just gunned it upriver. I assume he was going to go up to Michigan Avenue. Certainly an impressive shortcut to show your friends.

Making haste again, I now came within sight of the behemoth Rouge plant.

Keep in mind, this plant covers 1,000 acres, and was once the largest single manufacturing operation on planet Earth. My point is, it has almost two miles of frontage on this river; I would only be getting a glimpse of this supreme fortress of American industry, but what a glimpse--people just don’t see it from this side, nobody sees it like this except for obviously the employees, and what few people boat this river. The average person never gets to see the Rouge plant at all except by driving down Miller Road, or in history books. You can’t just drive through it, it’s designed to be an isolated enclave.

The place is legendary…not only historically, but it looms large in local lore. Everybody has a story about it. 

By crossing under Rotunda Drive, I left Dearborn and had entered the city of Allen Park. Now by going under I-94, I entered Melvindale. The opposite bank was still all Dearborn though. I had by this point walked four miles, cumulatively. The going was about to get rougher. The riverbank was now much narrower, and much filthier. The slime and silt coated the cement, and patches of ice remained, from the last cold weather.

Soon I was going to have to start bushwhacking again. Up on the riverbank above me I saw some sweet old mill buildings, which belonged to maybe the gas company, or the Melvindale Dept. of Public Works?

Suddenly my eyes fixed on something ahead under the Schaefer Road bridge, laying in hiding in the shadow like a cop speed trap—it was a boat:

I slowly noticed however that there was no one in it. Also, this boat was listing heavily to starboard. It was swamped, and when I came around behind it, I could see that there was a small tree starting to grow out of the boat’s stern:

As I passed under the Schaefer bridge, I entered Detroit city limits. This particular neighborhood is known as Oakwood Heights, though “neighborhood” is a bit of a misnomer here. The old village of Oakwood was greatly impacted by the coming of heavy industry, and the building of the gigantic Fisher Freeway super-bridge.

Fordson Island is down this way too, just past the Rouge’s boat slip. This was a potential target for me as well, since I had heard that it was allegedly hard to get on the tiny island, or that it was used as a graveyard for boats, or something cool to that effect. This was all conjectural anyhow, since I didn’t know just how far I’d be able to get.

Next to Schaefer was another railroad bridge serving the plant, and a couple pipelines crossed the river here as well. I could now see the Rouge’s colossal Electric Furnace looming ahead. Its cartoonishly huge vent manifold ducts snaked around it like a titanic supercharger:

Nearby was an area that was curtained off by what looked like golf course netting, and a gigantic crane with an electromagnet on it was hard at work inside. It was picking up an eight-foot-diameter solid steel ball, lifting it to a height of about 50 feet, and dropping it in a freefall down into this pit it was standing in. 

Unfortunately I couldn't get a good shot, but this would explain the incredibly deep THUDDING I had been hearing (and feeling) for the past several minutes. With the size of this solid metal sphere, it was just incredible to behold it free-falling like that; the weight of it had to be five tons at least. The object of the ball drop process is to break chunks of slag into smaller pieces so they can cool and be hauled away.

And I saw the slag pile…as I was staring across at a storage shed, I noticed the air was shimmering, as if distorted by intense heat waves. Sure enough, on the ground below was an expansive pile of cooling slag chunks, still smoldering from the ovens. But again, I couldn't get direct a picture.

I wondered if I was near the part of the river that caught fire in 1969 because it was so polluted. That’s part of what made the Rouge so infamous to us kids growing up. We always poked fun at it, or joked with each other ‘cause if you fell in you were considered to be toxic. I wonder how much other kid-stuff I forgot about the river; growing up near it sure put a lot of lore in our heads. There used to be tons of cars swamped in it. By the ‘70s, it was supposedly like an underwater junkyard. Thankfully, the yearly “Rouge Rescue” has cleaned it up immensely since then. But I hoped to see maybe something really old back here, like a Model-A’s skeleton sticking out of the mud.

I came closer and closer to the inner sanctum of this industrial juggernaut.

I could hear the thrumming of the exhaust vents, hissing of steam, loud metallic clanking coming from the works, the forlorn whistle of a locomotive ambling through the complex, and echoing mournfully between the blackened buildings. 

 It was as if the place were alive; a living breathing, seething, steel beast in a state of fitful slumber, dreaming of the days when it was bigger and mightier than it is today. I could hear men on loudspeakers every few minutes calling over the P.A. system.

I ducked through the reeds, and trudged even more slowly, stopping often to snap a picture, or just stare in awe, marveling at what was before me.

I could see by the widening of the river that I was nearing the turning basin, and boat slip:

Snow began to drive down from the sky as the temperature dropped. The storm was finally letting loose:

I didn’t mind the extra cover, but the grey-out hampered my shots and gave the scene an even more surreal quality. In the far distance I could begin to make out the end of what were possibly the old Locomotive Repair Shop, and the Byproducts Building…the Powerhouse lay beyond:

Tattered wraiths of steam scudded about the complex amongst the stark, blank black shapes of the geometrically menacing buildings, making this nightmarish landscape seem even more numinous and dreamlike:

Up on the high bank behind me was a depot of some kind, with piles of coal or asphalt or something like it. There were also many storage tanks. As the snow squall relented again, I could see the Basic Oxygen Furnace and other mammoth buildings huddled beyond the coke ovens. I couldn’t help but notice though that most of these structures were not original to the plant. The Rouge has changed much since the old days, and I wonder how much of it even remains intact.

I came to the end of the line. The concrete ended and I was forced to go solely through the reeds. I was now very tired. I had been tromping along for hours, and had come the full five miles from Henry’s Fair Lane Estate (not including that backtracking). Buried in the scrub here was a huge wooden piling braced with steel cable, obviously an old mooring pile for the barges or freighters that come through here. It must’ve been five feet in diameter:

I could see a barge moored just a few yards ahead. I was afraid in the back of my head of hearing the words, “Hey you!” at any second, though I probably had nothing to worry about. This ratty little promontory of land gave the distinct impression of just plain neglect. Seemed nobody ever came over on this side to this polluted chunk of mud. I was wet and getting cold. 

As I pushed my way toward the barge’s mooring, I noticed there was another one behind it. Getting a view from between them, I was able to see up to the mouth of the boat slip, the coal piles, and the blast furnaces beyond. 

Pictured here are the coke ovens, and behind that are the blast furnaces of Rouge Steel:

From here I saw that I could go little further downriver. 

The Powerhouse:

…It was once the single largest power generating unit in America. Today it has been emasculated of its eight tall smokestacks, and sits completely hollowed out.

Having gone as far as I could reasonably go, I readily turned back upriver. I was disappointed that I could not go further, but I was exhausted. I had a five mile hike back, and I knew it would be dark soon. 

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