Fordson Island: Bayside Nikkas

Kayaking seems to be catching on around here more than ever, and with it a flood of pictures and stories from people using them to explore Detroit's lesser known waterways and nautical secrets. The publication of the book Up The Rouge! has likewise increased interest. Since I don't do kayaks, I have a small motorboat with an extremely shallow-draft outboard, which allows me to go almost anywhere a kayak can. And I can carry a lot more beer. Another thing kayakers often don't do is get out of their boat to go on land and take photos, which is no problem for me.

One spot in Metro-Detroit that always fascinated me was Fordson Island:

Courtesy of
For the longest time, the only real online information about Fordson Island was this snippet I copied from a now defunct link. As it turns out there is also very little else printed about the island in books either:
Fordson Island is a small islet in the middle of the Rouge River in the southeastern part of Dearborn. The 8.4-acre island was created in 1922 when federal engineers, at the request of Ford Motor Co., straightened and deepened a section of the Rouge River south of the Rouge Plant. The river originally was too shallow and wound too much to properly accommodate the Eagle Chaser boats from World War I that the Ford Motor Co. wanted the Rouge Plant to utilize.
Federal engineers found it more efficient to cut directly across the land rather than deepen the existing river. Fordson Island was born upon completion of the $10 million channel. Access to the island was possible by boat and by a plank bridge from southwest Detroit. Today, the only land access remains the small one-lane bridge. After the channel was completed in 1922, several people bought the lots on the island to put up riverfront homes.
In 1970, six residents still called the island home. Through the city’s Operation Eyesore, the remaining five dwellings were removed in 1989. With this went the last residents. The island today is home to a Marathon Oil facility and a second private company.
So essentially, Fordson Island is actually part of Dearborn, not Detroit, and was cut off from the rest of that city when Henry Ford decided he wanted a plant with access to maritime shipping, and paid to have the lower Rouge River widened and straightened in order to fit large bulk freighters up the river to his new Rouge Plant.

I took the above photo in about 2009 or 2010, not long before the cleanup of the island and its oxbow began. The oxbow was historically a popular area for dumping boats, and there were at least five wrecked ones half-swamped here when I took that photo. According to the Detroit News, parts of the island are owned by Marathon Petroleum and the city of Dearborn.

AKT Peerless, the firm conducting the Fordson Island restoration part of the "River Rouge Gateway Master Plan" said that the overall plan of the project was to "reclaim a greenway along the Rouge River connecting the open green belts along Hines Drive and the Rouge River with Southwest Detroit." They noted however that the dredging of the channel that created Fordson Island began in 1917--not 1922--when President Woodrow Wilson commissioned Ford to manufacture the Eagle Boat submarine-chasers for WWI. Over time the reduced water flow in the original Rouge River channel caused sediment to accumulate, which is why it is so shallow and stagnant today. 
The shallow water in the channel restricted access and eventually boats were abandoned. Residents that once called the island home began leaving in the 1970s. Although the last residential dwellings on the Island were demolished by the City of Dearborn in 1989, the Fordson Island shoreline unfortunately remained littered with abandoned boats, a decrepit boat house, pilings, and other debris from former residential structures.
For many years, Marathon Ashland Petroleum maintained a Transfer Terminal on the Island. In 2001, Marathon reached a settlement with the USEPA and Justice Department for past air emission violations. As part of the settlement Marathon would donate their ownership of the terminal on Fordson Island for conservation.
In May of 2011 AKT Peerless removed 21 boats from this spot. Wow...I guess there were more there than I thought! It wasn't until the summer of 2012 however that I began making my first boat trips up the Rouge River, and decided to see if I could scope out Fordson Island that way.

As we neared Fordson Island, the Hoey family of tugs came into view:

The island came up on the left, visible behind the many barges moored along its banks:

To the left you can see several covered private launches and boat wells along the canal leading to the backside of the island:

However, the oxbow looked a little murky, but more importantly the bridge to the island looked a little too low for us to pass under. Perhaps we could enter the passage from the north end of the island. We noticed a huge plume of smoke just beyond the Dix Avenue drawbridge, rising from what could only be the smokestack of a very large ship in Ford's turning basin. I sped up to investigate.

A 600 or 700-foot ore carrier was turning around to head back downstream, and suddenly I realized I was going to be directly in his way if we didn't get out from under the bridge.

I brought us alongside the concrete embankment and idled the motor while we sat in awe of this juggernaut's size. Just then the Manitowoc sounded its horn, signaling the bridge operator to raise the spans so it could pass through. I assumed that the ship had just finished unloading at the Ford Motor Co. coal docks here.

We were now sitting essentially where I had left off with my c.2009 hike of the Rouge River's banks.

After the ship passed, I started the motor again and continued upriver some ways, but the half-sunken shipwreck at Schaefer Avenue that I was hoping to check out was no longer there. We turned back downriver and passed the Manitowoc again, now mooring itself across from Fordson Island to pick up a load of gravel.

We turned into the upper entry of the oxbow behind Fordson Island and slowly crept into the stagnant shallows where all of the old half-sunken discarded boats had been. I hadn't realized it yet, but the wrecks had already been pulled out by this time.

I tried to approach the Fordson Island bridge but it was a little too shallow, forcing me to turn back to avoid getting jammed up or stuck on a log. We weren't really brave enough to attempt a landing on the exposed side of the island today, so we continued along our voyage that day.

Nearing Jefferson Avenue again, we passed Peerless Cement's ruins, and I thought that perhaps the kiln and other structures made entirely of metal have been demolished? Maybe they were just hidden behind the gravel piles?

Opposite Peerless was the US Gypsum Plant:

One day in November of 2013 as I was getting my six-layer-with-everything and tin of coffee from Gonella's, I happened to cruise through the Fordson Island neighborhood to see how many new home demolitions Marathon had done since last I drove through this, my favorite neighborhood in the city. Lo and behold, the gate to the bridge was open! I decided to park and walk across it.

The northern half of the oxbow:

Looking back at the bridge:

I didn't stay long on the island because I could immediately tell that there were people working nearby at the Marathon site on the south end of the island, but I did see a few interesting things laying around:

There is a c.1981 press photo for sale somewhere online, that shows Fordson Island, and is marked with the following caption: "Fordson Island: The island life in Dearborn out of the main stream. Feuds and rum-running have given way to peaceful isolationism on this tiny outpost in our metropolis."

"Feuds and rum-running," you say? Sounds exciting. Well I located a date for the article and pulled it up in the Detroit Public Library's microfilm collection.

The Free Press reporter said that one reclusive man who lived in a trailer slammed his door at her approach. His yard was diligently fenced off and marked NO ADMITTANCE, decorated with nonfunctioning cars and implementia of other various sorts. His name was William Hardy, and he was the longest resident of the island at that time, having been listed there in 1946. He served as landlord to the two men who lived in the duplex flat nearby, Willie Smith and Frankie Gieliczka.

Fordson Island, the article claimed, served as "a handy turnaround for rum-runners of Prohibition," and "where inhabitants have fired bullets at each other in the finest tradition of neighborhood feuds." The island has definitely always been something of a loophole, or a place out of bounds. It was only really ever built on in the first place because of the severe housing shortage in Detroit after WWII.

The residents here were sometimes listed as living on Detroit's Heidt Street, or Riverside Drive, a Dearborn street. Its industrial yet strangely bucolic setting was also poetically described by these obviously enchanted reporters as the "winter lodgings for summer sails." Indeed, to this day it is where tugboats and Diamond Jack's excursion boats tie up for winter. On the Dearborn side of the channel where the storage tanks are now, some old shacks used to stand until the 1940s when the city demolished them. They served as speakeasies and flophouses for drifters. I'm sure if the teetotalling Henry Ford knew that by opening up the Rouge River he had created a haven for rumrunners or facilitated speakeasies, he would have been been highly annoyed (in fact I wouldn't be surprised if it was he who pushed the city's hand in demolishing them).

Supposedly in 1955, William Hardy had got into it with his nemesis neighbor, Joseph Yerman, over god knows what. According to police reports, Hardy, who was 46 at the time, received a "bellyful of bullets" from Yerman, who himself was 72. Yerman was then the recipient of two shotgun blasts from Hardy in the forehead and right foot. Yerman was arrested on attempted murder, but was acquitted by a jury. According to an ex-Dearborn Police sergeant, the two were constantly assaulting each other. As of the writing of this article in 1981, the old abandoned Yerman house still sat in ruins, having been burned down by "vandals" years ago. I'm sure that's exactly what Hardy told the fire department, too, heheh. Yerman had apparently passed on, but his widow Daisy lived there up until about a year prior.

Though most of them kept to themselves, in the summer the small handful of male residents of the island often gathered at a picnic table near Robert Corey's house to drink beers. Gonella's Italian Market was a common neighborhood gathering spot, as well as the bars that shared the corner of Oakwood & Powell.

71-yer-old Rev. Leslie Lamb preached on occasion at the John R Baptist Church, but could usually be found in his workshed on the west side of Fordson, tinkering with any of his seven boat projects. He was also a certified Great Lakes ship captain and a retired electrician from Chrysler's. Lamb claimed that only one of his boats had any chance of ever sailing again.

This wall sits along Powell Street, where it dead-ends. It's been tagged BAYSIDE NIKKAS.

Another thing I miss about this hood that will never come back is Booze On The Rouge, which stood on the northeast corner of Denmark & Oakwood, perhaps the biggest hole of a dive bar in the city (and yes, I have been to Tom's Tavern). One night we were on the prowl for a beer store and everything along this stretch of Fort was closed, but Booze On The Rouge was open, so we went in.

The bar shared a wall with the Southwest Fight Club, and flyers tacked to the bar promoted decidedly low-budge MMA tournaments. The place had Fight Club written all over it, could have easily been the inspiration for the bar in the movie. Near the bathroom stood a stack of old truck tires. The pool cues were all broken, and the light above the table had someone's magic marker handwriting on it stating that this was "Burt's Table." Who was this legendary Burt we wondered, as we were shown how to jimmy the weathered old table into working without quarters.

The bar had only Budweiser bottles, shots of Jack, or their house specialty, Apple Pucker Fuckers. No other drinks were available. We availed ourselves of all three. The bartender lady had the DTs and an impressive chain smoking habit, while the other regulars consisted of a blonde woman with a horribly loud and annoying honking sound when she laughed (which was almost constantly), and some other loud narrator guy (who had showed us the trick to the pool table), drunkenly balancing on a broken stool. In walked the tall skinny guy and the "little person" next. It seemed everyone here had something "wrong" with them, some malfunction...which made the place seem not only uncannily characteristic of Chokewood Heights, but made me feel completely at home. Anyway, the tall skinny guy and the little person were inseparable, it seemed; they may have even been brothers.

After some time had gone by and the booze was flowing more heavily, in walks Burt, carrying a hardcase for his *personal* cue stick. Burt only had one and a half arms. Burt then schooled everyone in the room on "his" table. After I gave the "little person" a shot of Jack, out came his bag of weed, which was then broken up on the bar, spun up, and passed around. This was well before medicinal was legalized, but it was still pretty decent. I obviously don't remember much beyond that other than when he got up on the bar himself and began doing the swim. Good times.

When Booze on the Rouge suddenly burned and was demolished a year later (coincidentally just in time for the drawbridge reconstruction), it was as if a spell had been broken, and a magical place that existed for me in the bittersweet memory of that night had vanished like a mirage. It also heralded the demise of the rest of my favorite neighborhood in the city, as Marathon began buying out the remaining residents around Fordson Island, demolishing the nice old houses, and clearing the land of any features that would provide any kind of a link to its nuanced past.

"Fordson Island: The Island Life in Dearborn Out of the Main Stream," Detroit Free Press July 12, 1981


  1. I lived in the apartments on the corner of colonial and denmark in the late was a drunk punk rockers paradise. It was seriously seedy at night...and Gonellas was by far the greatest sandwich place ever.

    I now live in Portland Oregon and miss Detroit.

  2. I lived at the corner of colonial and ormond and I frequented the bridge bar. I remember playing at the gates of fordson island as a kid. it's crazy going back there now seeing just empty lots.

  3. Lived in the neighborhood from Feb. '60 till Oct.'69. Delivered the Free Press to this and other bars in '61. Know one of the residents still there behind Gonella's. Ray Gonella sponsored a neighborhood band in the mid '60's called 'The Stonecutters' and I still have their business card! My mind is stacked with memories from Oakwood.


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