Northern Exposure

Spring, 2014.

On a whim (almost ten years ago!), I looted an old c.1980 redevelopment study on the Detroit Drydock Co. Engine Works from a former office of the Detroit Historical Society in the Farwell Building, and it turned out to contain a lot of useful info on old buildings of the Atwater District, such as Northern Engineering Works. The study was entitled The Engine Works, An Adaptive Reuse Study in the East Riverfront Area, Detroit, Michigan, done by Landmarks Planning, Inc.

That has to be like a whole 'nother level of some kind: looting books from abandoned buildings in order to research other abandoned buildings.

Anyway, Northern Engineering Corp. started here at 210 Chene in 1899. Chene Street was named for the Gabriel Chene ribbon farm, and was paved with wood until at least 1897. The three-story building at Chene & Atwater was owned by the Detroit Flax Co. from 1865 to 1872, at which time it was sold to the partnership of Philbrick, Christie, & Co. Frontier Iron Works was incorporated out of this partnership in 1885. Their output included marine engines (at least one of which went to Detroit Shipbuilding Co.), as well as valves, water heaters, and the "'Weber' lawn fountain," among other things. A fourth story was added to the building after 1890.

The building was sold to the newly formed Northern Engineering in 1899 to manufacture cranes, and of course the complex was expanded even more. The original c.1865 building on the corner of Atwater & Chene had an addition grafted onto its northern side at some point afterward, but the line between the two "is almost imperceivable." Another shorter section was added again in the mid-1880s, fronting on Gouin Street (the one with the pitched roof in the next shot). The building's foundations are of piled limestone.

The complex continued to grow as more existing buildings of the along Atwater were purchased, in 1912, 1918, 1950, and 1952. The buildings at 2675 and 2685 Atwater originally belonged to the Globe Iron Works and Globe Foundry Co. respectively, and dated to 1895 and 1890.

You can see that the tall watertower also belonged to the Northern complex, as faded lettering of the company name is still faintly visible. An old "ghost ad" on the building to the right still says "Detroit River Iron Works," and the lettering on the rusted metal above the bay door on the left indicates that it was Northern's shipping and receiving entrance. The presence of the Detroit River Iron Works, the study says, was no impediment to Northern's progress, as they merely kept expanding around it.

The two-story Victorian structure at 2633 Atwater (seen above, at right) was built in 1883, originally as Louis Jubelo's saloon, with a dwelling above. The first floor facade was altered to match an adjoining addition, but the second story has experienced "little visible change" since it was sold to Northern Engineering in 1909, and is "inaccessible from the interior" of the complex.

Come to think of it, I don't think I did make it up into that part....

The Northern Engineering complex comprised even more added buildings along the rebrick-paved Gouin Street, all the way to Jos Campau:

This complex always remained very well sealed up for as long as I could remember, making me question whether it was not still in use to some capacity. Then in early 2014 I realized that it was suddenly under demolition.

After making little progress though, demolition seemed to stop and security was lax, so I took that as my queue to step inside for a look.

This is one of the few remaining vestiges of pre-automobile era industry left in Detroit; there was no way I could pass this up.

Clarence Burton wrote in 1922 that 183 men worked for Northern.

On the subject of hiring African-Americans, a 2012 book by Scott Martelle entitled Detroit: A Biography says that Northern Engineering's president, Mr. George A. True, once responded to a survey saying that his company did indeed hire blacks, and paid them equally as whites.

Mr. True was quoted as saying however that "some years ago, we had a colored man operating a lathe and he received better wages than some of the white men which caused some dissatisfaction.... Some of these fellows made it rather unpleasant for him and he finally left."

Prior to the 1940s, it was very uncommon for any African-American to hold a skilled position; in a  plant such as this, he would be working in the foundry, not operating a lathe.

Most of what was left from initial demolition was just the original c.1860s building:

Inside, I was surprised to see lineshaft gear still attached to the ceiling, with belts even still on it:

She was looking a little worse for the wear, however...that tough, impregnable outer facade seems to have merely concealed a severely compromised interior:

Now that's old school...the wheel on the right is made of wood:

The types of cranes that Northern Engineering manufactured here were overhead traveling cranes like what one would find in a mill building such as this one:

Northern also built gantry cranes, the type that would be found in a shipyard or dry dock. Remember, this plant is situated right in the middle of what was once the cradle of the shipbuilding industry for the upper Great Lakes.

This is the shipping and receiving entrance, seen earlier from outside:

Strangely, all the overhead cranes in this complex seem to have been removed from their craneways...I hadn't seen a single one yet.

A set of very anachronistic rails in the factory floor:

A couple weeks later I noticed demolition had resumed on the 210 Chene building again, so I made another trip in. I had been unable to access the upper stories of the building due to lack of a surviving staircase, so now that the whole north side of it was ripped asunder, I could climb the debris pile up and in.

The inside was the predictable Sarlac Pit of rotted, heavily-bowed timbers about to crack under the inexorable pull of gravity:

I could only imagine what detritus lay piled up on the third floor above my head that was causing it to sag so heavily, like a full baby diaper.

The publication of the Engineering Society of Detroit for 1975 says that the Northern Engineering Corp. was a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Engineering Corp. at that time, and the study on the Engine Works claimed that that was still the case as of 1980.

In the ruins of the factory I found a few old boxes of records to pick through. An invoice from June 1978 indicates that a turret lathe was sent out for reconditioning, to Expert Machine Repair, Inc. of Warren, Michigan.  The letterhead corroborated that Northern Engineering was indeed a subsidiary of Pennsylvania Engineering around that time.

Cranes were still being manufactured in this plant as of 1980, though the owners complained that the complex was old and obsolete, and many large areas of it were going unused.

Much of the front end of the c.1860s building had been converted to generic office space using bland modern materials...the tall narrow window cases on the left however speak to the earlier era:

Apparently the Northern name still exists under Crane Manufacturing & Service Corp., and many 20th-century vintage Northern-built cranes are still in service. Replacement parts are still made for them, so they will probably continue to be around for a long time.

A June, 1994 article in the Milwaukee Sentinel says that Crane Manufacturing & Service Corp. (CMS) bought the name and intellectual property of Northern, which had closed up shop recently after its sale by east coast investors. At the time they manufactured cranes for the automotive, paper, and steel making industries.

Outside across the street, the old building of the Lauhoff Corporation at 241 Chene could still be seen:

Lauhoff made milling and food handling machinery at that location since 1882.

As spring was finally beginning to take hold over the frozen northern wastes of Michigan after this record-shattering winter of 2013-14, this warm sunset was too good to pass up so my buddy and I relaxed here for a bit with our 40s.

These wooden wheels lay strewn about in the rubble:

I was going to loot rescue a couple of them, but just then I noticed a security truck driving by really slowly, clearly aware someone was in the building, so we had to duck out empty-handed.

I kept my eye on the Northern Engineering complex in the following weeks, and again demolition stopped short of demolishing the entire place, and the rubble was cleaned up. Apparently there are still plans in place for this historic complex. It sits in a very desirable area, so I imagine it will become lofts soon.

The watertower was my new focus now. I had actually eyed climbing it for many years, and was somewhat surprised that it still stood and had not been picked apart for scrap.

My climbing muscles hadn't been used all winter...ugh...

You can see just how close to the river this plant sits:

Chene Park Ampitheater:


Stroh River Place:

Looks like Diamond Jack ties his boats up here:

A lot of old factories missing from the Atwater District these days...

The Engine Works, An Adaptive Reuse Study in the East Riverfront Area, Detroit, Michigan, by Landmarks Planning, Inc. (1980), pg. 23-26
Detroit Perspectives: Crossroads and Turning Points, by Wilma Wood Henrickson, pg. 35
Detroit Engineer, 1975, Engineering Society of Detroit, pg. 116
Detroit: A Biography, by Scott Martelle, pg. 89
The City of Detroit Michigan 1701-1922, by Clarence M. Burton, pg. 614
"Crane Manufacturing Buy Northern Assets," Milwaukee Sentinel, June 1, 1994


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. My father worked at The Northern from 1941 to 1975 as a lathe operator and an inspector. He saw the handwriting on the wall of the company's dismal future and went to work at Ford at the urging of a neighbor. The Northern provided my father steady employment and our family a decent life in suburban Dearborn. Thanks for posting these photos.

  3. Timothy Van GelderenMay 3, 2019 at 11:34 AM

    My first job after graduating from Detroit Engineering Institute in 1965 was in the engineering department of Northern Engineering Works. I worked there until 1976. The engineering department was on the second floor. I had a good view of the early construction of the rencen from my desk. Sales and the presidents office were on the first floor. The third floor was the purchasing department. The fourth floor was not used but was filled with old wooden patterns that were used for the many cast iron items that were used in the cranes. It was a good first job although the pay was low. We had a golf league that played on a course in Canada. The Chene park area was an empty lot that had an old ramp next to the river that was used for driving new cars onto boats for delivery around the Great Lakes area. This was not used when I worked there but Chrysler used to store new cars there before shipping. We had been told that the original building was at one time a hotel before it became a manufacturing facility? Thanks for the photos, They brought back a lot of memories.

  4. George Stefureac Nov. 9 2020
    I was employed by Northern Engineering works from 1966-1969 as an electrician and as a service rep. Great memories from my employment there. There was Foggy the painter/musician who played the air hose, like the tune Happy Birthday and Christmas carols. The engineers I was in contact with were Al Vogt and Mike Focus.
    The golf league in Canada was great entertainment. Our softball team was a championship caliber team with Frank Washington and A.C. Burks. I could write a book about my experiences there. It was a great 2 years.

  5. I worked in the machine shop running milling machines,lathes,and grinders.Northern produced all parts from start to finish,gears shafting,trolleys,wheels,and cable drums for the lifting cables.

    1. To Pete Kelly.
      What years did you work at The Northern?


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