The Riddle of Steel

In spring of 2005 I noticed that the old Great Lakes Steel Corporation's Michigan Steel Works in Ecorse was being demolished. It was on Mill Street near the mouth of the Ecorse River where it empties into the Detroit River, and sat adjacent to the Crown Group Plant.

Having recently scoped out McLouth Steel, we were hungry to try for this beast as well, but unfortunately we were not able to get inside it at the time, and these first five photos from the street are all I have from when it was still standing.

The history of steelmaking in Detroit is surprising, considering it never really became a primary industry in this region. The first blast furnace to be operated west of Pittsburg was built in Detroit in 1854 by Dr. George B. Russell, near where the Belle Isle Bridge is now. The authoritative Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State by Willis F. Dunbar & George S. May states that the first steel made in the United States by what later became known as the Bessemer process was poured on the banks of the Detroit River at Wyandotte, Michigan in 1864, by Eber Brock Ward's Eureka Iron & Steel Co. Works. 

It was also there that the first "rolled T" railroad rails were forged, but according to the book Michigan Yesterday & Today by Ferris E. Lewis, the Eureka Works closed in the 1890s. The steel industry never really got very big in Michigan, perhaps due to our lack of high-grade coal to feed the furnaces, and so the ore being shipped down the lakes from the Upper Peninsula and Minnesota iron mines sailed right past Detroit, to the better-known Ohio and Pennsylvania steelmaking centers.

That is, until Detroit got into the modern steelmaking business around 1902 with the erection of the first blast furnace on Zug Island by the Detroit Iron & Steel Co. The auto-industry's demand for locally made steel skyrocketed as cars came to be made entirely of metal as opposed to wood. By the 1920s Henry Ford had built his own steel mill at the Rouge Plant, and the Michigan Steel Corporation got started up here in Ecorse, serving as the genesis of the industry giant Great Lakes Steel.

For years after demolition, the ruins of the Michigan Steel Works sat fallow and strewn with rubble, and the twin stacks of a single small boiler were left standing over the carnage, as well as a couple other small ancillary buildings.

Michigan Steel was founded by George R. Fink, "a true son of the steel industry," according to Ecorse Echoes: The Story of the Oldest Downriver Community, a book by Kathy Covert. A salesman for the Western Pennsylvania Steel Co., Fink saw Ecorse as the potential cradle of a new steelmaking industry center, at the nexus between supply lines of coal and iron ore, with plenty of waterfront, a burgeoning labor market, and ready demand with the Detroit automobile industry.

According to Covert, Mr. Fink incorporated Michigan Steel in 1922 with one million dollars and developed an unorthodox fiscal policy that allowed him to raise funds without relying on municipal bonds. "The company paid no percentage, no fees, no stock bonuses, stock was sold at $50 a share to everyone, and all monies were applied to the business."

Michigan Steel Works employed about 500 men, and according to the Ecorse Public Library's website, it signified the dawning of "a new era" for the downriver community when it fired up on July 5, 1923 and began rolling out steel. According to another website, the mill showed profit from the very beginning because there was such high and constant demand for steel from the auto industry. The original plant consisted of eight single stand mills, six of them supplemented with soft mills. There was also a machine shop, electric shop, carpenter shop, grease house and general labor building.

I think this was the electric shop:

The Ryan Foundry was also located near here on Mill Street. Mill Street used to be called "the old Mill Road" because there was a large sawmill business there in the early days of the village, established by Gustave Raupp. Great Lakes Engineering Works and Nicholson Terminal Dock Co. soon joined Michigan Steel on the Ecorse waterfront, building freighters and naval ships by the first World War. The coming of heavy industry to Ecorse raised it from its status as a sleepy old hamlet along the swampy Detroit Riverfront into a thriving city, but it still operated under a village form of government until the 1940s. 

I hate to always tell the stories of these old lost Detroit industries in the cliche mode that typically glorifies "the good old days" as if they were somehow sacred. Too often we oversimplify our own past, wanting to look back on profitable economic times as "the way things ought to be." But there is always a price to be paid for industrial prosperity--the inevitable legacies it brings in its wake are poverty, war, pollution, and blight.

The ancient myths and legends of almost every culture have hinted for millennia that mankind's discovery of metalworking and technology was the moment our innocence was lost, and the modern age began; that mankind was not wise enough to possess the secret of steel, or resist the evils it would unleash. Industry is the genie that once taken out of the bottle, can't be put back in; it just keeps getting bigger and more unstoppable, as do its consequences. Ecorse would slowly learn the riddle of steel, but for now times were booming.

By 1928 Michigan Steel's market share was lagging according to The American Steel Industry, 1850-1970, so Fink decided to expand by forming the Great Lakes Steel Corp. and began constructing the mammoth 275-acre Ecorse Works, slightly upriver from this location, a plant so gigantic as to be rivaled only by the mighty Ford Rouge Plant, then the largest manufacturing complex in the world.

Covert says George Fink started Great Lakes Steel in 1929 with twenty million dollars, using the same unorthodox financing methods as he had with Michigan Steel Corp. An unexpected merger was proposed by Ernest T. Weir of Weirton Steel, a small company in West Virginia. George Fink accepted, and the merger laid the foundation for what was to become National Steel.

Covert writes that after the formation of National Steel, George M. Humphrey of the M.A. Hanna Co. in Cleveland--who owned more than 150 million tons of high grade iron ore reserves in Minnesota’s Mesabi Range--came forward with another plan to merge with National as their supplier. National Steel also acquired Hanna’s blast furnaces on Zug Island in 1931, and ownership of some of their Michigan iron mines as well.

Another book by Charles S. Varano says that National Steel thus became the fifth-largest steel producer in America, with the second largest ore holdings. National Steel was the only steelmaker to post profits during the Great Depression, and incredibly they never recorded a loss throughout its duration. They enjoyed this position thanks mainly to the fact that they were the principal suppliers of steel to the automobile industry. According to other books, Mr. Fink was also one of the founders of the Guardian Bank in Detroit.

The book The Technology Century by Mike Davis said that Great Lakes Steel started by turning pig iron from Zug Island into semi-finished steel, and eventually reached a peak output of six million tons per year. Great Lakes Steel employed thousands of workers in the Downriver area for decades.

One source says that during WWII Great Lakes Steel became one of the nation's largest producers of armor plate, and Michigan Steel Works performed the final processing of the plates prior to shipment. This plant also produced other wartime materials such as frames for gun mounts, 40-foot Quonset huts, hangars, barracks, and components for powder magazines and naval warehouse buildings.

Of course the good times wouldn't last through the end of the 20th century, especially for a small mill such as this one, and by the 1970s the only production being done here at Michigan Steel was heat treatment of steel plates, although the article says there were several other "vital and ultra modern company departments" located on this site. In addition, security employees, the hourly and salaried payroll departments, management services, primary accounting, and the computer operations department also occupied space here.

At some point, all operations at this mill were discontinued, its sheds went cold, and the neighborhoods began to empty out. Ecorse began to pay the Promethean price for the riddle of steel. In 1986 it became the first city in Michigan's history to file for bankruptcy, and it was under the control of an emergency manager until 1999. Ecorse slipped into bankruptcy yet again in 2009, and was under a financial manager until 2013.

The plan was to demolish this mill for a condominium development, but that went into political limbo and the neighborhood has lain desolate and dormant ever since, with only the swishing of tall weeds and the squeaking of twisted steel blowing in the breeze to punctuate the solitude.

According to a development study, the steel industry brought many minority families to Ecorse in search of prosperity, where prior to 1919 the town population was sparse and mostly caucasian. A table shows industrial land to take up 32% of the city, while railroad and utility infrastructure takes up another 27%. Less than 1/3 of Ecorse's land is zoned as residential.

In 2005 an Environmental Protection Agency document stated that 54% of its residents are minorities, and 23%--literally a quarter of the city--live below the poverty line. Over 250 potential brownfield sites had been identified within Ecorse city limits at that time. Contemplate this upon the Tree of Woe.

In 2009 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the U.S. Department of Health reported that "the Mill Street Plant site...had high manganese levels in on-site soils," which is an airborne health risk for inhalation.
Manganese miners or steel workers exposed to high levels of manganese dust in air may develop mental and emotional disturbances. Their body movements may become slow and clumsy. These symptoms, when associated with manganese exposure, describe a disease called “manganism.”

The report continued to say that "During the redevelopment of the Mill Street Plant property (on-going as of January 2, 2009), the responsible parties have Due Care obligations in which they must prevent exacerbation of existing contamination and unacceptable human exposures."

A January 29, 2011 article in the News-Herald seems to offer an update on what was currently happening with the seemingly dormant property. The property was purchased by the City of Ecorse in 2004 the article says, under the administration of Mayor Salisbury, in order to clear the site using brownfield credits. There were "allegations" however that during this "cleanup," an outside contractor was allowed to dump waste materials containing asbestos on the site.

When the next mayor, Mayor Worthy took office in 2007, he did not pick up where the previous mayoral administration left off in terms of cleaning up the site, and was later sent to prison on federal bribery charges in January of 2010. The city's emergency financial manager was reportedly working on getting grant money to complete the project.

Then, according to an MDEQ official there was a change in state law that December, which effectively meant that the City of Ecorse no longer had any "due care responsibilities" to make sure the site was developed properly, since the level of contamination was not considered high, or rather, that an imminent threat had not yet been identified. There was data suggesting that there was contaminant runoff into nearby waterways, but a more thorough groundwater analysis of the site would need to be done first however.

Your tax dollars at work.

At the time the article was written, one local resident was spearheading a class-action lawsuit to get the city to finish the cleanup, or at the very least, secure the property. I sure didn't find it very challenging to gain access.

At least it seemed like asbestos removal had been completed, as these gutted boilers seem to show, but then again I wasn't specifically checking, since I already have lung cancer.

I found an older aerial image of the area on Bing Maps, which still shows Michigan Steel Works before it was demolished.

There was still something of a staircase left intact yet, so I naturally began climbing to see how high I could go. The entire structure, (not including the stacks) was about four stories tall, and I figured it might make for a decent view of the Detroit River and surrounding area.

Some fans:

Some of the catwalks were missing, so I had to do some balance-beaming to keep going up.

These days, the steel mills on the Detroit River are all operated by U.S. Steel. In May of 2003, the assets of National Steel (and therefore Great Lakes Steel) were consolidated in a merger. That includes the blast furnaces on Zug Island, and the mammoth Ecorse Works, both of which still operate today in some capacity under the USS banner.

As one might assume, it was the decline of the Detroit auto industry in the 1970s and 1980s that played a major part in bringing about the decline of the American steel industry, and the bankruptcy of National Steel Corp. With the sharply reduced consumer demand for Detroit-built cars the Big Three stopped making as many of them, which of course prompted automobile plant closures, but also slowed orders for steel.

Idling a car assembly plant is one thing, but idling a steel mill is something else entirely, since it takes a major effort to shut down or restart a blast furnace, and is very expensive to do. Heavy industrial furnaces are meant to stay at operating temperature, and shutting them down can cause damage to components. Furthermore idling a steel mill also stops freighters from sailing, and that in turn can halt production at iron and coal mines.

I had reached the top:

The ribbon of bluish color you see in the distance is the Detroit River, and Mud Island is to the left:

An old Thermix fan unit that someone was apparently planning on taking apart:

In this view of the scarred fields to the west, the Ecorse River is behind the trees left of frame:

Out there, Cavemonkey found some other massive old boiler remnant that I somehow missed:

Photo by Cavemonkey

Photo by Cavemonkey

There was also a battery of these brick oven-shaped things, which I postulated may have been coke ovens, though I'm not sure Michigan Steel Works ever processed their own coke.

The 1949 Sanborn map labels them as "Furnaces."

A compressor:

In one of the buildings Cavemonkey and I came across a bunch of old sales literature strewn about the floor that looked at least 30 or 40 years old. A quick glance through it showed me that it appeared to be related to one of the products manufactured by Great Lakes Steel, perhaps even this mill, so I grabbed a sample for later investigation.

The product was a patented type of nailable steel flooring for railroad box cars and refrigerator cars. Click the images to view in full size. Youtube has a great archival film that was produced by Great Lakes Steel demonstrating one of their other nailable steel products for building homes in the post-WWII era.

This plant also sits adjacent to an extremely important site in the annals of Michigan history: Council Point, the place of confluence where the north and south branches of the Ecorse River meet before flowing out into the Detroit River (map). It is also the border of the three present-day cities of Wyandotte, Lincoln Park, and Ecorse--which was the site of many Indian burial mounds, before the steel mills were built.

On April 27, 1763, at Council Point, Chief Pontiac called a very important council between three local Anishinaabe tribes: the Wyandot, the Potawatomis, and his Ottawas. The reason was to convince them to ally in a siege of Fort Detroit for the purpose of driving the British out of what had been French territory. Pontiac was acting on request of the King of France, but the general native consensus was always that the French were much better neighbors and trading partners than the British anyway, so the battle began, initiating what is called Pontiac's War. Though the siege was unsuccessful at first due to the lost element of surprise, it spurred native rebellion against the British across the region and eventually resulted in the British being forced to negotiate with the tribes.

In 2013, on the 250th anniversary of Pontiac's Council, local Native American groups gathered to commemorate the event with a weekend powwow.

Ecorse Echoes: The Story of the Oldest Downriver Community, by Kathy Covert
Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, by Willis F. Dunbar & George S. May
Michigan Yesterday & Today, by Ferris E. Lewis, p. 379, 409-410
The American Steel Industry, 1850-1970: A Geographical Interpretation, by Kenneth Warren, p. 228
An Economic History of the American Steel Industry, by Robert P. Rogers
Detroit on Stage: The Players Club, 1910-2005, by Marijean Levering, p. 239
The Technology Century, by Mike Davis, p. 189
Detroit on Stage: The Players Club, 1910-2005, by Marijean Levering
Breaking the Banks in Motor City, by Darwyn H. Lumley, p. 143
Forced Choices: Class, Community, and Worker Ownership, by Charles S. Varano, p. 55-56


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

  2. I have been wondering about this site for a long time, so glad to find so much information and imagery here.

  3. There are a few more small building in the south east corner of the area. I love these photos the boiler chunk is one of my favorites.


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