The Northway Inferno

On Lawton Avenue, in the dried up barrens behind the Edmunds & Jones plant (discussed in an older post), are some ruins just north of the train tracks that I always noticed while driving this stretch of road.

You can barely see them in this aerial image, buried in the trees at extreme right:

According to the Sanborn maps, these ruins belonged to the plant of the Northway Motor & Manufacturing Co. A postcard image from the Detroit Public Library Digital Collections shows the plant in its glory:

From Detroit Public Library Digital Collections
Walking northbound on Lawton from the Edmunds & Jones plant, one can see Lee Plaza looming directly ahead. There is also a couple of Detroit's classic 100-year-old wooden light poles:

I presume this structure is a severed old railroad spur viaduct that once served the Northway Plant, and behind it stands the skeleton of an old watertower:

Northway existed from 1903 to 1924 and made engines for Auburn, Buick, Ford, Oakland, and Oldsmobile cars, as well as GMC trucks. They were bought by General Motors in 1909, becoming the Northway Motor Division. I believe the founder, Ralph E. Northway, had moved to Natick, Massachusetts to continue as the Northway Motors Corp., but didn't get very far before calling it quits. One of its general managers, A.M. Knoblock, was also briefly a minister at East Grand Boulevard Methodist Church.

The Hayes Manufacturing Co. also existed immediately adjacent to Northway on the west side of Lawton Avenue, stamping automobile bodies and related work.

The Northway Motor Division of GM was disbanded in 1926, at which time this plant became the Chevrolet Gear & Axle Division plant. Most of this plant was of the old mill-style brick and timber construction as opposed to the standard Detroit Kahn-style fireproof design.

On March 12th of 1987, the vacant plant was utterly destroyed by a fire that took the lives of three firefighters and injured ten more. The plant was last occupied by Motor City Wiping Cloth Co., who abandoned it in 1983, leaving behind massive bales of rags and cloths, which homeless people naturally used to keep warm and to start small fires with. One of those small fires got out of control, and when firemen entered the structure to fight it, a flashover situation occurred that made the entire plant nearly explode.

It happened so quickly that some of those firefighters involved could not wait for rescue, and were forced to leap from the third floor windows of the plant. Others were buried in rubble when floors collapsed. The severe radiant heat and raining cinders from the Northway blaze caused the nearby Continental Paper warehouse to begin igniting as well. Within 30 minutes, the incident had escalated to five alarms, calling a total of 24 trucks to the scene.

The Northway Plant inferno was the single most deadly fire call that the Detroit Fire Department had faced since 1894, and it has even been outlined in a California Fire Service training manual as a training scenario. Ironically, the Detroit Fire Department Training Academy sits less than a block away.

The homeless man who allegedly started the fire was sentenced to life in prison for arson and negligent homicide, but I don't think any property owners or city officials were ever held responsible for the plant being left open with such hazardous conditions present. Firefighters even reported that some of the fire doors that should have been in place between buildings to prevent such a rapid spread of the fire were in fact absent. It sounds like maybe this "homeless man" became the scapegoat while negligent property owners and city building inspectors walk free.

In the vacant lot where part of the Northway plant used to stand is a pile of several abandoned boats. You can even see them at the right edge of the aerial photo in the top of this post.

There are quite a lot of them actually.

Occasional peeks through the thin carpet of the forest floor reveal a shattered concrete surface that once made up the factory floor of the plant's machine shop.

This boat is filled with water and even has a large bush growing in it:

The large building looming through the trees in the next photo is the Detroit Fire Department Training Academy building I mentioned earlier...

...I imagine the fact that cadets can see the spot where such a tragedy occurred from the windows of their own training building probably has quite an impact, assuming their instructors tell them the story of what happened here.

I moved toward the base of the watertower, to see if it could be climbed:

The wall on the lefthand side is the Pere Marquette Railroad grade:

The Sanborn maps indicate that this was a gravity watertower of 60,000 gallons capacity, and according to the account of the Northway disaster, the plant's sprinkler system "was inoperative during the time of the fire" because the building was abandoned.

Even though that report was written in 1987, it makes note of the fact that due to severe population decline Detroit had a plethora of abandoned buildings, therefore implying a higher than normal potential for fire disasters. The words and the tone setting the scene in the introduction of the report seem to eerily portend the conditions that have led Detroit to become the most overburdened fire department in the nation.

What I didn't realize when I started climbing is that the top eight feet of the ladder were not only leaned back to vertical, but was also completely unsecured from the rest of the structure, floating off in space. Look closer...

Nonetheless I shimmied up the bottom 20 feet to where the ladder started so I could begin my climb.

About halfway up, I could already see a terrific view of the railroad stretching northeast to New Center:

The struts on this tower were unlike the usual "X-latticed" beams I was used to seeing, and had a "+" shaped cross-section that was apparently welded in the center:

Looking back down into the jungle:

Downtown seemed to float upon a meringue of lush, green-forested neighborhoods:

Directly to the south of me the Edmunds & Jones Plant is seen, with Michigan Central Station and the Ambassador Bridge in the distance:

Southwest, toward Dearborn and Delray:

I was surprised at how sturdy the ladder was that I was climbing on...usually they're pretty shaky and broken loose in spots, but this one was solid, despite being very rusty.

Finally I made it to the last stretch, where the ladder goes vertical and seems to lean out other words, the scariest part of the climb:

This was when I discovered that if I had any intentions of going up top to sit down that I would be obliged to do some kind of tricky maneuver involving reaching out across a two-foot gap to pull myself off of the ladder and onto the horizontal beams that once held the tank. And this was also where I realized that the last eight rungs of the ladder above this point were totally unattached to the structure, making for an increase in wobbliness that I could already feel.

Climbing back down from the platform to mount the ladder again would probably be even trickier.

Yeah, maybe next time when I'm feeling more up to it...and not quite so sober, ha.

References:, p. 8-8 to 8-13
The Detroit Almanac: 300 Years of Life in the Motor City, by Peter Gavrilovich, Bill McGraw, p. 508
Sanborn maps for Detroit Volume 2, Sheets 101 & 102, 1921

Helmut's Heroes

October, 2014.

I talked in a previous entry about the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) posts that were built across Michigan in the 1930s. A secondary function that these CCC camps served after their Roosevelt-era usefulness had concluded was to hold Nazi prisoners captured during World War II. Yes, that's correct; Nazi soldiers were held in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan during the 1940s--over 1,000 in fact.

One such place of internment was Camp Raco, in Chippewa County. Despite the uneventful visit I had to Camp Lunden, I was interested in seeing Camp Raco because it seemed that there were actually some ruins left behind to investigate.

Camp Raco is located along a very monotonous stretch of highway through National Forest lands, and once we pulled off the road we immediately found ourselves amongst its former foundations, so we parked and got out to investigate on foot.

A documentary film was actually produced by Northern Michigan University's television station about the Michigan Nazi prisoner of war (POW) camps, entitled The Enemy in Our Midst. An article from WNMUTV gives more information on the camps from the film.

Camp Raco was the first CCC post established in the Upper Peninsula, according to a writeup on, and it was known originally as the "Lone Pine Camp," later officially designated as "Camp Raco F-5." It was home to CCC Company 667, which was organized in April of 1933 with 200 men from Detroit and Hamtramck.

Their work in this region included planting trees, building truck trails, erecting new telephone lines, improving erosion control for local streams, building campgrounds, stocking lakes with fish, and constructing fire breaks to reduce the potential for catastrophic forest fires.

By 1942 Camp Raco was the only operating camp left in the district, and its fire protection area covered 151,140 acres. I imagine they also built the fire watchtowers where Forest Service rangers would keep an eye out for fires, and dispatch crews to battle any blazes.

This flat, raised area had actually been the main road through the center of camp we realized, now overgrown in grasses, moss, and lichen:

A closer look reveled it to be paved at least partially with bricks and rocks pressed into asphalt:

There are some good historic photos of the camp online at, and a good overview photo of the camp at According to the WNMUTV article, the CCC camps generally included a library, bath house, kitchen, mess hall, dispensary, infirmary, a recreation area, and barracks. Features such as guard towers and barbed-wire fences were added later when they were converted to hold ex-Nazis.

It was probably a fairly seamless transition from CCC camp to POW camp in 1942; I imagine all of the men who had been stationed here with the CCC were enlisted to go fight Hitler, and it wasn't long before they started sending back captured Nazis to fill their empty bunks. According to WNMUTV, Camp Raco held 267 POWs, and was staffed by three officers and 43 enlistedmen.

The guards manning the watchtowers were armed with carbines and .38 caliber revolvers, and for every 30 prisoners on a work detail there was at least one guard to monitor them while they worked in the woods outside the camp perimeter.

So it seems like security was relatively light, but the article mentions that "escapes from the prison camps were infrequent," given the fact that the prospective escapee would face a language barrier, and patriotic locals would undoubtedly shoot them on sight--assuming they somehow survived the Upper Peninsula's famous cold, snow, and endless mosquito-infested swampy barrens that an escapee would have to trek through in order to get anywhere.

The POWs were not just held captive in cells, they were used to alleviate the shortage of manpower on the home front caused by the draft. Essentially, they filled the role that the CCC had performed before the war. The prisoners were paid 80 cents per day by the government for logging work for the war effort, which went to make wooden crates for shipping things like ammunition, food, clothing, and spare parts for tanks and planes, according to the WNMUTV article.

Several local companies engaged in war work also benefited from the POW labor, and they in turn reimbursed the government for the work at the prevailing wage scale. The prisoners of Camp Raco did such work for the Newberry Lumber & Chemical Co., which was a producer of lumber, pig iron, methanol, acetic acid, wood oil, and other byproducts related to wood.

The Red Cross also inspected the camps to ensure that they were humane, and morale was fairly good amongst the prisoners, which was even further assurance against escapes. They were apparently allowed time to make handicrafts, sketch, or play musical instruments--not much different at all from CCC life. Many of the prisoners could speak English, and several were friendly with their captors.

I imagine that most of them were more relieved to be out of the fighting and saw this as a peaceful vacation away from the battlefield and Nazi fervor...many of the Germans had been forced into army service against their will, and surrendered to the Allies as soon as they could. I envision a place like Camp Raco to have been like a reverse version of Hogan's Heroes.

A rare few POWs did try escaping the camps, but all of them either returned on their own or were easily recaptured. On the occasion that Nazi SS men were taken into these camps, they were probably kept under closer guard than their regular counterparts.

There were four other former CCC camps in the Upper Peninsula that held Nazi POWs--Camp Evelyn and Camp AuTrain in Alger County, Camp Pori and Camp Sidnaw in Houghton County. I tried to find Camp Pori on my trips to Silver Mountain, but never had any luck. Camp Germfask in Schoolcraft County also housed about 80 Conscientious Objectors (or "Conchies" fer short, eh). They were Americans who opted not to fight during the war on religious or moral grounds. Sadly, they were generally labeled as cowards (whether it was true or not), and used for grunt labor much the same way that the POWs were.

I think this may have been the site of an old aerial antenna:

Here is what looks to have been an anchor for a guy wire:

Finally we spotted what looked to be an old cobblestone chimney:

It was definitely CCC-era construction, and still in remarkably good shape.

It was the only one we found intact, so I wonder what happened to the others, and why this one was left alone.

This side would have faced inward to the wall of whatever wooden building used to be here:

What's left of the flue:

Old CCC camps weren't the only places in Michigan where POWs were held--Fort Wayne in Detroit held many Italians captured in the North African theater. Pretty much any federal facility that could be converted into a prison or work camp was used to take POWs.

WNMUTV says that at least 375,000 POWs were held at more than 500 camps across the U.S. from 1942-1946. Michigan had a total of about 20 camps, and held around 6,000 POWs.

I'm not exactly sure what these ruins belonged to, but they looked fairly substantial:

It almost seems as if these mortared stones were pieces of a building foundation that were dug up from the ground during demolition.

Here were the front steps to one of the buildings, now carpeted in moss and fallen pine needles:

The base to another chimney? A pit-toilet vault?

Along the camp road again, we started to see more sets of concrete steps sitting in front of open areas where old buildings would have once sat...


You can see a walkway still leading up to this set of steps:

The road again:

Another substantial foundation:

More stairs:

A trace of galvanized plumbing left behind:

Even delving back into the verge of the woods revealed the occasional foundation, slowly being swallowed by nature:

And here was an old dump:

It doesn't look like any of this rubbish quite dates to the WWII-era however.