Don't Demolish Paradise

Orchestra Hall in Detroit recently celebrated its 100th birthday, and local architectural history guru Benjamin Gravel posted several historic photos of it from the Library of Congress that were taken when the hall was abandoned. I had seen the photos before, but it gave me the idea to reuse them here to do a sort of simulated explore of the building as if we could step back in time to 1970 when it was abandoned. This year, 2019, also signifies the 30th anniversary of the reopening of Orchestra Hall after its long dereliction.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
A documentary on Detroit Public Television is even being made about Orchestra Hall, and there is also a new book out by Mark Stryker (which I received through my fundraiser donation to our local classical station, WRCJ).

I grew up listening to classical music on the old WQRS in the backseat of my dad's car (when he wasn't rocking out to WLLZ). I remember Orchestra Hall's triumphant reopening in 1989, since at that time I was just starting orchestra class in 5th grade. I played the viola (slightly bigger than a violin), and I was infatuated back then with Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart. I stayed in orchestra class all the way through high school, where our group competed regularly, even out of state. Playing music was one of the very few things about school that I enjoyed, and I remember going to see the Detroit Symphony Orchestra (DSO) in this building on class field trips. As an even younger child I remember seeing the DSO perform at Ford Auditorium while Orchestra Hall still lay abandoned.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
Orchestra Hall was built in 1919, and has served for decades as home to the fourth-oldest symphony orchestra in North America. It also represents one of the most important African-American musical venues in Detroit history, since from 1941 to 1951 it was known as the legendary "Paradise Theater," hosting many famous jazz acts. It was our Apollo.

The Detroit Symphony Orchestra itself was first founded in 1887, and originally played in the old opera house that once stood on Campus Martius.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross

"The dark and clammy interior of Orchestra Hall looks like a set for the last, eerie act of a play about the downfall of Detroit." The article from 1970 entitled "Bach Violin Music Tries to Reawaken Old Orchestra Hall" goes on to describe the pigeons, burned seats, and fallen plaster made damp by the rain coming through the roof. Amidst all this decay the sound of a violin pierced through the darkness, as the DSO's assistant concertmaster played alone on the crumbling stage.

Paul Ganson, DSO bassoonist, stood next to a fallen chandelier talking to the Free Press reporter about plans to revive the old hall, and its famous acoustics. Even with much of the ceiling damaged, that "rare and mysterious" acoustic quality was apparently still alive in there somewhere, as the sound of Bach echoing through the ruins seemed to reveal.

Image by Joe Lippincott, via Detroit Free Press
The feeble strains being played were a far cry from the heydays when the full orchestra was in here filling the huge room with their warm sound, but Ganson was dedicated to bringing that back. Vagrants and vandals now inhabited the darkened hall, allegedly "crawling in through the sewers." There was also a film crew in here shooting a short movie to hopefully help raise money for the effort to buy and restore the building. They needed at least a million dollars, and hadn't yet raised anything.

[I want to pause here for a moment to admit that in 2006 when I first read this old article, I was so inspired by the thought of a rogue musician sneaking into the old hall to play alone on the darkened stage that I myself snuck into the old Michigan Central train station with my viola to play a few licks at night in the crazy acoustics of the domed waiting room.]

Here is Paul Ganson playing his bassoon on the roof during reconstruction six years later; he is widely credited as the man who started the "Save Orchestra Hall" campaign:

Image from archives of Paul Ganson, c.1976
Local historian and activist Jamon Jordan reminds us that there’s more to the story, however; as with so many of Detroit's historic landmarks, it has both a "white history" and a "black history." Around the same time Save Orchestra Hall got started, a similar group, "Save Paradise Theater," was founded in Detroit's black community to organize benefit concerts at the hall to fundraise for its restoration. Without the partnership of these two groups, the project might never have succeeded, and Orchestra Hall could have been demolished.

Jordan outlines the history of Orchestra Hall during its Paradise Theater days, noting that it had only been open sporadically between 1940-1941 as the Town Theater (a burlesque), before being seized for back taxes. The city planned to demolish the building and redevelop the site, but wealthy black businessmen Andrew "Jap" Sneed, Everett Watson, John Roxborough, and Irving Roane approached the city to buy it. However, black people (even wealthy ones) were not allowed to buy property on Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main throughfare, particularly on the west side of the street.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
Jordan says that two Jewish businessmen, brothers Ben and Lou Cohen, bought the building and agreed to a long-term lease with the African-American businessmen mentioned above. They turned it into the Paradise Theater. Since the Graystone Ballroom, Detroit's preeminent—yet segregated—jazz venue was only open to blacks on Mondays, I imagine that the opening of the Paradise just a few blocks south of there was a highly celebrated move in the black community.

Named after Paradise Valley, Detroit's historic black business and entertainment district, it hosted great musicians and performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Dizzie Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Nat King Cole, Sammy Davis Jr., Aretha Franklin, and Ella Fitzgerald. My colleague Benjamin Gravel asserted that the Paradise was Lena Horne's favorite venue to perform at, since it was the only one where she did not need to use a microphone due to its superior acoustics. Historian Mark Stryker (and others) boast that Orchestra Hall is on par with the greatest concert halls in the world known for their acoustics: Vienna's Musikverein, the Conzertgebouw in Amsterdam, and Boston's Symphony Hall.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross

I imagine there are very few stages in the world that can claim to have had musical idols the likes of both Sergei Rachmaninoff and Ella Fitzgerald stand upon them; this one can. By the way, the woman handling the marquis in this next photo was the niece of famous Detroit boxer Joe Louis:

Image via
As the big band era was drawing to an end the Paradise Theater waned, closing its doors in 1951. Ironically the 1950s-1960s saw Detroit enter its heyday as an influential center of the jazz genre, but the trend was turning back to smaller jazz ensembles and smaller, more intimate lounges. The Paradise was a little too big, and stage shows seemed old fashioned; Detroit was into bebop now. According to Jordan African-Americans were freer to own some properties on Woodward by that time, and soon after the Paradise Theater closed the building was bought again by Rev. James Lofton and the Church of Our Prayer. The choir, led by Charles Craig, recorded historic gospel classics there. Craig was later known for partnering with Rev. James Cleveland, who made his mark in Detroit as the "King of Gospel."

The building remained closed through the 1960s, while DSO musicians recorded with the Funk Brothers on some of Motown's greatest hits. In 1970, Gino's Restaurant Company bought the building and began to demolish it to put in a cafeteria, but that was when the Save Orchestra Hall and Save Paradise Theater groups were formed and began fighting to save it. Today, Orchestra Hall hosts the "Paradise Jazz Series" in honor of the history of its time as the Paradise Theater, according to Jamon Jordan. Who knows whatever happened to that fabulous "PARADISE" neon marquis seen above; I'm sure it's been recycled into Toyotas by now.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
Let's rewind to the very beginning, again. A historical timeline of the DSO at says that the orchestra's early days in the 1880s were shaky, marked by several turnovers in conductorship. The orchestra was disbanded in 1910. It was resurrected in 1914 however by ten young local society women who ante'd up $100 each, and pledged to recruit 100 more subscribers. Their movement organized quickly, and Weston Gales, a young church organist from Boston, was hired as music director.

Gales left in 1917 to be succeeded by a famous Russian pianist who would lead the DSO into its golden era: the tall, wild-haired Ossip Gabrilowitsch. He was coming fresh off of a tour with the Boston Symphony, and was good friends with famous composers Gustav Mahler and Sergei Rachmaninoff, not to mention he was Mark Twain's son-in-law. Gabrilowitsch "brought instant credibility to the DSO."

Detroit author Richard Bak writes that "at least part of" Ossip's fame derived directly from this marriage to Mark Twain's daughter, Clara Clemens. He was studying piano in Vienna when the two met. They moved to Detroit in 1918, taking up residence at 611 West Boston Street. Bak goes on to say that Clara would "occasionally sing and act in local theater groups" but that her professional performing days were over. I imagine that Ossip and Clara were probably among the most talked-about couples in Detroit's high society.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
As a condition of his employment here, Ossip Gabrilowitsch insisted the DSO needed a proper home of its own—and it had to be ready in time for the upcoming fall season. So in 1919 he personally oversaw the building of Orchestra Hall as a masterpiece of acoustical design, in partnership with famous Detroit theater architect C. Howard Crane (even if its decor was much more conservative than Crane's more famous theaters like the Fox and United Artists). In fact, since the hall had to be built in a mere six months, to save time Crane reused a lot of of design elements he had employed in the Madison Theater downtown.

Under Gabrilowitsch's baton, the DSO rose in the 1920s to become one of the most prominent orchestras in North America, performing with guest artists such as Enrico Caruso, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Strauss, Marian Anderson, Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, Isadora Duncan, Anna Pavlova, Jascha Heifetz, Pablo Casals, etc. In 1922, Ossip Gabrilowitsch led the orchestra and guest pianist Artur Schnabel in the world's first radio broadcast of a symphonic concert, on WWJ-AM. The DSO performed at Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1928 and made their first recording there. There was even a pipe organ installed at Orchestra Hall in 1924, dedicated by the great Marcel Dupré.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
The Great Depression put the brakes on the DSO's success however, creating financial trouble which was further exacerbated when their fearless leader Ossip Gabrilowitsch died in 1936. The DSO disbanded twice during this period, and was forced to leave Orchestra Hall in 1939 due to foreclosure, moving around to three other venues in the city. Sadly, the hall's pipe organ was removed during this time, and installed at the Calvary Presbyterian Church on Grand River.

The DSO distinguished themselves in 1934 however, becoming the nation's first official radio broadcast orchestra, performing for millions of Americans over the airwaves on the Ford Symphony Hour national radio show. I imagine this is sort of like how the Detroit Lions managed to become the official nationally broadcast football team every year on Thanksgiving, which interestingly enough also happened in 1934.

With the onset of World War II and the draft, the DSO disbanded again in 1942 (for the fourth time, if you're counting). Orchestra patron Henry Reichhold resurrected the DSO in 1944 and installed Karl Krueger as music director. But while the war was raging, Orchestra Hall had been sitting vacant, and reopened in 1941 as the Paradise Theater. So the DSO's new home became the Music Hall, on Madison Street. The DSO soon moved again, to the Masonic Temple, where they had to share facilities with other programs. Internal strife caused a fifth disbanding of the orchestra, in 1949.

Image by Joe Lippincott, via Detroit Free Press

The 1950s marked a vital new era for the DSO. In 1951, John B. Ford (of the family that established Michigan Alkali Co., not Ford Motor Co.), resurrected the orchestra yet again under the directorship of the widely popular French conductor Paul Paray, who "brought a French touch to his conducting style and ushered the DSO into a golden age of recording." According to Paray's recordings with the DSO from the 1950s to 1960s are considered to this day some of classical music's finest, and the DSO was one of America's most recorded orchestras. Since the Paradise Theater had closed in 1951 the recordings were made here in Orchestra Hall, since the building was vacant again.

But because it was in poor shape, the DSO instead performed during the Paray years at the Masonic Temple, until 1956 when they moved into their new riverfront home, Ford Auditorium (named after Henry and Edsel Ford, whose family donated $1 million to its construction). Despite its crappy acoustics and austere modern architecture, Ford Auditorium remained their official home for 33 years (again, like the Detroit Lions, being owned by the family of Henry Ford is not really a recipe for success).

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
Antal Doráti took over the baton in 1977, and through 1984 the DSO made award-winning recordings at the heavily decayed United Artists Theater, because its acoustics were far better than those of Ford Auditorium, and because Orchestra Hall was in the midst of restoration. Doráti elevated the DSO to world-class status with a European tour, and with the first Grand Prix du Disque awarded to a Compact Disc, for their spectacular recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

During the restoration years there were many recordings and benefit concerts held there by the DSO, the Classical Roots Series, and the Chamber Music Society of Detroit. The atmosphere in those days was a little "underground" (I imagine sort of like seeing a heavy metal show at Harpo's), since the hall was still in rough condition. By 1989 the DSO was finally able to return home to Orchestra Hall after being gone for 50 years. It cost $7 million and took 19 years, but the restoration was worth it. Interestingly, the move back was considered a little risky, since the DSO's mainly suburban audience saw Woodward as "a scary neighborhood" back then, and the orchestra itself was fighting off bankruptcy. When you think about it, of all the Detroit institutions that could or would have fled to the suburbs during city's declining years, the DSO seems like a natural candidate—but they stayed.

The 1990s were defined by the appointment of Neeme Järvi as music director, which signified another new era of reinvigorated performance and commitment to the city. In 1997 the DSO built a speculative office building across the street called Orchestra Place, which increased their revenue. The Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center was built onto Orchestra Hall in 2003, an expansion that included new performance and educational space, as well as administrative offices.

Leonard Slatkin was appointed maestro in 2008 to much acclaim, although Detroit was spiraling into recession. I still have a 2010-2011 concert calendar, which lists all of the performances that never occurred due to the bitter strike that year. The musicians walked out of contract talks in response to management demands for a 33% wage cut, and other regressive changes. But under Slatkin the DSO managed to resolve the strike, lower ticket prices, and introduce new innovative programming designed to bring more young people into contact with classical concerts. According to the "Live From Orchestra Hall" series offers free, live webcasts to fans worldwide as the first (and only) initiative of its type among major orchestras, making it "a point of inspiration for the future of arts accessibility." Better yet, the hall's old pipe organ that had been moved to Calvary Presbyterian Church (and later ended up in Traverse City) was bought back by the DSO in 2011, but it remains in storage, according to Mark Stryker.

Image from Historic American Building Survey, by Allen Stross
Today Orchestra Hall still represents one of the earliest—and almost forgotten—historic preservation victories in Detroit, concurrent with the very dawn of efforts to save Detroit's old buildings, which is said to have begun with Beulah Groehn and the restoration of West Canfield Street. Her fight to establish the West Canfield Historic District was won in 1970, the same year efforts to save Orchestra Hall began. Undoubtedly the Save Orchestra Hall campaign was inspired by Groehn's success, which goes to show just how powerful one project can be. Orchestra Hall was the second Detroit site to be listed in the National Register of Historic Places, right behind West Canfield Street.

This is why I sneer when I hear some developer (like the Ilitches) telling us that a building is "too far gone" and "can't be saved." If a bunch of average people with day jobs can manage to accomplish restoring a massive icon like Orchestra Hall, then I'll be damned if I believe a billionaire telling me he can't, or won't. He just wants to pave paradise and put up a parking lot...but no one visits a city to look at parking lots. Detroit needs real mass transit, so that we don't need parking lots...but that's a whole 'nother story.

Destiny: 100 Years of Music, Magic, and Community at Orchestra Hall in Detroit, by Mark Stryker
"Bach Violin Music Tries to Reawaken Old Orchestra Hall," Detroit Free Press, October 23, 1970, p. 10-D
Boneyards: Detroit Under Ground, by Richard Bak, p. 49

Jeepers Creepers

Photos from May 2015, and January 2016.

People often marvel at how much I know about Michigan's geography, or history, or whatever. In all honesty, I write this stuff down on this website because I forget half the places I've been, and half the things I learn about them. For instance these photos sat on my computer for three years before I started writing this post, and by then I wasn't even sure what some of the photos were of, or where exactly they were taken—but apparently I've been here, because they seem to have been taken with my camera. Luckily I am good at reverse-sleuthing, so now I can tell you all about these places and sound like I know what the hell I'm talking about.

According to David M. Brown's Michigan County Atlas, Branch County in southern Michigan was set off in 1829 and organized 1833. It was named for U.S. Senator John Branch Jr., one of President Jackson's cabinet men. The Potawatomi tribe ceded the region to the U.S. in 1821, but they continued to roam the area. The Chicago Road was cut through here along the Great Sauk Trail in 1825 and settlement began, but at the time the whites were still far outnumbered by the Indians, "who were not at all pleased with their circumstances," and whites felt intimidated.

Those pesky natives were finally removed to Kansas in 1840 and at last white people felt safe enough to do white people stuff, like open a cheesecake boutique or go hang-gliding. With improvements to the Chicago Road, the Erie Canal, and the railroad cutting into the area, white settlement exploded in southern Michigan during the 1850s.

The city of Coldwater, the county seat, was settled in 1829 along the Chicago Road with hotels, taverns, sawmills, blacksmiths, and a chair factory. Brown notes that the city was named for the river the Potawatomi called "Chuck-sey-ya-bish," which means "cold spring water."

Branch County was also in the heart of Underground Railroad country, and locals here were well informed during that time. During the Civil War the Coldwater Cadets were amongst the First Michigan Volunteers that answered Lincoln's call, and they distinguished themselves in battle.

I have not learned what this old structure or its chimney had once been.

Oh look, here comes the Above-ground Railroad:

Many Michiganders may associate Coldwater with the large prison, or the old Coldwater State Home, which dates back to the 1870s. The campus includes a few vacant buildings, although I wasn't feeling daring enough to investigate closely:

Outside of town I passed this old District No. 10 schoolhouse. Another vacant schoolhouse in the Coldwater area, the District No. 3 school, has quite an infamous history, and was even featured on TV.

On Easter Sunday, April 15, 1990 Dennis DePue killed his wife and hid her body near the District No. 3 school. The case aired on the March 20, 1991 episode of the TV show Unsolved Mysteries, and it is claimed that the segment inspired the opening scene in the 2001 movie Jeepers Creepers. Here are some YouTube links about it, from the show: Part 1Part 2Part 3

A couple more miles outside of Coldwater, along the Coldwater River, lie the ruins of the Black Hawk Mill, named after a chief of the Sauk tribe who lived in the 1820s:

The mill was once part of the village of Branch, originally the county seat of Branch County from 1830 to 1841, and these ruins now represent the village's only surviving remnants. According to author Larry Wakefield, by the time Michigan began entering statehood in 1835 the village of Branch had several stores, a distillery, a postmaster, and a school / church / courthouse building. It sounds like the mill may have predated the town.

By 1837 Branch had a large hotel, a newspaper, and several hundred residents. The village was a full mile south of the Chicago Road (US-12) however, and had less-motivated politicians than the nearby town of Coldwater, which was right on the Chicago Road. As a result Coldwater eventually eclipsed Branch to become the new seat of county government.

In the 1830s there was an offer by local entrepreneurs to establish a more modern gristmill at this location. They offered Elisha Warren $75 for a half interest in the Black Hawk property, but Warren rejected the offer. According to Wakefield, that was the death blow for the village of Branch.

Even though the Black Hawk site was better for mill power, the investors built their new mill at Coldwater, and the decline of Branch began. It was finally finished when in the 1840s the Michigan Southern Railroad bypassed Branch in favor of Coldwater, which would be incorporated as a city by 1861. The Branch post office closed in 1864.

As I was driving through portions of the county I couldn't help but notice that there were a lot of these distinctive concrete markers, perhaps some sort of early benchmarks that denoted property corners? Some seemed to form gateways, like so:

Here was another schoolhouse. Sure are a lot of attractive brick ones around here:

Today livestock, corn and wheat are the primary economic factors in the county, as they are across much of southern Michigan. The sight of century-old dilapidated barns is a ubiquitous one:

My next stop was another little-known Michigan town, Union City, along M-60 on the northern edge of Branch County. I did not expect to find this, so I pulled over:

The sign reads,
Union City Iron Furnace. On March 17, 1847, the Union City Iron Co. was incorporated with leading citizens of the town as stockholders. The company was formed to produce iron from the bog and kidney iron ore deposits in Union and neighboring townships. A furnace was built, and apparently the first iron made from Michigan ores. Earlier Michigan iron furnaces used imported pig iron. The percentage of iron in southern Michigan's ores was too small, however, to make their use profitable. Thus, in a few years Union City's pioneering furnace ceased making pig iron and turned to the production of plows.

According to David M. Brown, Union City was settled in 1833 when Justus Goodwin built a mill here. It was most likely named for the "union" of the Coldwater and St. Joseph Rivers nearby. It was a station on the Underground Railroad in the mid-1800s. Portland Cement Co. opened in 1896, one of the first cement plants in Michigan.

Also in Union City, I found the ruins of what was apparently another mill in Riverview Park on St. Joseph Street, near Broadway:

I couldn't really dig up much online or in my books about what may have been here, although I could probably assume this to be the last vestiges of the aforementioned mill Justus Goodwin founded in 1833...? In which case, that would make this my first Underground Railroad site I've officially featured on this website, but you'd think there would be a historic marker about something like that.

You can see it is right on the St. Joseph River:

I did not get the chance to fully satisfy my curiosity regarding Branch County, as there were still some areas I wanted to explore, but I have not yet been able to get back out that way.

Michigan County Atlas, 2nd Ed., by David M. Brown, p. 22-23
Ghost Towns of Michigan Vol. 3, by Larry Wakefield, p. 32, 68

How Detroit and the Yoopee Used to be Connected (Part 2)

Photos date from 2013.

You may think that Detroit and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan could not be more separate or more different from each other, but this wasn't always so. You may remember my older post "How Detroit and the Yoopee Used to be Connected," about the Wolverine Tube Co. in Detroit. This is about another old industrial site in Detroit that was inextricably linked to the Upper Peninsula via the copper trade. Ironically enough, both of these sites were also linked to the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb.

I originally wrote this post right after the property was in the news, when part of the riverbank collapsed into the Detroit River, potentially releasing radioactive contaminants such as uranium and thorium into the world's largest freshwater supply. I have added more information now that more is known about the collapse.

This contaminated wasteland next to Fort Wayne at 5851 West Jefferson Avenue was commonly known as the Revere Copper & Brass Works, but the site actually has a very long history, stretching almost as far back as the fort itself. This was where the Detroit & Lake Superior Copper Works, the first copper smelter in the U.S. outside of the original 13 Colonies was built, in 1850, with considerable military significance. It was kept in use until the 1980s, and even took part in developing components for the first atomic bomb. It was demolished in 1984. 

Here is the Revere Works, seen behind Fort Wayne:

Image via Historic Fort Wayne Coalition
When I was involved at Fort Wayne during the early-2010s, I made a few hikes next-door to check out the Revere property. I also used to hang out there at night by the river with some friends and goof off when we had nothing else to do. Sometimes we would yell to the sailors aboard the freighters coming in to the fuel dock next door.

At the time I didn't know much about the land, only that it was once the site of a copper & brass works. I noticed this interesting deteriorated brick street, paved in a herringbone pattern, hearkening back to the gilded industrial age of the 1800s:

It also had a railroad spur running along it. One thing I knew about Detroit was that any property along the riverfront was steeped in decades upon decades of history.

You may also be familiar with this piece of property if you attended the ill-fated Oakapaloosa music festival at Historic Fort Wayne in 2013. The old Revere property was used as the parking area for that event. It was owned by the Detroit Water & Sewerage Dept. (DWSD) back then, as a potential site for construction of a sewage control facility. An old sewer outlet runs under the property and lets out at the river where the old ship docks used to be. In recent years the property was completely bulldozed flat, and has been used by Detroit Bulk Storage Inc. for storing large piles of aggregates and millings. 

As it turns out Detroit Bulk Storage have been doing all this without permits, according to local activist Meeko Williams. This was revealed during the community response meeting after the incident, as well as the fact that there were some conflicts of interest during the city's sale process, since Detroit Bulk Storage is tied to Mayor Mike Duggan. The conditions of the land sale were supposed to have mandated site cleanup and seawall repairs, but none of this ever happened, and there was a scheme to place the cost onto DWSD rate payers.

I learned this information through an interview between Meeko Williams and Bankole Thompson on 910AM, and I confirmed it personally by messaging Mr. Williams. However, this aspect of the story, as well as the matter of liability for the seawall collapse have not been covered in the media, presumably because no one in mainstream Detroit media has the guts to press Duggan on his many scandals, or hold him to the same standards they held Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick to. It is my hunch that the collapse occurred due to Detroit Bulk Storage piling too much weight near an old seawall—more weight than would've been allowed for on the permit that they should have applied for—and that the collapse could be the direct result of that company's negligence. Canadian Parliament member Brian Masse released a statement saying the same thing: the collapse was "most likely due to the weight of the aggregate stored by Detroit Bulk Storage on site."

[As of January 15, 2020, much of this info has been corroborated by the Windsor Star.]

Here is the site in winter, seen from the roof of the Visitor Center at Historic Fort Wayne, with the Mistersky Powerplant in the distance. The light dusting of snow makes it possible to discern the trace of the old streets that used to go through here:

The c.1885 E. Robinson Atlas shows the Detroit & Lake Superior Copper Works at center, Fort Wayne is at left:

Image from E. Robinson Atlas of the City of Detroit and Suburbs, c.1885
Click for full size
On the map "Woodbridge, or River Road" is Jefferson Avenue, "John C." is Morrell Street, and "Lovers Lane" is Junction Avenue. Lover's Lane, which is only seen on really old maps of Detroit and Springwells. Today Lover's Lane is called Junction Avenue, but it was one of the first roads to exist in what is now Southwest Detroit; I believe it predated Fort Wayne, and goes back to the ribbon farm days of the French. Notice also "John Edgar St." and "Traffic Street," which no longer exist.

I made another hike around the property in the winter, when I suspected a coyote to be using it as his hunting ground. There was a coyote sighting at the fort, and I went to see if I could find some tracks.

Revere was one of those parts of Detroit where you weren't sure whether you were in the city or up north. Only the presence of tall buildings made the difference...

And, of course, chopped components of stolen vehicles.

Definitely big enough to be a coyote:

Here was the old concrete wall that separated Revere from Fort Wayne:

This historic image from the early 20th century shows just how close the Revere Works was to Fort Wayne...the sawtooth roof served as an ominous industrial backdrop to Detroit's once-bucolic military installation:

Image from Detroit Historical Museum
Here is an image of the front of the old Revere Works along Jefferson Avenue, taken in May of 1974:

Image from Detroit Historical Society
It is labelled "Museum Entrance, Cavalry Street." This street still exists (albeit very overgrown) along along the eastern fence-line of Fort Wayne, but it was called "Revere Street" on old military maps of the fort. The army's street signs that marked it are now gone.

Image from Detroit Historical Society
Heading toward the riverfront, I was approaching the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers boatyard, which is housed in an out-of-the-way corner of Fort Wayne.

This afforded me a view of this "secret government compound" that most people will never see...

Ironically the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are the federal agency that regulates permitting for things like seawalls, like the one that just collapsed a few feet away, but everyone was home for the Thanksgiving holiday when it occurred. Luckily some Canadians spotted the trouble and reported it.

One of the boat slips, and hoists. I believe the small building is the welding shop:

The Demolen is the Army Corp's main tugboat. A dredge barge sits nearby:

Looking towards downtown on the riverfront, this was the old Revere docks:

Looking downriver as ice sheets make their way to Lake Erie:

You can glimpse the corner of the Boblo Terminal, which I wrote about in an older post:

Rewinding back to the 19th century, this next image comes from Silas Farmer's c.1884 History of Detroit and Michigan. The caption reads, "Detroit and Lake Superior Copper Company's Works, Springwells, near Fort Wayne, Built 1850." This was what the complex on this site originally looked like:
Image from Silas Farmer, via
Massive deposits of copper ore were discovered in northern Michigan in the early 1840s, sparking a copper fever that presaged the California Gold Rush a few years later. I have written extensively in other posts on the importance of early copper mining in Michigan, and our place in the industrial development of America.

Before Michigan's Copper Country was really established beyond being a mere foothold in the wilderness of the Keweenaw Peninsula (about 12 hours driving north from Detroit), any and all copper mined up there had to be shipped elsewhere for smelting. 

According to historian Joseph Papineau, the only copper smelting works in North America back then were at Boston. So it had to be hauled by wagon from the mines to the nearest lake port and put aboard a ship sailing across Lake Superior to Sault Ste. Marie. And because the Soo Locks weren't built until 1855, all the goods had to be unloaded and portaged to Lake Huron. There the copper was put on another ship all the way down the lakes past Detroit, and finally Buffalo, where it was transferred again to a barge and pulled over the Erie Canal, before going on to the Hudson River to New York City, where it was sold for 22 to 24 cents per pound.

It was then loaded onto another ship and sent to Boston, where it would be smelted at either the Roxbury or the Revere Smelting Works. As one can imagine, few Michigan mining companies were able to turn a profit in the face of these expensive logistics. After being rendered into ingots at Boston the copper was usually sold again (at 29 cents a pound), often to the U.S. Navy, which was buying up most of the market’s copper for sheathing the hulls of their wooden ships. Prior to the discovery of Michigan copper, almost all of America's copper had to be imported from the Cornwall region of Great Britain, our rival.

During the 1840s there was still a lot of military tension with Britain, since the contentious Patriot War had recently taken place in British Ontario and along the Detroit River; Fort Wayne was being built in southwest Detroit in direct response to this tension. Reducing American dependence on imported British copper by finding a cheaper Michigan alternative was ideal, and would have also made building a smelter here in Detroit very attractive.

Naturally, as time went on and the Michigan copper rush proved to be much more than just a flash in the pan, investors saw a chance to capitalize and reduce their cost by building a smelter in Detroit, under the name Waterbury & Detroit Copper Company in 1850. The fact that copper was such an important military commodity made it valuable to national security, and that may be why the Detroit smelter was built right next to Fort Wayne. The act of building a massive fort, and a copper smelter right next to it may have also been to send a signal to British Canada that the U.S. was asserting its economic independence, and seriously beefing up its military strength in the Great Lakes.

Historian Larry Lankton writes that the Waterbury & Detroit Copper Co. became the Detroit and Lake Superior Copper Co. in 1867 when it merged with the Portage Lake Copper Co., who had built a new copper smelting works right in the heart of Michigan's copper mining region in 1860. What happened a year later? The Civil War.

(For a much more in-depth analysis of the roles that the Keweenaw region of the Upper Peninsula played when Michigan dominated the world's copper mining industry, see my older posts from Houghton CountyKeweenaw County, and Ontonagon County.)

These next two images from the Burton Historical Collection are actually two halves of a panoramic view of the Detroit & Lake Superior works in the late 1800s:

Image via Burton Historical Collection
The first photo shows the two main smelter buildings in the background, and the foreground shows the planks of the river docks lined with barrels and coal piles near a wooden tramway trestle. The slabs stacked at center may be refined copper ingots, ready for shipment?

The second photo, below, shows the blacksmith house, and an engine house (possibly for a compressor), with more barrels and a pile of rubble that may be unrefined copper ore. Horse manure can be seen at lower right. The river would be located behind the photographer.

Image via Burton Historical Collection
As I recall the water levels in the Great Lakes were super low back when I took these photos, and these stubs of old mooring piles were sticking above the water...I wonder if they dated back to the Detroit & Lake Superior days?

The 1884 Sanborn map shows the Detroit & Lake Superior Works equipped with a total of seven reverberatory furnaces housed in two smelters, each furnace with 60' brick chimneys...this was definitely a substantial outfit:

Image via Library of Congress
The c.1897 Sanborn map still names the complex "Detroit and Lake Superior Copper Co." with original buildings still standing:

Image via Library of Congress
However, the fine print says, "Not in operation; all buildings vacant."

Sometime around the turn of the century these original brick buildings from 1850 were torn down and replaced with modern steel structures and the distinct "sawtooth" roof seen in the previous photos. The c.1910 and 1923 Sanborn maps show these original buildings to be demolished, and replaced with modern steel buildings. They label it the "Michigan Copper & Brass Co. Rolling Mills" (not to be confused with the nearby Detroit Copper & Brass Rolling Mills at McKinstry & Jefferson).

Congressional hearings on antitrust laws show that in December 1928, Michigan Copper & Brass Co. was merged with five other American companies to form the General Brass Corp., which subsequently became the second largest copper and brass producer in the U.S. It was renamed Revere Copper and Brass Inc. in November 1929.

The Revere Copper name goes back to 1800 when Paul Revere (patriot of the Revolutionary War) became the first American to successfully roll copper into sheets for use as sheathing on Old Ironsides and other wooden naval vessels, according to It was his descendants’ company that smelted the first Michigan copper shipped to Boston in the 1840s. In 1929 it appeared that things had come full circle, and Detroit's oldest copper smelter was again in east coast investors' hands.

During World War II, the Detroit Revere Works made several copper-alloy products, including cartridge casings and cups. Declassified Department of Energy reports published by the Wall Street Journal reveal that this plant was also active in the Manhattan Project to develop components for the first atomic bomb, performing extrusions of unusual metals to make tuballoy rods, myrnalloy rods and beryllium shapes, from 1943 into the 1950s.

They also extruded uranium, and "Documentation also suggests that thorium metal (presumably Th-232) was formed, rolled, extruded, and / or machined by Revere Copper and Brass sometime during the period above," although the quantity of radioactive thorium that was processed here is unknown. So it would seem that the history of metalworking technology in America, from Paul Revere's silversmithing down to the Atomic Age, has been inextricably linked to military might and economic independence.

According to Hornwrecker, another member on, the uranium and thorium rods produced at Revere were cut up into slugs, and used to fuel Reactor B in Hanford, Washington for plutonium production for the Manhattan Project...
Tuballoy was one of the code words for the project, and the name myrnalloy was a code name for the U/Th slugs (a little joke by the nuke physicists on the name of a Hollywood actress). The beryllium was extruded into tubes of various sizes, some around a copper core which was leached away in an acid bath. Beryllium is mostly used as a neutron reflector and initiator, although they may have had other uses in Rx B, as it was still experimental and undergoing design changes all the time. Wolverine Tube in Detroit made extruded aluminum tubing that was used in the fuel cladding for the Rx, and for cooling water channels through the graphite pile. The only other Manhattan Project supplier that I know offhand in Detroit was Chrysler, who made perforated, stainless steel diffusion "stuff" for the Oak Ridge site, at the Lynch Road Plymouth Plant. 
So despite what I've been seeing some people say, the A-Bomb was NOT built here. Revere made components that fueled one of the reactors that produced the weapons-grade plutonium that powered the first atomic bomb. Many companies across the nation helped develop components for the secret project. The bomb itself was assembled in New Mexico.

MikeM adds that Chrysler's Manhattan Project office was in the Fisher Arcade on Woodward downtown:
Chrysler's part in the project lasted nearly two years and required extreme secrecy, so where did they maintain an office to manage it? In a vacant department store at 1525 Woodward! K.T. Keller, the Chrysler president, drove by the store one day and noticed the empty store which had a war bond office temporarily using the ground floor. He immediately rented the building and used the upper floors for the project's office while the bond drive served as a convenient "front" in the store front.
I have read that the Detroit Revere Works also produced nickel slugs for the U.S. Treasury Dept., and brass munitions casings for the Vietnam War.

The Argonne National Laboratory performed a preliminary survey of the Revere Works in 1981, finding "no significant residual contamination in readily accessible areas or equipment," although it recommended that a more thorough assessment be undertaken to measure accumulated uranium dust levels in less accessible areas of the plant, since much of the machining work was performed in "the absence of ventilation systems for control"...
Based on the nature of uranium extrusion work and associated activities with thorium, coupled with the lack of a detailed radiological survey, it is determined that this facility poses a potential for significant residual contamination outside the period in which weapons-related production occurred up to the time that the facility was demolished.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers FUSRAP (Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program) delisted the Revere site after it was demolished, saying that radiation levels were "below criteria." Furthermore, it would seem that the equipment in the mill that was used to work the uranium came up "stolen" sometime before the buildings were demolished in 1984.

Hey, wasn't that right about when the Libyan and Iranian governments built their first nuclear enrichment reactors...?

Image via Detroit Historical Museum
The recent shoreline collapse and subsequent release of contaminated soil into the river highlights the disregard for environmental quality and health standards that has marked American industrial history since the beginning. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (EGLE) have done testing since the collapse, and they along with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) have declared there to be no danger, but in light of the fact that they are the agency culpable in the coverup of the Flint Water Crisis, and the fact that Governor Whitmer is unwilling to challenge Mayor Duggan on anything, many people distrust these findings as a whitewash—including some Canadians who drink from the same river as us.

My personal feeling is that there may not necessarily a huge threat from radioactive contamination due to this incident, but there is definitely a lot of other nastiness in the soil from the unregulated copper smelting that occurred here since 1850. More recent reports also indicate that illegally dumped PCBs also contaminated the soil. As one commenter on a Free Press article sarcastically said, "It certainly fills you with pride to be poisoned by something so historically significant."

Sanborn Maps of Detroit, (1923) Vol. 5, Sheet 91
Sanborn Maps of Detroit, (1910) Vol. 5, Sheet 88
Sanborn Maps of Detroit, (1897) Vol. 1, Sheet 109
Sanborn Maps of Detroit, (1884) Vol. 1, Sheet 24
Atlas of the City of Detroit and Suburbs: Embracing portions of Hamtramck, Springwells and Greenfield Townships, Wayne County, Mich., compiled by E. Robinson & R. H. Pidgeon (c.1885)
Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior, by Larry D. Lankton, p. 40
Norwich Mine, An Historical Journey Across Time, by Joseph R. Papineau
Hearings Before Subcommittee No.2 of the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives, 80th Congress First Session on H.R. 110 (1947) p. 365-366
Detroit's Historic Fort Wayne, by James Conway and David Jamroz, p. 97
The History of Detroit and Michigan: Or, The Metropolis Illustrated; a Chronological Cyclopaedia of the Past and Present, Including a Full Record of Territorial Days in Michigan, and the Annals of Wayne County, by Silas Farmer, p. 869