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

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