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By Jonathan Haeber
Detroit is probably best known for its cars. By many accounts, the first mile of concrete-paved highway was Motown’s Woodward Avenue. But all too often, the city is judged by its end products. Detroit is really best understood through the raw materials it relies upon: the rubber, chrome, concrete, glass, coke – its steel.
Above: A Map of McLouth Steel from a High-Resolution Scan of the Blueprint. To download the 20MB full-resolution scan, Click Here [Warning: It's BIG]
The seven towers of Ford’s Renaissance Center and the smokestacks of River Rouge are still proud citadels of manufacturing. But step away from the modern-day hearths of production; curve south from the Detroit River along the Fisher Highway for about five miles and you’ll find the home of the cyclopean, abandoned hulk of McLouth Steel’s Trenton plant. This is where my story begins.
In the summer of 2009, six of us journeyed from Chicago, Illinois to Detroit, Michigan in search of the industrial patrimony of our country. Our motley crew was a cross-section of post-industrial America – we had a Texan turned Berkeley PhD; a web developer for a government agency; a renewable energy contractor; and a hedge fund operative. But for the week that we were together, we were all part of a collective organism testing our legal and physical limits to document what is left of our productive past. We spent five days maneuvering the bricolage of manufacture in decline. Massive mountains of solid sulfur loomed along the outskirts of Chicago. On the road to Detroit we descried the melancholic remnants of proud rail stations, civic buildings, and hotels.
In the two months that preceded our trip, we’d amassed a cornucopia of 200 abandoned locations, and highlighted in red was our “must-see” – McLouth’s Trenton plant. We were lucky enough to procure temporary lodging at urban explorer extraordinaire John Law and Julia Solis’s home in Detroit, which they bought in 2008 for the price of a Cadillac Escalade. A short distance away was the abandoned ten-story Boblo Island terminal. Across the horizon was the infamous Michigan Central Station. Surrounding the house were houseboats and pleasure craft rotting in the canals that lined the periodically vacant streets of Dearborn.
Our van bounced along the potholed roads as we joked about how long we’d survive the tough streets of Detroit. Gruff-looking Stephen Freskos, fellow traveler, was probably the main reason why we weren’t waylaid by 21st century, Motown pirates. But the truth is that our experience at Detroit was far different from our expectations. In many cases, Detroiters more than happy to provide detailed entry instructions on how to get into abandoned buildings; in other cases, they cheered us on (at one point, I was called ‘Spiderman’ while I traipsed up an 8-story building downtown).
Despite the wild success of our first few days, we surveyed Trenton’s McLouth Steel plant with circumspect suspicion. Its fences were not kicked over or cut open and the fresh tracks of security vehicles were easily visible along the length of the 3/4-mile long factory. Still, it was a jewel. There was no getting around it. We had to do it.
McLouth Steel was once America’s 11th largest producer of steel, yet it only accounted for about 1 to 2 percent of the domestic market at its height. Its importance to the industry lies in its innovations: In 1962, McLouth was the first steel plant to use computer controls; it was the first North American plant to use the basic oxygen process; most significantly, it was the first steel mill to produce a completely finished product using continuous casting. So, with brazen braggadocio, our driver pulled to the side of the road near the plant’s slab reheat furnace. We promptly piled out of the car and under a gap in the fence. Within 45 seconds, a jeep sped up and screeched to a halt. A tall, thin man in his 20s hopped out of the car.
Now, we didn’t know it yet, but this man was well known among local urban explorers for his antics – the most memorable of which was the time that he reputedly fired a shotgun at explorers hiding in the shadows of the factory. Luckily, he was in a good mood the day he found us. He confusedly stared at the group of four men and two women ducked behind a concrete barrier near the fence and told us we didn’t need to go to such measures. “Heck,” he said. “I can give you a tour if you want.”
So there we were, stuttering in surprise, unable to comprehend how we went from being trespassers one second to bonafide steel plant tourists another. We accepted his offer and parked our car near the guard shack. We dubbed him, “Steel Mill Steve,” and other than serving as the 900-acre plot’s lone security detail he was moonlighting as an urban explorer. Steve utilized his access to fully document the grounds of the plant, record its history, and collect documents and maps before the plant’s inevitable demolition. Steel Mill Steve knew every minute detail of the plant and its functions; rarely do explorers have an opportunity to see such a place, let alone receive a full tutorial of its processes, functions, and layout.
The apogee of McLouth can probably be pinpointed to May 9-11, 1972, when the largest continuous cast slab of steel exited the production line of the Trenton plant – The slab measured 44” wide and 9,972 feet long. Derived from a record 75 ladles, it weighed 8,500 tons. But from there, McLouth’s downfall happened quickly – ironically because of the efficiencies that the plant helped herald. Cheap steel from Asia, along with the adoption of computer-controlled steelmaking in other countries and the intransigence of union leaders were part of the reason; the oft-cited decline of the American auto industry in place of Japanese imports also played a role. In 1977, McLouth lost about half of its revenue when General Motors cut its usual order of steel.
Unfortunately, American automakers were increasingly using plastics and decentralizing their supply chain. Between 1980 and 1981 McLouth bled to the tune of $100 million. It didn’t help that steel executives were reportedly spending precious cash to feed the deer at their upstate retreat.
Four hours after introducing ourselves to Steel Mill Steve our time was up. The sun’s corona was barely visible over the low-rise buildings of Trenton, and a chilly breeze descended on the cold steel that surrounded us. Steve took us for a final walk out to the demolished portion of the steel plant – negotiating cement and rebar rubble on his way to a tower in the distance. I snapped a final photo of him from a lower vantage point. Steve looks like the lone survivor of apocalypse – he could have easily been in Nagasaki in 1945, or looking at the decaying remnants of Chernobyl’s disused high-rises. The sun dipped below the horizon and we said goodbye to Steve. We’d just explored what would probably be our largest factory we would see in our lives, though much of what we saw then is now gone.