Exploring a Defunct Detroit Steel Factory

 Geotag Icon Show on map 

By Jonathan Haeber

trenton9

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.

trenton14b

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.

trenton8

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).

The Group of us at McLouth Steel with Steel Mill Steve

The Group of us at McLouth Steel with Steel Mill Steve - Image Courtesy Amy Heiden

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.

trenton7

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.

trenton6

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.

trenton11

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.

trenton5

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.

21 comments on “Exploring a Defunct Detroit Steel Factory

  1. Mathgon on said:

    Amazing place. You’re “lucky” to discover such spot!

  2. Jeremy on said:

    Good story. :)

  3. Gunner on said:

    First: Beautiful, yet sad and depressing, pictures. Second: Did anyone else recognize how eerily similar the scenes from this plant (especially the control rooms) resemble those found in half a dozen video games, like Half Life? Maybe they used pictures like these and from other similar minded groups as their inspiration…

  4. courtney on said:

    when were these photos taken? When did you meet Steel Mill Steve and what is happening with the plant today?

  5. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    Hi. I believe it was early 2008. As far as I know, there are portions of the mill still there.

  6. Pingback: The Week in Negative Space and Esoteric Geography: | Iced Borscht

  7. I grew up just two miles from McLouth Steel. I can vividly remember the clouds turning orange at night when they poured the steel from the ladels. Brings back great memories, and sad at the same time as time marches on…

    I was hoping you could explanin or identify some of the buildings and their purpose in the photo’s.

    Thanks for the story.

  8. Bill Rice on said:

    Hello,

    I am hoping that you can restore the missing Map of McLouth Steel on your page. I am searching for plans of steel mills to model and this one looks like the best one I’ve seen yet. I would be happy if you could even send it to me; gmail let’s you have a-lot of size for files.

    Much Appreciated,

    Bill

  9. Bill, the map appears to be working on my end. It’s very large, so it takes a while to download.

  10. Pingback: Inside the former McLouth Steel plant in Trenton, Michigan | Doobybrain.com

  11. Wow – these are amazing! All of these pictures are incredibly cool, and I have to agree with Gunner: these do remind me of several video games and movies.

    I would die to use these as the desktop wallpaper on my Retina MBP – could you possibly upload high-res versions?

    Nice work!

  12. WOW – Not much left since I worked there in early 90′s.
    My first Engineering job was at McLouth and it was some experience making steel.
    Sad to see now, but brings back some memories.
    Place was always hot, hugh, dangerous and dirty.

  13. Francis on said:

    Jon,

    The link on the page for the map is not working. It might be working on your side, but we are unable to download 20 MB file. I accept mail this large. Could you mail with the file attached? I too am modeling a large steel mill using the Cleveland Works as the basis, but would like to compare and add any additional features missing.

    Francis

  14. Jonathan Haeber on said:

    For anyone trying to download the large plan scan, please right click and “save as.” That shoullld work. If not, just comment here and I will email it to you.

  15. Tracey Griffor on said:

    These pictures are amazing! Alot of my family including my dad and grandfather worked at this plant for many years and even thouhg Ive drove past it a million times Ive always wondered what it looked like inside! Thanks

  16. greg hamel on said:

    I love this plant. Chystler use to park all their new cars waiting to go to the deadliers there. I had a security job watching all the cars. I did more exploring than waching the cars. I got deep into the plant all tho not smart n safe was worth it. Have a few pics. Would love to go back for a few hours n take more of the outside. Love the story and this is my favorite abandoned structure downriver or detroit.

  17. Reagan McCreary on said:

    Those pictures do look like they were rendered by a computer. The most real-looking photograph is the one with the people lined up. The rest look to me like they might have been modified or perhaps completely fabricated by some software. And yeah, they do kinda look like Half-Life.

  18. Ken wagner on said:

    The plant closed due to dumping of foriegn steel, one sided trade laws. What happened at McLouth is repeating itself all over this country, in blue and white collar jobs. Our media failed to tell the whole story….and our government is corrupt as much as the CEO’s. I worked in the plant for 25 years, I seen it all.

  19. Amanda Saybrooke on said:

    Ken,
    You immediately blame the media for not telling the whole truth and then you proceed to do the same. Why don’t you tell everyone the whole story. Yes the media failed to present all the facts, and yes our government could have done more to help this industry (steel), but you fail to mention some of the most imporant key facts: 1) foreign steel was a much higher quality than U.S. steel do to the manufacturing process – this can be blamed on the company for not re-investing in better technology to produce the same quality. 2) Foreign steel was cheaper (even with the higher standards) because they could produce it more efficiently than the U.S. – this can be blamed on the company re-investing and individuals like yourself. I live in a steel producing city (still to this day) and my neighbor who works in the mill earns over six figures. The unions and greedy workers like yourself demanding these exorbitant salaries were the key fault in foreign steel being more attractive to manufacture’s. I earn about half of that in a “high technology” job. Yes, before you even start your rant, I would agree that there are more enheritant dangers in that job, but the salary doesn’t justify it. The unions should have pushed for stronger safety or better medical benefits instead of six figure salaries. You caused your own demise and now want everyone to cry for you and blame everyone else. You sound just like NoBama…..its not our fault….tell the truth and the whole truth.

  20. Tell it, sister!

  21. I guess because Amanda lives in a steel town that makes her a professional in the steel industry. Sounds like an arm chair quarter back to me! Amanda if your so proud of this so called high quality foreign steel, maybe you ought to exercise your American right and just pack up and move to this foreign place that makes so much better things than Americans do. You can also get ya one of those “high technology” jobs over there also, where they might, maybe pay you .20 cents an hour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

HTML tags are not allowed.

 
  • Archives