West Jefferson Avenue from Joe Louis Arena to the River Rouge city limits is a history lesson on Detroit’s heavy manufacturing legacy. Between the smokes stacks to the west and the Detroit skyline to the east, Jefferson is crammed with small, thriving manufacturing and service facilities that adjoin abandoned, structurally unsound, decayed buildings.
Many are surrounded by barbed wire with various security warning signs telling me to keep out and that I’m being watched.
Riding westbound down the center of this potholed, rough stretch of Jefferson with functioning railroad tracks hugging the banks of the Detroit River on my left and aged industrial buildings on my right, it struck me how prosperous this part of Detroit once was. The vintage 1920’s brick buildings I saw were packed close to each other and most were a few stories tall. I’m sure in Detroit’s manufacturing heyday these small-to-medium sized shops fed off each other to supply the thriving auto industry and other industries related to it. Today, many of these buildings still appear to be used for manufacturing, others for warehousing of materials from the marine terminals, and some look as if they’re lived in.
Looking at the roadbed while dodging potholes, I could see long-abandoned train rails peaking through the asphalt, their spurs leading directly to deserted, graffiti covered manufacturing facilities. In other sections, the original cobblestones and pavers have popped through, and they looked to be in remarkably good shape. Although it’s a little rough going on a bike for the first mile or so, West Jefferson does smooth out approaching the Ambassador Bridge. However, my journey came to a sudden detour at the bridge.
As I soon discovered, West Jefferson no longer passes under the bridge. According to a sign posted nearby, Homeland Security closed the road under it as a security precaution. Marked detours routed me up 21st Street to Fort Street where I was able to continue west and finally pass under the bridge. Once past it, I was then able to take 24th Street back down to Jefferson where I continued my journey.
At the corner of 24th and Jefferson is the Detroit Animal Control office. It also functions as an animal shelter where strays are taken and held for adoption. As I circled the facility I could hear dogs crying and barking inside. They seemed to be calling out for someone to adopt them. Not a place for dog lovers on a bike ride.
Further down 24th Street is Riverside Park and it offers a beautiful view of the Ambassador Bridge with downtown Detroit to the left and the heavy industrial area on and near Zug Island on the right, both abutting the beautiful, clear blue water of the Detroit River. Quite a contrast. Fishermen were out in numbers and just as I rolled up to the river’s edge, one of them landed a nice size bass (or something similar) to the cheers of others. On my way out of the park, I noticed the J.W. Westcott tied-up and bobbing to the river’s constant movement. The Westcott is the Great Lake’s only floating post office and it continues to deliver U.S Mail to the passing ships as it has for over a hundred years.
A little further down West Jefferson I came to Historic Fort Wayne, a mid-nineteenth century walled fort, covering over 90 acres of river front land. When the original fort was constructed about 300 years ago, it was strategically located here because it’s one of the narrowest sections of the Detroit River. The gate attendant told me the fort is open on weekends for tours and special events are also held during the weekend hours. When I was there, a flea market was underway.
Fort Wayne sits on the fringe of Delray, a once prosperous village where Hungarians, Poles and other eastern European immigrants settled. There isn’t much left of this once viable neighborhood that was incorporated by Detroit in the 1900’s. Kovacs Bar and a hardware/boat retailer looked to be the only surviving businesses along that section of Jefferson. Most of the other remaining retail buildings are crumbling, burnt, or covered in graffiti. However, some of the 1920’s architectural details are still evident.
Delray is isolated and surrounded by heavy industry. Immediately across Jefferson is Zug Island, home to a thriving steel mill where freighters pull in to unload raw materials used to produce the steel. Chemical plants are nearby and the Detroit Water and Sewage treatment plant is also located close by. Although there was an industrial/sewage stench in the air, I didn’t find it as bad as it once was. The Rouge River and various inlet channels looked clean as well. I even saw ducks paddling in the channels.
The Detroit city limits ends once West Jefferson Avenue crosses the Rouge River Bridge leading into the city of River Rouge. The bridge, built in 1922, is a fitting end to my two-wheeled journey. I paused for a few minutes in the middle of it and thought about how this bridge exemplifies Detroit’s ingenuity and strength during its industrial heyday. It’s a brawny, yet understated, well-built structure that incorporates two operator’s towers built from stone located kitty-corner from each other. An engineering marvel of the time, the steel floor opens from the center allowing freighters access to the Rouge River, a river that feeds our heavy industry. Despite a few scars, it appears strong, tough and ready for whatever comes its way. Much like Detroit.