Think downriver Detroit, and what usually comes to mind is heavy industry. It’s an area of the city where the Detroit and Rouge Rivers meet. Smoke stacks from companies, such as U.S. Steel on Zug Island, line West Jefferson. The mighty smoke stacks and other industrial structures can be seen from miles away, standing tall, much like tombstones in a cemetery.
Freighters full of iron ore, coal, and other industrial materials slip into special unloading areas along the Rouge or Detroit Rivers, and huge conveyor belts swing onto the ships for the unloading of raw materials. Tugboats that remind me of muscular bulldogs push the multi-ton freighters around as easily as a sharp knife cuts through ice cream. Cement plants have a constant stream of trucks in and out, kicking up dust that stings the face as the wind blows it directly at me while I ride by on my bicycle.
Wild swamp type reeds, cattails, and other tall unknown wetland plants line the banks of the Rouge River. The wild plants create a pleasant green balance against the mounds of black coal, blueish tinged salt, dark-colored gravel, and other materials that are generally stacked two stories tall along the river banks.
Long abandoned commercial and residential buildings sit along West Jefferson and the Rouge River. Some remind me of remote, untouched fishing cabins, waiting for people to return and carry on life as it was in the boom times of the 1940’s and 50’s.
There is also the historic drawbridge on West Jefferson that crosses the Rouge River. It is straight out of the 1920’s. The old bridge (built-in the Art Deco style) has been closed since May of 2013 when an intoxicated bridge operator mistakenly lowered the upright bridge onto a passing freighter that was making its way slowly up the Rouge River. The old bridge now stands in an upright, open position, with obvious v-shaped damage to the top left, waiting patiently to be repaired.
Yes, downriver Detroit is full of heavy industry. It’s dusty and smelly in certain sections and downright dirty in others. But the area is more that. It’s an interesting part of the city, and it’s packed with history. It’s a place where the old industrial plants once employed thousands of workers producing chemicals, steel, cars, and many other products that shipped (and still ship) around the world.