I recently took a trip up Detroit’s infamous River Rouge, one of the most heavily industrialized rivers in the world, with writer Joel Thurtell and filmmaker Florent Tillon. Many thanks to them for the amazing opportunity & experience. These images offer views rarely seen because photography & exploration are prohibited and heavily-enforced in the industrial districts surrounding the river. They were taken from the public waters of the Rouge & Detroit rivers with the permission of the Coast Guard. Be warned when attempting to photograph the Rouge or Zug Island from land.
The River Rouge is a place where industry & wildlife clash in a stunning juxtaposition. Turkey vultures pick at the remains of dead fish along the concrete banks of the river. Just beyond the concrete, the riverbanks sport a narrow band of cattails or grasses, where Canadian geese and blue heron spend their time. Sparrows nest in cocoon nests tucked away between the steel beams of freeway overpasses. Beyond that, enormous factories loom like whales or ships, and barges pushed from as far as Halifax and Muskegon cut through the 180-foot wide waters. Where the Rouge & Detroit rivers meet, the brown hues of the riverwater collide with the aquamarine-blue waters that dominate the Great Lakes, coloring the water with varying rusty & tropical tones.
The industrial landscape of the River Rouge was shaped almost entirely by automobile tycoon Henry Ford. His enormous River Rouge complex was the largest integrated factory in the world at the time of its construction in 1928. Here, Henry Ford’s assembly line has been perfected: iron ore is melted down to steel and shaped into auto bodies. The frame is pushed down the line towards the end of the complex, and along the way various components are added, from seats to dashboards. At the end of the plant a finished automobile is rolled off the line & numbered and placed on a freight train or semi trailer to be shipped across the world.
Astonishingly, in the midst of this industrial landscape, just a few miles up the river from the Rouge plant, nestled on the riverbank in a wooded area just a stone’s throw from the most heavily-industrialized neighborhoods in the nation, is Henry Ford’s magnificent Fairlane Mansion. And in the river next to the mansion, Henry Ford & Thomas Edison created a hydroelectric dam that doubled as a gorgeous waterfall. It is amazing to travel the length of the river, from where it meets the Detroit River at Zug Island, an enormous center of steelmaking, past the Rouge plant where steel is turned into automobile, to Ford’s mansion in the woods, just a few miles upstream.
Henry Ford, in his push to become the world’s greatest industrialist, aided in the destruction of the same bucolic and utopian lifestyle he created for himself at his Fairlane Mansion and Greenfield Village museum. Whereas Ford created a village with tree-lined streets sided by the historic workshops of Edison & the Wright Brothers and traversed by a tiny steam-powered choo-choo, and built for himself an artificial waterfall at his provincial manor in the woods, the industrialized portion of the River Rouge and the wildlife that call it home are surrounded by criscrossing freeways, piles of deposits, train crossings, and heavily polluted factories.
The people who live among the behemoths of industry along the river in the communities of Delray and River Rouge hardly experience the small-town feel of Greenfield Village or the beauty of Fairlane. And one cannot help but think about all those cars, many of which originated from this very spot over the decades, and of all the freeways, stripmalls, tract homes & drive-thrus that have consumed the American landscape as a result. The River Rouge is truly a metaphor of Detroit & its industrial history, and a stunning example of American capitalism & one man’s control of a way of life.