History of the Rouge
By the Numbers
Located a few miles south of Detroit at the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit Rivers, the original Rouge complex was a mile-and-a-half wide and more than a mile long. The multiplex of 93 buildings totaled 15,767,708 square feet of floor area crisscrossed by 120 miles of conveyors.
There were ore docks, steel furnaces, coke ovens, rolling mills, glass furnaces and plate-glass rollers. Buildings included a tire-making plant, stamping plant, engine casting plant, frame and assembly plant, transmission plant, radiator plant, tool and die plant, and, at one time, even a paper mill. A massive power plant produced enough electricity to light a city the size of nearby Detroit, and a soybean conversion plant turned soybeans into plastic auto parts.
The Rouge had its own railroad with 100 miles of track and 16 locomotives. A scheduled bus network and 15 miles of paved roads kept everything and everyone on the move.
It was a city without residents. At its peak in the 1930s, more than 100,000 people worked at the Rouge. To accommodate them required a multi-station fire department, a modern police force, a fully staffed hospital and a maintenance crew 5,000 strong. One new car rolled off the line every 49 seconds. Each day, workers smelted more than 1,500 tons of iron and made 500 tons of glass, and every month 3,500 mop heads had to be replaced to keep the complex clean.
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Henry Ford’s ultimate goal was to achieve total self-sufficiency by owning, operating and coordinating all the resources needed to produce complete automobiles.
Ford Motor Company owned 700,000 acres of forest, iron mines and limestone quarries in northern Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Ford mines covered thousands of acres of coal-rich land in Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Ford even purchased and operated a rubber plantation in Brazil.
To bring all these materials to the Rouge, Ford operated a fleet of ore freighters and an entire regional railroad company.
Ford’s ambition was never completely realized, but no one has ever come so close on such a grand scale. At no time, for example, did Ford have fewer than 6,000 suppliers serving the Rouge.
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The Rouge Fires Up
Ford began buying the property that was to become the Rouge in 1915. In total, he acquired a 2,000-acre stretch of bottomland along the Rouge River.
The Rouge River property still was not earmarked for any particular use. Ford had even considered turning the land into a large bird sanctuary. That changed near the end of World War I, when Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt engaged Henry Ford to build boats.
In 1917, a three-story structure, Building B, was erected on the Rouge site to build Eagle Boats, warships intended to hunt down German submarines. Building B was the first substantial Rouge building and today serves as part of the Dearborn Assembly Plant.
Although the war ended before the Ford Eagle Boats ever went into action, the effort did allow Ford to widen the Rouge River substantially, presenting the possibility of bringing ore boats up the river.
The Rouge soon became the destination of massive Ford lake freighters filled with iron ore, coal, and limestone. The first coke oven battery went into operation in October of 1919, while blast furnaces were added in 1920 and 1922. Iron from the furnaces was transported directly to the foundry where it was poured into molds to make engine blocks, cylinder heads, intake and exhaust manifolds, and other automotive parts. The foundry covered 30 acres and was, at its inception, the largest on earth. In 1926 steelmaking furnaces and rolling mills were added. Eventually, the Rouge produced virtually every Model T component, but assembly of the Model T remained at Highland Park.
NEXT: PART 2