The mighty Rouge transforms America's industrial landscape
And its 2004 rebirth will do it again
Bill Ford envisions its "greening" as the centerpiece of his corporate environmental strategy and a model for 21st century industrialism.
The scale of the Rouge plant, its design (by noted architect Albert Kahn) and the ideas it embodied transformed the industrial landscape. For more than two decades, it was a media darling and a tourist attraction.
It was promoted as a model for the enlightened treatment of factory workers, but it also became the scene of one of the bloodiest episodes in the history of the labor movement. Firing imaginations as well as boilers, it also became the subject of both the Detroit Institute of Arts' signature holding and one of the most famous art photographs of all time.
Henry Ford began buying parcels of land in the area in 1915 (he then sold them to the company, at cost, as it became necessary), and construction began Jan. 4, 1918. The Rouge River was widened and dredged so deep-water freighters could deliver raw materials to the site.
Boats built first
The first major edifice at the Rouge was the B Building, and the first product was the Eagle boat, a submarine chaser used in World War I. After the war, the building was retrofitted, and Model T production gradually was shifted there from Highland Park, Mich.
Coke ovens went into operation in late 1919, and a sawmill started up in early 1920, the year that toddler Henry Ford II "blew in" Blast Furnace A. In 1921, the Rouge foundry and power plant, both the largest units of their kind in the world, began operations.
By the end of the decade, the complex included more than 90 buildings, 27 miles of conveyors and 93 miles of railroad track. It took a force of 5,000 janitors to keep the place clean. More than 100,000 men, from dozens of countries, worked there.
Henry Ford holds Henry Ford II at the May 1920 dedication of Blast Furnace A at the Rouge plant. PHOTO: From the Collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co.
"Comprehension slowly spread through the Rouge after 1928 that the old-time Ford who had taken pride in the five-dollar day and the Sociological Department was dead," wrote Allan Nevins and Frank Ernest Hill in Ford: Expansion and Challenge.
"This new Ford asserted that … 'I pity the poor fellow who is so soft and flabby that he must always have an atmosphere of good feeling around him before he can do his work.' " Fear was now the dominant emotion of the workplace.
The Taj Mahal of factories
But even as the work force grew restive, the work site was being compared to the Taj Mahal and Chartres Cathedral by leading artists.
Among those artists was Mexican painter Diego Rivera, whose commission from Edsel Ford in 1931 resulted in the world-famous murals that depict the triumphs, tragedies and paradoxes of the Rouge on the walls of the Detroit museum's central courtyard.
Diego Rivera's murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts were reviled by the business community as anti-American, but the Fords defeated attempts to destroy them.
For once, Edsel and his dad were on the same side: Old Henry once boasted that he wouldn't give five cents for all the art in the world, but he admired the murals' mechanical precision.
Rivera's was not the first Rouge-related commission Edsel tendered; he had hired the American painter and photographer Charles Sheeler to document the plant in 1927. "Overwhelmed by the modern efficiency, cleanliness, and size of the Rouge," writes Douglas Brinkley in Wheels for the World, "Sheeler decided to photograph the 'functionalism' of the factory, the geometric perfection of the steel beams and iron pillars and coal heaps. …
"The approximately 32 photographs he took are works of art. His most famous image, Criss-Crossed Conveyors No. 6, housed today in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, remains a classic example of industrial design becoming modern art. …
"And, as Edsel Ford had hoped, inviting Sheeler ... had a dramatic upside for Ford Motor Company when the February 1928 issue of Vanity Fair featured a stunning collection of Sheeler's Rouge photographs."
The stacks of the Ford power plant look down on the Rouge’s ore docks. The Rouge River was dredged to accommodate the ships. PHOTO: From the Collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co.
Indeed, antecedents of modern environmentalism and ergonomics permeate the history of the Rouge.
Henry Ford advocated recycling, promoted ethanol as fuel, and pioneered efficient timber processing. The Rouge also had facilities to reformulate and sell vast quantities of materials that had formerly been discarded (worth a reported $11 million in sales in 1925).
Scrupulous attention was paid to workers' physical needs: "In 1929 the Rouge had no fewer than 2,900 drinking fountains in its shops and yards, 200 of them, in the foundry alone," wrote Nevins and Hill. "Rules at the Rouge called for admitting 30 cubic feet of fresh air a minute for every person working in an enclosed space, so that even in the furnace room the air was completely changed at short intervals."
Fast-forward to the present, and renovation architect William McDonough: "All the air will be filtered and clean so you'll be in a beautiful space with daylight and fresh air. … And up over workers' heads will be birds chirping. That's a whole different view of industrial manufacturing."
It's a view that is meant to be efficient as well as environmentally sound. According to Ford's Web site, the new assembly plant, scheduled to start production in mid-2004, will be able to handle three platforms and nine models, and 90 percent of the vehicles will be shipped the day they're produced.
"This is not environmental philanthropy," says the reigning Ford. "It is sound business, which, for the first time, balances the business needs of auto manufacturing with ecological and social concerns."
You can reach Jeff Mortimer at (Unknown address).