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A century later, Ford’s River Rouge plant remains a monument to industry

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Photo by Joe Clark for EPA’s Documerica, via Library of Congress.

Springwells was aptly named. Situated along the Rogue River just southwest of Detroit’s city limits, the farming community operated around plenty of marshes. Few would peg it as prime real estate for one of the world’s most influential factories, but Henry Ford had a vision, one that he turned into reality 100 years ago with the River Rouge complex.

It wasn’t just the marshlands and pastures prone to flooding that led others to scoff at Ford’s idea. The Rouge River was wide but shallow, unsuitable for all but the smallest boats. And besides, Ford already had more capacity to build Model Ts than most observers figured he needed at his Highland Park assembly plant and at various other assembly plants distributed around the world.

But Ford, who in the mid-Teens still depended on others, such as the Dodge brothers, to supply him with castings as large as engine blocks, aimed to bring every aspect of producing an automobile together in one location. It wasn’t a new concept: As Joseph Cabadas wrote in his book, River Rouge: Ford’s Industrial Colossus, GM’s manufacturing centers in Flint and Lansing arguably incorporated vertical integration well before Ford thought to implement it. Ford, however, wasn’t far behind, with all aspects of Model T assembly under one roof already, and he was, in fact, looking to expand on the Highland Park plant. So, in July 1915, he settled on Springwells, bought several hundred acres of farmland, and called on Albert Kahn to design a foundry for the site.

Hundreds of thousands of pilings driven 60 feet into the ground supported the blast furnaces. Dredging crews dramatically reshaped the river and its tributaries. Rail lines extended to the site like creeping vines. According to the Michigan State University Library, production began at the site on January 4, 1918, but according to Cabadas, the blast furnaces were still under construction in mid-January when Ford agreed to build 100 antisubmarine boats for the Navy.

While World War I ended before Ford could complete the contract, the Rouge plant still turned out 60 of the boats, making them the first vehicles built at River Rouge. Ford followed in 1919 with Fordson tractors and Model T parts that would be sent to Highland Park for final assembly.

River Rouge in October 1927. Photo courtesy Ford Media.

Not until 1927, with the introduction of the Model A, did a Ford automobile roll off an assembly line at the Rouge complex. Even then, and even with thousands of tons of coal, iron ore, limestone, and other raw materials flowing into the complex, Ford didn’t fully realize his goal of complete self-sufficiency.

Still, the complex became a showcase for industrial might. The complex not only cast its own iron and pressed its own steel for car parts, it also generated all its own power, made its own cement, repaired all its own locomotives and train cars, and hosted a hospital and trade school. As Cabadas pointed out, Kiichiro Toyoda, founder of Toyota, visited the plant to learn more about large-scale manufacturing, as did his nephew Eiji. The plant has hosted presidents, celebrities, and celebrations of many milestone vehicles, among them the 20-millionth, 50-millionth, and 300-millionth cars to roll off Ford assembly lines. And perhaps more important, Ford offered free public tours through the complex before spinning off the steelmaking operations in the 1980s.

At its peak, the complex of factories and assembly plants covered more than 1,200 acres. It also employed upwards of 100,000 people, which made it a large target for unionization efforts. In turn, the Rouge complex became the site of some of the more well-publicized clashes between unionists and anti-unionists, including the Hunger March of 1932 and the infamous 1937 Battle of the Overpass.

Starting in the 1950s, Ford began moving select operations away from the Rouge complex, driven by a realization that vertical integration had failed, according to Cabadas. The assembly plant at the complex–which had been responsible for the first Thunderbirds and multiple generations of Mustangs–lasted until 2004, when demolition began to make way for a new truck assembly plant. By then, Ford had begun a $2 billion package of renovations aimed at modernizing the complex.

Today, tours of the complex–which was added to the National Register of Historic Places in June 1978–are once again available through The Henry Ford.