The Rouge River Gateway Project relates that the Potawatami referred to the river as Minosa Goink which means “Singeing Skin River” – the place where game animals were dressed. The history continues (with my links to other fun stuff):
The French first settled on the banks of the Rouge River in the 1780s. They named the river “Rouge”, or red. Settlers would claim a few hundred feet of river frontage and extend their farms deep into the forest. Remnants of these “ribbon farms” still exist today in land ownership patterns along the river. Europeans continued to immigrate into the region to take advantage of its resources. They used the reddish clay for brick, mined the area’s salt deposits, and built farming communities along the riverbanks. The native prairie oak savannah and hardwood forests were cleared to make room for agriculture and industry.
Rapid growth and industrial development characterized the late nineteenth century. Henry Ford purchased extensive land holdings along the river. He built a factory in Dearborn to manufacture farm tractors, but kept a good portion of his land in agricultural production, partially for testing equipment. In 1914, he started construction of a permanent residence on the banks of the Rouge River.
A defining moment in the history of the river transpired with the construction of the Ford Rouge Plant during World War I. The development of the plant was motivated by Henry Ford’s desire to supply submarine chasers to the US military. The Ford Rouge Manufacturing Complex grew into a massive self –contained industrial complex that daily employed over ninety thousand men in the early 20th century. Raw materials including coke, iron ore, and rubber were brought in and transformed into cars in less than thirty hours, a process that set a new global standard for industry. The Rouge Manufacturing Complex became the largest manufacturing site in the world.
In his book Burning Rivers, Allen Park native John Hartig relates how heavy manufacturing and population growth seriously impacted the river to the point where the river became one of the most polluted waterways in the nation, catching fire in 1969 shortly after the famous Lake Erie/Cuyahoga River fire.
In 1986, in a Sunday feature on a new organization seeking to restore the Rouge, the Detroit Free Press called it the “sewer for a metropolis, discharge drain for industry, dumping ground for junk and garbage”. They went on to say that “the Rouge River has become so polluted that a cleanup seems unthinkable.”
While the Rouge is certainly far from restored, the organization the Freep was talking about, Friends of the Rouge, has been dedicated along with other public and private efforts to the preservation & restoration of the river. I encourage you to check them out for more information and to learn about their good work on the behalf of the river. Lots more at the Rouge River Project and Wayne County’s Rouge Project.
More industry on Michigan in Pictures.