“Anybody who’s ever been there can tell you it’s the dirtiest square mile in Michigan,” novelist and former high school English teacher Gregory Fournier says of Zug Island.
“But for me, it was a kind of refuge.”
Needing a job in college, during the January changeover when auto-plants weren’t hiring, Fournier turned to the steel mills on Zug Island where several generations of his family had worked.
Although work in the mills was seen as less desirable than auto manufacturing, it suited Fournier. “There are a lot of people who can’t stand the regimentation of the auto factory and the assembly line,” he says. “I tried that work too. I hated it and didn’t last very long. You have a slower pace at the steel mill.”
There was a clear racial segregation at the mill. “The worst jobs and the hottest jobs and the lowest paying jobs went to mostly African Americans,” he says.
As a new hire, the white Allen Park native ended up shoveling coke alongside the mostly Black crew to produce molten-steel that was often shipped from the island, still-liquid, in torpedo cars.
“That was a whole new experience for me. And those men that I worked with were more accepting of me than my friends and family.”
Fournier says the experience gave him a window into the Uprising of 1967 that became the basis for his book, Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel. Working there showed him that what was happening in the city and what was on the news “were two different stories.”
Today, the dirty and perilous, but vital, labor of mill-workers like Fournier is receding into the past. In December, U.S. Steel announced it would indefinitely idle a significant portion of its Detroit operation, laying off an estimated 1,545 workers at the Zug Island mill.
Although U.S. Steel operations will still continue in a diminished capacity on the island—along with those of other facilities like the DTE-owned EES Coke—it’s the end of an era. It’s also a fitting time to look back on the history of Zug Island, now that its pivotal role in Detroit’s industrial economy is changing and being reevaluated.
The birth of Zug Island
Zug Island was not always an island.
The area was originally a marshy peninsula on the Rouge River that was acquired by furniture-manufacturer Samuel Zug in 1859. Zug, who was one of the founders of the then-progressive Republican party and an anti-slavery activist, bought land in Amherstburg, Ontario, for those who had escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad.
Like the land itself, the more distant history of Zug Island is murky. There appears to have been a sulfur spring on the island that produced over a thousand barrels a day. Some also reference Native American burial grounds on the peninsula, of which there were many in the vicinity.
In 1888, the “Shortcut Canal” was dug through the marsh to create easier passage between the Rouge and Detroit rivers, and the island was born.
Zug Island was originally part of the Village of Delray, but it joined River Rouge in 1922. The first blast furnaces were built there in 1902. On at least one map from this period, the area is identified as “Brady Island,” probably a reference to George Brady who along with Charles Noble bought the land from Zug in 1891 for a then-enormous sum of $300,000.
Thankfully the name Zug won out—a strange moniker to suit a strange place. The fact that the island was the final destination for the Edmund Fitzgerald’s load of taconite when it sunk in Lake Superior adds to the uncanny psychic pull of the place.
The Zug Island of today is heavily secured and inaccessible to the public. Perhaps for this reason, Zug Island seems to loom especially large in the Detroit imagination.
The emergence of the Windsor Hum around 2010 added to the island’s intriguing menace. A Vice video on the phenomenon—that some say sounds like hearing a subwoofer in a passing car—described the island as Detroit’s Area 51. The sound itself is primarily an issue on the Canadian side of the river and believed to emanate from the Zug Island mills, although its source has never been proven.
All of which assumes that the hum actually exists and isn’t just a mass hallucination. “You think you hear it,” a young woman says in the video, “but it could be your mind playing tricks on you.”
Polluted legacy and uncertain future
Curiosities aside, Zug Island’s industry has likely had a profoundly negative effect on its immediate surroundings. Though it’s hard to separate Zug Island’s pollution from all the other pollution in the neighborhood. “That area is so inundated with so many different facilities, there’s always been a question of who’s polluting what,” says Sandra Turner Handy, engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council.
The area is home to the 48217 zip code, often cited as Michigan’s most polluted. The Marathon Refinery and others contribute their share to the problem, but U.S. Steel itself was fined over $2 million for environmental violations in the last 5 years alone. The results are high rates of cancer and asthma, along with horrors like people finding Benzene in their basements, a chemical known to impair immune function and lead to cancer.
“I hate the fact that people will be losing their jobs,” Handy says of the layoffs at U.S. Steel. “But it reduces the health impacts that these residents have been experiencing for so long.”
Now, the area that Canadian MP Brian Masse once compared to “Mordor from Lord of the Rings” could be set for a modest environmental turnaround. DTE’s coal-fired power plant in River Rouge is also scheduled to shut down in 2022, further reducing pollution. Some amount of industry will remain on Zug Island, but it won’t likely be polluting as much.
At the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency and Honeywell Inc. are undertaking a cleanup of the Rouge River’s Old Channel—which snakes around the north and west sides of Zug Island—removing 70,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment at a cost of $50 million.
Nature has also returned to the area—or perhaps never left. The island is home to foxes, coyotes, mink, and wild turkeys, and the water off Zug Island is an important spawning ground for Great Lakes sturgeon.
Whether or not Zug Island could ever be returned to other uses—should industry choose to relinquish ownership—is an open question. Although other heavily polluted sites like Grassy Island downstream have seen some rehabilitation, cleaning up such a massive brownfield will not be easy.
Turner-Handy says that whatever is done should happen with the support of the residents who have paid the cost of having Zug Island as their neighbor. “That’s their neighborhood,” she says. “They need to sit them down and talk about the future of that site.”
Turner-Handy is undoubtedly right about this, but as heavy industry begins to leave the shores of the Detroit River, it’s hard not to think about what comes next. Some have mentioned Gas Works Park in Seattle as a possible model. This park, called “the strangest park in Seattle,” simultaneously provides a space for nature and pays homage to an industrial past.
It’s easy to imagine a similar future for Zug Island, a place whose history seems too weird not to have a compelling next chapter.