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Assembly lineage

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Published 9/29/2004

The original Rouge complex is now famous as Henry Ford’s masterpiece of vertical integration: a vast industrial facility that was fed raw materials and spit out finished motorcars. As author Ford R. Bryan writes in Rouge: Pictured in its Prime, the Rouge was “once the largest, most efficient, and most highly integrated automotive manufacturing complex in the world.”

For this fantastic industrial vision, Ford picked a site in Dearborn just a few miles from his birthplace, a large tract of land on the Rouge River, between the iron ore mines of the Great Lakes and the coalfields of the South. As those familiar with the complex know, any description of the heyday of the Rouge involves exhausting lists of stunning superlatives.

It had its own powerhouse, two blast furnaces, a foundry, coke ovens breaking coal down into coke and gas, massive storage bins, 100 miles of railroad, 120 miles of conveyers, 23 miles of roadways, a cement plant, a glass plant, a paper mill and carpenter shop, steel rolling mills, a tool and die shop, electric furnaces, body and chassis assembly, painting and plating, and final assembly – just to hit the high points. It was famous as a city within a city. In addition to the administrative offices, it had its own hospital, fire department and trade schools. It employed 100,000 workers. Its massive maritime facilities, more than a mile long, were headquarters to a fleet of 29 vessels.

In an age of software tycoons and financial wizards, some may comfortably scoff at “smokestack economies,” as though today’s billionaires’ money is cleaner. Our shrewd contemporary business executive probably does make more money by trading paper or selling code than Ford ever did with production. But the Rouge is a wonder of the old industrial world, when production was king.

There is something mythical about this holdover from the age of gigantism, and an integral theme of that mythology is man’s mastery over nature. The work that went into the industrialization of the area was nothing less than Herculean, as Ford engineers even changed the course of the Rouge River, placing it in a concrete channel.

The days of vertical integration and ore to car production are now a memory. The Rouge is no longer solely owned by Ford Motor Company. A Russian steelmaker, OAO Severstal, now owns the steel operations, and the great old factory that over the years churned out everything from Model A’s to Mustangs is now the subject of a careful environmental cleanup. In fact, the main theme of the new F-150 assembly plant is how relatively friendly it is to the environment.

One can hardly blame Ford for trying to give its new truck factory a green sheen. Yet it runs counter to the compelling mythological vein, as this monument to the unsightly god of the forge should rightly be a little blackened and smudged. Cynics may view the new truck plant — with its living sedum roof and ambitious rainwater management program — as either an insincere public relations stunt or an expensive cost for shareholders to bear, but time will bear it out. Time is something the venerable complex seems to have plenty of. This sprawling, gargantuan complex, built and rebuilt for 87 years, remains a masterpiece of organization, providing thousands of lunch-pail jobs that are among the best in North America.

Michael Jackman is the Metro Times copy editor. Send comments to mjackman@metrotimes.com.

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