Detroit Dry Dock, a complex just east of downtown Detroit, is not the place that people walk past without noticing.
Its outside is what draws you in.
The exterior looks as though it’s been exploded and put back together a dozen times, each time with a different palate of bricks stolen from a different Detroit factory. “That orange bit looks like a chunk of Packard,” you could say, and people would nod and agree, if Detroit was the kind of place where people did those things.
After a drink from my new favorite brewery down the street, Atwater Brewing (named after the main drag separating industry and the Detroit River) I sat on a new park bench across from the empty plant. The area’s not the stretch of boiler shops and iron works that it used to be. Then I saw a lady in a jogging suit walk up to one of the broken windows, whip her phone out, and swipe it to Instagram to take an old-timey photo of the inside.
Not to be outdone, I broke out the tripod and went to work.
The Rise and Fall of the Dry Dock Engine Works: 1866-1925
The first steamboat to hit the Great Lakes was The Ontario in 1817, launching an era of mechanization for the waterways that linked the great industrial cities of the Midwest.
In 1860, to seek their share of the success, Campbell, Wolverton and Company opened a boat repair shop at the end of Detroit’s Orleans street, near the Detroit River. To complement their new shop, a 260 foot-long dry dock was built that same year. Over the next few years they would build a second dock and expand their business to not only repair boats, but to also build them. These are the roots of the Dry Dock Engine Works, which was formed in November 1866.
The Engine Works built across from the old Orleans street dry docks while that strip along the river was undergoing intense industrialization. Boiler and machine shops were being hastily built all along Atwater Street—a history obvious to anyone who rives along the street today; many of these mid-19th century buildings still exist. As the name suggests, the main product of the shops in this era were steam engines for ships. Between its founding and 1880, it built 33 such engines.
Engines from that period were compound-style, meaning they used a high-pressure and low-pressure cylinder. Steam from the boiler forces the high-pressure cylinder to expand, turning the crankshaft halfway, and it exhausts into the low-pressure cylinder, returning the first cylinder into the position another steam burst and rotating the crank the other half of a turn. Most of these steam engines also had their boilers designed by the Engine Works.
The Dry Dock Engine Works was early to adopt the next evolution of steam power: the triple-expansion engine. This is the kind of steam engine that was installed in the JB Ford, an abandoned ore carrier also featured on this site. In that design, there is an intermediate cylinder that recycles its energy between the high and low pressure cylinders, so the system is not only smoother in its motion, but more efficient.
It was around this time that a young Henry Ford was hired as a machinist at the Engine Works, a stint that would only last 2 years, before he left to repair steam engines for local farmers. Ford historians contend that it was at the Dry Dock Engine Works that Ford really began theorizing about how best to design his internal combustion engine. When designing his engine prototypes he even had his old coworkers at the shop to forge him one of his first crankshafts.
If the fact that Henry Ford worked here does not impress, in 1895 the company built a unique 75-ton submarine.
In 1905, half of all the ships built for the Great Lakes (by tonnage) were built in Detroit, and the Dry Dock works was the fourth largest employer in the city, sending paychecks to almost 1,500 men that worked at its Detroit and Wyandotte plants. Unfortunately for the head boss (and part owner) Frank Kirby, there was a problem with workers arriving to work on time. In 1897 he posted the following:
To all workmen, including riveters: The habit of losing time, especially on Mondays, will not be permitted hereafter. The timekeeper is instructed to report any one not here on regular working hours. Any workman employed in this yard who cannot work steadily each whole working day need not work at all.
During World War I, the Wyandotte branch constructed almost 100 ships, many of which were outfitted with steam engines from the Detroit shop, although the increasing size of the ships threatened the usefulness of the small Orleans Street factory. Because of its limited capacity and in the face of an increasing number of labor disputes, the Engine Works closed in 1925.
Reworking, Repurposing, Abandonment: 1925-1990
After the shipbuilding industry left empty the buildings and dry docks facing Atwater Street, evidence suggests a cabinetmaker made use of the space. This only lasted for a few years, however, as city directories show that the Detroit Edison Company started using the buildings as an appliance repair shop between 1935 and 1968. Edison sold the property to Global Trading, which used the buildings as a shipping warehouse until the early 1990s.
Since then, what’s left of the complex (circa 1902 Foundry & Industrial Loft, circa 1910 Machine Shop Addition, Chipping Room & Shipping/Receiving) has been constantly threatened by demolition.
It was announced not long after my documentary trip to the building that the city was planning to hand the deed for this historic asset to a local developer to turn the complex into condos. I look forward to see work move forward, since I’ve seen so many of these projects flop. That said, it sounds like the loans are in order. The project is scheduled to finish in 2014.