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Great Lakes Moment: Rouge River Revived

Great Lakes Moment: Rouge River Revived
October 7, 2022 John Hartig

Editor’s Note: Great Lakes Moment is a monthly column written by Great Lakes Now Contributor John Hartig. Publishing the author’s views and assertions does not represent endorsement by Great Lakes Now or Detroit Public Television. This month’s article is a combination of excerpts and a preview of his new book, “Rouge River Revived: How People are Bringing Their River Back to Life,” which chronicles how citizens are leading an effort to restore their river in metropolitan Detroit.

Historically, the Rouge River has been one of the most polluted in the Great Lakes. Today, it’s being transformed into a cherished natural resource and a national model of urban watershed restoration.

The revival story of the Rouge River is a very human story. It’s a story that spans centuries, beginning with the First Peoples who built their villages near the water’s edge, revered the river as a source of life, and had a sense of stewardship for it.

The French were the first to exploit the Rouge River for beaver during the Fur Trade Era starting in the 1600s and this led to the extirpation or local extinction of this prized animal. As more Europeans arrived, they then transformed the landscape from forestland into agriculture.

Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac was the first to divide land along the Rouge and Detroit Rivers into farm grants in 1707. They soon would become known as “ribbon farms.” Commerce, agriculture, and lumbering became the basis of the next economy.

Later in the 18th century, a series of gristmills and sawmills would be established on main forks in the river, and shipyards were established on the lower river because of easy access to the Detroit River and Great Lakes. Between 1770 and 1789, some 20 vessels were launched along the lower river. Shipbuilding expanded during World War I when eagle boats were built to fight submarines. These 200-foot-long submarine chasers were the first ships ever built by mass production.

Manufacturing and shipping

From 1910 to 1920 Henry Ford dammed the Rouge River to supply power to his Fairlane Mansion in Dearborn and to supply hydroelectric power to small Ford factories producing parts for assembly plants. Then in 1915, Henry Ford bought 2,000 acres along the lower Rouge River to build the largest, integrated automobile manufacturing facility in the world – the Rouge Plant.

In 1918, the turning basin on the lower Rouge River was dredged to a depth of approximately 20 feet to support freighters bringing in raw materials to the massive Rouge Plant. During this time, the Rouge River was subordinated to industrial production, and the lower river essentially became and an artificial waterway.

During World War II the Rouge Plant and many other manufacturing facilities in the area were converted from automotive and civilian production to military production to help win the war. Metropolitan Detroit became known as the Arsenal of Democracy and produced about $29 billion of military output during 1942-1945.

But this would not happen without an environmental cost.

Today’s legacy pollution

From 1946 to 1948 it was estimated that 5.9 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products were discharged into the Rouge and Detroit Rivers each year. This substantial volume of oil took its toll in the winter of 1948 when 11,000 ducks and geese died from oil pollution in the Detroit River.

A few duck hunters from the area protested and the State of Michigan started an industrial pollution control program, however, oil pollution continued, and 12,000 and 5,400 waterfowl died from oil pollution in 1960 and 1967, respectively.

Oil pollution would again raise its ugly head in 1969 when oil and wooden debris floating on the river caught on fire. Once again, only a few people spoke out and there was not much media coverage.

Watch this Great Lakes Now segment about the Cuyahoga River burning:

Detroit’s population climaxed in 1950 at more than 1.8 million people and then declined with people moving to the suburbs, including the Rouge River watershed. These people were seeking suburban areas with more space but within driving distance of their workplace. However, the sheer number of people living in the Rouge River watershed and the amount of municipal and industrial development would have more unintended consequences.

By the 1980s there were 168 combined storm and sanitary sewer overflow points on the Rouge River that were discharging untreated sewage during rainfall events. More than 10 billion gallons of combined stormwater and raw sewage to the river each year.

Adding insult to injury, 62 dams were added to the Rouge River over time that substantially altered stream flow and hydrology, the lower Rouge River was straightened and converted into a shipping channel to bring in materials to support industries, and a 4.2-mile section of the lower Rouge River was lined with concrete to move as much stormwater out the area as quickly as possible to minimize flooding of local basements.

It all came to a head in the mid-1980s with two environmental crises that became a tipping point. First, residents of Melvindale and Dearborn complained of a putrid smell near the river. Upon investigation, it was determined that the river was so polluted that all the oxygen was used up through the decomposition of raw sewage in the river, resulting in no oxygen and the formation of hydrogen sulfide – the smell of rotten eggs. Even the most pollution-tolerant fish, like carp, were dying in the river because they had no oxygen to breathe.

Second, a tragic accident occurred when a 23-year-old man fell into the Rouge River, swallowed water, and died of an infection from a rare parasitic, waterborne disease called leptospirosis or rat fever. Health departments had no choice but to ban human contact with the river. Something had to be done to respond to this human health and environmental crisis.

Community action

In 1985, all 48 watershed communities banded together to develop the Rouge River Remedial Action plan to clean up their river and restore beneficial uses. In 1986, Friends of the Rouge was established to promote watershed protection and citizen stewardship. Local citizens and municipalities came together to work with the state and federal governments to clean up their river as if it were their home. Over $1 billion has been spent on this cleanup thus far.


Learn more about the Rouge River in this Great Lakes Now Watch Party featuring Marie McCormick, executive director of Friends of the Rouge.


Today, oxygen conditions have improved, fish are returning, peregrine falcons have returned at the river mouth, and the river is being rediscovered as a recreational resource.

For 200 years, the Rouge River was considered a working river that supported commerce, industry, and technological progress. Pollution was just considered part of the cost of doing business. But that is now changing thanks to the efforts of citizens and Friends of the Rouge and a network of organizations fostering a stewardship ethic, including all levels of government. Today, it is perceived as a river that provides many beneficial uses and many quality-of-life benefits.

If you are interested in learning more about how this river revival was achieved and what needs to be done to achieve the long-term goal of sustainability, then this book is for you. It is also a story of hope for all working throughout the world to care for their watersheds. If the Rouge River can be revived from its incendiary and grossly polluted past, it can be done elsewhere.

Rouge River Revived: How People are Bringing Their River Back to Life was edited by John H. Hartig and James L. Graham, with chapters written by individuals who are intimately involved in day-to-day efforts ranging from history, river management, education, and volunteerism.  It is available at: https://www.press.umich.edu/12059356/rouge_river_revived.


Catch more news at Great Lakes Now: 

Great Lakes Moment: Chemical contaminant in St. Lawrence River herring gull eggs traced to Detroit River

Great Lakes Moment: Students help save sturgeon


Featured image: Rouge River shoreline habitat restoration in Northville, Michigan, 2012. (Photo courtesy of Friends of the Rouge)

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