Industry, nature co-exist on Detroit's Zug Island

Joel Kurth
The Detroit News
  • Fox, turtles frolic in the shadow of Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code
  • Rouge and Detroit rivers slowly returning to health but new challenges remain
  • Few remaining neighbors of Zug Island say nature has moved in as homes burn down

River Rouge — Nature always finds a way, even on Zug Island.

Home to U.S. Steel Corp. mill operations, the island along the border of Detroit is silhouetted by smokestacks that regularly emit flames. Off-limits to the public, it’s mostly known for its ugly, black smokestacks seen from high above Interstate 75 as motorists approach Detroit.

“It’s an apocalyptic museum piece of the post-industrial age,” said author Gregory A. Fournier, whose book “Zug Island: A Detroit Riot Novel” was inspired by his job in 1967 at a steel plant on the island. Employees were urged to wear a respirator and left covered in black dust.

“Walking through the gates, it’s, ‘All ye who enter here, abandoned hope,’ ” Fournier said. “It’s very much like hell.”

If it’s hell, the ducks and turtles don’t mind.

A rare view of the enormous foundry complex on Zug Island, where the mouth of the Rouge River spills into the Detroit River.

That’s what The Detroit News discovered this month, exploring the waterways of Zug Island and others nearby. Overlooking the most polluted ZIP code in Michigan, 48217, the island still attracts cormorants perched atop discharge pipes and families of mallards swimming near mounds of taconite, low-grade iron ore used to make steel.

The News hitched a ride with Tom Reed, a Downriver native and private eye who retired young. The beekeeper and one-time parrot breeder recently bought a 12-foot skiff to explore the area and invited The News on its maiden voyage. The canals around Zug Island and nearby Rouge River are usually seen only from a distance because low railroad bridges make navigation tough for most boats.

“Isn’t this cool?” Reed, a boyish 60-year-old, asks again and again.

“You can’t see stuff like this anywhere else.”

Two defective drawbridges are stuck in the up position. A hum of traffic is heard as you pass under I-75. The tattered remnant of the Ste. Claire, which once took families to the Boblo Island amusement park, is docked near tugboats.

Sometimes, the air is OK. Then, the wind blows and it’s downright funky.

But the water around Zug Island sparkles and neighbors fish from embankments. Along the concrete banks of the Rouge River, a great blue heron flaps its wings and flies toward AK Steel Dearborn Works.

“Even in the most stark conditions — heavily industrialized areas where there aren’t a lot of true natural areas — critters find a way to utilize what is there,” said Robert Burns, the riverkeeper for the Friends of the Detroit River, a nonprofit that advocates for the waterway.

The area is home to mink, foxes, wild turkey, racoons, opossums, pheasants, coyotes, kingfishers, bank swallows and egrets, he said. Nearby is a colony of about 10,000 seagulls.

Burns said both the Rouge and Detroit rivers have become significantly cleaner in the past 40 years. Even so, regulators have designated both as “environmental areas of concern,” meaning they are among the most polluted in the Great Lakes Basin.

Environmental and health fears in the area are constant, from mysterious hums heard across the river in Windsor to the sooty dust that Dorothy Rodgers says regularly wafts into her home.

Zug Island is uninhabited, used for steel operations and storage of materials. Across the canals are two empty, apparently uninhabited buildings with sagging balconies that wouldn’t look out of place in the Bayou.

Nature takes root along the Rouge River near a foundry. Mink, fox, wild turkey, blue heron and other wildlife have been spotted.

The surrounding neighborhood, Delray, is mostly barren, save Rodgers and about five other homes. Her house on Medina Street overlooks Zug Island.

The five-and-dimes and grocery stores she remembers from her childhood are gone. They burned, along with the houses. Among other problems, Delray is one of the most frequent targets of arsonists in the city.

“It scares me sometimes how much nature is coming back here,” said Rodgers, 62. “As the houses go up in flames, the animals come back and take over.”

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